Yukio Mishima

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Sanroku Yoshida (essay date summer 1983)

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SOURCE: Yoshida, Sanroku. “Mishima's Modernist Treatment of Time and Space in The Sea of Fertility.World Literature Today (summer 1983): 409-11.

[In the following essay, Yoshida explores Mishima's manipulation of space and time in The Sea of Fertility.]

At the age of forty-five, Yukio Mishima provided his own conclusion to the drama of his life by committing seppuku, ritual disembowelment. He died on 25 November 1970, the same day that he finished his last work, the tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, comprised of the novels Spring Snow,Runaway Horses,The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel (all published in English translation by Knopf in 1972-74). There is a striking similarity between the suicide of the main character in the second novel of the series and the circumstances of the author's suicide. Literary criticism has tended to blur the line between the work and the life of its author, an approach to which Mishima would have objected. Most reviews of the work by Japanese critics have been unfavorable, with little attention paid to the structural scheme of time and space and to the other modernistic aspects of the novel. Some critics have claimed that the lack of Mishima's usual impeccable craftsmanship, especially in the third and fourth novels, was caused by an increasing obsession with his own death and by the exhaustion of his talent as a novelist.

The major modernistic aspect in the tetralogy is Mishima's treatment of time and space. In the traditional novel, time and space are two indispensable organizing elements. Time is the medium of narration, and space provides the narrative with an orientation to reality. In chronological terms, time flows only in one direction, as in actual life, and thus the novel is fixed in its temporal limitation. In the same way space has its own unshakable norm: no one can exist in more than one place simultaneously. In The Sea of Fertility, however, the temporal and spatial sequences are arranged to create the effect of an interfusion of time and space beyond their physical limitations.

The four novels in The Sea of Fertility are set in a sequence of historical time spanning more than sixty years. Chronological time in the narrative is built on solid, careful historicity and is skillfully combined by Mishima with three different philosophical concepts of time: the cyclical time of Buddhist reincarnation, the linear time of Judeo-Christian thought and the spatial time of the Buddhist school of yuishiki (consciousness only). The cyclical nature of time experienced by the four main characters in the tetralogy is a literary projection of the Buddhist concept of reincarnation: the mystic transmigration of a consciousness from one human embodiment to another at death, rather than a genealogical transmission as from father to son.1 In contrast, Honda, the primary character who lives through these four generations of reincarnation, represents a linear experience of time analogous to the Judeo-Christian concept. The third temporal concept which unifies this gargantuan novel is the spatialization of time. Time is only cognizable at the present moment; and as soon as that moment slips into the past, it is no longer time but is like a series of dots or discrete units receding into the past, disconnected from the present.

It is well known that the first novel in the tetralogy, Spring Snow, was inspired by “The Tale of Hamamatsu Chūnagon,” one of many tales written in the Heian period (794-1185). It is true that the story line of Spring Snow somewhat resembles that found in the first half of “Hamamatsu Chūnagon”; but more important is the...

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fact that the historical period in whichSpring Snow is set—the Taisho aristocracy (1912-25)—is superimposed onto the Heian era, creating a simultaneity of the Taisho and Heian periods and thus suggesting that historical time is cyclical as well.

Mishima accomplishes this feat by depicting in detail the court rituals and customs of the Taisho period, which had originated in the Heian period. Then he places these Heian-like characters in a pseudo-Heian atmosphere. For example, the model for Kiyoaki, the protagonist, is the young hero of The Tale of Genji who jeopardizes his future by falling in love with Oborozukio, the crown prince's betrothed. Tadeshina's obsessive devotion to Satoko's illicit love affair, for instance, can be accepted by the reader only when Tadeshina is interpreted as a thinly disguised Ukon or Jijū or Kojijū, who is intimately involved in her mistress's love affair, as described in The Tale of Genji. Iinuma, Kiyoaki's tutor, can be categorized in the same fashion. Honda, in the Kamakura scene, is almost an exact replica of Koremitsu, Genji's confidant. Satoko's seeking of sanctuary at the convent of Gesshu reminds the reader of Ukifune's decision to take vows—probably the archetypal solution in the Heian period for a woman caught in a love triangle.

Mishima not only fuses the Heian and the Taisho eras in this fashion, but also dissolves the distinctions between past, present and future. His literary device for the blending of future and other sequences of time is the “Dream Journal” of Kiyoaki, which provides the novel with the secret tunnels of the time machine connecting to the future. Kiyoaki's dream is the passageway to the militant Isao in Runaway Horses and to the lustful lesbian Ying Chan in The Temple of Dawn. Mishima also rearranges the sequence of the novel's incidents in a symbolic way and foreshadows the ending of the tetralogy at the beginning. The death of Kiyoaki as well as the ultimate defeat of the power of samusara (karma and reincarnation) is suggested when the abbess of the Gesshu Temple, Satoko's great-aunt, visits the Matsugaes and the dead body of a black dog is found at the top of the waterfall in the garden. The color black is consistently used throughout Spring Snow to represent passion. At the end of the tetralogy, Satoko, who has succeeded her great-aunt as abbess, denies the existence of her once-passionate lover Kiyoaki, since she had seen the death of romantic passion in the dead body of the black dog sixty years before.

Mishima's technique of blending historical time and narrative time, of fusing the future into the present and of rearranging the sequence of the incidents resembles what Sharon Spencer calls “the spatialization of time.” Spencer contends in Space, Time and Structure in the Modern Novel that modern novelists splinter and rearrange the events in their novels so that past, present and future actions are presented in reversed or combined patterns. When this is done, time in their novels is “spatialized,” for the reality of the events is determined by the place where they occur rather than by the time sequence in which they occur. In this way novelists may achieve simultaneity—that is, the presentation of two or more actions in different places occurring at the same moment in time—and consequently they may dissolve the distinctions between past, present and future as they are dissolved in dreams and in the stream-of-consciousness flow.2 The future is usually conceived of as something like unmarked pages of a notebook; for the future, unlike the past, has no records.3 However, when the future is recorded in dreams, there is no difference between it and the past. Kiyoaki of Spring Snow sees in his dream the future event of his death, of his rebirth under the waterfall and of his third life in a tropical land.

When the second novel, Runaway Horses, opens, Honda is now thirty-eight years old and feels as if his youth had ended when Kiyoaki tragically died at the age of twenty. Every time he browses through the pages of Kiyoaki's “Dream Journal,” it becomes more and more difficult for him to draw a clear line between dream and reality, between what had happened and what could happen. The “Journal” predicts the future, sometimes a future which is already in the past and sometimes a future still to come; so in Honda's mind the future and the past begin to fuse and create a spatial time.

Kiyoaki's purity of passion is replaced by Isao's nationalistic purity, a Japanese quality associated with the Shinto deity called Susanō, the Mars of the Japanese creation myth. This mythical archetype is presented in a dual structure of time: one is the narrative time of fanatic militarism on the eve of the Japanese invasion of the Asian continent (1931); the other is the historical time of the Shimpūren incident (The League of the Divine Wind), a failed coup d'état which had taken place in 1876.

Isao, eighteen years of age, forms a secret group of single-minded, patriotic friends at the Academy of Patriotism owned by his father. Their purpose is to carry out a coup d'état in order to prevent the corruption of the political and financial world and to save Japan from the evil influence of Western countries. They try to follow the example of the Shimpūren rebellion against the bummei kaika (civilization and enlightenment—that is, Westernization) of the Meiji era. By superimposing this early Meiji movement upon Showa jingoism, Mishima again suggests the cyclical nature of history and further develops in the third and fourth novels the recurring theme of the impurity brought by Americanization. Isao's struggle for purity is doomed, however, since it is a struggle against the flow of time, against the course of history—the overwhelming Westernization of Japan. Time invariably involves changes and absolute irreversibility. The only way to overcome time is somehow to transcend it, as Satoko does. Consequently Isao kills himself after accomplishing only part of what he had planned.

In the third novel, The Temple of Dawn, Mishima achieves simultaneity between parts 1 and 2 of the novel, between the Indian city of Benares and the Japanese city of Gotemba. The first part mainly deals with Honda's experiences in Thailand and India. His encounter in Bangkok with Ying Chan makes him feel as though he were in the center of time, and he is able to see Kiyoaki and Isao in the past as well as Ying Chan and other transmigrated beings in the future. Another experience is the gruesome scene in Benares of a funeral pyre at the public crematorium on the Ganges. The fire purifies human bodies which otherwise would decompose, and the water of the Ganges washes the ashes away. In the second part of the novel this Hindu ritual of purification is conceptualized and superimposed upon Honda's villa in Japan at Gotemba, near Mount Fuji, the Japanese equivalent of the Temple of Dawn. Mount Fuji probably symbolizes the eternal beauty of Japan immune from the passage of time.

The expression of sexual monomania at Honda's villa is the schematization and spatialization of hopeless chaos resulting from a frantic Americanization in post-war Japan. It also simulates the Nepalese Temple of Love in Benares, whose golden spire has sculptures depicting the thousand postures of sexual intercourse. In Benares the Temple of Love, a crematorium, the holy Ganges and the glorious, awesome sunrise all exist side by side. In Gotemba, Honda's peephole, a pornographic performance to satiate his voyeurism and an immaculate Mount Fuji are all clustered together. When Honda has a swimming pool constructed in the backyard of the villa in an attempt to see Ying Chan nude, the villa blazes up one night with a couple of the sexual avant-garde in it. Honda's crematorium is in action, with the reflection of flames on the surface of the pool water. He has unwittingly created the Ganges beside his crematorium. A crimson Fuji slowly shows its form in the morning sun. Thus simultaneity between Benares and Gotemba is completed.

Mount Fuji is still an eternal symbol of Japanese beauty in the final novel of the tetralogy, The Decay of the Angel. [DA] Mishima uses the legend of “Hagoromo” (The Robe of an Angel) and its location—Miho, on the bay of Suruga at the foot of Mount Fuji—to symbolize the purity of ancient Japan. It is a spatialization of the cultural archetype whereby Mishima unfolds the theme of Japan's deterioration as well as of the future decay of Honda's angels. Honda, now a wealthy, seventy-six-year-old retired lawyer, muses on the once-immaculate beach of Miho:

Benares was sacred filth. Filth itself was sacred. That was India.

But in Japan, beauty, tradition, poetry, had none of them been touched by the soiled hand of sanctity. Those who touched them and in the end strangled them were quite devoid of sanctity. They all had the same hands, vigorously scoured with soap.4

The trip to Miho leads Honda to the fourth reincarnation, sixteen-year-old Toru. He is a narcissist, aloof and indifferent to disorder outside himself. His only raison d'être is to see, as his name implies. He has the white, clean hands of those who have killed Japanese beauty, tradition and poetry. Toru decays in a most hideous way—but does not die—at the age of twenty. A short life span for his predecessors seems to suggest that longer experience of time in this world invariably brings more human deterioration, just as longer exposure to oxygen brings more rust to iron. This cyclical experience of time, however, has obviously caused the person through succeeding generations of reincarnation to increase in decadence. Finally there is Toru, completely soiled, in the wealthy Honda's house—strongly suggestive of the fate of the angel in the Hagoromo legend—in an affluent but polluted Japan.

Honda, who has reached the age of eighty-one at the end of the tetralogy, is victimized by his advanced voyeurism. His dignity as a retired judge is defiled. Obviously Honda has decayed progressively during his linear experience of time. His desire for an endless cycle of time urges him to adopt Toru, but contrary to his expectation, Toru shows no sign of death at the age of twenty. Instead, Toru blinds himself as a result of a suicide attempt. Thus deprived of his raison d'être, he continues to live and later fathers a child by his insane girl friend. The child will be Honda's grandchild, and it will probably procreate offspring to form a genealogical line for Honda—but not that mystical and therefore precious cycle of reincarnation.

When Honda, after sixty years, visits Satoko at the Gesshu Temple, he is dumbfounded to see that time has worked quite differently on her. Satoko is eighty-three years old, very beautiful, clear-eyed and now the abbess of the convent: “Age had sped in the direction not of decay but of purification. … Age had crystallized into a perfect jewel” (DA, 243).

The secret of the effect of time on Satoko is the yuishiki concept of temporality, the doctrine that is the major subject of study at the Gesshu Temple, In simple terms, the yuishiki concept is something like a constant and endless juxtaposition of annihilation and renewal of causality. This concept of time provides the possibility of breaking the chain of karma, or moral cause and effect. When enlightenment occurs, the chain can be broken as a result of the inherently discrete structure of time according to yuishiki doctrine. The enlightened being therefore transcends the entire temporal sequence as it is normally experienced by those still bound to the karmic cycle of transmigration, and the moment of enlightenment terminates that being's karmic burden. If time is recognized as a line, whether cyclical or linear, connecting the past to the present, then Satoko's present is none other than the result of the past—the past that she shared with Kiyoaki. However, her realization of the yuishiki doctrine has eliminated the causality between the past and present and thus makes it possible for Satoko to deny the existence of Kiyoaki in her mind.

Satoko's purity has been attained by a liberation from the experience of time. Honda has lived within a linear kind of time mainly as an observer seeking sincerity and purity, the most precious human qualities, in the four agents of cyclical time; finally, here at the Gesshu Temple, he finds them in Satoko. Honda feels as if eighty-one years of his life are crumbling to nothing as he gazes with Satoko at the empty garden of the temple.

In The Sea of Fertility Mishima presents the theme of the gradual decline and ultimate nothingness of human existence by telling his story within a structure of simultaneity. A cyclical view of history is skillfully employed to fuse narrative time and the past. The concept of cyclical time, embodied by Kiyoaki and his reincarnation, presents one aspect of the power of Eastern mysticism; the Judeo-Christian concept of linear time, represented by Honda, symbolizes Western logic and reasoning. In the end both fail. Furthermore, Honda's attempt to fuse these two only results in the meaningless life of Toru and his posterity. Satoko alone remains intact in a timeless world at the convent. Trying to find any meaning in human existence is as much of an illusion, Mishima seems to say, as naming a barren sea on the moon “The Sea of Fertility.”5


  1. Patricia Drechsel Tobin points out that the major organizing element in such family-chronicle novels as Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks or D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow is the genealogical continuation of time. See Patricia Drechsel Tobin, Time and the Novel: The Genealogical Imperative, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 3-28.

  2. See Sharon Spencer, Space, Time and Structure in the Modern Novel, New York, New York University Press, 1971, pp. 155-59.

  3. See Hans Meyerhoff, Time in Literature, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1968, p. 43.

  4. Yukio Mishima, The Decay of the Angel, E. G. Seidensticker, tr. New York: Pocket Books, 1975, p. 60. Subsequent references use the abbreviation DA.

  5. On Mishima see also Bettina L. Knapp, “Mishima's Cosmic Noh Drama: The Damask Drum,WLT 54:3 (Summer 1980), pp. 383-87.


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Yukio Mishima 1925-1970

(Pseudonym of Hiraoka Kimitake) Japanese novelist, playwright, essayist, and short story writer.

Mishima is commonly considered one of the most important modern Japanese writers. He is recognized as a master stylist and a powerfully imaginative author who wrote successfully in a number of genres, most notably novels and plays. A controversial figure both in Japan and abroad, Mishima's focus on themes such as homosexuality, death, and political change has garnered a great deal of both Japanese and Western study. However, Mishima is perhaps as well-known for his public death by ritual suicide (seppuku)—after a failed attempt to overthrow the Japanese government—as he is for his massive body of work.

Biographical Information

Mishima was born Hiraoka Kimitake in Tokyo in 1925. His family was of samurai ancestry, and his father was a government minister. The dominant figure in Mishima's childhood was his paternal grandmother, Natsu, who forcibly separated Mishima from his mother when he was a baby, insisting that he live with her downstairs in the family home. Although a semi-invalid, Natsu encouraged the young Mishima's interest in Kabuki theater and in the notion of an elite past. Even after his parents and siblings moved to another house, Mishima stayed with Natsu, nursing her as her illness grew progressively worse. Finally, in 1937 he was allowed to rejoin his family. Mishima did well in school, immersing himself in Japanese and Western classical literature. He began writing stories in middle school and had his first work published while he was still a high school student. It was upon this occasion in 1941 that he first assumed his pen name. After high school he studied law at Tokyo University and subsequently accepted employment in the government's Finance Ministry. Within a year, however, he resigned in order to write full time. With the great success of his first novel, Kamen no kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask) in 1949, Mishima established himself as an important voice in Japanese literature.

Throughout his adult life Mishima was disturbed by what he felt was Japan's image as “a nation of flower arrangers.” He became increasingly consumed by a desire to revive bushidō (“the way of the warrior”), the traditional values of the samurai, and he vehemently opposed the Westernization of his country that was taking place after its defeat in World War II. A supporter of Bungei Bunka (Literary Culture), a small nationalist magazine that had printed Mishima's early fiction, introduced Mishima to the Nihon Romanha, a group of intellectuals who stressed the “value of destruction” and called for the preservation of Japanese cultural traditions. The group had a profound influence on Mishima, who found reinforcement of his personal ideals in its emphasis on death and self-sacrifice. In 1968 he formed the Tate No Kai, or Shield Society, a private army of university men who believed in the way of the samurai, including the practice of seppuku, a form of ritual suicide that involves self-disembowelment and beheading by an associate. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four of his followers from the Shield Society entered the headquarters of the Jietai, or Self-Defense Forces, took its commander hostage, and demanded that Mishima be allowed to address an assembly of the soldiers. Speaking from a balcony, Mishima exhorted the men to overthrow the American-imposed Japanese constitution and restore the emperor to his former position of preeminence. When he was jeered by the crowd, Mishima shouted, “Long live the Emperor!” and returned to the commander's office, where he performed the seppuku ritual. Immediately after beheading Mishima, a devoted follower performed his own ritual suicide before the crowd.

Major Works

Mishima's life-long fascination with suicide, death, sexuality, and sacrifice suffuses most of his writing. In his first novel, the semi-autobiographical Confessions of a Mask, the narrator gradually realizes that he must hide his supposedly deviant sexual urges behind a mask of normality. Based on an actual court trial, the novel Kinkakuji (1956; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) tells the story of a young Buddhist acolyte whose ugliness and stutter have made him grow to hate anything beautiful. He becomes obsessed with the idea that the golden temple where he studies is the ideal of beauty, and in envy he burns it to the ground. One of Mishima's best-known works translated into English and widely anthologized is the short story “Yukoku” (1960; translated as “Patriotism” in Death in Midsummer and Other Stories), an overtly political work that tells the story of a married couple who decide to commit seppuku together. With its elements of emperor worship and right-wing political theory, as well as its explicitly detailed accounts of sex and death, the story remains one of Mishima's most shocking works. Mishima's last work, considered by many to be his masterpiece, is the tetralogy Hōjō no umi (1969-71; The Sea of Fertility), the final portions of which he completed and submitted to his publishers on the day of his suicide. The first novel in the cycle, Haru no yuki (1969; Spring Snow), which Mishima considered to represent the “feminine,” aesthetic side of Japanese culture, is based on an ancient romance featuring star-crossed lovers. In contrast, Homba (1969; Runaway Horses), the second installment in the cycle, symbolizes the “masculine,” martial arts-oriented side of Japanese culture. The novel concerns a plot by a group of young men to perform a series of assassinations of corrupt business leaders. The third novel in the series, Akatsuki no tera (1970; The Temple of Dawn), tells of the character Honda's voyage of spiritual discovery to Thailand and India. Because the awakening involves much esoteric Buddhist teaching, the work is considered the most problematic of the four novels in the series. Finally, in the last volume, Tennin gosui (1971; Decay of the Angel), Honda returns to the corrupt world of 1970 Japan, where he encounters emptiness and hopelessness.

