Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1740
Article abstract: Mishima was a writer of great power, whose life became a performance, ultimately a tragic performance. At the time of his suicide, he was widely regarded as a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Yukio Mishima was born Kimitake Hiraoka in Tokyo, Japan, on January 14, 1925. His father was Azusa Hiraoka, a senior official in the Ministry of Agriculture. His mother was Shizue (Hashi) Hiraoka. Because of his father’s position, the boy was able to attend the prestigious Gakushuin (the Peers’ School). He proved a fine scholar and was cited for excellence by the emperor himself. During his schoolboy days, his complex nature was already evident. He was a gentle, bookish child, with a delicate constitution. Nevertheless, he was drawn to stories that portrayed the valiant deaths of warriors or their ritual suicides. This fascination with ritualized death persisted throughout his work and life.
Mishima began to write at an early age and was publishing short stories in the magazine Bungei Bunka (literary culture) before the age of sixteen. In 1944, he entered the University of Tokyo to undertake the study of law. He was graduated in 1947, but his education was briefly interrupted by his conscription into the army in February, 1945. He saw no action in the closing months of the war, and his period of active service was short. Still, it was to affect him profoundly in the years to come. In Taiyō to tetsu (1968; Sun and Steel, 1970), he describes the process by which his personal philosophy of physical prowess and the beauty of violent death began to emerge as he underwent the rigors of military training. In 1947, he received a position in the Ministry of Finance, but he resigned it in the following year to devote himself exclusively to writing.
While he was still a schoolboy, Mishima met Yasunari Kawabata, who was to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968. The elder writer not only served as a literary influence but also became a lifelong friend. Mishima’s decision to use a pseudonym may have been prompted by the subject matter of his first, and very successful, novel, Kamen no kokuhaku (1949; Confessions of a Mask, 1958), an autobiographical tale of a shy, sensitive young man who is wrestling with his homosexual and sadomasochistic impulses. Critics have suggested that this novel set the tone for the rest of Mishima’s fiction: He had adopted not only a new name but also a new personality. Henceforward, he would mask his timidity, vulnerability, and aestheticism with an arrogant, even a provocative, persona. While retaining the love for fine prose and for the Japanese and Western classics that he had shared with Kawabata, he began to affect a strident manliness. He sought the ideal of male beauty and, through a regimen of weight lifting, transformed his puny physique. He studied boxing and karate until he achieved proficiency in both. He made himself into an excellent swordsman and imbibed deeply the tradition of the samurai.
Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, Mishima produced a succession of critically acclaimed novels, including Shiosai (1954; The Sound of Waves, 1956), Kinkakuji (1956; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1959), Utage no ato (1960; After the Banquet, 1963), and Gogo no eikō (1963; The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, 1965). On June 1, 1958, he married Yoko Sugiyama. He eventually became the father of two children—a daughter, Noriko, and a son, Iichiro.
Mishima was prolific in genres other than the novel. He wrote many short stories, most of which are uncollected or collected in Japanese editions only. A collection in English translation, Death in Midsummer, and Other Stories, appeared in 1966. Among the stories in this volume is one of Mishima’s most celebrated, “Yūkoku” (“Patriotism”), the haunting and prophetic story of a young army officer and his wife. When a group of his close friends rebel against their military command, he is torn by his loyalty to them and to the nation. As an honorable alternative, he chooses a warrior’s form of suicide. His wife assists him before killing herself. Every detail of the preparations and of the acts themselves is graphically described.
Mishima also became one of Japan’s leading playwrights. By his early thirties, he had published some thirty plays, several of which are available in English. His modernized versions of traditional Japanese No plays were very popular. These can be sampled in the 1957 collection in English, Five Modern Nō Plays. His play Sado kōshaku fujin (1965; Madame de Sade, 1967) employs the Western setting of revolutionary France. When many of his plays were produced, Mishima himself directed them.
