Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2436
When the war ended in 1945, the code that Mishima glorified ended with it. Japan was no longer a muscular military nation whose young warriors died for the glory of the emperor. The emperor, in fact, was forced to renounce his claims to deity after the war, and a new...
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- Critical Essays
When the war ended in 1945, the code that Mishima glorified ended with it. Japan was no longer a muscular military nation whose young warriors died for the glory of the emperor. The emperor, in fact, was forced to renounce his claims to deity after the war, and a new constitution was adopted that stripped the emperor of all power, abolished the military, and ended the nation’s foreign influence. Mishima increasingly came to deplore the new Japan that developed between 1945 and 1970. Although the nation was swiftly becoming a prosperous industrial giant, Mishima felt that it was crass, materialistic, and vulgar, a nation that had forsaken its glorious traditions of the past, lost its spiritual focus, and betrayed the proud young warriors who had died for it during the war.
Mishima’s writings reflect the changing historical period. His last great work, a series of four novels called The Sea of Fertility, give a panoramic view of Japan from 1913 to the 1970’s, moving from romance and idealism to opportunism and decay. The Japan of the final novels is one of Coca-Cola signs and litter, cruelty and sexual perversion. Yet Mishima is far from a gloomy writer. His work abounds in the Japanese love of flora, fauna, and natural surroundings, and there is in his writing a deep sensuality and spirituality. Not a particularly religious man, Mishima nonetheless has a deep reverence for things and a sense of the heartbreaking loveliness of mortal and fleeting life. Mizoguchi, the young monk in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, one of Mishima’s best novels, can achieve freedom only by destroying the ideal beauty of Kinkakuji (the Golden Temple), a fifteenth century Zen temple. The greatest beauty is a beauty that does not last.
While Mishima is quintessentially Japanese in many of his values and sensibilities, he is also a very Western author. Among his favorite writers were Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Fyodor Dostoevski, and the classic Greek dramatists. Like Mann, the German author of Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie (1901; English translation, 1924), and Proust, who wrote the epic À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981), Mishima is concerned with the tragic implications of a developing commercial world and the destruction of art, spirit, and morality. Like Russian novelist Dostoevski, Mishima explores inner dualities of good and evil, mind and body, reality and imagination. He has been compared to Ernest Hemingway in his masculine code of violence, to Edgar Allan Poe in his coupling of love and death, and to Walt Whitman in his masculine eroticism. Mishima felt at home with all of these writers.
It is his peculiar eroticism that many readers find repellent. Mishima, like the boy in Confessions of a Mask, finds sexual arousal and beauty in the sight of bloody young males dying in agony, and in the thought of young men, such as the kamikaze pilots of World War II, plunging gloriously to their death in suicide attacks. One of his most difficult works, “Patriotism,” is the story of a young military officer and his wife who, after making passionate love to one another, commit ritual seppuku. The scene is portrayed in gory and nauseating detail. As if in preparation for his own death, Mishima directed a film version of the story and played the role of the young officer.
It is too easy to see in all of this simply the mind of a sadomasochistic deviant. The contradictory pulls of Eros and Thanatos, love and death, are strong within each individual, and for Mishima, death had a greater attraction than life, as it does for many saints and martyrs. In espousing an eroticism that many find repellent, he is to be applauded for his courage. Mishima looked into his own heart and stated what he found there with honesty, candor, and conviction. The same is true for his unpopular political views. While his politics seemed antiquated and slightly ridiculous even to his fellow Japanese, his beliefs were nonetheless intelligently formulated and passionately held. Further, he had the courage of his convictions; Mishima was willing to die for what he believed.
What is most important about Mishima, however, is his artistry. His books are rich in background and historical detail, his descriptions of Japanese life are accurately observed and beautifully described, and his characters are sharply focused and often memorable. He has a remarkable eye for the quirky and eccentric behavior of individuals, and he is a candid explorer of the human soul, often taking readers where few other writers have gone. Finally, he is a deeply personal writer who bravely faced the worst in himself, transforming these private insights into public works of art. Mishima transforms his readers as well, making them see and feel in new and unsettling ways. That is the mark of a major writer.