Although the works best known in the West are his novels, Mishima was as esteemed in his country for his plays as for his fiction, and he was the first contemporary Japanese author to work in the Nō theater genre. In his Nō pieces, including Kantan (1950), Aya no tsuzumi (1951; The Damask Drum), Sotoba Komachi (1952), Aoi no ue (1954; The Lady Aoi), and Hanjo (1955), he updates time-honored works by combining the linguistic grace and mood of classical Nō with modern situations and character complexity. Mishima also wrote many plays in the shingeki, or modern, style, featuring fully developed characterization and realistic settings. Notable plays of this type include Nettaiju (1959; Tropical Tree), Sado kōshaku fujin (1965; Madame de Sade), and Waga tomo Hittorā (1968; My Friend Hitler).

Critical Reception

The circumstances surrounding Mishima's spectacular suicide continues to influence critical opinion of his work. Many critics have explored how his works reflect his preoccupation with aggression and eroticism as well as his dedication to the traditional values of imperial Japan. Scholars often interpret Mishima's writings from a biographical perspective and routinely detect apparent contradictions between the man and his works. An ardent supporter of distinctively Japanese values, he was also steeped in Western aesthetic traditions and lived in a Western-style house. A master of traditional dramatic forms, he yet created some of his country's most notable modern theatrical pieces. A tireless writer, bodybuilder, and swordsman who possessed a vibrant and charismatic personality, he nevertheless in his works displayed a markedly erotic fascination with death. Married and the father of two children, he created some of the most vivid and realistic depictions of homosexuality in literature. It is Mishima's encompassing of such apparent contradictions, critics note, his melding of Eastern and Western influences, and blending of modern and traditional aesthetics, that gave rise to enduring literary works that transcend cultural boundaries.

Stephen Chan (essay date September 1985)

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SOURCE: Chan, Stephen. “Mishima—Against a Political Interpretation.” Contemporary Review (September 1985): 133-35.

[In the following essay, Chan argues that Mishima concerned himself more with culture than with politics.]

Fifteen years ago the Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, died after an abortive coup attempt. This year, Paul Schrader's film of his life has been released. Already the subject of controversy, the film depicts Mishima's death not as a political one but as an indigenous expression of values—a statement of authentic culture in which the right-wing political label was incidental.

At first glance there appears some truth in this approach. Left-wing Japanese radicals have seemed as morbidly inclined and more violent than Mishima. The Japanese Red Army caused great bloodshed, and its members lived by a spartan discipline which almost mocked Mishima's. Critics of Mishima's work have invariably become commentators on his life. There are two schools of thought: one, to which Schrader belongs, stresses the primacy of cultural motivations; another which makes the plain statement that a man's political convictions, especially when sealed by his death, can be taken at face value.

Schrader's interest in things Japanese predates his cinematic career. One of his first film scripts, The Yakuza, caught brilliantly the values and code of Japanese society. Most of Schrader's films have had an other-worldly spirit. In Cat People, this was made explicit through horror. In American Gigolo he worked hard to create a mood of artificial behaviour, of short-term life-styles that either believed in nothing, or believed absolutely in an emerging, brooding and completely modern metaphysic. There is no decadence unless it has a social and cultural core.

In his film on Mishima, Schrader reveals a metaphysic which is ancient rather than modern, and one which is compulsive. Certainly Mishima's life appeared compulsive. His interest in bodybuilding and the martial arts seemed compulsive to the point of neurosis. Shortly before his death, he posed for a series of photographs, nude and with the body of a Greek god—induced through years of weight-training—depicting various forms of death. In the martial arts, he had achieved third-dan black belt levels in karate, kendo, and iaido (ceremonial swordsmanship). In all three arts, the essence of practice is to imagine an opponent whom one faces without fear of defeat or death. Eventually, this gives way to a facing of oneself and one's mortality, so that one pursues life without fear of death, expecting it rather as the culmination of training which has already overcome pain.

The concept of rehearsing for death becomes the theme of Schrader's film. The film opens with Mishima's last day—for which he had prepared the previous night in exemplary classical fashion: making passionate love to his wife and writing his final valedictory poems. From his last day the film proceeds by way of flashbacks to his earlier life, and to dramatised scenes from his last novels. Each segment concludes with prophetic allusions to his death. This is a perfectly valid way of proceeding—except, of course, an interpretation could be advanced that Mishima was intending to depict a certain degeneracy in Japanese life, and its death as a valued cultural well-spring. The reply has always been that Mishima afterwards sought to personify the death of culture.

His attempt at a coup was certainly symbolic. It is surprising how few people have made the obvious statements that his private ‘army’ was extremely small, noted for its fine tailoring more than its military capacity. His take-over of a defence force base was no more than the taking as hostage of the base commanders—who were certainly surprised, having expected Mishima and his tiny band as tea guests—and an impassioned and, often, inaudible harangue of the assembled soldiers. He urged them to reaffirm cultural values and to defeat the modern political institutions that had eroded them, particularly the post-World War II constitution imposed by the Americans. Then, without offering a programme for an uprising, he retired to the commander's office and, in front of the bound commander, committed seppuku (ritual self-disembowelling). It all seems a piece of theatre, deliberately put on for the sake of its polemic. Those who view Mishima as a political animal, however, indicate the pointed references in his last speech to the need to overthrow the constitution.

The argument against the constitution is not necessarily that its provisions are modern and guarantee liberties and equalities that are at odds with the mainstream of Japanese class traditions. Feudal distinctions had eroded and been replaced by an ersatz descendant well before World War II. The samurai ethic had been sanctified with time, but the samurai class had lost its right to wear swords decades earlier. The constitution was not vilified because it enshrined changes but because these changes were put into a constitution that had been imposed. The constitution was the immediate effect of military defeat, and symbolised a further defeat by way of cultural decline. An attack on the constitution could be political, but it could also be cultural, or merely sentimental and nostalgic.

What did Mishima want? To turn back the clock to the days of the samurai? He, himself, had benefited by Japan's modern institutions. He had been a brilliant student of jurisprudence at Tokyo University; he was hardly displeased at his fame abroad; his books were all translated into English and other languages; he was frequently interviewed by foreign literary journals and made a literary tour of the United States while still a young and promising author. He had ascetic habits but lived comfortably, surrounded by antiques—cultural artefacts. Through his books, he strove to represent the spirit of Japanese culture, not as an artefact, but as something that resided in the Japanese personality. Commentators, uncertain as to exactly how much Japanese personality could be located or defined at large, personified it in Mishima.

For Mishima, this was expressed in his writing in the form of a brutal and morbid minimalism. Beauty, good, and life were all counterposed with death—the ultimate white and black. Leading to these two colours was writing that spilled forth images in monochrome. His homosexual novel, Confessions of a Mask, ends with white and black fused: the beautiful body of a young man, the object of the protagonist's desire, bound and slashed by swords in his imagination. This is not merely the standard fare one finds in homosexual sadistic writing. It is an expression, in homosexual terms, of the opposites of beauty and violence cojoined in a form of love. ‘The Sea of Fertility’ is a title from his last works and expressed the contradiction without intervening factors. The Sea of Fertility is the name of a broad empty plain on the moon. In the imagination, there is a stark beauty there—but hardly fertility.

Contradictions are opposing forms. They are reconciled in death, in formlessness. From formlessness, new forms arise. A form of spiritual or metaphysical dialectic. But, apart from portraying this movement in his books, how far did Mishima wish to portray it in his life? There is no doubt that he had right-wing associates and sponsors. Much is made of the fact that the present Japanese prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, in his earlier days as an extreme right-wing politician, was known to Mishima. The question is whether right-wing politics was primary or incidental to his life.

There is a coincidence between Mishima's real death and his cinematic one in Schrader's film. Without any programme for a real coup d'etat, or any contingency plan in the event of the coup's (certain) failure, it was, in the literal sense, a coup de théâtre—a symbol, culminating in his death, for which he had assiduously rehearsed. One stage up from the nude photographs shortly before his death, he planned his death in powerful cinematic images. Was this a call for a political uprising, for which he had left no political guidelines, or a cultural statement of extreme intensity? If it were the former, one has no path to follow; if it were the latter, one is required to consider culture, its decline, and the concept of its rebirth, phoenix-like, through the death of one of culture's practitioners and advocates.

Altogether, by his life and literature, Mishima emerges as a man who believed in cultural values. Perhaps there is indeed no culture without politics? Insofar as Mishima was a political animal, he believed there could be no politics without culture.

Principal Works

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Hanazakari no mori [The Forest in Full Flower] (essay) 1941

Kamen no kokuhaku [Confessions of a Mask] (novel) 1949

Ai no kawaki [Thirst for Love] (novel) 1950

Kinjiki. 2 vols. [Forbidden Colors] (fiction) 1953

Yoru no himawari [Twilight Sunflower] (play) 1953

Shiosai [The Sound of Waves] (novel) 1955

Kindai nogaku shu [Five Modern No Plays] (plays) 1956

Kinkakuji [The Temple of the Golden Pavilion] (novel) 1956

Utage no ato [After the Banquet] (novel) 1960

Gogo no eikō [The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea] (novel) 1963

Sado kōshaku fujin [Madame de Sade] (play) 1965

*Death in Midsummer and Other Stories (short stories) 1966

Taiyō to tetsu [Sun and Steel] (autobiographical essay) 1968

Hōjō no umi [The Sea of Fertility: A Cycle of Four Novels; includes Haru no yuki,Homba,Akatsuko no tera and Tennin gosui] (novels) 1969-71

Haru no yuki [Spring Snow] (novel) 1969

Honba [Runaway Horses] (novel) 1969

Akatsuki no tera [The Temple of Dawn] (novel) 1970

Tennin gosui [The Decay of the Angel] (novel) 1971

*This collection includes the short story “Patriotism” (1960).

†These works comprise the tetralogy Hōjō no umi (The Sea of Fertility).

Dan P. McAdams (essay date fall 1985)

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SOURCE: McAdams, Dan P. “Fantasy and Reality in the Death of Yukio Mishima.” Biography 8, no. 4 (fall 1985): 292-317.

[In the following essay, McAdams examines the ways in which Mishima's fantasies are played out in his fiction.]

By the time the lieutenant had at last drawn the sword across to the right side of his stomach, the blade was already cutting shallow and had revealed its naked tip, slippery with blood and grease. But, suddenly stricken by a fit of vomiting, the lieutenant cried out hoarsely. The vomiting made the fierce pain fiercer still, and the stomach, which had thus far remained firm and compact, now abruptly heaved, opening wide its wound, and the entrails burst through, as if the wound too were vomiting. Seemingly ignorant of their master's suffering, the entrails gave an impression of robust health and almost disagreeable vitality as they slipped smoothly out and spilled over into the crotch. The lieutenant's head drooped, his shoulders heaved, his eyes opened to narrow slits, and a thin trickle of saliva dribbled from his mouth. The gold markings on his epaulettes caught the light and glinted …

Blood was scattered everywhere. The lieutenant was soaked in it to his knees, and he sat now in a crumpled and listless posture, one hand on the floor. A raw smell filled the room. The lieutenant, his head drooping, retched repeatedly, and the movement showed vividly in his shoulders. The blade of the sword, now pushed back by the entrails and exposed to its tip, was still in the lieutenant's right hand …

It would be difficult to imagine a more heroic sight than that of the lieutenant at this moment, as he mustered his strength and flung back his head.1

In the autumn of 1960, Yukio Mishima penned this account of the Japanese samurai rite of seppuku. The short story “Patriotism” describes in detail the heroic double suicide of Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama and his lovely bride Reiko. Spurred by the knowledge that the lieutenant was to be implicated in an unsavory political plot, the newlyweds perform the quintessential act of patriotism, leaving as their only legacy the farewell note: “Long live the Imperial Forces.” Indeed the “last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such as to make the gods themselves weep.”2

Ten years after Yukio Mishima finished “Patriotism,” he ceremoniously disemboweled himself in General Kanetoshi Mashita's office after addressing the Jieitai soldiers from the balcony at Eastern Army Headquarters in Tokyo. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four compatriots in his private right-wing army overpowered General Mashita and a group of army personnel with their samurai swords in order to stage a public exhortation to Japanese patriotism and the defense of the Emperor. After making a short speech to a hooting crowd of infantrymen, Mishima with his group retired to a back office to enact the gruesome ritual which had been rehearsed by the five for several weeks. Mishima shouted a last salute to the Emperor and then plunged the dagger deep into his own stomach. His right-hand man, Morita, whom some have suspected was Mishima's homosexual lover, then joined his master in double suicide, as the three remaining students wept and chanted a Buddhist prayer.

Since the early 1950's, ritual suicide revealed itself again and again in Mishima's writing to be a central element in a macabre constellation of themes including beauty, blood, passion, night, hero worship, homosexuality, and glorious death. The same elements prevail in the childhood and adolescent fantasies the author reports in his autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask. Mishima, furthermore, acted out many of these themes in Japanese motion pictures, and he experienced their enactment vicariously as a director of modern drama. Tied to a tree trunk, arrows piercing his naked body, Mishima even posed for a leading Japanese photographer as the bleeding martyr Saint Sebastian. (A similar portrait of the dying saint had inspired his first ejaculation.)3 In other photographs, he wore but a tiny loincloth, his splendidly muscled body glimmering with sweat and the cold, steel samurai sword leaning loyally at his side, as if waiting for the inevitable command to sear open the taut but tender flesh of its bearer.

Such is a sample of Mishima's bizarre fantasy life. The weak and eroding dam separating the waters of fantasy from the waters of reality collapsed on November 25, 1970, and the opponent waters, separated so precariously for over four decades, rushed together with a cataclysmic explosion. Within seconds, the two waters became one, and when the momentary chaos of intercourse had passed, what remained was a solitary sea—cold, still, at peace.

Who can understand Yukio Mishima? Who can make sense of a life so rich and yet so tragic, of a psyche so complex and yet so single-minded? Mishima is considered by some to be the greatest Japanese novelist of all time. His triumphant tetrology, The Sea of Fertility, is a panoramic vision of Japan in the twentieth century. Spanning eighty years from the early Taisho period to the 1960's, the four books comprising this set are brilliant evocations of a fascinating culture only superficially understood in the West. Mishima wrote over one hundred full length books which have recently been combined into a thirty-six volume set.

But Mishima was much more than a novelist. He was a playwright, a sportsman, a film actor, the founder of a private army, a family man, and a world traveler. One biographer has characterized him as the “Leonardo da Vinci of modern Japan.”4 The first to take on the challenge of systematically imposing some kind of order upon his crowded life was Mishima himself. Shortly before he killed himself, Mishima organized an exhibition devoted to his life, displayed at the Tobu department store in Tokyo. In an introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition, he wrote that he saw his life as being divided into four rivers—Writing, Theater, Body, and Action, all finally flowing into the Sea of Fertility. But Writing and Theater were never able, in Mishima's eyes, to transform him into the tragic hero of his fantasies. Rather, as the psychological analysis offered in this paper will show, it was the inevitable confluence of the River of Body and the River of Action that united fantasy and reality as the blade cut.


Ruth Benedict has identified an essential dualism in Japanese culture in her delineation of the “chrysanthemum” and the “sword”—two antithetical themes that have been held in tension throughout much of the history of this island-state.5 The chrysanthemum theme refers to the traditional Japanese preoccupation with beauty, color, and aesthetics. Modern manifestations of this influence abound in the elegant Japanese flower gardens, the still polite and very delicate lines in Japanese architecture, and Japanese mores and customs which remain courtly and refined even today. The emphasis is upon style, grace, propriety, charm, and gentility. A kind of feminine principle reigns, the roots of which go back at least as far as the courtly life of Heian Japan (9th-12th centuries). The spirit of the Heian era is documented magnificently in Lady Murasaki's eleventh-century classic The Tale of Genji. Frivolous and vacuous, the courtly life is filled with secret trysts, court intrigue, and petty wars between the sexes.

The culture of the Heian period flourished within a political framework that was decentralized and non-militaristic. The eventual rise of the spirit of the sword ultimately generated a more centralized system in which political power was monopolized by the militaristic shoguns. Within the emerging feudal society, the aristocratic fighting man on horseback became an ideal; unequivocal loyalty to one lord above all else served as his oath. The samurai ethic—bushido or the way of the warrior—proclaimed the values of personal asceticism, the glory of death in righteous battle, and the honor of seppuku, commonly called harakiri, which is suicide by the painful method of cutting open one's abdomen.6 In contrast to the chrysanthemum, the orientation of the sword was decidedly masculine.

For Mishima, the chrysanthemum and the sword represented discordant elements in his own life. He identified his own writing (The River of Writing) as a daughter of the Feminine chrysanthemum. The struggle between the influence of the chrysanthemum and the influence of the sword is poignantly depicted in Mishima's 1956 novel Temple of the Golden Pavilion. For the protagonist of the story, a Buddhist acolyte named Mizoguchi, the Golden Temple embodies the essence of eternal beauty—an immutable and abstract beauty that protects man but smothers him, as well, by insulating him from life. Beauty's stultifying effect blocks Mizoguchi's attempts to experience life with any intensity or meaning. On two occasions the vision of the Golden Temple grinds to a halt a possible sexual encounter. The second time the beauty of the woman's naked breast becomes too powerful as it transfigures itself in Mizoguchi's eyes into the Golden Temple. Finally, Mizoguchi resolves to burn down the Temple and liberate himself from its emasculating grip. As the Temple blazes, the proud acolyte leans back to enjoy a cigarette. The novel closes with the suggestion of satisfaction and affirmation: “I felt like a man who settles down for a smoke after finishing a job of work. I wanted to live.”7

Like the abstract beauty of the Temple, the words that waltzed on the pages of Yukio Mishima's novels and short stories threatened to separate their creator from “the instantaneous existence that life lets us glimpse.”8 Mishima ultimately rejected the chrysanthemum, arguing in one of his last pieces that words were by nature “corrosive.”9 Like a cancer, they ate away the flesh of human existence, leaving but an emaciated skeleton that could at best merely dream of glory. Salvation lay in the glorification of the body and the utilization of the sword in the act of destruction.


The most powerful agent shaping the early years of Yukio Mishima's life may have been his grandmother, Natsu. Natsu Nogai was a brilliant, cultured, selfish, and highly unstable woman whose grandfather was a daimyo (lord of a fief) related by marriage to the Tokugawa, the ruling family of Japan from about 1600 to 1868. Her husband, Jotaro Hiraoka, was a common man, a Walter Mitty character in a life of perennial failure, who was “absolutely unsuited for the management of a household—but an extraordinary gallant.”10 Mishima describes Natsu as “narrow-minded,” “indomitable,” and of a “wildly poetic spirit.”11 She suffered from a chronic case of cranial neuralgia.

