The world will never know what course the literary career of Yukio Mishima might have taken had he not died at age forty-five. Nevertheless, he was the best known of post-World War II writers among critics and readers outside Japan, and he received a fair share of attention within his own country. Not all of his work was of equal literary merit, but a certain unevenness is almost certain for a prolific writer.
Apart from his style, usually ornate and meticulously wrought, Mishima’s success stemmed in part from his effectiveness in capturing the sense of void and despair that typified many Japanese during the postwar period. Another key to his success lay in his unusual interest in Japanese cultural tradition. His abilities, unique among his peers, enabled him to write in the genre of classical Kabuki and N plays.
“The Forest in Full Bloom”
Mishima’s early works represent a period that both clarified the directions in which his talents would go and developed features that would become trademarks of his later works. He came to realize that poetry was not to be his major effort. In 1941, the year he was graduated from the Peer’s School, he published his first long work, “The Forest in Full Bloom” in October, at the age of sixteen. The maturity of style in this juvenile work amazed his mentors and peers. The sophisticated word choice is noteworthy, but its maturity goes much farther; it establishes the major theme of his life’s work, for he was well on his way to evolving the aesthetic formula that would distinguish his work: Longing leads to beauty; beauty generates ecstasy; ecstasy leads to death. Likewise, the sea, an important motif throughout his writing, is associated with death. Indeed, as Donald Keene has noted, Mishima seemed to be “intoxicated with the beauty of early death.”
Death in Midsummer, and Other Stories
Preoccupation with death is obvious even in the title of the short-story collection that constitutes Mishima’s major short fiction, Death in Midsummer, and Other Stories. The title story, “Death in Midsummer,” takes an epigraph from one of Charles Baudelaire’s poems that translates as “Death affects us more deeply under the stately reign of summer.” The psychological realism of Mishima’s presentation of the family’s reactions to three deaths in the family is the focus of the story. Masaru and Tomoko Ikuta have two sons, Kiyoo and Katsuo, and a daughter, Keiko. Yasue, Tomoko’s sister-in-law, is baby-sitting the children while Tomoko takes an afternoon nap. Despite warnings to the children against wandering away, during a brief moment when Yasue is preoccupied with other thoughts, two of the children disappear, leaving the three-year-old Katsuo alone, crying. When Yasue realizes what has happened, she is stricken with a heart attack and dies. Informed of Yasue’s accident, Tomoko “felt a sort of sweet emptiness come over her. She was not sad.” (This is only one of several passages in which a dearth of feeling is expressed.) Only then does she inquire about the children; she finds Katsuo, who informs her that “Kiyoo Keiko all bubbles.” Tomoko is afraid; she sends her husband a telegram telling him that Yasue is dead and that the two children are missing, although by now it is clear that the children have drowned.
Masaru prepares to go down to the resort where the family was vacationing. Devoid of any emotion, he feels more like a detective speculating on the circumstances of death than a distraught father. Intuitively, he senses that the children are dead, not simply missing. When he arrives at the resort, he hears that three...
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people have died, and his thoughts turn to how to approach his wife. Funeral preparations are made. Tomoko is conscious of the incongruity of her almost insane grief alongside her businesslike attention to detail and her large appetite at such a time. She vacillates between a feeling of guilt and her knowledge that she did not cause the deaths. Dissatisfied, she believes that Yasue is lucky to be dead because she does not have to feel that she has been “demoted and condemned” by relatives. Mishima here intrudes to comment that although Tomoko does not know it, it is her “poverty of human emotions” that is most troubling her.
On the surface, life returns to normal, but Tomoko associates almost everything with the tragic accident, while Masaru takes refuge in his work. Tomoko questions the fact that “she was living, the others were dead. That was the great evil. How cruel it was to have to be alive.” Autumn comes and goes; and life becomes more peaceful, but Tomoko comes to feel as if she is waiting for something. To try to assuage her empty feelings, Tomoko seeks outside activities. She asks herself why she had not “tried this mechanical cutting off of the emotions earlier.” Winter comes. Tomoko, who is to have another child, admits for the first time that the pain of the lost children was gone, but she cultivates forgetfulness in order not to have to deal with her feelings further. After two years, one summer day, Tomoko asks Masaru to return with her to the beach. Grudgingly, he consents. Tomoko is silent and spends much of her time gazing at the sea, as if she were waiting for something. Masaru wants to ask but then realizes that “he thought he knew without asking.”