Confessions of a Mask
First published: Kamen no kokuhaku, 1949 (English translation, 1958)
Type of work: Novel
Growing up in Japan in the 1930’s and 1940’s, a young boy discovers the contradictions and confusions within his nature, the reality behind the mask that he wears for the world around him.
Confessions of a Mask has been compared to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915, serial; 1916, book) and D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913). Like those novels, Mishima’s work is a bildungsroman, the story of a young man’s growth to maturity. Yet while Joyce and Lawrence emphasize the struggle of a boy to achieve a conventional, heterosexual manhood, Mishima emphasizes the seemingly aberrant desires of his young protagonist, whose struggle is to face his feelings honestly and openly.
The confession begins with the narrator’s earliest memories, almost all of them connected with either sex or death. Almost dying at the age of four of autointoxication (Mishima himself suffered from this chronic illness), he remembers at the same time the image of a young man carrying buckets of excrement and becomes strangely aroused by his handsome face and close-fitting trousers. The image associates sex and filth, just as the boy’s later arousal by marching soldiers combines beauty and death. These dualities occur throughout the novel, as do masks and false appearances. Captivated by a picture-book illustration of a knight holding a sword aloft on a white horse, the boy is later shocked to find out that it is the picture of a woman, Joan of Arc, not of a man. Like the boy, the knight’s sex is masked and is not what it appears to be. A later book illustration, that of Saint Sebastian, whose body was pierced by arrows, arouses him even further. Finding exquisite beauty in the saint’s white flesh dripping blood, the boy finds sexual arousal in agonizing masculine death.
The narrator’s first strong sexual feelings are for a young tough named Omi, a fellow student at school. Omi is the opposite of the frail, thin, unhealthy narrator. Omi is physically strong, mentally weak, and, being older than the other boys, sexually mature. The narrator falls in love with him, desires him carnally, and longs to see his naked body, a desire that is fulfilled one day in gym class. Omi’s beautiful nakedness, however, fails to satisfy the boy’s longing. It merely makes him feel jealous, ashamed of his own comparative ugliness.
The boy soon learns to mask his true feelings, pretending to desire the opposite sex and to anticipate sexual fulfillment with women. Yet he has no adolescent fantasies about women (though he does for young sailors and soldiers on the streets) and only achieves sexual satisfaction through masturbation. At the age of twenty, he begins to see the sister of a schoolmate, a girl named Sonoko, and it is even expected that he will become engaged to her. He tries to convince himself that he is deeply in love with Sonoko: They exchange love letters and photographs, hold hands, and eventually kiss. Still, the young man has no sensation of pleasure, no sexual arousal. Finally, in order to discover if he is a “normal” male, he goes to a prostitute but is unable to have sexual intercourse with her.
By the end of the novel, he has ended his relationship with Sonoko, who then marries someone else. In the final scene, he meets Sonoko, now a married woman, in a chance encounter, and she hints that she still loves him, is even willing to have an extramarital affair with him. Yet as she tells him this in a tawdry Japanese dance hall, he glances at a nearby table at a young male, a gang tough who has removed his shirt and is flexing his muscles. Burning with sexual desire, the protagonist knows what his destiny will be. He can wear a mask no longer.
The Sea of Fertility
First published: Hj no umi, 1969-1971 (English translation, 1972-1974); includes Hara no yuki, 1969 (Spring Snow, 1972); Homba, 1969 (Runaway Horses, 1973); Akatsuki no tera, 1970 (The Temple of Dawn, 1973); Tennin gosui, 1971 (The Decay of the Angel, 1974)
Type of work: Novels
Widely recognized as Mishima’s masterpiece, this series of four novels offers a sweeping view of modern Japan, chronicling the nation’s changing values from 1913 to 1970.
The Sea of Fertility: A Cycle of Four Novels is a tetralogy whose title is taken from a name on the surface of the moon. It suggests both the fertile sea of earthly life and the arid sea of the cosmic moon—being and nothingness. Mishima said that he put everything he knew about life into these four novels; the very last words of the final book were written and submitted to his publisher on the day that he died.