Natsu's only son, Azusa, married Shizue Hachi, and she gave birth to her first son, Kimitake Hiraoka (pen name: Yukio Mishima) on January 14, 1925. On Kimitake's fiftieth day of life, Natsu took the infant from his mother and proceeded to incarcerate him in her darkened sickroom for the next twelve years. In his infancy, Shizue was permitted to nurse the boy once every four hours according to Natsu's rigid schedule. When Kimitake had had enough milk, Natsu promptly snatched him up and carried him back to her sickroom. In the ensuing years of childhood, Kimitake sometimes met his mother on secret rendezvous escaping ephemerally the sickroom and Natsu's watchful eye.

It appears that the relationship between Natsu and her grandson was one of extreme ambivalence for Kimitake. Natsu believed that boys were dangerous playmates so the only friends she permitted Kimitake were three older girls she carefully selected from among his cousins. Because loud sound aggravated Natsu's neuralgia, it was imperative that the young Kimitake make as little noise as possible in his play. Despite the fact that his grandmother controlled virtually his every move with an iron hand, Kimitake seemed to develop a kind of affection for the woman, and one of his brothers remembers Mishima at eleven and twelve excitedly retelling her tales.12 But there is one aspect of Kimitake's relationship with his grandmother that is surely traumatic. Natsu insisted that Kimitake give her her medicine and accompany her to the toilet when her neuralgia was complicated by stomach ulcers and a kidney disease. Sometimes her pain was so extreme that she would tear her hair and scream for Kimitake's comfort. One biographer reports that, on one of these occasions, she seized a knife and held it to her throat.13

There is little material available concerning the relationship that the young Kimitake may have formed with his father, Azusa. Perhaps, the tone of the relationship, however, is captured in a quote from the father concerning his philosophy of child rearing: “A parent has to apply pressure. You squeeze and you squeeze, and any child that collapses is better off dead.”14

Even less is known about Kimitake's early relations with his younger brother and sister. Nathan reports that he had little chance to interact with his siblings before his emancipation from his grandmother's rule at the age of twelve. Even in adolescence, Kimitake spent most of his waking hours in his room reading and writing. One sibling reports that he never knew his brother very well and that he and his sister had always considered Kimitake as a kind of guest in the house.15

Kimitake's early loneliness is probably most evident in accounts of his first six years in elementary school. A myriad of factors estranged the young boy from his peers, the most notable including his lower socioeconomic status, his recurrent illnesses, his frail physique, Natsu's restrictions upon his diet and the courses he could take, and his debilitating shyness. But Kimitake's major problem was that he had no notion of the appropriate way to behave with boys. The sedentary incarceration in Natsu's sickroom had hardly prepared him for the rough and tumble play of the pre-pubertal boy. Kimitake's placid play with his three cousins may have nurtured the growth of the gentle chrysanthemum within him, but the sword found no expression except in his fantasy.

From a cursory sketch of a few events in the early years of Kimitake Hiraoka's life, therefore, some themes that were to characterize the making of the personality of Yukio Mishima begin to emerge. From the fiftieth day of life on, Kimitake's behavior is to be controlled in virtually every detail by an omnipotent force from the outside. Spontaneity is squelched at every juncture; cycles of sleep, eating, and play are regulated with the utmost precision; and little time is parceled out for free exploration of any environment transcending the bleak walls of Natsu's sickroom. It is doubtful that anything resembling a secure bond with a mothering one is engendered. Except in feeding, the infant Kimitake receives little human contact of any kind. Natsu is not one to cuddle a child; her persistent neuralgia and hysterical disposition prevent her from filling in the vacuum of nurturance created by the dismissal of the natural mother.

At school, Kimitake the child learns quickly that he is different from everybody else. Peer rejection exacerbates the problem of loneliness. From the perspective of American psychiatrist H. S. Sullivan, Kimitake cannot propel himself out of the web of loneliness into intimacy with a chum.16 He does not know how to behave with boys and, therefore, never affirms, in the collaborative chumship of preadolescence, an essential similarity with another member of the same sex.

The real world affords little happiness for the young Kimitake. Offers of love are not reciprocated: His mother feeds him and then she is suddenly gone. The young child quickly learns that his love is not wanted so he no longer offers it. Indeed, little emotion is invested in any object or situation in the real world. A bulwark of defenses shields the child from the capricious and unfriendly forces of the outside. Azusa, in fact, relates one incident in which he sadistically picked up Kimitake as a young child and thrust him directly in front of a roaring locomotive, threatening to throw him into a ditch if he cried. But Kimitake amazingly evinced no reaction whatsoever. Azusa claims that the young boy's face remained a “No mask,” oblivious.17

In the words of the British psychologist W. R. D. Fairbairn, young Mishima is the budding schizoid personality who can remain virtually impervious to the happenings in the world around him.18 Libido is withdrawn from all external objects as Kimitake turns inward to fantasy.


Mishima's elaborate and macabre childhood fantasies are documented in the author's first autobiographical piece, Confessions of a Mask (1948). The book opens with a key statement: “For many years I could remember things seen at the time of my own birth.”19 The author later concedes the impossibility of ever really remembering one's own birth, but the fact that the young Mishima produced and perpetuated such a myth remains significant. Theory and research on infancy tell us that for the baby at birth there is essentially no differentiation made between the world and the self. In the first weeks of life, the infant is not aware that there exists anything but the “me.” Freud termed this feeling of oneness and omnipotence the “oceanic feeling,”20 claiming that humans seek to recapture this infantile experience in the illusion of religion. According to Mishima's life myth, however, Kimitake is, from the minute of birth onward, a separate entity that perceives himself and the outside world, and perceives the two as two. The myth is one of immediate isolation from one's environment—a cool detachment from, and lack of communication with, the surrounding field. Furthermore, the myth hints at a painful self-consciousness that is to haunt the protagonist repeatedly in the ensuing pages. Add an intense preoccupation with self in contradistinction to reality and the first sentence begins to paint the portrait of a narcissistic and highly introspective figure existing in sharp contrast to a world with which he has no relation.

In Confessions, Mishima writes that four early memories stand out in his childhood years: the night-soil man, the Joan of Arc picture book, the odor of sweat, and the carrying of the shrine. Each was to be played out over and over again in subsequent fantasy, the images taking on meaning anew with each imaginary restaging, “tormenting and frightening me all my life.”21 The images were later to appear with great regularity in his writing, shaping an aesthetic of blood and death that finally motivated and justified Mishima's own self-destruction.

The first memory dates from about the age of four. On his way home for supper, Kimitake observes a young man busily carrying buckets of excrement, on his nightly rounds:

Looking up at the dirty youth, I was choked by desire, thinking, “I want to change into him,” thinking, “I want to be him.” I can remember clearly that my desire had two focal points. The first was his dark blue “thigh-pullers,” the other his occupation. The close-fitting jeans plainly outlined the lower half of his body, which moved lithely and seemed to be walking toward me. An inexpressible adoration for those trousers was born in me.

… toward his occupation I felt something like a yearning for a piercing sorrow, a body-wrenching sorrow. His occupation gave me the feeling of “tragedy” in the most sensuous meaning of the word. A certain feeling as it were of “self-renunciation,” a certain feeling of indifference, a certain feeling of intimacy with danger, a feeling like a remarkable mixture of nothingness and vital power—all these feelings swarmed forth from his calling, bore down on me, and took me captive, at the age of four.22

Several dominant themes emerge for the first time in the vision of the night-soil man: hints of latent homosexuality, fascination with darkness and the night, a sensuous desire for tragedy and the “piercing sorrow” of tragic lives, and a preoccupation with dirt and the earth symbolically rooted in anality. Kimitake's inherent confusion in object relations is reflected in his sensuous feelings for a figure who he longs to be. For the solitary child who has never ventured successfully into the world of object relations before, there appears a deep and profoundly troubling confusion over the distinction between what Freud termed object cathexis (the desire to have the other) and identification (the desire to be the other).

The themes of latent homosexuality and fascination with the tragic are elaborated further in the Joan of Arc episode, also traced back to the age of four. Kimitake is enthralled with a certain page of a picture book upon which is majestically portrayed a mounted knight about to do battle with death. Kimitake longs to see the knight killed, and thus the theme of the tragic life first connected with excrement and hard labor of the earth is extended to more overtly heroic proportions in the personification of the fated knight about to die. In Mishima's symbology, excrement and the earth may signify decay and death. Kimitake's mounted knight is the same night-soil man in a different guise. In both instances the hero grapples intimately with the dark forces of Death. Mishima reports, however, that the image of his mounted hero is tarnished when he learns that “he” is Joan of Arc—a woman. The realization virtually devastates him (“I felt as though I had been knocked flat.”23), and he refuses to look at the book again.

The Joan of Arc fantasy is especially interesting in that it speaks to Mishima's developing homosexuality. Throughout his life, Mishima refused to admit to the existence of heroism or honor in the female principle (the chrysanthemum), the fact of which is instrumental in his blocking virtually any libidinal investment in a woman. In fact, there is some evidence that Mishima was unable to feel real sexual excitement in the presence of a woman. In Confessions, he tells the story of his miserable attempt at a love relationship with the beautiful Sonoko. Although his marriage of thirteen years was not an unhappy one for either Mishima or his wife Yoko (the two even produced two children), the arrangement seems to have been more a result of the social demands of a literary gallant than any kind of real libidinal investment. In 1956, Mishima decided that his social life demanded he find a wife—and fast. With the spirit he always revealed in the undertaking of any kind of new project, he began to look for a suitable mate.

Mishima deplored effeminacy in both men and women. His love objects in fantasy were brutal, strapping men of the sword. The samurai code of the sword, in fact, traditionally allowed for homosexuality among warriors. There was no contradiction between the glorification of the warrior ethic and the practice of soldiers loving other soldiers sexually.24 Even Reiko—the heroic wife in “Patriotism” who commits suicide along with her newlywed husband—establishes herself as a heroine by way of bushido—the masculine spirit of the sword dictating categorical devotion to one's master ultimately endorsed though self-annihilation. Moreover, the continual shame Mishima felt in the knowledge of his own rather effeminate body and manner plagued him for over thirty years until a rigorous exercise program transformed him into a muscle man. His extreme reaction against the Joan of Arc picture, regardless of whether the documented reaction of the four-year-old Kimitake is accurate or whether it is rather Mishima's later response superimposed upon a childhood vignette, may reflect a terrifying realization of his own underlying allegiance to the chrysanthemum and a desperate attempt to defend against its emasculating effects and ultimately to rid himself of it completely.

The third memory is one of the odor of soldiers' sweat that Kimitake oftentimes smelled as a child when the troops passed by the gate of his home. The smell “awakened my longings, overpowered me.”25 Again it appears that the tragic calling of the soldier intoxicates Kimitake. The smell is the pungent aroma of death, like the excrement of the night-soil man, always beckoning the hero towards destruction, towards a tragic reunion with earth.

The fourth memory of Mishima's childhood shows a further development in the evolution of the hero image, early manifestations taking the form of the night-soil man, the mounted knight, and the sweaty soldiers. All four versions wrestle daily with death. All converge on an evolving internalized and ideal love-object/role-model. The fourth version is embodied in a group of strapping young men parading in celebration of the Summer Festival through the streets of Tokyo, bearing a black shrine called the omikoshi. At this time, Kimitake and his grandmother are watching from the front gate of the house. The practically naked young men in the frenzied procession swagger en masse towards the gate. The shrine they carry appears as a “perfect cube of empty night, ceaselessly swaying and leaping, to and fro, up and down” while “reigning over the cloudless noonday of early summer.”26 Suddenly the swarm of men burst through the gate as Kimitake and Natsu scurry to safety. The intoxicated youths wantonly destroy the foliage of the beautiful garden while parading the shrine over every inch of the Hiraoka front yard. Kimitake perceives their faces and is both horrified and thrilled: “There was the expression on the faces of the young men carrying the shrine—an expression of the most undisguised drunkenness in the world.”27

Again, if we accept Mishima's account as fact or even if we believe it to be a somewhat hyperbolic interpretation of a childhood episode, the frenzied youths who destroy the flower garden (chrysanthemums?) are the real-life forerunners of Mizoguchi, the fictional acolyte who incinerates the Golden Temple and with it its life-effacing beauty. The youth embody the spirit of the sword, and their shameless act of destruction is a prototype of the unself-conscious experience—the pure act—flowing from the River of Action. The black shrine is symbolic of death: The youths unabashedly parade it through the streets!

The memory of this childhood event so preoccupied the fantasy life of the young Mishima that he claimed it “represented childhood itself, past and irrevocable.”28 On August 10, 1956, at the age of thirty-one, Mishima in fact translated this fantasy into real life when he donned a loincloth, cotton belly band, snug white trousers, festival jacket, and uniform headband to participate with the young men from the Jiyugaoka merchants' association in the parading of the portable shrine of the mikoshi. In an ecstatic essay written the next day, “On Intoxication,” Mishima proclaimed that he had beheld the same “divine blue sky” the others had beheld, and that he had become one both with the group and the mikoshi, all “drowned in life.” At that moment, he would later write, “I participated in the tragedy of all being.”29


The morbid themes of Kimitake's fantasies, nurtured in the fetid atmosphere of Natsu's sickroom, found an almost equally generative climate in the socio-political environment of World War II Japan. Hence, when Kimitake finally emerged from his grandmother's cave in 1937, there awaited him a cultural milieu caught up in the horror, the conquest, and the blood of a Pacific war. The effect the war years may have had upon Mishima, however, is a complex one. Although the war provided food for his insatiable fantasy life, it did not transform Mishima into a self-avowed disciple of the sword. In fact, Mishima never became a soldier of the war. Drafted into the service in 1945, Mishima proceeded to mislead, intentionally, the army doctors into reading his relatively minor bronchitis as manifestations of advanced pneumonia. Consequently, he was not inducted.

During the war years, Mishima the adolescent tries desperately to develop some distance on fantasy and to live for the first time in-the-world. A tension exists between the budding realization that he is fundamentally different from all his peers and the desperate desire to be the same. The differences become apparent in many aspects of his life at school. Mishima began to establish himself as the premier writer at the Peer School, while his colleagues settled into mediocrity. He remained sickly and emotionally withdrawn while his male compatriots proved themselves outgoing and robust in both work and play. And he was not aroused by the opposite sex whereas his male peers could think of nothing else.

The similarities were not so easily discerned for the young Mishima. He was encouraged when he finally learned that all of the other boys regularly masturbated, too. Here was a point where he was completely identical with them. But, as he writes in Confessions, “in my state of autohypnosis I overlooked the fact that, in spite of the identical nature of the physical action, there was a profound difference so far as its mental objects were concerned.”30 The other boys masturbated with images of naked women in mind. Mishima envisioned St. Sebastian!

In Chapter 3 of Confessions, Mishima tells the story of the contortions and convolutions he undergoes in an attempt to discover sameness. In the stage play that is adolescence, he continues to audition for and then abandon role after role in order to identify himself with the other characters in the drama. The adolescent in Confessions even goes so far as to read a host of books—both fiction and non-fiction—with the express purpose of finding appropriate roles to play, usual responses to make, the normal way to live as a teenager. Behind the wild sampling of alternative roles, the adolescent-as-actor searches for a unifying principle that gives meaning to the diverse roles he plays, that unites them to provide continuity of self from situation to situation and over time. This identity problem is epitomized in the futile attempts of the hero in Confessions to muster up sexual desire for the lovely Sonoko.

The interpersonal theory of H. S. Sullivan is critical to an understanding of the profundity of Mishima's loneliness as an adolescent. Sullivan's theory bespeaks three fundamental dialectics which in general fashion organize the interpersonal experiences of the individual throughout the life cycle.31 Each can be seen as a general dynamism, or recurrent pattern of energy transformation. The three can be illustrated as follows:

Anxiety Loneliness Lust Dissociation
Security Intimacy Lust Integration

The first dynamism to arise in development is the anxiety-security polarity. Sullivan's theorem of reciprocal emotion maintains that anxiety is transmitted from the mother to the baby through the process of empathy. This interpersonal tension is experienced as unpleasant, eventually leading to the formation of the self-system which is an organization of experience for avoiding anxiety connected with the mothering one.32 In Mishima's case, we may hypothesize that in the very peculiar feeding situation he experiences as an infant, a profound and consistent anxiety is transmitted from Shizue to her kidnapped son. In a Sullivanian framework, therefore, Kimitake's elaborate fantasy life is the functional equivalent of the self-system in so far that it reduces the anxiety connected with the interaction with the mothering ones—both Shizue and Natsu. In a sense, the young Kimitake opts out of the anxiety-security dynamism through escape to reverie. Anxiety is avoided, but interpersonal security is sacrificed as well. The substitution of an absorbing fantasy life for the self-system precludes the development of any kind of “organization of experience,” and renders the child, without a personification of self, virtually helpless in interpersonal relations.

As emphasis is shifted to the second dynamism, the child eventually finds the phenomenological experience of loneliness so terrifying that he propels himself out of the self-system, at the risk of extreme anxiety, into a series of risk-taking ventures designed to attain intimacy. The fear of loneliness reaches its peak in the pre-adolescent period in which it becomes imperative that the child form a close chumship with a member of the same sex. It is essential that the chum be as much like the child as possible, and that the two share their every secret in an affirmation of their essential sameness. The intimacy attained in this kind of pregenital utopia is characterized as a collaborative relation with another in which the needs of the other become as important, or nearly as important, as one's own. Communication between the two chums approaches what Sullivan terms the syntactic: Through constant exchange, their symbol systems become commensurate.

In Mishima's case, a profound loneliness propels him out of his fantasy life into the arena of the adolescent on stage. He seeks to affirm a desperately desired sameness with others but seeks to achieve this goal not through intimacy but rather through mimicry and the sampling of roles. If Sullivan is right when he claims that identity can only evolve in a context of interpersonal relations and that a key factor in the fostering of such development is the collaborative relation of intimate chums, then Mishima's attempt to consolidate an identity in a social-emotional vacuum is doomed from the very beginning.

