Yukio Mishima’s dramatic works share with his others a concern with action in the face of the void. His conviction that every act is necessarily a political act is a significant one, and it provides a unifying force in the plays, as does his conviction that, in things great or small, any action, ultimately, is better than no action. This constant often leads to tortured situations reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre. Indeed, it is easy to see why Mishima preferred Sartre to Albert Camus, philosophically, despite Mishima’s dislike of the political Left and his outright contempt for bureaucracy.
Mishima favored modern adaptation to extend great art through all time. Donald Keene, one of his foremost translators, has noted that Mishima believed that his modern N plays should be as effective in a performance in Central Park as on a traditional N stage. This belief reminds one of William Butler Yeats’s conviction that set properties and cast were too complex if all could not be fitted into a taxi, brought to a destination, and performed in a private home.
Mishima’s negative critics point to the stiff nature of characters, as well as the restricted action in his conventional plays, claiming that he was overly influenced by the French period drama of Jean Racine. These so-called drawbacks, however, served a larger purpose in Madame de Sade and My Friend Hitler, which may be compared to the dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in which unspeakable, bloody, or violent acts are described rather than acted onstage.
Flawlessly educated, Mishima had perfect command of the classical as well as the modern Japanese language. His grasp of Eastern and Western literature was equaled by few, if any, of his peers. The same was true of his understanding of history and politics, as well as philosophy. Jean Cocteau, whom he met in Paris, and Oscar Wilde were two writers who exercised great influence on him. Both, like Mishima, were flamboyant public figures. One is reminded that Mishima’s experiment with becoming a boxer parallels Cocteau’s becoming the manager of a professional prizefighter. Mishima also was interested in the multifaceted Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, who not only wrote in a number of forms but also shared an interest in the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and who became a military activist and daring airplane pilot. Mishima himself was eventually to help train Japanese self-defense force troops in parachute jumping (a skill that he taught himself), in addition to forming and financing his own small, private army, dedicated to the protection of the emperor.
The plays published in Five Modern N Plays, written between 1950 and 1955, have been performed, in various groupings, by a number of small theater groups throughout the United States. Sotoba Komachi, The Lady Aoi, and Hanjo have probably been acted more frequently than The Damask Drum and Kantan. Similarities discovered in opposites and the dictatorship of desire—even beyond the grave—and the agonies attendant thereto are the motivating force behind them all.
In Sotoba Komachi, the primary characters are an arrogant Poet (who remains nameless) and an ugly Old Woman, who is soon to be discovered by the audience as Komachi, the formerly devastating beauty, reincarnated. Beauty and torment are welded in all the works of Mishima. Komachi historically tormented her suitor, refusing to give herself unless courted for one hundred nights. The suitor died on the ninety-ninth night.
Both of the primary characters are developed sympathetically. The Poet, who at first harshly tells the Old Woman, whom he stumbles on in the park late at night, that someone as...
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old and vile as she should leave that spot for young lovers, is destined to change his insult that she is “a profanation.” When Komachi tells him that she is ninety-nine years old, he recoils yet again, though he is drawn to look at her more closely. During the course of their exchange, the park empties, and Komachi reminisces about her love for Captain Fukakusa eighty years previously. Here Mishima is freer still with his modernization of the classic Komachi and introduces an onstage flashback to a ball at which Fukakusa was courting Komachi—but Viennese waltzes, not Japanese music, provide background as various couples appear and discuss the romance of Komachi and her captain. The audience suddenly realizes that fate is destined to repeat itself as the Poet begins to see the Old Woman as absolutely beautiful and begins to pay court to her. Komachi’s hundredth night has again come around. To her credit, she tries to warn the young man, but he is totally enthralled by his new vision of her. The play, carried by Mishima’s powerful dialogue, at once masterful in its timing and economical but eloquent in its progress, concludes with his dying and Komachi’s acceptance of “a hundred more years to wait,” as she returns to counting cigarette butts garnered that day. She is seen at the final curtain as she was when the curtain rose. The play is classic Mishima—including his obsessive interest in cycles, despite his personal disclaimer of belief in reincarnation. His claimed belief in active nihilism is seldom more accurately manifested than in this koanlike play.
Bondage to an emotional state and/or obsession is a frequent theme for Mishima and probably goes back even to his preadolescent intoxication with Reni’s portrait of Saint Sebastian, ultimately leading to a commissioned series of portraits of himself in various dying situations—including one of himself as Saint Sebastian, arms bound above his head and arrows appearing to protrude from his torso. In The Damask Drum and Hanjo such pain and torture are enacted at an essentially intellectual-emotional level. The Lady Aoi also works at that level but features spirit possession, torture of a physical sort, and murder, too.