Spring Snow is Mishima’s version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597). A story of star-crossed lovers, Kiyo Matsugae and Satoko Ayakura, the novel is romantic, poignant, and tragic. As the title suggests, spring is the season of love, while snow is the cold, life-covering element of death, and this novel combines the two. Satoko, the daughter of a nobleman, is engaged by imperial decree to a prince of the court, while Kiyo, also from a noble family, is a student at Peers’ School who falls in love with her. By doing so, however, he challenges the emperor himself. The lovers meet secretly, love passionately, and take terrible risks. Emotionally weak and immature, Kiyo tries to distance himself from Satoko, who becomes pregnant, gets an abortion, and, in disgrace, isolates herself in a nunnery. Kiyo, guilty and desperately ill, comes daily to see the cloistered Satoko and eventually dies for love.
Two minor characters in Spring Snow figure prominently in the second novel of the cycle, Runaway Horses. Before Kiyo dies, he tells his school friend, Shigekuni Honda, of a dream in which he sees his friend Honda again, beneath a waterfall. Another minor character, Kiyo’s tutor, Shikeyuki Iinuma, also reappears in the second novel, which takes place some eighteen years after Kiyo’s death. Honda, now an associate judge in the saka Court of Appeals, meets Isao Iinuma, son of Kiyo’s tutor, who is now headmaster of his own academy. When Honda sees the boy bathing beneath a waterfall near the shrine, he notices three small moles on the left side of the boy’s breast—the same three moles that Kiyo had. He concludes that the boy is Kiyo reincarnated, the incarnation of Kiyo’s earlier dream.
Whereas Kiyo was a romantic dreamer, Isao is a political idealist who wants to purify the corrupt Japanese government of Westernized financiers and restore the empire’s former glory. Using as his model The League of the Divine Wind, a group of student rebels who tried to overthrow the Japanese government in 1873, Isao forms his own student rebel group, whose members pledge to assassinate the most prominent financiers in Japan and to kill themselves by seppuku if their plan fails. The assassination plan indeed fails, and the rebel students are imprisoned. Honda, convinced that Isao is the reincarnation of his old friend Kiyo, resigns from the court and becomes defense counsel for the students, who are given their freedom and treated as patriotic heroes. Isao, however, more in love with romantic death than political reform, carries out his plans of assassination by killing a financier named Kurahara and then taking his own life by seppuku.
Reincarnation, something in which Mishima did not personally believe, also plays a part in the final two novels of the tetralogy. In Runaway Horses, Kiyo/Isao has a dream in which he becomes a woman. In The Temple of Dawn, he becomes that woman, a Thai princess named Ying Chan; later, in The Decay of the Angel, he will reappear as a boy named Toru. In both novels, Honda is again the central controlling sensibility through whose eyes are seen Kiyo’s various incarnations.
Both The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel emphasize the decay of the final book’s title. From the earlier two novels of romantic passion and patriotic sacrifice, readers descend to a world of ugliness, corruption, and death. In The Temple of Dawn, Thailand is a place of drizzling rain and fragmented images, India a nation of beggars, lepers, and public crematoriums, and Japan a defeated nation of bombed-out ruins and perverted sexuality. Honda has become materially wealthy but physically and morally impoverished. Trapped in a sterile marriage, he is reduced to peeping at the sexual activity of others through holes in walls and behind bushes. Ying Chan, the object of Honda’s sexual fantasies, turns out to be a lesbian and dies from a snakebite after returning to Thailand. There is equal sterility in The Decay of the Angel. Honda, now seventy-six years old, dreams of angels; going to Udo Beach, where a mythical angel supposedly descended in the fourteenth century, he finds a shore littered with Coca-Cola bottles, food cans, plastic bags, and garbage. Meeting Toru, a young signalman who has the distinctive three-mole marking on his breast, Honda adopts the sixteen-year-old, but Toru turns out to be evil incarnate, a destroyer of human life and spirit, a malevolent genius who ends up blind, helpless, and isolated.
Mishima’s four novels move from spring, youth, and love to old age, senility, and death, from the romantic idealism of early twentieth century Japan to a crass, decaying, and valueless society of the 1970’s. Like his principal character Judge Honda, who serenely looks forward to death at the end of the tetralogy, Mishima himself saw at the end of his life only an empty garden, no memories, nothing.