But the situation becomes a bit more complex. With the eruption of the third dynamism and the concomitant problems of lust, Mishima's heretofore latent homosexuality takes a more active form, ultimately revealing a narcissism so extreme as to render the attainment of intimacy, the affirmation of sameness, and the consolidation of identity goals eternally unattainable in his life. The complications arise with the entrance of the fourteen-year-old Mishima's first love object in the real world—a sixteen-year-old boy named Omi:

A raw carnal feeling blazed up within me, branding my cheeks. I felt myself staring at him with crystal-clear eyes …

For me this was the first love of my life. And if such a blunt way of speaking be forgiven, it was clearly a love closely connected with desires of the flesh.33

Omi is hardly the Sullivanian chum arriving on the scene a couple of years too late. With reference to Omi, there is no chance in Mishima's eyes for any kind of collaborative intimacy to be formed such that his essential similarity with a member of the same sex can be confirmed. The relationship in fact works against the quest for sameness. Omi is everything Mishima is not in reality. Additionally, he is everything Mishima wishes he could be in his private fantasy. Omi is indeed the night-soil man, the mounted knight, the sweaty soldier, and the frenzied shrine-bearer. He is the tragic hero incarnate, and he exists in the real world. Like his precursors in fantasy, he is the paragon on un-self-conscious, pure action. Only a reading of the second chapter of Confessions can adequately convey to the reader the stark contrast between the sickly and cerebral youth that is the fourteen-year-old Mishima and his robust and primordial love object. The following is a simple breakdown of what he and his love object represent to Mishima at the tender age of fourteen:

Mishima Omi
weakness strength
thought action
consciousness instinct
naivete experience
cultural primordial
mind body
sickness health
artificial natural
conformity rebellion
domestic wild
chrysanthemum sword

To accentuate the distinction further, the fourteen-year-old Mishima idealizes Omi, refusing to acknowledge the dissonant cognitions and perceptions that do not fit exactly the “perfect, flawless illusion of him.” Mishima cannot bear the thought that Omi is a self-conscious, thinking person like himself:

How could anyone have expected such a person to have a secret, inner life? All one could hope to find in him was the pattern of that forgotten perfection which the rest of us have lost in some far distant past.34

As Omi becomes a personification of an internal object created in the fantasy of a young boy imprisoned in his grandmother's sickroom, the same confusion between cathexis and identification that characterized Kimitake's feelings for his internal tragic heroes also begins to color Mishima's love for the sixteen-year-old boy who is so painfully external. The first sign of this conflict is revealed when Mishima is observing his lover exercising on the horizontal bar in gym class. All the boys observing are thrilled by the “extravagant abundance of life force,” the “ill-humored, unconcerned exuberance” Omi radiates as he performs his flawless routine.35 For Mishima, it is as if Omi's flesh, infected with this violent power, “had been put on this earth for no other reason than to become an insane human-sacrifice,”36 and, hence, that familiar intimacy with death that so characterizes the tragic hero is projected onto Omi. The protagonist responds to the scene with an erection. He blushes. But then, something goes wrong. Jealousy invades the emotional realm, and the protagonist finds that he can no longer love Omi. Omi is the sword, and that stark reality infuriates Mishima. He is compelled to abandon his cathexis for Omi, and, as we will soon see, to become his own lover.

After the break-up with Omi, Mishima writes of a most astounding daydream in which the protagonist of Confessions repeatedly indulges. In a most sensuous prose, Mishima describes a funeral feast in which a naked young boy is tied to a platter and eaten alive. Before he carves the breast, the protagonist plants a lingering kiss on the lips of his muscular classmate. As he then thrusts the fork into his beloved's heart, a fountain of blood strikes him full in the face.

The fantasy manifests a well-known theme in Freud's “Mourning and Melancholia,” revealing the regression of cathexis to identification in response to object loss.37 In this case identification is symbolically represented in the phenomenon of incorporation—literally the “taking in” of the object in the classical totem meal. In Totem and Taboo, Freud writes of the slaying of the Primeval Father by the sons and their subsequent eating of his body representing an identification with the father, a resolution of the Oedipal Complex, the beginnings of the superego, and the establishment of a new order.38 In Mishima, the synthesis of “Mourning and Melancholia” and Totem and Taboo takes the following form: The unidentified boy is Omi, the love object who is lost because of and whose loss furthermore results in internalization. The matching of an external object with the childhood fantasy of the tragic hero and the “reinternalization” of that flesh-and-blood object (not merely a fantasy product) results in an identification with Omi and a setting up of the internalized object as a kind of ego ideal. In Mishima's symbology “blood” equals “truth.” The blood of Omi strikes the protagonist full in the face. On some level, the truth is apprehended: “I must become like Omi,” and in the process integrate the earliest fantasies of the night-soil man with real action of the body.


In adulthood, Mishima's successes as a writer and actor do not erase his desire to become like Omi. The first step to fulfilling the identification is a transformation of body. In Sun and Steel, he writes,

Specifically, I cherished a romantic impulse toward death, yet at the same time I required a strictly classical body as its vehicle; a peculiar sense of destiny made me believe that the reason why my romantic impulse toward death remained unfulfilled in reality was the immensely simple fact that I lacked the necessary physical qualifications. A powerful, tragic frame and sculpturesque muscles were indispensible in a romantically noble death. Any confrontation between weak, flabby flesh and death seemed to me absurdly inappropriate. Longing at eighteen for any early demise, I felt myself unfitted for it. I lacked, in short, the muscles suitable for a dramatic death. And it deeply offended my romantic pride that it should be this unsuitability that had permitted me to survive the war.39

In 1952, Mishima began a physical fitness program which eventually included swimming, boxing, and weight lifting. By 1955, his training regimen had advanced to three strenuous workouts a week, and until his death in 1970 Mishima was virtually obsessed with physical exercise. Over this period, he transformed himself from frail weakling to a muscular body-builder. For Mishima, physical exercise was an intoxicating activity that not only prepared his body for a glorious death but also provided an ephemeral epiphany of death:

Ceaseless motion, ceaseless violent deaths, ceaseless escape from cold objectivity—by now, I could no longer live without such mysteries. And—needless to say—within each mystery there lay a small imitation of death.40

Physical exercise corresponds to Mishima's River of the Body, but it is only via the River of Action that the heroism of glorious death can be accomplished. Though exercise is violent action affording epiphanies of death, only seppuku can make glorious death a reality. Indeed, Mishima conceived of seppuku as pure, unself-conscious action. It is the confrontation with death that the tragic hero yearns for, the confrontation which indeed defines his life cycle as “tragic.” It is the instantaneous identification with Omi that is but approximated along the River of Body. The act is non-reflexive. It occurs once and only once, and it leaves no room for after-the-fact rumination, no room for reflection. Neither thought nor words can obfuscate the reality of an action that once and for all obliterates thinking and writing. Pure, unself-conscious action. The night-soil man bearing his excrement. The shrinebearers in the noonday sun. Omi on the horizontal bar.

In the 1960's, Mishima finds an appropriate context in which to perform the pure action which is to synthesize reality and fantasy. The context is a political one. But the “patriotism” he ostensibly adheres to during the last decade of his life represents a personal rather than a political phenomenon. The right-wing extremism so vociferously advocated during his last years is an ideological vehicle for a noble death. Mishima reveals little interest in politics before 1960. Likewise, his call for the revival of Japanese patriotism in the 60's is an exhortation and a eulogy for a lost ideal of heroism, and a preparation for his own fulfillment of that ideal, but it is not a political argument per se:

For every action there must be a reaction. And where does that reaction come from? It comes from your opponent. Without an opponent there is no point to action. Well, I was very much in need of an opponent and I settled on communism. It's not as if Communists had attacked my children or had set my house on fire. I have very little reason really. I simply chose communism as an opponent, because I needed an opponent to provoke me to action.41

In December of 1966, Mishima meets Bandai and Nakatsuji, both self-styled “neo-nationalists.” Although neither of these two men has an appetite for glorious death in battle, they eventually introduce Mishima to other young men who do. After enlisting in the Army Self-Defense Force (ASDF) and subjecting himself to forty-six days of basic training, Mishima proposes to a student group that it is time to take political action. He conceives and creates a civilian army—named the “Tatenokai” or Shield Society—to aid the ASDF should it be obliged to combat aggression from the political Left. The creation of the Tatenokai and Mishima's eventual use of the group as a vehicle for seppuku have their cultural antecendents in a long line of Japanese folk tales and historical vignettes, the most famous of which is probably the story of the “forty-seven ronin” (masterless samurai warriors). Set in the golden period of the Tokugawa regime, the story tells of the ceremonial disembowelment of one Asano—lord and master of the forty-seven—whose suicide is punishment for a petty crime and a means of redeeming honor after being publicly humiliated by a corrupt official of the court. The masterless forty-seven avenge the death of Asano by killing the venal official and many of his samurai. They are subsequently proclaimed heroes by the people, and after due consideration, the authorities permit the ronin to atone for their offense and preserve their honor by following the example of their master and committing seppuku.42,43

Mishima's Tatenokai is comprised of students and office workers dedicated to the defense of the Emperor, at all costs. It is a standby army that is only to be mobilized in what Mishima likes to term “the final, desperate battle.”44 The final battle, however, is in reality a psychological one; the Tatenokai a “therapeutic” tool. But why does Mishima need the tool? Is it only to give the illusion of waging a battle with a menacing opponent? In Sun and Steel, Mishima himself attempts an answer:

Only through the group, I realized—through sharing the suffering of the group—could the body reach that height of existence that the individual alone could never attain. And for the body to reach that level at which the divine might be glimpsed, a dissolution of the individual was necessary. The tragic quality of the group was also necessary—the quality that constantly raised the group out of the abandon and torpor into which it was prone to lapse, leading it on to ever-mounting shared suffering, and so to death—which meant, of course, that it must be a community of warriors …45

It seems curious, however, that one who has perennially conceived of himself as separated from communion with the world should in his mid-forties suddenly find meaning in interpersonal interaction within a new-found community. Mishima writes that in partaking of the shared suffering of the group he becomes one with the group. Individuality melts away. The integrity of the ego is surrendered in light of a more transpersonal goal. On the last page of Sun and Steel, he almost convinces us:

The pounding of the heart communicated itself to the group; we shared the same swift pulse. Self-awareness by now was as remote as the distant rumor of the town. I belonged to them, they belonged to me; the two formed an unmistakable “us.” To belong—what more intense form of existence could there be? Our small circle of oneness was a means to a vision of that vast, dimly gleaming circle of oneness. And—all the while foreseeing that this imitation of tragedy was, in the same way as my own narrow happiness, condemned to vanish with the wind, to resolve itself into nothing more than muscles that simply existed—I had a vision where something that, if I were alone, would have resolved into muscles and words, was held fast by the power of the group and led me away to a far land, whence there would be no return. It was, perhaps, the beginning of my placing reliance on others, a reliance that was mutual; and each of us, by committing himself to this immeasurable power, belonged to the whole.46

An implacable narcissism, however, runs throughout this paean to the god of community. For Mishima, the group is not comprised of separate and unique individuals interacting with one another in view of a common good. The group interacts as a whole with Mishima, and Mishima with the group. “I belonged to them, they belonged to me; the two formed an unmistakable ‘us.’” There exists the unique Mishima and the collective other; the two exist in a relation, for sure, but it is a relation of individual-to-group, instead of individual-to-individual within the context of a group. The distinction is crucial. It points to a false sense of community which Mishima holds up as a replacement for lifelong isolation and narcissism. But the isolation, the painful separateness which manifests itself even in the first sentence of Confessions, doggedly remains. The Tatenokai is the creation of one individual who seeks to use the group for the fulfillment of his own narcissism. Like Jahweh in the Old Testament, he does not live in the world he has created, but exists apart from it and above it. The orientation is “field-independent,” non-contextual. Mishima, in a sense, operates outside the context of the group—the field—while using the group, when appropriate, to expedite an individual quest. Mishima instructs the Tatenokai to disband once he is dead. With the fulfillment of the creator's personal ideal, the created group ceases to have a raison d'être.


Mishima's community of warriors—the Tatenokai—is thus a vehicle for his own narcissistic quest to complete a true identification with a tragic hero personified in Omi. In dealing with this group, Mishima operates, as always, in what David Bakan would describe as the agentic rather than the communal mode of human existence. Indeed, the striking parallels between Mishima's life and Bakan's conceptualization of unmitigated agency necessitate a further consideration of Bakan's theory as a way of concluding this psychological examination of the death of Yukio Mishima.

In The Duality of Human Existence, Bakan writes:

I have adopted the terms agency and communion to characterize two fundamental modalities in the existence of living forms, agency for the existence of an organism as an individual, and communion for the participation of the individual in some larger organism of which the individual is a part. Agency manifests itself in the formation of separations; communion in the lack of separations. Agency manifests itself in isolation, alienation, and aloneness; communion in contact, openness, and union. Agency manifests itself in the urge to master; communion in non-contractual cooperation.47

Bakan's conceptualizations of agency and communion are necessarily general and interdisciplinary. Agency and communion are underlying principles, themes, if you will, which can be applied in the understanding of all living forms. In the context of a psychobiography, therefore, they can be applied as underlying modes of existence which organize the data of the human life cycle.

Mishima, then, personifies unmitigated agency. According to Bakan, the agentic mode is field-independent, non-contextual, and individualistic. It has decidedly masculine overtones. If its power is not mitigated by the communal principle of living forms, it proves self-destructive. Like the cancer cell which develops without regard to the intercellular context in which it is embedded, the agentic principle may wax so potent as to manifest itself without regard to the communal context, totally usurping the power of communion and ultimately destroying the organism—be that organism a sub-human form of life, a human individual, or a society.

Bakan delineates a number of major themes of unmitigated agency and illustrates them through an analysis of the mythical figure of Satan, who exists as a projection by Western men and women of the agentic principle upon an archetypal image. Three key themes are separation, mastery, and to behold that which has been denied. Each takes on a trenchant meaning in the life of Yukio Mishima. The notion of separation is central to the Satan myth. Satan is a fallen angel who is at one time in relation with God but whose individualism (pride) leads to a split in the deity and a casting out of the rebel. Although themes of separation abound in all human lives, they appear to be unusually salient and profound in the life of Mishima. As has been mentioned above, the first sentence of Confessions begins to paint the picture of a painfully self-conscious and isolated individual who perceives the world and himself as separate and irreconcilable. At the age of fifty days, Kimitake is separated from his biological mother and cast into the sickroom of Natsu. His father reports that in early childhood, Kimitake has already separated himself from reality and retreated to the world of fantasy and introspection. His brother and sister report that even after Natsu releases him in adolescence, Kimitake always seems different from the rest of the family. He separates himself from his siblings by locking himself in his room to write and study. His frail health and physique are instrumental in separating him from his peers in elementary school, as are his gloomy mood and bashfulness. In adolescence, he searches for sameness but rejects all roles and role models. His ability to separate himself from the “stage of adolescence” and observe the frantic enactment of scripts and roles of the various actors, while swearing “unconditional loyalty to the stage manager [himself] of the play called adolescence,” is uncanny, if not schizoid. Indeed, separation is the dominant theme in Fairbairn's schizoid personality whose ego is so wrought with splits as to be separated from itself. The schizoid's inability to offer his love to external objects separates him from the outside world and renders Bakan's communion an impossibility.

In Sun and Steel, Mishima writes that the most debilitating separation in his life is his early separation from his own body. By withdrawing into fantasy or engaging in writing, he isolates himself from the language of his body and fails to appreciate its potential for both life and glorious death. Although he eventually begins the body-building program, the separation seems to persist. The River of Writing and the River of Body do not seem to flow together at any point. Aspects of Mishima's life have a way of remaining autonomous and field-independent, separate agents in and of themselves. As he plans his death, he continues to write The Decay of the Angel, undaunted, undistracted. He sends the last chapter of this fourth book of his triumphant tetrology to the publisher on the morning that he makes the trip to General Mashita's office!

Mastery is the second theme of agency. In the New Testament, Satan is referred to as “the prince of the world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11) and “the god of the world” (II Corinthians 4:4), titles denoting a mastery of the secular world which has characteristically been attributed throughout history to the projected Satan. The ego function of mastery is subsumed under such overarching rubrics as “ego strength,” “coping,” and “competence.” Bakan also connects agentic mastery with D. C. McClelland's notion of achievement motivation which is conceived as a drive for attaining success or getting ahead within a competitive context with reference to a standard of excellence.48 In the Faustian spirit, the person high in need for achievement may seek to master the secular world and, in a sense, make it his own. In The Achieving Society, McClelland looks to the mythical figure of Hermes as an embodiment of the spirit of achievement motivation. Hermes is an entrepreneur who devises ingenious skills to get ahead in the world, the craftsman and trickster who is born in the morning, constructs and performs the lyre at noon, and steals Apollo's cattle in the evening. McClelland relates the following corollary themes in the Hermes myth with high need for achievement: travel, upward mobility, athletic prowess, efficient use of time, and trickery and dishonesty.

Although a good deal of supportive data have been left out of this analysis, it is a fact that Mishima does exercise a tremendous amount of mastery over his environment. Mishima's need for achievement seems to reach dizzying heights, as manifested in an insatiable competitive spirit that runs throughout his life as a writer and as a man of the sword, rigorous self-imposed standards of excellence that he applies to both his writing and his body-building, and in an extraordinary efficiency in the use of his time which enables him to become Japan's most prolific novelist, a playwright, an actor, a sportsman, a soldier, and erudite scholar extensively versed in the writings of both East and West. Like McClelland's entrepreneur, Mishima is well-traveled (seven round-the-world trips), upwardly mobile, and an excellent athlete. His mastery is even evident in his ability to control other people. From scratch, he creates a civilian army dedicated to the defense of the Emperor and is able to use that army for his own psychological fulfillment. The Tatenokai is a frightening tribute to one man's uncanny ability to master and manipulate both the physical and the interpersonal environment.

Drawing upon the works of Freud, Fliess, Weber, Erikson, and N. O. Brown, Bakan makes the connection between agentic mastery of the Satan myth and anality. (It is interesting to note that anality is also a theme in the Hermes myth.) Characteristics such as thrift, methodicalness, punctuality, reliability, and orderliness have been noted in the psychoanalytic literature as associated with the anal personality, essentially the characteristics Weber identified when he documented the association between the capitalistic spirit and the Protestant work ethic.49 In their treatments of the life of Martin Luther, both Erikson50 and Norman Brown51 argue for an intrinsic connection between the Protestant illumination and anality. (Luther wrote, “This knowledge the Holy Spirit gave me on the privy in the tower.”)52 Finally, McClelland has connected the achievement motive with the entrepreneurial spirit of traditional capitalism, claiming that the achievement motive can be seen as an intervening variable arising out of the assertiveness training historically characteristic of the relationship between Protestant mothers and their male offspring and connecting Protestantism with the resultant rise of the entrepreneurial spirit and capitalism.

Given Mishima's exceedingly high need for achievement, his agentic mastery of the world, and the dreams of his childhood in which the tragic hero first manifests himself as the night-soil man, it appears that the issue of anality is another salient theme in Mishima's life. More specifically, feces represent the concrete part of the body which is closest to death. In “normal” development, claims Bakan, this apprehension of death is repressed so that the individual can face life and master it. Because he cannot repress death in his early years, however, Mishima is unable to affirm life and cannot at this time begin the business of mastering the real world. Feces are the first symbol of death in his fantasy, a symbol that becomes an inextricable part of the thematic constellation surrounding the tragic hero. Mishima's preoccupation with death causes him to immerse himself in his fantasy world. This withdrawal from reality is indeed exacerbated by the cold and morbid interpersonal milieu in which he finds himself captive for the first twelve years of his life.

I would suggest, however, that Omi jolts the fourteen-year-old Kimitake out of his shell of fantasy. Omi is the tragic hero in real life. He is the epitomization of the agentic. To become Omi and to have him (both to identify with and to cathect the object) represents for Mishima a mastery over death. This goal becomes his definition of fulfillment, and with the awakening of the idea that such a goal may indeed be attainable in reality, Mishima turns to the real world and begins to master it, agentically.

The third theme of agency is a paradoxical one because it denotes the renunciation of agency in the process of healing. To behold that which has been denied is to gaze upon those elements which agency has rendered separate (repressed) and by beholding them anew to undo the evil (pathological) action of unmitigated agency. In psychoanalysis, the unearthing of repressed psychic material serves as a prototype of this potentially salutary phase of the agentic, a phase in which agency is undone. In order to bring about the healing however, the surrender of mastery and control to free association in therapy is essential. Understanding replaces agentic knowledge, and the patient loses the control of his ego to regain it anew.