He grew increasingly versatile in his work, while he grew increasingly flamboyant in his life. He became a motion picture actor, screenwriter, and director—even appearing in a gangster film. He became a recording artist. For a time, he achieved more fame as a television celebrity than he had gained from his many literary prizes and awards. He built an Italianate villa in Tokyo and filled it with English antiques. He enrolled his wife in classes in Western cooking. His writing began to contain more allusions to French literature than to Japanese literature. Yet he came to oppose the Westernization of Japan, even to hate it. In a stream of essays and articles, he advocated a return to the samurai tradition. He organized a small private army made up of young apostles from the university. Mishima named this group the Tate No Kai (Shield Society). His elitism, his militancy, and his idealization of the old Japan disturbed many people. The Shield Society stirred memories of the military adventurism that had led Japan into World War II. Still, Mishima’s charismatic personality and provocative behavior made him fine copy for journalists and a much sought-after guest for television shows.
He ended his life with a beau geste. On November 25, 1970, he and four members of the Shield Society invaded the headquarters of the Eastern Ground Defense Forces, took the commanding officer hostage, and demanded that the troops be assembled. Japan’s constitution, forced upon her at the end of the war by the victorious Allies, was for Mishima the codification of the pernicious Westernizing of his country. From a balcony, he harangued the twelve hundred soldiers for their failure to rise in rebellion against the constitution. The men responded to his speech with laughter and derision. He then knelt and, in the traditional seppuku ceremony, committed suicide. He disemboweled himself with a dagger, and one of his followers beheaded him with a sword.
Mishima completed his tetralogy Hōjō no umi (The Sea of Fertility: A Cycle of Four Novels) on the last day of his life. The novels in the tetralogy are Hara no yuki (1969; Spring Snow, 1972), Homba (1969, Runaway Horses, 1973), Akatsuki no tera (1970; The Temple of Dawn, 1973), and Tennin gosui (1971; The Decay of the Angel, 1974). Critical opinion on this work remains divided, some critics seeing the tetralogy as the summation of Mishima’s career while others see a decline from his earlier achievements.
Yukio Mishima had written his own death scene in his 1960 story “Patriotism.” He had later dramatized his death by adapting “Patriotism” as a film, which he directed and in which he acted the leading role. So prophetic was the suicide scene that Mishima’s family had the film suppressed after his death. The form of suicide Mishima chose, seppuku, is significant. It tests the warrior’s courage and tenacity because, after driving the knife into his belly, he must draw it slowly from one side of his abdomen to the other until his intestines spill out of his body. The act requires physical strength as well as strength of purpose. That seppuku is incomprehensible to the Western mind is precisely the point Mishima was making.
It could be argued that, with the few exceptions which immediately come to mind (for example, Miguel de Cervantes, Ernest Hemingway), the lives of writers are no more dramatic than those of the general population. As a class, writers are more likely to be observers and commentators than active participants. Mishima is, however, such a striking exception to this rule of thumb, that his fascinating life and horrifying death may tend to overshadow the fact that he is probably Japan’s greatest postwar writer.
Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Fiction. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. A massive study of the fiction produced since the Japanese “Enlightenment” in the nineteenth century. The last fifty-eight pages of the text are devoted to Mishima.
Keene, Donald. Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology. New York: Grove Press, 1956. Pieces compiled by Keene from various genres. His last selection is “Omi,” extracted from Confessions of a Mask. The evaluation of Mishima in Keene’s long introduction is of historical interest, because it was made so early in the novelist’s career.
Nathan, John. Mishima: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. The author of this biography, a translator and professor of Japanese literature, was acquainted with Mishima. He provides a full and detailed account of Mishima’s life. Includes illustrations and a selected list of Mishima’s principal works.
Petersen, Gwenn Boardman. The Moon in the Water: Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1979. Pages 201-336 are devoted to Mishima. A partial chronology and a general bibliography are provided.
Pronko, Leonard C. Guide to Japanese Drama. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1973. An entry in the Asian Literature Bibliography series. Here, Mishima is considered exclusively as a dramatist. Pronko devotes several pages to discussions of Five Modern Nō Plays and Madam de Sade.
Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976. A study of eight major writers of modern Japan. Pages 219-261 are devoted to Mishima. Although many of the novels are discussed, Ueda places special emphasis upon The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1978. Chapter 6, “A Phantasy World: Mishima Yukio,” argues essentially that Mishima’s alienation from the external world drove him to create a world not only for his literature but also for his life.
Yourcenar, Marguerite. Mishima: A Vision of the Void. Translated by Alberto Manguel in collaboration with the author. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986. In this short work, first published in French in 1980, the distinguished novelist Yourcenar explores Mishima’s life and works, with the emphasis on the latter.
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