Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1743
Yukio Mishima’s work covers a wide spectrum of subject matter and themes. On one hand, he drew on the first-person confessional style familiar in Japanese literature since the time of the court diaries of the late Heian period (794-1185) right up to the works of such earlier twentieth century modern...
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- Critical Essays
Yukio Mishima’s work covers a wide spectrum of subject matter and themes. On one hand, he drew on the first-person confessional style familiar in Japanese literature since the time of the court diaries of the late Heian period (794-1185) right up to the works of such earlier twentieth century modern Japanese masters as Shimazaki Tson (1872-1943). To that existing style, however, Mishima added a confessional eroticism seldom if ever before employed within thecanon of serious literature in Japan. Mishima also admired Western literature, particularly such French novelists as Raymond Radiguet and François Mauriac and the classical playwright Jean Racine, finding in them models of a style that involved an elegant surface control of language that could permit glimpses of powerful passions underneath. Mishima’s often baroque style and florid vocabulary tend to flatten out in translation, but the surfaces of his works in the original are usually highly polished and, in the context of the kind of naturalism so much a part of the postwar literary scene around the world, perhaps a bit artificial. Still, in novels dealing indirectly with social issues, notably in After the Banquet, Mishima the stylist was able to find an idiom both contemporary and altogether appropriate to his relatively public subject matter.
Confessions of a Mask
The confessional aspects of Mishima’s writing can best be seen in his early Confessions of a Mask, the book that made him famous and is often regarded as his masterpiece. The device of the mask and the face, a frozen image shown to society that stands in opposition to the truth of the inner psyche, is an image so often employed that it may seem merely banal. In this novel, however, the title represents a powerful and entirely appropriate symbol for the narrator as he slowly comes to grasp his profound attraction to other men, and perhaps to violence as well. The unwinding of this theme is so skillfully carried out by means of his first-person narrative technique that the structures Mishima has conceived present a cumulative effect altogether authentic, both in emotional and literary terms. Then too, while Mishima creates a narrator who is principally concerned with chronicling, understanding, and analyzing his emotional development, he was careful to include in the novel enough suggestions concerning the narrator’s surroundings that the reader can gain a real sense of what it was like to have grown up as a sensitive child during the difficult years when Japan was at war.
Still, the major themes of the book are indisputably eros and (at least by occasional implication) death. The powerful vision contained in the final pages of the book, when the narrator takes full cognizance of his erotic responses to a bare-chested hoodlum, certainly represents for the author a moment of truth that cannot be emotionally denied, and any sympathetic reader will surely be drawn in to the power of that sudden and revelatory instant of self-understanding.
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
In The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, published seven years later, in 1956, Mishima again draws on the possibilities of psychological confession in the first person, but on this occasion, he uses his skill to employ newspaper accounts and trial documents as a means to penetrate the mind of another; in this sense, the book maintains a powerful objectivity. In the novel, Mishima sets out to reconstruct the psychology of a young Buddhist acolyte who, in 1950, burned down the famous Zen temple Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion of the title, one of the great masterpieces of traditional Japanese architecture and an important site in the ancient capital of Kyoto. In his own way, Mishima took over the techniques of such traditional writers as the great Tokugawa playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), who, particularly in his famous love-suicide plays, took an actual event for his theme and attempted to reconstruct the psychological states that might have plausibly led up to the event portrayed.
In the case of a gifted writer such as Mishima, reportage was quickly subsumed in a masterful evocation of psychological imbalance. As in Confessions of a Mask, Mishima limits himself to the construction of a first-person psychological and introspective narrative, in which the acolyte reveals his self-disgust, his growing obsession with beauty, and his final decision (here Mishima seems to be inadvertently imitating themes in the work of Oscar Wilde, whom he admired) to destroy the thing he loves the most—the beautiful temple itself. Like Salomé, after she has done away with John the Baptist, the acolyte lives on, satiated and at peace, at least until traditional morality reasserts itself.
In an even more effective manner than in the earlier novel, however, Mishima took great care to include in the narrative details of setting and milieu as well as to create a series of well-sketched additional characters, thus providing the reader with both a relief and a diversion from the obsessive quality of the narrator’s personality. In particular, the temple superior, a remarkably worldly and opportunistic Buddhist priest, is portrayed with shrewdness and a sardonic humor, so that he might assume the role of a kind of foil for the young acolyte, psychologically speaking. By employing such a series of delicate balances in his narrative, Mishima makes certain that the reader always has a means to look objectively at the world of the acolyte, permitting the book to stand as a disturbing artistic vision of derangement, rather than as a case history.