For Mishima, to behold that which has been denied is first to behold the body as it moves in violent exercise (the River of Body) and second to behold one's own death in seppuku (the River of Action). In the latter, one can see the glory of the tragic hero in action. Mishima describes his longing to see:

The apple certainly exists, but to the core this existence as yet seems inadequate; if words cannot endorse it, then the only way to endorse it is with the eyes. Indeed, for the core the only sure mode of existence is to exist and to see at the same time. There is only one method of solving this contradiction. It is for a knife to be plunged deep into the apple so that it is split open and the core is exposed to the light—to the same light, that is, as the surface skin. Yet then the existence of the cut apple falls into fragments; the core of the apple sacrifices existence for the sake of seeing.53

At the moment the knife cuts, the core beholds that which has been denied. Healing and self-destruction are simultaneous.

At the moment of death, Mishima completes the identification with Omi. He becomes the tragic hero. But he also completes the cathexis of the tragic hero. In Sun and Steel, Mishima writes that the moment of identification with the tragic hero—seppuku—is supremely erotic as well:

… the moment of death, the moment when, even without being seen, the fiction of being seen and the beauty of the object are permitted. Of such is the beauty of the suicide squad, which is recognized as beauty not only in the spiritual sense but, by men in general, in an ultra erotic sense also.54

The confusion between wanting to be and wanting to have the love object which is first manifested in Kimitake's feelings for the night-soil man and later revealed in his relationship with Omi surfaces again at the moment of death. Identification and object cathexis are never sorted out in the life of Yukio Mishima. And as he fashions himself into the physical image of Omi through fifteen years of rigorous body-building and seeks to capture the pure, noonday spirit of his lover in the life of the sword, Mishima's cathexis for an internalized object becomes self-cathexis. If he becomes Omi, he must have himself. In the thrusting of the sword into his own stomach he becomes simultaneously the lover and the beloved, the intrusive and the incorporative, the phallus and the vagina. Seppuku becomes the agentic act per excellence as the completely isolated individual finds that his mate in the act of sexual union must be himself.


  1. Yukio Mishima, “Patriotism,” in Yukio Mishima, Death in Midsummer and other Stories. New York: New Directions, 1966, 114-115.

  2. Ibid., p. 93.

  3. Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask. New York: New Directions, 1958, p. 41.

  4. John Nathan, Mishima: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1975, p. 7.

  5. Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. New York: Meridian World, 1946.

  6. Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan: The Story of a Nation. New York: Knopf, 1974, p. 44.

  7. Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. New York: Berkeley Medallion Books, 1959, p. 285.

  8. Ibid., p. 145.

  9. Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel. New York: Grove Press, 1970.

  10. John Nathan, Mishima: A Biography, p. 7.

  11. Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, p. 4-5.

  12. John Nathan, Mishima: A Biography, p. 18.

  13. Ibid., 18-19.

  14. Ibid., p. 23.

  15. Ibid., 24-25.

  16. Harry Stack Sullivan, The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, New York: Norton, 1953.

  17. John Nathan, Mishima: A Biography, p. 14.

  18. W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, An Object Relations Theory of Personality. New York: Basic Books, 1952.

  19. Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, p. 1.

  20. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents. In James Strachey (Ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 21. London: Hogarth, 1961. (Originally published in 1930).

  21. Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, p. 8.

  22. Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, 8-9.

  23. Ibid., p. 12.

  24. Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan: The Story of a Nation, p. 25.

  25. Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, p. 13.

  26. Ibid., p. 31.

  27. Ibid., p. 33.

  28. Ibid., p. 28.

  29. John Nathan, Mishima: A Biography, p. 128.

  30. John Nathan, Mishima: A Biography, p. 25.

  31. George W. Goethals, “The Evolution of Sexual and Genital Intimacy: A Comparison of the Views of Erik H. Erikson and Harry Stack Sullivan,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 4 (1976): 529-544.

  32. Harry Stack Sullivan, The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, p. 166.

  33. Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, p. 61.

  34. Ibid., p. 63.

  35. Ibid., p. 78.

  36. Ibid., p. 78.

  37. Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia.” In James Strachey (Ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 14. London: Hogarth, 1957. (Originally published in 1917).

  38. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo. In James Strachey (Ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 13: London: Hogarth, 1958. (Originally published in 1913).

  39. Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel, 27-28.

  40. Ibid., p. 76.

  41. John Nathan, Mishima: A Biography, p. 241.

  42. H. Paul Varley, Japanese Culture. London: Faber & Faber, 1973.

  43. Takie Sugiyama Lebra, Japanese Patterns of Behavior. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1976.

  44. Ibid., p. 231.

  45. Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel, p. 87.

  46. Ibid., p. 88.

  47. David Bakan, The Duality of Human Existence: Isolation and Communion in Western Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966, 14-15.

  48. David C. McClelland, The Achieving Society. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1961.

  49. Ibid., 301-346.

  50. Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther. New York: Norton, 1958.

  51. Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History, Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1959.

  52. David Bakan, The Duality of Human Existence: Isolation and Communion in Western Man, p. 84.

  53. Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel, 65-66.

  54. Ibid., p. 55.

Alphonso Lingis (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Lingis, Alphonso. “Seppuku.” In Literature as Philosophy, Philosophy as Literature, edited by Donald G. Marshall, pp. 277-94. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Lingis explores the significance of Mishima's ritual suicide in his writing and overall system of thought.]

Yukio Mishima found himself in words. Consumed by words.

“Any art that relies on words makes use of their ability to eat away—of their corrosive function—just as etching depends on the corrosive power of nitric acid. … It might be more appropriate, in fact, to liken their action to that of excess stomach fluids that digest and gradually eat away the stomach itself” (Sun and Steel, trans. John Bester [Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1970], pp. 8-9).

If words can be the medium of artistry—and Mishima was a master of words at a prodigiously early age, publishing his first novel at the age of thirteen—it is because words are a medium that reduces reality to abstraction. In psychoanalytic terms, a medium that displaces the libido from pleasure-surfaces to phallic objects, idealities or absences. Words fix objects, objectives, termini. They themselves die away at these termini.

In doing so they have the ability to eat away at, disintegrate, time. Prisoners under death sentence, we have to wait for the end, for the moment when the gates will be opened and we will step forth to do what we have to do, each of us: go face our death, ourselves, with all our own strength and weakness. But meantime we have to wait, twenty-four more hours, twenty-four more days, twenty-four more years.

It is this void of the present progressive tense with which [words] deal. … [I]n marking the void, [they] dye it as irrevocably as the gay colors and designs of Yuzen fabrics are fixed once they are rinsed in the clear waters of Kyoto's river, and in doing so consume the void completely moment by moment, becoming fixed in each instant, where they remain. Words are over as soon as they are spoken, as soon as they are written. Through the accumulation of these “endings,” through the moment-to-moment rupture of life's sense of continuity, words acquire a certain power. At the very least, they diminish to some degree the overwhelming terror of the vast white walls in the waiting room where we await the arrival of the physician, the absolute. And in exchange for the way in which, by marking off each moment, they ceaselessly chop up life's sense of continuity, they act in a way that seems at least to translate the void into a substance of a kind.


This verbal existence, this corroded, castrated, decomposing verbal existence, comes to long for the flesh; this word longs for incarnation.

The body-mind split is not simply a categorical distinction made within discourse, in particular within Platonic, metaphysical discourse. Discourse posits the body as its ideal opposite. But first, what is meant—what is first meant—by body? The body that arises as the ideal of discursive existence, the body that the one who finds himself in words longs for, can be summed up, Mishima says, in taciturnity and beauty of form. This body-fetish or body-ideal is counterposited to the negativity of words as “existence.”

Mishima found that the more one finds oneself in words the more one idealizes the body, the more one seeks the body with the words. The sensations die away, the words fade out as soon as they are proffered or imagined, leaving the mind in the presence of the signified, the ideal. The nitric acid, after having eaten away the copper plate, corrodes itself. With words one constitutes ideal objects, in Husserl's terminology; one constructs fictions, in Mishima's. Husserl, however, identified these ideal identities with the reality of the phenomena. Husserl did not really bracket metaphysics but, Derrida says, formulated its structure most rigorously; Mishima became not a metaphysician but a man of letters—but the difference is perhaps only a distinctio formalis a parte mentis.

My composition teacher would often show his displeasure with my work, which was innocent of any words that might be taken as corresponding to reality. It seems that I had an unconscious presentiment of the subtle, fastidious laws of words, and was aware of the necessity of avoiding as far as possible coming into contact with reality via words if one were to profit from their positive corrosive function and escape their negative aspect—if, to put it more simply, one was to maintain the purity of words. I knew instinctively that the only possibility was to maintain a constant watch on the corrosive action lest it suddenly come up against some object that it might corrode.


Constantly aware of the corrosive effect of the words, Mishima used words positively only to construct fictions, vigilant always to avoid touching reality with words. This practice maintained reality, and the body, as an ideal region at an absolute distance from words. And this ideal in turn gave its telos to the only possible positive usage of words; the ideal in the verbal arts must lie solely in the imitation of the formal beauty of the taciturn and statuesque body. It is what made Mishima a classicist in literature.

But what was it that drove Mishima to words? What was it that drove him to find himself, in the corrosion, the castration, the disintegration of words? The world, whose shrouds were lifted by the sun.

My first—unconscious—encounter [with the sun] was in the summer of the defeat, in the year 1945. A relentless sun blazed down on the lush grass of that summer that lay on the borderline between the war and the postwar period—a borderline, in fact, that was nothing more than a line of barbed wire entanglements, half broken down, half buried in the summer weeds, tilting in all directions. I walked in the sun's rays, but had no clear understanding of the meaning they held for me.

Finespun and impartial, the summer sunlight poured down prodigally on all creation alike. The war ended, yet the deep green weeds were lit exactly as before by the merciless light of noon, a clearly perceived hallucination stirring in a slight breeze; brushing the tips of the leaves with my fingers, I was astonished that they did not vanish at my touch.

That same sun, as the days turned to months and the months to years, had become associated with a pervasive corruption and destruction. In part, it was the way it gleamed so encouragingly on the wings of planes leaving on missions, on forests of bayonets, on the badges of military caps, on the embroidery of military banners; but still more, far more, it was the way it glistened on the blood flowing ceaselessly from the flesh, on the silver bodies of flies clustering in wounds. Holding sway over corruption, leading youth in droves to its death in tropical seas and countrysides, the sun lorded it over that vast rusty-red ruin that stretched away to the distant horizon.


It was about the year that Mishima was writing those words that I, one evening, went to a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion with a friend. When it was over, we stood outside the hall, in the night, with the epic depiction of the crucifixion of God still thundering about us, the powers of the orchestra writhing with the storm clouds, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes with which all nature had, in Bach's conception, agonized over the death of its creator. And then my friend, who is Dutch, said to me how alien all that had become to the Europe he had fled. He had been in primary school, in second grade, when the Nazi blitzkrieg overran the Netherlands. During the first years, Nazi authorities were irreproachably correct with the Hollanders, whom they regarded not as a conquered people but as Low Germans being reunited into Greater Germany; only the Jews were in danger. In the small town where my friend lived, one merchant's home was a station of the underground railway through which Jewish children, hair bleached, were passed secretly out of the Netherlands on the way to southern France. The merchant's son occasionally carried messages on his bicycle, the merchant and his accomplices thinking no one would think to suspect this third-grade child of anything. One afternoon in early spring my friend was sitting in his classroom when the school assembly bell rang. All the classes filed out into the courtyard and lined up in rows with their teachers. When everyone was assembled, the school principal appeared, accompanied by two SS officers, and the merchant's son. It was the first really warm day at the end of winter, and my friend remembered now the sunlight flooding over the budding trees and the already yellow forsythia bushes, in which glittered and chattered the birds that had returned. Then the black boots of the officers flashed in the sun, again and again, striking with muffled thuds the soft body of the boy long after he was dead.

Mishima wrote twenty-five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, remembering the sun over the blood and flies. Our nation has now stockpiled two and a half tons of nuclear explosives for every man, woman, and child on the planet, and the current administration has budgeted three trillion dollars for a new nuclear buildup. Israel, South Africa, Pakistan, the most unscrupulous political regimes, now have nuclear arsenals; thirty nations are now working to create nuclear arsenals. We who read and write this know that it is improbable that there will be anyone to read what we write twenty-five years from now, to see the wings of the flies glittering over the blood of humankind.

The sun that in 1945 streamed over the defeat, the blood, and the flies illuminated the space of a meanwhile. General MacArthur had forced Emperor Hirohito to declare that he was not the divine pivot of all Japanese heroism but a man, and in fact quite a stupid man. Between Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the final bomb, an interim. In which what was destined for Japanese was to screw in the little screws in transistor radios and computers and accumulate capital. Yet one day, in this interim, Mishima ran to his window to see young Japanese men, brawny and shouting, flooding down the street, eyes turned to the sun.

They were bearing an old and heavy shrine on their shoulders. Bodies gleaming with sweat, struggling under its weight, which seemed to compress power into them, they crashed through the gates of the Mishima home and trampled the courtyard to ruins.

They were intoxicated with their task, and their expressions were of an indescribable abandon, their faces averted; some of them even rested the backs of their necks against the shafts of the shrine they shouldered, so that their eyes gazed up at the heavens. And my mind was much troubled by the riddle of what it was those eyes reflected.

As to the nature of the intoxicating vision that I detected in all this violent physical stress, my imagination provided no clue. For many a month, therefore, the enigma continued to occupy my mind; it was only much later, after I had begun to learn the language of the flesh, that I undertook to help in shouldering a portable shrine, and was at last able to solve the puzzle that had plagued me since infancy. They were simply looking at the sky. In their eyes there was no vision: only the reflection of the blue and absolute skies of early autumn. Those blue skies, though, were unusual skies such as I might never again see in my life—like a fierce bird of prey with wings outstretched—one moment strung up high aloft, the next plunged to the depths; constantly shifting, a strange compound of lucidity and madness.

(12-13, 14)

What spoke to Mishima so eloquently was the massed bodies of the shrine bearers. It is an eloquence one believes—one does not believe the intoxication of feeble or debauched bodies; what they say one consigns to pathology and compensations. One believes the eloquence of health and power. The body insists on correspondence and fittingness—strength in the body is this insistence. The shrine bearers shared something. A communication not through words, signs exchanged, but in the burden and violent physical stress. As they bent under the weight they sustained together, their eyes were open and intoxicated—by what? Not by an idea, from the old religion, that would have its own consistency, maintained through a verbal construction, and that would justify the world laid bare under the skies. Is there any such idea that could redeem the ashes and the blood of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Not by a religious image or participationist myth—Buddhism has never secreted such things. Mishima's mind, his imagination, or his verbal speculations were not able to join the ecstatic vision of the shrine bearers. When his body had become massive enough to shoulder the shrine with them, he discovered that what they saw with such intoxication was the skies, the empty skies that illuminate all that is real, illuminate anicca, the impermanence. “Glory was surely a name given to just such a light—inorganic, superhuman, naked, full of perilous cosmic rays” (101).

The possibility, then, of existing in the sun, in the sun that poured its perilous light over the impermanence, had spoken to Mishima in the carnal eloquence of the shrine bearers. But to open one's eyes to the skies it was necessary to find for oneself not the taciturn form of the ideal body one seeks with words, but such an eloquent body.

This body Mishima went to find in the tempering of his organism by steel—“heavy, forbidding, as though the essence of the night had in [it] been still further condensed” (25). He fitted his arms, legs, torso to the inertia, dense opacity, mineral death of the steel.

This is not gearing into the world of implements—the inhabiting of one's body as an intentionally conducted functional system—which existence philosophy declared to be the primary form of comprehension and the fundamental form of selfhood. The eloquent body Mishima sought was an excess beyond the intentionally structured organism Merleau-Ponty had isolated and distinguished from the body as an objective form and substance. Body-building, which was unknown in traditional Japan, is introduced now that massive musculature has become superfluous both for productive labor—where every body limit is relayed by machine power—and even for warfare, now mechanized. Mishima did not undertake building musculature in order to appropriate a world of instrumentalities but in order to exist in the tragic light of the sun.

How strange to seek in death and night the body that could open to the sun and the skies! If what one is seeking is the open skies and the universal light that illuminates all reality, all impermanence, is not this ascent to the universal necessarily through words, all generic, all universals? Is it not language that Being inhabits, that discloses earth and skies, mortals and immortals as such? Does not the body, as all Western classicism has understood, represent the particular, the here-and-now, that which is to be transcended in order to accede to the universal?

But Mishima had found that all the artistry of words, all the appropriation of words, all the appropriation of oneself in words, consisted in using words in singular, deviant ways. There once existed, to be sure, essentially impersonal and monumental words with which epic art was composed. But the conditions for their functioning are lost to us today, and Mishima will come gradually to divine the reasons for this.

As the relentless pressure of the steel progressively stripped my muscles of their unusualness and individuality (which were a product of degeneration), and as they gradually developed, they should, I reasoned, begin to assume a universal aspect, until they finally reached a point where they conformed to a general pattern in which individual differences ceased to exist. The universality thus attained would suffer no private corrosion, no betrayal. That was its most desirable trait in my eyes.


The night and death of the steel drove out the psychic penchants that had materialized in the body in the form of habitus—indolence incarnated in a slovenly posture, sensuality or impressionability materialized in dry, lusterless skin and flaccid abdomen—it brought out, empowered, affirmed, the generic, the racial type, the animal, in the individual body.

Ideas are … essentially foreign to human existence; and the body-receptacle of the involuntary muscles, of the internal organs and circulatory system over which it has no control—is foreign to the spirit, so that it is even possible for people to use the body as a metaphor for ideas, both being something quite alien to human existence as such. And the way in which an idea can take possession of the mind unbidden, with the suddenness of a stroke of fate, reinforces still further the resemblance of ideas to the body with which each of us, willy-nilly, is endowed, giving even this automatic, uncontrollable function a striking resemblance to the flesh. It is this that forms the basis of the idea of the enfleshment of Christ and also the stigmata some people can produce on their palms and insteps.


The flesh, divested of its individuality, its eccentricity, by the steel, the night and death of steel, the universalized body, is the locus of ingression of ideas, is ideal.

In the coupling of organism with steel, the vital substance with the extreme condensation of night and death, there was not intentional function being transmitted through the inertia of implements, but a transference of properties. The properties that come to compose the excess musculature came from the steel, and were its own properties; the flesh becomes ferric.

But once Mishima found himself within this ferric substance, this body was no longer the taciturn and resplendent ideality of form which discourse posits and opposes. “Muscles, I found, were strength as well as form, and each complex of muscles was subtly responsible for the direction in which its own strength was exerted, much as though they were rays of light given the form of flesh” (28-29). There was not a unitary intentional arc mobilizing and activating a postural or motor diagram, as in the body that operates equipment; there was distribution of multiple seats of power-vectors, each activating itself. “Nothing could have accorded better with the definition of a work of art … than this concept of form unfolding strength, coupled with the idea that a work should be organic, radiating rays of light in all directions” (29).

There arose then a new artwork ideal—an existent formed into splendor not by virtue of the proportions it fixed but by its distribution of rays of power. This carnal ideal was to counterpoise itself to the words, to replace Mishima's first classical writing with a muscular style. Whereas Mishima's first classicism was animated by a constant and vigilant sense of the corrosive effect of words, his art now is purged of the morbid and voluptuous imagination that dreams of an efficacy in fictive constructions. The juxtaposition of action and art in one life makes each dissipate the dreams of the other. “… I was conceited enough to believe that my technique in dealing with words was sufficiently practiced for me to choose impersonal words, thereby enhancing their function as a memorial and putting an end to life of my own free will. This—it would be no exaggeration to say—was the only revenge I could take on the spirit for stubbornly refusing to perceive ‘the end’” (84-85).