As with much Japanese literature, the cycle of the seasons is prominent. Deaths come in midsummer, when things should be flourishing and in full bloom. When winter comes, the final ritual of burying the ashes of the dead is completed. Tomoko becomes pregnant, and Momoko is born the following summer. Again, it is summer when she returns to the beach. The cryptic ending is typical of some, not all, of Mishima’s work. One may speculate that the return to the beach in the summer is a sign of acceptance or an effort by Tomoko to come to terms with her own identity. Possibly, her waiting represents some sense of communication with the spirits of the dead or even indicates a longing for her own death. A less gloomy interpretation of the return to the beach, however, may recall Baudelaire’s line suggesting that death in summer is out of place; death is for the winter, when nature too is desolate.
“The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love”
More often anthologized, the story “Shigadera Shnin no Koi” (“The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love”) manifests Mishima’s familiarity with classical Japanese literature. At the same time, the central theme of the story is one that is common in the West but relatively rare in Japanese literature: the inner conflict between worldly love and religious faith. A brief account in a fourteenth century war chronicle of an elderly priest falling in love with the imperial concubine provides the subject matter of the story.
It is the motivation of the concubine and the priest—rather than the events—that is the focus of the story. The priest is an exemplar of virtue; he is old and doddering, physically a “bag of bones”; it is unlikely that he would become infatuated with a beautiful young woman. When the concubine comes to the area to view the springtime foliage, the priest “unwittingly” glances in her direction, not expecting to be overwhelmed by her beauty. He is, however, and he realizes that “what he had imagined to be completely safe had collapsed in ruins.” Never had he broken his vow of chastity, but he realizes that this new love has taken hold of him. The concubine, having forgotten their meeting, is reminded of it when she hears a rumor that an old priest has behaved as if he were crazed after having seen her. She, too, is without blemish in that, while she performed her duties to the emperor, she has never given her love to any suitor.
The priest is now tormented by the implications of this love in relation to his attaining enlightenment. He longs to see the lady once more, confident in his delusion that this will provide escape from his present feelings. He goes to her garden, but when the concubine sees him, she orders that his presence be ignored; she is frightened when he continues to stand outside all night. The lady tells herself that this is a one-sided affair, that he can do nothing to her to threaten her security in the Pure Land. Finally, she admits him, and her white hand emerges from beneath the dividing blind that separates them, as custom decrees. She waits, but the priest says nothing. Finally, he releases her hand and departs. Rumor has it that a few days later, the priest “achieved his final liberation” and the concubine begins copying rolls of religious sutras. Thus, the love story between these two who both are faithful to the tenets of Jdo Buddhism focuses on the point at which the ideal world structure that each one envisioned was in this incident “balanced between collapse and survival.” If nothing more, the story reflects the aesthetic formed early in Mishima’s life, which holds that beauty causes ecstasy which, in turn, causes death.
The story “Ykoku” (“Patriotism”) which was made into a film, is the first of several that focus on ideals of young military officers of the 1930’s. To understand this work, it is important to grasp the meaning of the translation of the word “patriotism.” The word ykoku means grieving over a country rather than loving a country (aikoku), which is a positive emotion. Thus, it is autobiographical in that it expresses Mishima’s own grief over the country that he perceived to be in disorder. “Patriotism,” according to Mishima’s own evaluation, contains “both the best and the worst features” of his writing. The story concerns a young lieutenant, Shinji Takeyama, who commits seppuku because he feels that he cannot do what he has been ordered to do: lead an attack on the young rebels in the Ni Ni Roku Incident, an unsuccessful coup d’état that occurred on February 26, 1936, in Tokyo. Although Mishima was only eleven years old at the time of the incident, its influence on him provided the germ for two other works, a play Tka no Kiku (1961; tenth-day chrysanthemums) and Eirei no Koe (voices of the heroic dead). These works confirm Mishima’s growing dedication to imperialism. The story contains what is possibly the most detailed account of the samurai rite of seppuku in all of Japanese literature.
Almost everything spoken or written by Mishima fits into a personal cosmology that evolved and was refined throughout his life; the living out of this system led to his death: Beauty leads to ecstasy, ecstasy to death. Literature was central to Mishima’s cosmos and was virtually inseparable from it. To understand one is to comprehend the other. Mishima was obsessed with death, and to create beauty in his works, in his system, led inevitably to his death.