The Damask Drum
The Damask Drum centers on an old janitor, Iwakichi, who falls madly and impossibly in love with a woman whom he has never met but has observed across the alley from the office building where he cleans. He has spied her repeatedly in a fashionable dress shop just across the way. Iwakichi confesses to the clerk Kayoko that he must have sent the mystery lady thirty unanswered love letters, in addition to seventy more that he has burned after writing. (The mystery of the hundredth occasion reminds one of Sotoba Komachi.) After their exchange, Iwakichi and Kayoko continue to spy on the adjacent office and observe the activity there during their night shift. Eventually tiring, Kayoko takes her leave of the old man, carrying with her yet another love letter for the mystery lady from him. Across the way, three sophisticated male customers and the proprietress of the shop discuss the old man’s obsessive passion. The proprietress confesses that she has used the old man’s letters as wipers for her dog’s combs, never showing them to Mrs. Hanako Tsukioka, who is the object of the old man’s passion. The girl Kayoko arrives with the thirtieth letter, which they read aloud.
The discourse that follows concerns questions of romance, the erotic, and fashion—then returns to the old man, whom they decide to discipline for his cheeky courtship. They contrive to give Iwakichi a stage prop, a drum that is made of damask and therefore soundless. The drum is accompanied by a note that hints that Mrs. Tsukioka will grant the old man her favors when she hears the drum beating. On his failure to be heard, as they laugh at him from across the alley, Iwakichi commits suicide by jumping from his window ledge. Stage lighting soon indicates that night has come, and Mrs. Tsukioka is “back” at the scene to meet the ghost of Iwakichi. Now it is their turn to speak of love and its flaws. Responding to her challenge, yet again, to make the drum sound, the ghost pounds away, only to fall into despair on the hundredth beat and disappear. “I would have heard if he had only struck it once more,” avers the lady—less kind and less intelligent than the earlier Komachi but less cruel than Rokuj in The Lady Aoi.
The Lady Aoi
In The Lady Aoi there are but four characters, the three major ones being Aoi, her husband, Hiraku, and Lady Rokuj. The action opens in a hospital, which, it seems, may use sexual therapy. This element is intended by Mishima to shock. Though Mishima was hostile to the theories of Sigmund Freud and his disciples, he was keenly, if unhappily, aware of their influence on the twentieth century; hence, that influence appears in this modern version of a tale from the Genji cycle. Spirit possession is the mainspring of this intense play’s action, which presents an effective story of love and of hate growing from betrayed love. Not the Genji figure, Hiraku, but his chosen, Aoi, is killed by the spirit of Rokuj, whose ability to manifest in both spirit and person is stunningly effective in this jarring masterwork.
Kantan, the earliest of the five plays in the collection, is perhaps the least effective of Mishima’s N plays. Although it may remind one of Eugène Ionesco’s L’Avenir est dans les ufs: Ou, Il Faut de tout pour faire un monde (pr. 1953; The Future Is in Eggs: Or, It Takes All Sorts to Make a World, 1960), or perhaps of the works of Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett, the dialogue does not always cohere, and one is not quite sure if this incoherence is the playwright’s intention. Kantan does contain some delightful whimsy, and dreams and near-romps abound as eighteen-year-old Jir imagines that he becomes a dictator and power broker. He awakens to a new love for real life and his doting nurse, Kiku, as magical flowers burst into bloom everywhere. Kantan is the stuff of opera or ballet and should be splendidly adaptable to such works.
The homoerotic theme is dominant in Hanjo, one of the most powerful and economical of Mishima’s works. True to Mishima’s desire, it could well be played in any theater in the world—or even in Central Park. Hanjo is a drama of love and alienation, in which the loyal, long-suffering lesbian wins. Hanako, a beautiful girl, has gone mad after being deserted by her handsome lover, Yoshio. She is taken off the streets, loved (and painted) and nurtured by a middle-aged artist, Jitsuko Honda. Jitsuko’s idyll is jeopardized by a newspaper story, telling of her rescue of the girl and even providing her name and address. Her worst fears are soon realized, for Yoshio sees the story and subsequently finds them. His identification of Hanako is confirmed by matching a pair of fans that they had exchanged as symbols of undying loyalty. A brutal psychological battle between Yoshio and Jitsuko ensues, and which Jitsuko presumes that she has lost. Yet the tables turn when Hanako insists to the young man, “You are not Yoshio. Your face is dead.” She maintains this claim and eventually dismisses him. Jitsuko is gentle in dealing with Yoshio in his defeat but cannot resist exultantly exclaiming “Oh, wonderful life!” when he finally has gone.
It is in the N play Djji, which first found print amid nine short stories of the volume Manatsu no shi (1953; Death in Midsummer and Other Stories, 1966), that Mishima perhaps stands more revealed than in any of his other plays, in the person of a young lady named Kiyoko. (It may be worth noting that Mishima’s female characters tend to have more dimensions than his men—unlike those of Ernest Hemingway, with whom he is often paralleled.) Djji’s other characters are the Antique Dealer and the Apartment House Superintendent (both unnamed), and five nondescript men and women patrons of the antique shop. The setting is “a room in what is in fact a secondhand furniture shop, though it is so filled with antiques—both Oriental and Occidental—that it might properly be called a museum.” Like the classical version of this N play, Mishima’s version involves unabated passion. In the traditional play, Kanegamisaki (the cape of the temple bell), a hermit is loved by a stunning beauty. Rejecting her, he takes refuge by hiding under the huge Djji temple bell. Crazed by her desire for him, she transforms herself into a great and outraged serpent whose fire burns the ungrateful hermit as it coils around the bell.