The idea of art is justified not only because this mode of radiant and depersonalized power came to figure as an ideal for the artifice of words to imitate, but also because this body abstracted itself from mundane dependence—and one day from the steel itself—to figure as an absolute—“transparent, peerless power that required no object at all” (23).

… [t]he sense of existence by which strength cannot be strength without some object represents the basic relationship between ourselves and the world, and on that I depended on steel. Just as muscles slowly increase their resemblance to steel, so we are gradually fashioned by the world; and although neither the steel nor the world can very well possess a sense of their own existence, idle analogy leads us unwittingly into the illusion that both do, in fact, possess such a sense. … Thus our sense of existence seeks after some object, and can only live in a false world of relativity. … Away from steel, however, my muscles [now] seemed to lapse into absolute isolation, their bulging shapes no more than cogs created to mesh with the steel. The cool breeze passed, the sweat evaporated—and with them the existence of the muscles vanished into thin air. And yet, it was then that the muscles played their most essential function, grinding up with their sturdy, invisible teeth that ambiguous, relative sense of existence and substituting for it an unqualified sense of transparent, peerless power that required no object at all. Even the muscles themselves no longer existed. I was enveloped in a sense of power as transparent as light.


The relationship with steel, to which the sun had driven Mishima, had resulted in a displacement of his sense of himself. One that had, the summer of the defeat, fled the sun in horror, Mishima had become an intellectual, had fled into the intellectual's cave, that dark, amorphous, warm, visceral inwardness. Now the steel had routed the self from this retreat, displaced its locus onto the surfaces. Onto the contours of the musculature, whose ridges and reliefs he does not feel from within, out of his visceral ego, but contemplates in the gleaming surfaces of mirrors and feels in the expanses of pain. The self had become a surface self, a self no longer in inwardness but in distension, exposure, and exhibition. Whose sense of the world exposed to the sun is a surface thought. For whom thought no longer means identifying the inwardness beneath the dispersion, the substrates beneath the phenomena, the principles behind the appearances.

Yet why must it be that men always seek out the depths, the abyss, why must thought, like a plumb line, concern itself exclusively with vertical descent? Why was it not feasible for thought to change direction and climb vertically up, ever up, toward the surface? Why should the area of the skin, which guarantees a human being's existence in space, be most despised and left to the tender mercies of the senses? I could not understand the laws governing the motion of thought—the way it was liable to get stuck in unseen chasms whenever it set out to go deep; or whenever it aimed at the heights, to soar away into boundless and equally invisible heavens, leaving the corporeal form undeservedly neglected.

If the law of thought is that it should search out profundity, whether it extends upwards or downwards, then it seemed excessively illogical to me that men should not discover depths of a kind in the “surface,” that vital borderline that endorses our separateness and our form, dividing our exterior from our interior. Why should they not be attracted by the profundity of the surface itself?

The sun was enticing, almost dragging my thoughts away from the night of visceral sensations, away to the swelling of muscles encased in sunlit skin. And it was commanding me to construct a new and sturdy dwelling in which my mind, as it rose little by little to the surface, could live in security. That dwelling was a tanned, lustrous skin and powerful, sensitively rippling muscles. I came to feel that it was precisely because such an abode was required that the average intellectual failed to feel at home with thought that concerned itself with forms and surfaces.


We have seen first the fission and polarization that posited the ideal taciturn and formal body in opposition to the discursive existence; now we have seen the self come to inhabit the eloquent and surface body which opposes itself to the verbal artistry. This body seeks words—impersonal and monumental words that depersonalize and conduct one to the fields of death illuminated by the perilous rays of the sun. The thought that now conducts this search does not seek an origin, principle, or cause prior to the split of words from flesh, the split of inwardness from exposedness, the splintering of the forms and surfaces under the absolute dispersion of the light; it is also not a dialectical thought that seeks at each moment to return the one back into the other. The surface thought rather pushes on to the outlying regions, the farthest edges of body and of spirit, seeking there the point of contact. The point of contact—and this was the ultimate principle of this Buddhist metaphysical thought—was not at the origin, the base, the summit nor even the end, the telos. It was at the outer limits. “Things that are farthest removed from each other, by increasing the distance between them, come closer together” (91). The great serpent coiled back upon itself at the outermost sphere of the cosmos.

The great serpent of Buddhist metaphysics Mishima saw not in participating in a traditional religious ritual, but on the day he flew the F104, the most advanced supersonic jet fighter of the Japanese air force.

Pushing on his mind, not back into his body, but toward his mind's own outer limits was to push it outward across the most remote surfaces of the universe; it was also, Mishima knew, to push it to its own death. “Motionless before his desk, [the thinker] edges his way closer, ever closer, to the borders of the spirit, in constant mortal danger of plunging into the void” (92). Death itself is not just a negative operator of the dialectical mind; the earth is physically surrounded by death, and Mishima resolved to take his body to this locus of death.

First he had to undergo physiological flight training. His body was immobilized, strapped to the apparatus of the pressure chamber. Even the movements of the lungs were pushed toward immobility. He felt the panicky brain crave desperately the air that was being sucked out of the chamber; death stuck fast to his lips.

Finally came the day of the first flight. “Erect-angled, the F104, a sharp silver phallus, pointed into the sky. Solitary, spermatozoon-like, I was installed within. Soon, I should know how the spermatozoon felt at the instant of ejaculation.”

The plane was fired like a dagger into the stratospheres of death, ascended to thirty-five thousand feet, passed the speed of sound. “For a moment, my chest was empty, as though a cascade of water had descended with a great rush and left nothing behind it. … Everything was quiet, majestic, and the surface of the blue sky was flecked with the semen-white of clouds” (100).

At the summit: Mach 1.3, at forty-five thousand feet:

“Nothing happened.

“The silver fuselage floated in the naked light, the plane maintaining a splendid equilibrium. Once more it became a closed, motionless room. The plane was not moving at all. It had become, simply, an oddly-shaped metal cabin floating quite still in the upper atmosphere.”

In the pressure chamber the body had been immobilized to the point that it pushed up against the limits of motionlessness of the mind, to the point where its lungs had to be forced by the mind. Now, encased in the fastest engine for motion the technological mind had invented, Mishima found the outer limits of supersonic speed rejoining the absolute rest of the pressure chamber.

There was even no suffocating sensation. My mind was at ease, my thought processes lively. Both the closed room and the open room—two interiors so diametrically opposed—could serve equally, I found, as dwellings for the spirit of one and the same human being. If this stillness was the ultimate end of action—of movement—then the sky about me, the clouds far below, the sea gleaming between the clouds, even the setting sun, might well be events, things, within myself. …

This silver tube floating in the sky was, as it were, my brain, and its immobility the mode of my spirit. The brain was no longer protected by unyielding bone, but had become permeable, like a sponge floating on water. … Anything that comes into our minds even for the briefest of moments, exists. Even though it may not exist at this actual moment, it has existed somewhere in the past, or will exist at some time in the future. This simple realm of cloud, sea, and setting sun was a majestic panorama, such as I had never seen before, of my own inner world. At the same time, every event that occurred within me had slipped the fetters of mind and emotion, becoming great letters freely inscribed across the heavens.

It was then that I saw the snake.

If the giant snake-ring that resolves all polarities came into my brain, then it is natural to suppose that it was already in existence. … It was a ring vaster than death, more fragrant than that faint scent of mortality that I had caught in the compression chamber; beyond doubt, it was the principle of oneness that gazed down at us from the shining heavens.


The body—“transparent, peerless power that required no object at all”—was seeking what lay on its own farthest edges. It breaks through the taciturn splendor of the formal body imagined by the words—that dream of immortality. The eloquence of the surface body, the musculature, that is what feeds the imagination. The imagination of others does not feed on one's visceral inwardness or on one's functional body—or even on one's orgasmic carnality. But musculature had come to eat away at itself, leaving only the pure transparent complex of radiating vectors of power. “It was a special property of muscles that they fed the imagination of others while remaining totally devoid of imagination themselves. …” Mishima sought an existence, an exposedness that dissipated all imagination, whether of the self or of others. That situation was pure action—combat. Mishima trained in karate and kendo. “It was natural that my rephrasing of the pure sense of strength should turn in the direction of the flash of the fist and the stroke of the bamboo sword; for that which lay at the end of the flashing fist, and beyond the blow of the bamboo sword, was precisely what constituted the most certain proof of that invisible light given off by the muscles” (34).

The confrontation with the other occurs in the world of the seen, that of exposedness. Wherever one looks one is seen, and what one sees is the other's power galvanized into a look fixed on oneself.

We might think that the world, its trees, mountains, and clouds are arrayed for our look without guile or clandestinity. But in fact the surface that we view in the world, and that does not return our scrutiny, is the presumptive outcome of a series of profiles already passed by; the tree or mountain we face is a fact, factum, trace of a passage. There is no contemporaneousness between it and ourselves; there is a distance of time, and the imagination that fills in that interim. There is time for the word that names the object, about which the objectification settles, about which images accumulate like barnacles on the rusting hulk of a wreckage. With people, too, there are always contractual rules that govern every exchange of smiles, words, gestures, goods, pleasures—rules, and the scum of the imagination that collects on them. With time, even the morning face one confronts is a mask.

In most people, alas, the unsophisticated habit of exposing the face, quite unconsciously, to the dazzling light of the morning persists to the end. The habit remains, the face changes. Before one realizes it, the true face is ravaged by anxiety and emotion; one does not perceive that it drags last night's fatigue like a heavy chain, nor does one realize the boorishness of exposing such a face to the sun. It is thus that men lose their manliness.

The reason is that once it has lost the natural brightness of youth, the manly face of the warrior must needs be a false face; it must be manufactured as a matter of policy. The army, I found, made this quite clear. The morning face presented by a commanding officer was a face for people to read things into, a face in which others might immediately find a criterion for the day's action. It was an optimistic face, designed to cover up the individual's private weariness and, no matter what despair he might be plunged into, to encourage others; it was thus a false face full of energy, spurning and shaking off the bad dreams of the previous night. And it was the only face with which men who lived too long could make obeisance to the morning sun.


In combat there is immediacy. One knows the bulk, position, momentum, rhythms, nerves, insight, foresight of the opponent with one's own eloquent body. There is contemporaneousness, no interval of time between oneself and the opponent, no time for the scum of imagination to form.

Victory, of course, does not consist in assaulting the opponent to destroy him with the superior quantity of one's own force and momentum. One combats not with those weaker than oneself but with equals, and through combat one becomes the equal of ever more powerful opponents. One's own blow, then, is not a direct onslaught on the substance of the other; it is shot off as a provocation for a certain kind of blow on the part of the opponent. Victory proceeds out of perfect nonverbal knowledge—the knowledge one has, in the power of one's own body, of the power in the perfectly matched body of one's opponent. One's own blow creates a kind of hollow in space into which the fatal blow it provokes on the part of the opponent fits perfectly. Then one has absolutely mastered the power of the other.

The victory occurs in pure eloquence.

At the height of the fray, I found the tardy process of creating muscles, whereby strength creates form and form creates strength, is repeated so swiftly that it becomes imperceptible to the eye. Strength, that like light emitted its own rays, was constantly renewed, destroying and creating form as it went. I saw for myself how the form that was beautiful and fitting overcame the form that was ugly and imprecise. Its distortion invariably implied an opening for the foe and a blurring of the rays of strength. … [T]he form itself must have an extreme adaptability, a matchless flexibility, so that it resembles a series of sculptures created from moment to moment by a fluid body. The continuous radiation of strength must create its own shape, just as a continuous jet of water will maintain the shape of a fountain. Surely, I felt, the tempering by sun and steel to which I submitted over such a long period was none other than a process of creating this kind of fluid sculpture.


One does not see, look at, the opponent—if one waits to see where and how the other positions himself it will be too late; one must foresee where he will be in a fraction of a second. One also does not observe the figure of one's own power; every distance from it taken to see it subtracts from that power. The victor is one who reserves nothing for a life after, casts himself totally, absolutely, into the present, into the unseen hollow he makes of himself.

The victor was the subject of the highest art in Greek classicism. This art was necessary to make a spectacle of what is a spectacle only through art—victory, understood only by combatants, where neither oneself nor the opponent can be a spectacle at the moment victory occurs. This necessary art formulates the classical judgment that the moment of victory is the supreme moment of existence; there is nothing after it or beyond it. What we sense “in the bronze charioteer of Delphi, where the glory, the pride, and the shyness reflected in the moment of victory are given faithful immortality—is the swift approach of the spectre of death just on the other side of the victor” (42).

Victory, then, issues in nothing. That excess, that superfluity which is the peerless power of the musculature, achieves a sovereignty which is itself gratuitous. Victory is only in unconditional combat, in which everything was cast, but it is not a conquering of death. Its glory is a purely worldly glory, this side of death—which is never defeated by any human prowess, and which always overcomes.

And it is indeed this pressing contiguity with death that saves the creation of an artwork—the highest form of art, which, according to Nietzsche, is made of the most precious clay and oil, flesh and blood—from being absurd. This excessive preoccupation with one's own body, on the part of a male, would otherwise be only comical. “A strict rule is imposed where men are concerned. It is this: a man must under normal circumstances never permit his own objectification; he can only be objectified through the supreme action”—the absolute exposedness to “another sun quite different from that by which I had been so long blessed, a sun full of the fierce dark flames of feeling, a sun of death that would never burn the skin yet gave forth a still stranger glow” (46).

That which lay at the end of the flashing fist and beyond the blow of the bamboo sword, reality without images, was death in person. Aristotle listed courage as the first virtue; it is not one virtue among others on the list, for without courage no virtue is possible. Socrates claimed for himself none of the intellectual virtues; the sole virtue he claimed for himself, citing the proofs at the trial, was courage. In the Phaedo he argues not only that courage is the specific virtue of the philosopher but that only philosophers are courageous, utterly fearless, for warriors show no fear of death and are courageous only because they fear something more—dishonor or the enslavement of their families and kin. “However much the closeted philosopher mulls over the idea of death, so long as he remains divorced from the physical courage that is a prerequisite for an awareness of it, he will remain unable even to begin to grasp it.” In the tensity of physical courage, “the flesh beats a steady retreat into its function of self-defense, while it is clear consciousness that controls the decision that sends the body soaring into self-abandonment. It is the ultimate in clarity of consciousness that constitutes one of the strongest contributing factors in self-abandonment” (44).

This highest acuity of consciousness that sends the body into self-abandonment is, however, not the surface of inscription of words; it is suffering. At its limits, consciousness becomes suffering when it invades the body. “For I had begun to believe that it was the muscles—powerful, statically so well organized and so silent—that were the true sources of the clarity of my consciousness. The occasional pain in the muscles of a blow that missed the shield gave rise instantly to a still tougher consciousness that suppressed the pain, and imminent shortage of breath gave rise to a frenzy that conquered it” (46). It was thus the power of the body that provoked this supreme lucidity in the suffering consciousness.

When one turns to witness the eloquence of the flesh, one's own flesh or that of another, one senses this inner agon, which stills the comedy of a man objectifying himself. This inner agon by which consciousness, whose extreme limits are resolutely extended into the physical substance in the form of suffering, sending the body in self-abandon to its mortal limits. This intuition of an agon with death that is being waged in the gravity and dignity of the body.

Victory is a purely worldly glory this side of death; death is not defeated. Death is also the master of its own meaning. One shall not be able to make one's death serve one's own cause, this side of death. “Here must always arise a discrepancy between the absolute concept of death and the man-made, relativistic concept of righteousness. … We do not possess the standard for choosing to die. The fact that we are alive may mean that we have already been chosen for some purpose, and if life is not something we have chosen for ourselves, then maybe we are not ultimately free to die” (The Way of the Samurai: Yukio Mishima onHagakurein Modern Life, trans. Kathryn Sparling [New York: Basic Books, 1977], p. 104).

“And now, kept in reserve for the end,” Marguerite Yourcenar wrote at the end of her book written after Mishima's seppuku,

the last and most traumatizing image: so overwhelming that it has rarely been reproduced. Two heads on the rug, surely acrylic, of the General's office, placed alongside of one another like ninepins, almost touching. Two heads, inert balls, two brains that the blood no longer irrigates, two computers stopped in the midst of their job, no longer sorting out and decoding the perpetual flux of images, impressions, incitements and responses which by the millions pass every day through a being and form what we call the life of the mind and even that of the senses, motivating and directing the movements of the body. Two severed heads, gone on to other worlds where another law rules, that, when one contemplates them, produce more stupor than horror. Judgments of value, whether moral, political or aesthetic, are in their presence, momentarily at least, reduced to silence. The notion that forces itself upon us is more disturbing and simpler: among the myriads of things that are, and that have been, these two heads have been; they are. What fills these eyes without any look is no longer a banner unfurled in political protest, nor any other intellectual or carnal image, nor even the void that Honda had contemplated, and which suddenly seems to be nothing but a concept or a symbol that is in the end all too human. Two objects, already quasi-inorganic debris of destroyed structures, and, once passed into the fire, will they too be but mineral residue and ashes; not even subjects for meditation, because the data are lacking for us to meditate on them. Two pieces of wreckage, rolling on the river of action, which the immense wave has left for a moment dry on the sands, before washing them on.

(Mishima, ou la vision du vide [Paris: Gallimard, 1981], pp. 124-25)

Further Reading

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Abelsen, Peter. “Irony and Purity: Mishima.” Modern Asian Studies 30 (July 1996): 651-79.

Discusses Mishima in terms of two phenomena: the literary style known as romantic irony and Zen.

Napier, Susan J. Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio and Oe Kenzaburo. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Council on East Asian Studies, 1991.

Examines parallels and divergences in the works of Mishima and Kenzaburo.

Raoside, James. “The Spirit Is Willing but the Flesh Is Strong: Mishima Yukio's Kinjiki and Oscar Wilde.” Comparative Literature Studies 36, no. 1 (1999): 1-23.

Analyzes allusions to Oscar Wilde in Mishima's novel Kinjiki.

Smith, Andrew R. “Mishima's Seppuku Speech: A Critical-Cultural Analysis.” Text and Performance Quarterly 10, no. 1 (January 1990): 1-19.

Explores the speech Mishima made prior to his ritual suicide.

Wolfe, Peter. Yukio Mishima. New York: Continuum, 1989. 200 p.

Discusses plot and themes in Mishima' major works.

Additional coverage of Mishima's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R, 97-100; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 182; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 1; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Gay & Lesbian Literature,Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2.

David W. Atkinson (essay date winter 1989)

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SOURCE: Atkinson, David W. “Alienation in the Novels of Yukio Mishima.” The International Fiction Review 16, no. 1 (winter 1989): 56-64.

[In the following essay, Atkinson contends that the pursuit of freedom and beauty lead to alienation in Mishima's novels.]

