Yukio Mishima World Literature Analysis - Essay

Yukio Mishima World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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....

(The entire section is 2436 words.)