Mishima’s Kiyoko, a dancer, keeps to the passion with something of a plot reversal suitable to modern times. She desires a huge wardrobe (with, appropriately, the form of a bell carved into its doors) from the antique shop. The cabinet is about to be sold to the highest bidder among a number of interested, affluent parties, but the sale is spoiled by Kiyoko telling of the murder of a young lover who hid inside—obviously unsuccessfully—from a jealous husband. After the potential buyers have been driven away, Kiyoko reveals to the Dealer that indeed a man had died inside the wardrobe, but that it was her lover, Yasushi, who jilted her for an older woman because she (Kiyoko) was too beautiful. Yasushi chose to hide in the wardrobe to avoid the world, to live and, in fact, to die there (suicide is suggested). Kiyoko browbeats the Dealer but still cannot afford the wardrobe. She leaps inside and locks herself in, crying out that she will disfigure her features with acid. Panic ensues, but when she finally emerges, her face is unchanged. It is at the very end of the play that Mishima and his character seem to merge. Kiyoko says, “Nothing can bother me, no matter what happens. Who do you suppose can wound me now?” Soon the Dealer replies, “You’ll be ruined, your heart will be torn to shreds. You’ll end up no longer able to feel anything.” To this Kiyoko replies, “Still, nothing that happens can ever change my face.”
The longer and more conventional plays, Madame de Sade and My Friend Hitler, have much in common. Like many plays, for all but an unusually specialized or attentive audience, they may be deemed to read better than they play. Ironically, this gives them a point in common with traditional N, which some prefer to have explicated rather than to attend. More traditional critics claim that the plays are sometimes overwhelmed by dialogue at the expense of action.
In these two plays, the most horrible acts of violence and violation are described in frequently long, descriptive speeches, in which the actors simply face off and deliver—hence it is easy to lose a sense of outrage. Yet, as noted above, one may compare this type of play with the classical Greek drama, in which the violence was described instead of witnessed.
Madame de Sade
Madame de Sade, the first of these two plays of the theater of tirade, was finished in 1965 and played successfully in Tokyo, opening in November of that year. Its five characters are all female. They are Renée, Sade’s wife; Mme de Montreuil, her mother; Anne, her younger sister; Baronesse de Simiane; the cruel Comtesse de Saint-Fonde; and Charlotte, who is housekeeper to the Montreuils. Much of the main debate of the play swings between the decadent Saint-Fonde, who states that God is both lazy and decrepit after proclaiming herself “utterly bored with the artifices of love and the nasty machinations . . . even my own bad reputation.” She describes love as a mixture of honey and ashes, announcing that she has concluded that the highly religious Montreuil was correct earlier when describing the truth as “whips and sweets, that’s all.” The fascinating exchanges and revelations proceed, often staggering in their implications. The third and final act, following a major soliloquy of Renée, ends after embracing the notion that Sade embodies the cruel essence of reality; the arrival of the Marquis de Sade, himself, is heralded by a knock at the door. The maid describes the bloated, down-at-heels, albeit dignified appearance of the man, who has been long in prison. Renée, Madame de Sade, seeming to have arrived at a sudden decision, stuns the audience by announcing her decision to “never see him again.” As the maid leaves to communicate this to the Marquis de Sade, the curtain falls. Remarkable as it is, there is a classic Zen koanlike quality to this play; a rap on the head by the playwright in the role as Zen master—and the audience is left to find the truth on its own.
My Friend Hitler
My Friend Hitler, also in three acts, has as its characters Adolf Hitler, the arms magnate Alfried Krupp, the SA Captain Ernst Roehm, and left-wing Nazi Gregor Strasser. The play is set on the infamous “night of long knives,” when, in late June and early July of 1934, Hitler gave his blessing to the SS, led by Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hess, Joseph Goebbels, and others, to liquidate all leadership of the rival SA paramilitary organization. The SA, a less elite, though larger, group of Hitler’s backers, was headed by Captain Roehm, who believed himself to be Hitler’s best friend. The leftist Strasser, who also helped in Hitler’s rise to power, has become unable to tolerate Hitler’s leadership, while Roehm, like many of his men a motorcycle-riding, hard-drinking bully, believes that Nazi leadership will soften unless it rests on a continual revolution. The dialogue between them is spirited and fascinating, as is that between Hitler and Krupp, the only man before whom Hitler trembles.
Donald Richie calls the work an “allegory in iron,” and that it is. It ran successfully in Tokyo in January, 1969, but has not been presented in English except as laboratory theater at St. Andrews College in 1982, in the Hiroaki Sato translation. Again, Mishima—who said that he could never identify with Hitler, though he had some sympathy for Benito Mussolini—leaves the spectator with tense irresolution at the play’s end. As gunfire continues in the background, signaling the continuing execution of SA leaders, Hitler, now recovered from his terror of the intimidating Krupp, accepts the latter’s congratulations for cutting down both the Left and the Right, walking to center stage to state, “Yes, government must take the middle road.”