Few novelists dominate twentieth-century Japanese fiction as does Yukio Mishima. Born on January 14, 1925 to an upper middle-class family in Tokyo, Yukio Mishima distinguished himself early as a brilliant student, graduating from Gakushuin or Peers' School in 1944. While still in school, Mishima published his first significant work Hanazakari no Mori (1941; The Forest in Full Flower), which expresses many of the ideas and influences that had a continuing impact on Mishima's writing throughout his life. While Mishima produced over twenty-five pieces of major fiction, as well as short stories, plays, and critical works, it was not his writing that initially drew him to the world's attention. Frustrated by the lack of spiritual values in Japanese society, as well as a general erosion of Japanese influence and strength, Mishima committed seppuku or ritual suicide on November 25, 1970.1

For a time, Mishima's literary works were the subject of intense psychoanalysis, as critics looked to find reasons for his extraordinary final act. To approach Mishima only in this way, however, is to do him a disservice, for Mishima stands as a major spokesman for a Japan experiencing immense social and cultural dislocation. In this regard, Mishima very often seems divided, as he at once celebrates the glory of the past and condemns the stagnation and meaninglessness of traditional values. In one way, however, Mishima is very clear: he sees a Japanese society that is stultifying to individual freedom. For Mishima, the only fundamental principle of existence is the right to absolute liberty, in which one accepts the chaotic impermeability of the universe. In tearing down established moral, social, and religious values, then, Mishima signals the need to flee from the protected and contrived world of human society.

Notable in this regard is Kinkakuji (1956; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion), which draws on the events surrounding the destruction of the Zen temple of Kinkakuji by Mizoguchi, one of its order's acolytes. In the twisted thinking and destructive obsessions of Mizoguchi, Mishima condemns the Zen heritage underpinning a traditional world view that is without meaning. Physically ugly and handicapped by a stammer since childhood, Mizoguchi is completely cut off from the world. He finds his life to be “a complete and terrible meaninglessness.”2 Rather than looking to find a connection with the world, however, Mizoguchi falls back on a perverse pride in being misunderstood and in being alone. Only one thing in Mizoguchi's world has any substance, the beauty of Kinkakuji, about which he first learns from his father, a former temple priest. When he finally goes as a novice to the temple, it seems the great emptiness in his life is filled, as his dream becomes a reality. This, however, is short-lived, as Mizoguchi discovers that the temple's beauty is as transient and vacuous as everything else in his life. Overwhelmed by life's meaninglessness, Mizoguchi must destroy the source of his suffering if he ever wants to be truly free. As a masterpiece of garden architecture, the temple represents for Mizoguchi, not only a culture that has no meaning, but the fiction of completeness that is the end of religious experience. The beauty of the temple is in its unattainability a cause of human anxiety rather than a cure.

That corruption and perversity intrude on the temple reinforces Mizoguchi's view that beauty is a fiction, and that any thought of escaping the ugly realities of life is a simpleminded dream. The temple's master is revealed to be a hypocrite, wearing the magnificent robes of a temple superior, but given to frequenting the geisha district of Gion. Mizoguchi's only friend is the club-footed Kashiwagi, whose physical deformity overtly expresses a sadistic cruelty and dark skepticism. Beauty, according to Kashiwagi, is like a “decayed tooth. It rubs against one's tongue, hurting one” (144). Finally, Mizoguchi is himself strangely fascinated by the brutality of life. He finds gratification in assaulting the American soldier's female Japanese companion; he experiences “bubbling joy” (77) in feeling “the girl's stomach against the sole of … [his] rubber boot” (85). In Mizoguchi's mind sex and death are synonymous, as when he visits the prostitute Mariko and finds comfort in knowing that her “quivering flesh … would soon be lying deep in the night's dark grave” (229).

Underpinning the novel is the Zen world view that stands in ironic juxtaposition to any notion that the world can be defined with absolutes. According to Zen teaching, human suffering is rooted in the human compulsion to define the world, for in such definition the individual self is affirmed as possessing a discrete and absolute reality. In reducing the temple's beauty to a fiction, Mizoguchi is consistent with the Buddhist rejection of all absolutes, except that Mishima represents the Zen world view as just another fiction that has no meaning. An important episode in this regard is when Kashiwagi demonstrates Ikebana3 which stands as an embodiment of the Buddhist notion of tathata or “suchness,”4 itself pointing to the religious completeness found in an unhindered experience of reality. But Mizoguchi senses another dimension in Kashiwagi's demonstration; he observes a cruelty in his hands, “as though they had some unpleasant, gloomy privilege in relation to the plants” (145). Kashiwagi offers, as well, his own corrupted interpretations of Zen teachings. When he offers a commentary on the famous koan,5 “When ye meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha” (143), he does not intend to reveal the futility of metaphysical speculation, but to provide justification for real violence in a real world, and for how in the destruction of beauty there is removed the despair of knowing that one has failed in one's ambitions.

The absence of wholeness or completeness is, in Kinkakuji, the true nature of reality. The last page of the novel makes Mishima's position clear. Having set fire to the temple, and thrown away the arsenic intended for himself, Mizoguchi smokes a cigarette as would any workman following a good day's work. But the point is that his primary motivation is destruction of the present order, even while there is nothing to replace what is torn down. Mizoguchi may be free in destroying the temple, but he is also left with no sustaining reason to participate in life.

This rejection of absolute values similarly pervades Mishima's short novel, Gogo no Eiko (1963; The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea). The novel is about thirteen-year-old Noboru, who, along with his friends, rejects the sentimentality of the adult world for a tough-minded view of life; at thirteen Noboru is convinced that “life consisted of a few simple signals and decisions” and that it “took root at the moment of death.”6 When Noboru's mother takes up with the sailor Ryuji, Noboru is especially pleased, for he views his mother's new lover as one who has directly experienced the power and destructive indifference of the universe. For Noboru and his friends, Ryuji's experiences at sea comprise the “real danger [that] is nothing more that just living” (51).

It is therefore a great disappointment to the boys when they discover that Ryuji is not what they had first thought. For Ryuji, life at sea is not the adventure of new and exotic lands but the monotony, the “prosaic tedium” (74) of solitary life. In Noboru's mother Ryuji finds the anchor for which he has been searching, and moves quickly into the comfortable life of lover and father. He becomes the soft, predictable person that Noboru and his friends hate. In becoming Noboru's father, Ryuji becomes an instrument of repression; he is, in other words, the enemy, representing the conventional values of a society that stultifies true freedom. Like Mizoguchi in Kinkakuji, then, Noboru and his friends must destroy what threatens their understanding of the world order, and they plot to murder Ryuji.

The world of Gogo no Eiko is also one in which beauty is absent; the universe for Noboru and his friends is empty. The “supreme command” is the exercise of complete freedom, as the individual must be totally unhindered by any convention. Ryuji's great crime is that he fails to understand the freedom his life as a sailor allowed him; moreover, he is out of touch with the true nature of reality that the sea expresses. The power, violence, and unpredictability of the sea signal the fundamental chaos of existence, which humankind either ignores by defining a safe haven or tries to control by imposing itself on the world. These two responses are what Noboru unconsciously touches upon when he asks, “Is there no way that I can remain in the room and at the same time be out in the hall locking the door?” (143) The destruction of Ryuji signals that neither have any lasting or final value. The only true freedom is to invoke the chaos that, for Mishima, is the true nature of existence.

The repressive nature of society and the need to be free from it expressed in Kinkakuji and Gogo no Eiko is evident in Mishima's earlier works as well. Notable is his very first novel, Kamen No Kokuhaku (1949; Confessions of a Mask), which is often interpreted as a faintly veiled autobiography. Written in the first person, Kamen No Kokuhaku recounts an adolescent's growing awareness that he is a homosexual in a society which rejects anything other than conventional sexuality. Underpinning the protagonist's desperate attempts to direct his sexual feelings according to acceptable standards is the more fundamental issue of how society stultifies individual expression, whatever form it might take. There is a latent anger in the novel directed towards a society that forces the individual to look inwards to justify his actions, for in such inward turning there is anxiety, disappointment, and frustration at knowing who and what one is. As in other novels, Mishima provides justification for destroying a society that imposes such pain on people, and the firebombing of Tokyo has much the same purpose as the destruction of the temple in Kinkakuji.

Even beyond this, however, is the loneliness one experiences in one's alienation from society. It is this more than anything else that pervades the novel. During his adolescent years at school, the protagonist lives in constant fear that his attraction to male classmates will be revealed in a look or by a slip of the tongue. He cannot share in their adolescent fantasies about women, and is denied an outlet for his growing sexual awareness. Later on, he takes up with Sonoko, and struggles to love her without experiencing any kind of sexual attraction. This only exacerbates his anxiety and sense of alienation. When given the opportunity to marry Sonoko, he flees, only to later second-guess himself as to whether his decision was the right one. He is jealous that he cannot love her as she loves him, and tries to hide his pain by convincing himself that he is “a man who can entice a woman without even loving her.”7 In everything he does the protagonist is forced to hide behind the mask from which the novel takes its name. Especially devastating is that he never comes out from behind this mask, as his sexual alienation becomes an expression of his overwhelming human alienation from anything having permanent meaning.

The theme of homosexuality as a socially alienating force also surfaces in Mishima's Kinjiki (1953; Forbidden Colors) and signals how human happiness is rooted in rejecting the causes of this alienation. A novel of extraordinary psychological depth, Kinjiki is the story of Yuichi, who marries to hide his homosexuality and who, as a consequence, is forced to live two lives. Like the protagonist of Kamen No Kokuhaku, Yuichi is plagued by guilt because he feels he is betraying both his wife and his mother; he must give them what society demands, including a child, but is in the process untrue to himself. That this veneer of respectability is a fiction is further revealed in a host of characters in the novel, who enjoy positions of immense social influence and wealth but who hide who they truly are as a consequence.

Among these characters, several loom large. Shunsuke is an old and famous writer, who is captivated by Yuichi's physical beauty. Seeing himself as the victim in several unsuccessful marriages, Shunsuke is a committed woman-hater, who sees in Yuichi a way of gaining his revenge against womankind in general. Yet Shunsuke's actions are a visible signal of the very values that society has praised in his books. The “beauty” of Shunsuke's writing is praised by those “poisoned by intellectual hedonism” who have “replaced concern for humanity with individualism … [and] violently torn beauty from the arms of ethics.”8 These “great intellects” represent a spiritually bankrupt culture and society for which truth is little more than immediate sensation devoid of understanding. Thus the promiscuity of the homosexual subculture signals the spiritual corruption of society generally.

The same kind of moral bankruptcy is evident in the lives of Count and Mrs. Kaburagi. Count Kaburagi presents himself as a philanthropist and supporter of good causes, yet his vast fortune is the result of “gentlemanly villainy” (69). That Mrs. Kaburagi shares her husband's moral values is confirmed in how, despite her sexual loathing of him, she remains in the marriage because it expresses “the love of partners in crime” (69). She is a promiscuous as Yuichi, having the “reputation of becoming sexually intimate with any man within a week's time” (71). Her fascination with Yuichi indicates her inability to appreciate his complexities, and suggests how society's superficial demands mitigate true human understanding. She cannot read Yuichi; “I love something I do not understand in the slightest,” she says, “something dark … clear, limpid darkness” (206).

The industrialist Kawada is not much different. Physically attracted to Yuichi, Kawada studiously adheres to a code of politeness. If he wishes Yuichi's body, he must ask Shunsuke for it. Thus Yuichi becomes a chattel to be passed from one sexual partner to another, a source of physical gratification and little more. This hedonistic preoccupation with self typifies virtually all the characters in the novel, and signals the fundamental flaw in a society where decorum has little to do with understanding and everything to do with maintaining one's personal status. The woman Kyoko, for example, likes to be with Yuichi, not because he makes her happy, but because in his beauty she confirms her own beauty.

While Yuichi is consumed with his own physical needs, he is not incapable of personal reflection on his life. Moreover, he does relate at more than the sexual level. Thus when his child is born, he insists on being with his wife as she goes through a Caesarian section. Consumed by his own beauty, and having always existed to be seen, Yuichi, in experiencing his wife's suffering, comes to see how his pursuit of pleasure anesthetizes him from the corruption of his own life. Significant, however, is that Yuichi, while recognizing his wife's sacrifice, is still drawn back to the homosexual world he knows to be corrupt. Wanting both the security of marriage and the excitement of his homosexual life, yet feeling comfortable with neither of these alternatives, Yuichi is trapped in the same world Mizoguchi destroys in burning down Kinkakuji.

While the image evoked in Kinjiki is one of a society totally corrupt, in Ai no Kawaki (1950; Thirst for Love), Mishima portrays a world that is banal and meaningless. Widowed as a young woman from a husband who had proved unfaithful to her, Etsuko goes to live in the household of her father-in-law, Yakichi Sugimoto. The former manager of Kansai Merchant Ships, Sugimoto rules his household with the “grimy arrogance of the country demagogue”;9 completely devoid of social graces, he holds Etsuko in a nonsexual relationship that leaves her totally alone. Etsuko is overwhelmed by an insatiable passion for the young farm boy Saburo but is trapped as much as Sugimoto by a “pitiful, niggling, country respectability” (57). She experiences an immense passion for Saburo, but her attitude towards him remains a condescending one, as she quite clearly sees herself superior to him both in intelligence and in station.

There is no questioning Etsuko's passion for Saburo. When she sees the half-naked Saburo at the Autumn Festival of Hachiman Shrine, Etsuko is overcome in “a fierce clash of torpor and frenzy” (113). She feels she must remain in control, yet she wants to experience the power of her own sexuality. When her passion turns into rage and she kills Saburo, there is signaled that the society in which she lives is insensitive to her individual needs, and does not effectively direct, or even allow for, those human passions that are as much destructive as they are creative. As in other of Mishima's novels, freedom from prescription seems the ideal in Ai no Kawaki; with the death of Saburo, Etsuko seems free, both from the passion that had dominated her and from the ordinariness that otherwise characterized her life. After Sugimoto buries Saburo's body, he lies “sleepless and shivering” (199), unable to understand Etsuko's “innocent sleep” (199). What he does not understand is that Etsuko awakens in “darkness” seeing nothing; she is unable to “speak” (199). Etsuko's passion has left her with nothing; indeed it has destroyed the very thing she wanted. Similarly, her provincial values leave her trapped in a socially repressive environment from which there is no escape.

This lack of purpose, as well as the failure of traditional values, figures prominently in Mishima's tetralogy, Hojo no Umil10 (The Sea of Fertility) which, with its reference to the lifelessness of the moon's sea, suggests the aridity and emptiness of human existence. The first novel of the tetralogy, Haru no Yuki (1968; Spring Snow) recounts the doomed love affair between Kiyoaki and Satoko, which leads to Kiyoaki's physical death and Satoko's death to the world when she joins a religious group. Kiyoaki is from one of the rich provincial families that in the early twentieth century were beginning to challenge the power and influence of the Imperial Court. Satoko is from the waning aristocracy, and represents an elegant decadence that is an empty shell of its past glories. For Mishima, both the old and the new are equally destructive to individual growth and fulfillment. Kiyoaki wants to love Satoko, as she loves him, but he is unwilling to sacrifice his independence. Only when Satoko becomes engaged to a royal prince is Kiyoaki shocked out of his psychic paralysis to realize how much he loves her. By then, however, it is too late, as the edict of the Imperial Court demands that the marriage proceed.

A powerful message of the novel is how outmoded restrictions stand in the way of true human feelings. Indeed it is the faded values of the court, and the crass preoccupation of the new monied class with these values, that lead directly to Kiyoaki's death. The expectations and restrictions imposed on the doomed lovers create a maze from which there is no escape. It is to escape these restrictions that Satoko is eventually driven to deny the world by entering a nunnery, and it is this final desperate act that forces Kiyoaki to undertake, even though he is seriously ill, the long trip to make one final plea for her love. Kiyoaki's attraction to Satoko is compromised by her family background, society's standards condemn the passion of the two young lovers, social decorum stands between Kiyoaki and Satoko publicly declaring their love, and religion, when Satoko enters the nunnery, denies the tangibility of love.

Thus one finds in Haru no Yuki a tearing down of what has human value by the traditional values of society which are, at best, a fiction that has no meaning. Life ends with death, and with death there is no memory of what has gone before; there is no imprint on things to say that Kiyoaki and Satoko have made a difference. The intense sexual passion experienced between Kiyoaki and Satoko are only brief interludes in a life of frustration and unhappiness, and, in the end, these too are prevented by the interference of their families. What identity they achieve together and what freedom they experience in their few moments of love have no significance beyond what they are at the time: a few moments of happiness. All that is left is the simple yet brutal announcement of Kiyoaki's death.

Although Kiyoaki and Satoko figure most prominently in Haru no Yuki, it is the character Honda, who is Kiyoaki's boyhood friend, that connects the novels of the tetralogy. Drawing on the Buddhist teaching of reincarnation, Honda spends the remaining books searching for a reborn Kiyoaki. In Homba (1969; Runaway Horses), Honda, now a judge, believes he finds Kiyoaki in the figure of Isao, who coincidentally happens to be the son of Iinuma, who was the tutor of the young Kiyoaki. Told against the background of “The League of the Divine Wind,” which recounts an ill-fated attempt to overthrow a corrupt Meiji government, Homba is the story of Isao's efforts to organize a plot to destroy the new industrial magnates of modern Japan. The novel juxtaposes the old and the new, as Isao looks to reestablish Japanese custom and tradition. For Isao, the integrity of the emperor must be restored, as must the morality of the saumarai, who, as in “The League of the Divine Wind,” accepts seppuku11 rather than admit defeat. As Isao says at his trial, his purpose was to destroy the political corruption of the zaibatsu, which is the source of the evil “which shuts out the light of our most revered Emperor's benevolence.”12

What Isao does not count on is how he is controlled by forces which make the idealism of the past impossible to realize. He tells the judge at his trial that he espouses the philosophy of “congruity of thought and action” (p. 390); what he discovers is that his ambition is frustrated. For Isao, it is the ultimate insult that Honda should defend him and that, although he is found guilty of insurrection, his punishment should be remitted. It is, for Isao, tantamount to being disallowed the privilege of seppuku. Isao has no freedom; he is tied to an order that is either corrupt or has no meaning. Only when alone, without his former companions, who have abandoned him, can Isao act by murdering the industrialist Kurahara because he had desecrated a Shinto shrine. And only at the very end of the novel, when he finally plunges the dagger into his stomach, does Isao experience release from the forces that had so manipulated his life.

While Homba indeed seems a celebration of traditional values, there is implicit in the novel the question, at what cost? Isao is a young man, capable of loving and being loved. These basic human values seem eroded by a fanaticism that turns him away from recognizing what is basic and good in humankind. That Makiko wants him as her lover is unquestionable. But his preoccupation with the higher ideals of the past force him to forgo what life offers him in the present; the golden age can never be, and thus the novel concludes on the unsettling note that in the end there is nothing.