After the Banquet
Reportage of another sort provides the material employed by Mishima in composing After the Banquet, in which the author drew on the circumstances surrounding the Tokyo mayoral elections in the late 1950’s. He based his account on certain events surrounding the candidacy of a prominent Socialist politician, who, because of his attachment to the proprietress of a fashionable restaurant, suffered a good deal of criticism and, among other things, lost the election. The novel caused a considerable scandal itself because of the supposedly revelatory nature of certain details in his account, but again, Mishima used the materials he had at hand to evoke his own authentic image of a contemporary Japan, catching both crucial details of the milieu and a beautifully realized delineation of the psychology of his two main characters, the stiff politician Noguchi and the earthy, yet somehow winning, Kazu, the owner of the restaurant.
The novel offers as revealing a glimpse into the somewhat despoiled yet remarkably vigorous life of politicians in Tokyo as any postwar author has been able to manage. The success of the novel results in part from the fact that Mishima’s thrust is psychological, not political; he espouses no causes but plays instead the role of a humane and astute observer. The moral of the novel lies thus within the structures of the narrative itself. The development of the relationship between the pair, in which money and opportunity signally affect the changing nature of the affection each feels for the other, make After the Banquet perhaps the most objectively rendered and humanly satisfying of Mishima’s novels.
The Sound of Waves
Mishima’s attraction to European literature is particularly apparent in his novel The Sound of Waves, published in 1954 after his European trip four years earlier. Here Mishima drew directly on the Greek pastoral romance of Daphnis and Chloë (used also in the twentieth century by Maurice Ravel in his celebrated 1911 ballet), couching the famous account of the antique shepherd and shepherdess in Japanese terms. Quite popular at first, and immediately a success abroad when translated into English, the work has not worn well. The style is doubtless brilliant, yet the world of classical Greece and timeless, rural Japan are too far apart to merge effectively. The result now seems a sort of artificial pastiche. On the other hand, Mishima could blend classical Japanese sources into his work with enormous skill. A work such as the modern No play Djji (pb. 1953; English translation, 1966) shows a remarkable blending of ancient form and subject matter with a thoroughly modern sensibility. In Mishima’s version, a young woman, spurned in love, decides to take her revenge in a fashion that, while paying homage to the medieval play, allows a thoroughly contemporary and, for the reader or spectator, altogether intimidating moment of psychological truth.
The Sea of Fertility
Mishima’s tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, which occupied him from the mid-1960’s until his death in 1970, was to be for him the summing up of his life, art, and belief. Although the tetralogy has been widely read in the original and in translation, the critical response to these four books has remained mixed. The highest praise has been reserved for the first volume, Spring Snow, which begins an account of a reincarnation in four separate personalities, all to be witnessed by Honda, a subsidiary character whose own growth of self-awareness and spiritual insight stands as one of the accompanying themes of this vast fable.
In Spring Snow, Honda is shown as a friend and confidant of Kiyoaki, a beautiful and willful young man who only manages to fall in love with his fiancé Satoko when he finds it necessary to force his way to see her in secret. At the end of the novel, Satoko flees their difficult situation and becomes a Buddhist nun. Kiyoaki dies, with an intimation that he and his friend Honda will meet again. The novel is elegiac in its emotional tone and contains a moving re-creation of the atmosphere of late nineteenth century Japan that can surely stand among Mishima’s finest accomplishments.
The three remaining volumes find Kiyoaki reborn as a young fencer turned political extremist in Runaway Horses, then reappearing as a Thai princess in The Temple of Dawn, and, in the final volume, The Decay of the Angel, as a selfish, and perhaps empty-spirited, working-class youth. The plan and conception of this work is surely grand, perhaps grandiose. Some readers find the series, with its increasingly powerful Buddhist references, too far removed from the realities of the present-day Japanese consciousness. Some critics have also commented on the fact that the later volumes are spottily written. In any case, it is still too soon to say whether this last and most ambitious effort on Mishima’s part will take its place at the head of his oeuvre or will merely remain a last ingenious experiment in the career of this gifted, adventuresome, and sometimes perverse genius of modern Japanese letters.