This vision is perhaps most noticeable in the final novel of the tetralogy, Tennin Gosui (1970; The Decay of the Angel). The aged Honda adopts Toru, a sixteen-year old boy, once again in the belief that he has rediscovered the Kiyoaki of his youth. Honda educates Toru, waiting for his dream to be fulfilled. What he discovers, however, is that Toru is the ultimate pragmatist, whose sole motivation is self-interest. Beyond this, Toru's view of the world is brutally frank: the individual, along with all his hopes and plans, has no significance. Toru likens human action to fragments of glass casting their light on the wall; they leave, Toru says, “no trace behind.”13

The full meaning of the waste that characterizes human existence does not become fully clear, however, until the very end of Tennin Gosui. Honda goes back sixty years later to Gesshu to meet with Satoko, who is now the superior of the order. To his horror Satoko denies ever having known Kiyoaki, and affirms for him the pointlessness of his search for another Kiyoaki. Satoko's denial of Kiyoaki is a final denial of the vision that began so intensely in Haru no Yuki. Honda's desire to keep Kiyoaki alive expresses the futile belief of all human beings that somewhere there is something of lasting significance. At the very end of the novel, Satoko takes Honda around the garden; as he pauses to look, Honda reflects to himself, “The garden was empty. He had come … to a place that had no memories, nothing” (236).

This final statement in Haru no Yuki offers a powerful summary of Mishima's view of the world. Unable to accept the new order of a modern Japan, and yet not able to live in a traditional world that has outgrown its usefulness, Mishima's novels become a study of a man torn between two unacceptable alternatives. In this regard Mishima captures much of the tension pervading the modern Japanese consciousness. Mishima's understanding of his age is profound. Perhaps where he lets us down is his inability to offer solutions, although one might counter that Mishima saw no obvious answer in a world that offered nothing to him.


  1. The best biography of Mishima written in English is Henry Scott Stokes, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima (1975; rpt. Harmondsworthy: Penguin, 1986).

  2. Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, trans. Ivan Morris (1950; rpt. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1984) 11. Subsequent references to this work are inserted parenthetically into the text.

  3. To translate ikebana as the art of arranging flowers is to reduce this traditional Japanese art form to the trivial. In dwelling on the great rhythms of life, death, and renewal, ikebana draws on the richness of Shinto, Taoism, and Buddhism, and, like the cherry blossom, evokes the aesthetic of perishability that is so deeply Japanese.

  4. The Sanskrit word, tathata or “that-way-ness” is the Real or Absolute Truth. Often translated as “suchness,” it is the one, uniform, undifferentiated reality beyond subject-object distinction. It is sunyata, or the emptying of oneself of all those things that define one as a limited human being, it is to see things such as they are, not as we would wish them to be; it is something being what it is, different from anything else.

  5. The koan, as an exercise of mind, in prescribed by a Zen master as a way of violating the logic which limits conventional understanding. The koan often takes the form of a question and answer between which there is no apparent relationship, and that thereby demonstrates the speciousness of language, and thus of the speculative intellect.

  6. Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, trans. John Nathan (1967. rpt. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1983) 9. Subsequent references to this work are inserted parenthetically into the text.

  7. Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, trans. Meredith Weatherby (Toronto: George J. McLeod, 1958) 212.

  8. Yukio Mishima, Forbidden Colours, trans. Alfred H. Marks (1969; rpt. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1981) 5. Subsequent references to this work are inserted parenthetically into the text.

  9. Yukio Mishima, Thirst for Love, trans. Alfred H. Marks (1970; rpt. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1987) 120. Subsequent references to this work are inserted parenthetically into the text.

  10. The Works of Mishima's tetralogy are Haru no Yuki (Spring Snow, 1968); Homba (Runaway Horses, 1969); Akatsuko no Tera (The Temple of the Dawn, 1970); and Tennin Gosui (The Decay of the Angel, 1970).

  11. The saumari or warrior practiced bushido or the code of the warrior, which saw seppuku or ritual suicide by disemboweling as the most honorable form of death.

  12. Yukio Mishima, Runaway Horses, trans. M. Gallagher (1973; rpt. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1985) 390. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  13. Yukio Mishima, The Decay of the Angel, trans. E. G. Seidensticker (1974; rpt. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1981) 146. Subsequent references are to this edition.

Andrew R. Smith (essay date April 1989)

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SOURCE: Smith, Andrew R. “Seeing through a Mask's Confession.” Text and Performance Quarterly 9, no. 2 (April 1989): 135-52.

[In the following essay, Smith examines Mishima's revelation and concealment in Confessions of a Mask.]

Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no Kokuhaku) was written in Japan just after World War II and is ostensibly an autobiographical account of Yukio Mishima's youth. The title already suggests an opposition between what one authentically expresses and what one surreptitiously constructs for public perception, and in reading we are confronted with questions concerning our own habitual notions of truth and deception. How is a mask capable of confession? Should we believe what we hear if what we perceive is not a human face? What are the criteria for understanding the difference (and/or similarity) between the assumptions of truth in confession and deception in the mask? An explication of the mobile, unfixed, process nature of this apparent opposition, as made manifest by a subject who has put himself on trial,1 can provide insight into the intentionality of a mask who/which confesses to those who risk listening. Mishima, in writing Kamen no Kokuhaku, inscribes the poetic movement of his life-world. Reading Confessions of a Mask compels a radical reflection on what we believe constitutes the truth of this poetic world.

My interest in Mishima's autobiographical writing stems from the problematical task of evaluating the dialectic between the aesthetics and politics of his seppuku (ritual suicide).2 Since his death, any reading of Mishima's literary work is saturated with irony. What may have been read as fiction while he was alive is now used by critics, biographers, and film makers as a guide to depicting his motivation for killing himself.3 Mishima provides warrants for this depiction in political and autobiographical essays that reveal an obsession to unify art and action.4 Wayne Booth's notion of the implied author of fiction as “an ideal, literary version of the real man … the sum of his own choices”5 would seem to take a poetic twist in Mishima's case: he creates a literary version of himself that becomes the object of his own desire. Indeed, he has described his writing as rehearsal for action, and in a note to his editor on November 2, 1948, Mishima claims that Confessions of a Mask will be his first autobiographical novel. He suggests more:

I will turn upon myself the scalpel of psychological analysis I have sharpened on fictive characters, I will attempt to dissect myself alive. I hope to achieve scientific accuracy, to become, in the words of Baudelaire, both the condemned and the executioner. It requires determination, but I will hold my nose and write ahead.6

Mishima's intent appears clear enough: he proposes to both be himself and not be himself at the same time. This logic of non-contradiction coheres with the notion of one whose confession is given through a mask, and we might assume that the hope for scientific accuracy makes the truth value of the text unproblematic. If we acritically accept this assumption, then we could easily accept the views of those who use Mishima's literary work as a way of symbolically representing his political motivation for seppuku. However, after completing Confessions of a Mask, Mishima qualifies the autobiographical emphasis. He states that writing the novel has been a recovery of life out of “the realm of death I had hitherto been living,” and this reinvigoration of life through inscription necessarily includes lies:

Although this is a confession, I have allowed “lies” to pasture freely in my novel, and when it seemed appropriate I gave them fodder to eat. Filling the stomachs of the lies in this way kept them from molesting the vegetable patches of “truth.”

In the same sense, only a mask which has eaten into the flesh, a mask which has put on flesh, can make a confession. The basic nature of a confession is that “confessions are impossible.”7

Mishima's statement makes the locus of truth problematic, but if we approach his text searching for the “vegetable patches of ‘truth,’” then we are attempting to tear loose the mask from the flesh. We should rather attempt to depict how a mask puts on flesh, or how flesh is formed into a mask. In this essay I argue that the locus for analysis should move from symbolic forms enunciated in the confessions of a mask, to an unveiling of the signifying processes discovered in the reversible relation between a mask and a confession. Mishima's truth can be heard in the movement of this living paradox,8 and by listening carefully we can begin to gain some insight into the ethical relation between his aesthetics and politics.

Julia Kristeva's theory of the writing/speaking subject of poetic language is especially well-suited as a methodology for this textual analysis. Kristeva's notion of the signifying process as an embodiment of symbolic forms and semiotic functions9 provides a way of explicating the non-contradictory opposition between Mishima's mask and confession. I introduce Kristeva's theory of poetic language and her methodology for semanalysis in the following section. The terms of the Japanese title, Kamen no Kokuhaku, are then defined as a way of perceiving the reversibility of a mask's confession as a poetic function operating on paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes of language. The poetic function of Mishima's text structures two movements which I analyze, following Kristeva, as mimetic transpositions. One transposition is embedded in the story through depictions of the real and imaginary world of a young man who (1) is seduced by a demonic force, (2) progressively embodies the objects of his desire, and finally (3) rejects the sexuality of the ideal woman. A second transposition is embedded in Mishima's discourse with the reader where direct and indirect appeals are made for (1) a suspension of judgment, (2) a critical reflection on the moral status of action, and (3) an intuitive grasp of a higher aesthetic morality.

Mishima's revealing confession necessarily entails a concealing mask. Kristeva's theory articulates the continual motility among signifying practices that both reveal and conceal, and her methodology provides sharp light for explicating the poetic and rhetoric of a text. My task is to interrogate the mobile nature and function of Mishima's truth in Confessions of a Mask. I believe this interrogation will provide a basis for further critical inquiry into Mishima's aesthetics, ethics, and politics in particular, and Japanese axiology in general.


Kristeva's theory of poetic language constitutes a conjunction between two theoretical traditions, the first emanating from Freud and the psychoanalytic school of semiotics and the second originating with Husserl and transcendental phenomenology. The former is primarily concerned with the motivated sign relation10 found in the drives and their articulations, while the latter develops a structure of categorical meaning which can situate a fixed transcendental ego.11 Kristeva characterizes this latter designation of the position of the subject historically situated in discourse as the realm of the symbolic, that which is represented in language, the signified. She argues that even though this predicative operation is a valid aspect of poetic language, it is “only one of its limits, certainly constitutive, but not all encompassing.”12 She contends that if we restrict ourselves to the meaning and intent of poetic language, then we will fail to see that which “departs from the signified and the transcendental ego and makes what is known as ‘literature’ something other than knowledge: the very place where the social code is destroyed and renewed. …”13 Kristeva challenges us to locate this place in textual practice and suggests ways in which we may perceive what she defines as the semiotic chora and explicate its dialectical relation with the symbolic realm.

The semiotic chora serves the primary poetic function in that it is anterior to meaning and signification and emerges as a break in the symbolic realm.14 The anteriority of the semiotic chora can be detected, for example, in an infant's drive to acquire language. The infant's articulations precede the first phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, and sentences, and what we hear are rhythms and intonations that are associated with the primary processes of the drives (biological, psychological, socio-cultural). Kristeva argues that these same primary processes are at work in poetic language, and the presence of this semiosis in a text is suggested through articulations such as repetition, elision, opposition, symmetrical and asymmetrical rhythm, tonality, continuity and discontinuity, and other nondiscursive functions. The semiotic chora musicalizes through these functions, and is continually at work on a path of assimilation and/or destruction. The child poetically assimilates as s/he attempts to express h—self, represent her world, and respond to people and things. S/he is creating her grammaticality through the semiotic flow. The “schizophrenic flow,” on the other hand, poetically de-structures through language, “approaching and displacing the signifier to practice within it the heterogenous generating of the desiring machine.”15

If the symbolic realm is conceived as categorical structures for the representation of meaning, and the semiotic chora is understood as pre-symbolic drives that musicalize articulations for meaning, then the multiple possibilities for the generation and interpretation of texts should reside in the dialectical relations between the symbolic and the semiotic. Kristeva conceives this dialectical threshold of language as “negativity (Negativitat), which may be thought of as both the cause and the organizing principle of the process. … The concept of negativity, distinct from that of nothingness (Nichts) and negation (Negation), figures as the indissoluble relation between an ‘ineffable’ mobility and its ‘particular determination.’”16 Negativity generates the semiotic function and creates a path for meaning that “exceeds the signifying subject, binding him to the laws of objective struggles in nature and society.”17 That is to say, each of us pre-reflectively embodies natural and social orders that situate our signifying practices.18 If we wish to reflect critically on these practices, then we necessarily engage negativity as conscious experience. This engagement, understood as a splitting of self, entails both a binding and a rejection. Negativity binds us to family, work, class, ethnicity, history, biological processes, and Nature, and it rejects when we posit any one of these structures or systems as an object “separate from the body proper.” When this object, previously embodied as a pre-reflective experience, is separated, negativity “fixes it in place as absent, as a sign. In this way rejection establishes the object as real. …”19 We shall see how Mishima discovers his binding to the natural and social order, and posits objects as absent and real. This rejection exacerbates the force that splits him as a signifying subject, which has its destructive impulse, but also enables him to succeed in moving through the “linguistic network” and practice “the objective process by submerging in it and emerging from it through the drives.”20 He becomes both the condemned and the executioner because he participates in a signifying practice that redefines his relation to nature, society, and his body.

We also experience negativity as binding and rejection when we become immersed in a book, film, discussion, our work, another person, or any other text. Indeed, immersion is possible only when one embodies the negativity of textual experience. In order to grasp negativity as readers of Confessions of a Mask we should be willing to become subjects in process/on trial and redefine our relation to nature, society, and the body proper. As readers we become inscribers of a signifying practice that requires us to reject (make conscious) fixations of self-identity, prescriptions for propriety, inferences, and moral judgments. We essentially engage in a moral dialogue with Mishima, and in so doing we are poetically affirmed by his style of writing, morally repulsed by actions he depicts, and rhetorically negated through his analytical appeals. These processes, which direct and redirect the path of negativity between writer and reader, are constraints realized by a particular syntax.21 Syntax in the broad sense used here includes grammaticality, narrative dysjunctions and conjunctions, repetition of schemes and tropes, as well as the structure of textual voices (protagonist, narrators, implied author, implied auditor, our own). Mishima's syntax is capable of leading us to the place where he “is both generated and negated, the place where his unity succumbs before the process of charges and stases that produce him.”22 Following this path of negativity is possible only when we perceive the “logical functioning of the movement that produces the theses.”23 Rather than becoming fixated by particular theses such as poetic affirmations, moral pulsations, or rhetorical negations, we instead consciously experience the logic which functions as the binding force among these positions. Again, such perception requires rejection. The explication of negativity then becomes a radical reflection on one's own experience of reading, which differs from every other reading, and involves a maieutic of speaking and listening. Natural and social codes can be both destroyed and renewed in this maieutic, and the perils of such engagement in reading Mishima cannot be overemphasized.

A maieutic in the Socratic sense means that we participate in an interrogative dialogue, through a conscious experience of immersion, where voices overlap and the distinction between who is speaking and who is listening becomes blurred.24 This maieutic is precisely where we find Mishima in his writing of a confession by a mask. He posits himself as an other for himself and presents the ensuing dialogue to the world, which involves an intricately complex blending of voices between self and other.25 Participating in a maieutic while reading does not necessarily mean that one identify with a character, the narrator, or the implied author; it means that one embody the negativity offered by the textual experience and genuinely engage the movement among aesthetic, ethical, and rhetorical topologies. In the reading process the maieutic becomes a transpositional movement between writer and reader among choices of narrative, metalanguage, contemplation, and poetic text.26 Although these four signifying practices are Kristeva's designations for specific genres of writing, in Mishima's work they organize a recursive movement. Negativity is the encompassing and mobilizing force of this entire revolution that becomes heard and actualized through the “genuine pretense” of engaging in a maieutic with a text.27

Kristeva's methodological concept of semanalysis provides a way to explicate the workings of negativity in Confessions of a Mask. Semanalysis examines what Kristeva defines as the phenotext, the genotext, and the text. The phenotext resides on the plane of expression where denotative and connotative meanings in the structure of the sign relation of signifier and signified are taken as objects for analysis. For example, both of the terms “confession” and “mask” have particular denotations and connotations in the English language that condition our initial understanding or confusion about Mishima's autobiographical novel. The phenotext involves a description of these predispositions of meaning since they constitute “the signifying system as it presents itself to phenomenological intuition … describable in terms of structure, or of competence/performance, or according to other models.”28 The phenotext coheres with our previous definition of the symbolic realm where we find deep structures of semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic meaning. I begin my analysis of the phenotext in Confessions of a Mask with a discussion of the title's Japanese terms, then move to metaphorical and metonymic significations whose reversibilities suggest the semiotic functions of a genotext.

The genotext resides on the plane of perception where we imaginatively associate signifiers with each other and transform that which is signified into other signifiers, a process which in turn initiates what Peirce defines as unlimited semiosis. This continual motility is a process where “one might see the release and subsequent articulation of the drives as constrained by the social code yet not reducible to the language system. …”29 The genotext coheres with our previous definition of the semiotic chora where motivated pre-symbolic movement follows a path for imminent expression. This movement is seen, for example, in the pattern depicted by reversibilities, discontinuities, and tonalities; it constitutes the underlying foundation of language.30 For example, in the following section I depict how a mask can be perceived as a confession, and how a confession can be expressed as a mask. Both processes are constrained by a socio-cultural code and yet are anterior to the deep structures of the language system. The symbolic representation of a genotext is impossible, because the minute it is expressed as a mark or a trace, it no longer is serving its semiotic function. An analogy can be drawn to quanta in physics which pass through material forms and lose their identity and force as quanta when fixated as either particles or waves.31 The explication of the genotext is necessarily a self-conscious practice where we should realize both the limitation of the sedimented language system and the power of speech as it passes through and materially changes that system.32

Finally, the notion of text can be understood as the dialectical relation (negativity) produced between the phenotext and genotext. The text encompasses and exceeds the signifying practices of narrative, metalanguage, and contemplation, and embodies “instinctual binomials,” or “two opposing terms that alternate in endless rhythm.”33 In addition to the textual dyads of Confessions of a Mask mentioned previously, instinctual binomials include the negativity between phenotext and genotext in general as well as, following Jakobson, any “double-sensed message” that “finds correspondence in a split-addresser, in a split-addressee and … split reference.”34 This “poetic function” of the message makes subject, object, and reference ambiguous. I discuss this ambiguity as the basis for the reversibility between confession and mask in the following section. The terms “mask” and “confession” explicitly mark a phenotext, and the oppositional reversibility of these terms suggests the locus of a genotext. The truth of the autobiographical novel becomes situated as a condition of this reversibility, which further contextualizes possibilities for insight that exceed the novel itself. This excess, fostered by the split of ambiguity, is what biographers of Mishima seize upon in their symbolic depictions of his motivation for seppuku. In contrast, I wish to suggest a movement of negativity that can be understood as Mishima's poetic truth, which necessarily includes ourselves as readers. The depiction of this truth is not a hypostatization of fundamental Cause or absolute Truth, but can be conceived as a hypothesis, or a formation of judgment that requires further inquiry.


Mishima's expressed intent to “dissect myself alive” is a way of creating a split in the symbolic realm of the self. This symbolic split between mask and confession is Mishima's existential thesis. Kristeva suggests that a thesis “is structured as a break in the signifying process, establishing the identification of the subject and its object as preconditions of propositionality.”35 This split can be understood as an enunciation which “requires an identification … the subject must separate from and through his image, from and through his objects.”36 Mishima's positioning of himself as both “condemned and executioner” precisely expresses the notion of identification through separation and demarcates the forces of opposition in the symbolic realm. Symbolically dissecting the living self unleashes the power of desire and the desire for power which defines his existence. Explicating the reversibility between apparent oppositions reveals the path of textual negativity. I begin this semanalysis with the Japanese title, Kamen no Kokuhaku, which grounds the field of Mishima's existential situation in the breach between autobiography and novel, truth and lies, and confession and mask.

The literal translation of Kamen no Kokuhaku is ‘A Mask's Confession.’ The English title of the novel makes confession plural, which implies a series of statements. The Japanese Kokuhaku (Confession) leaves the singular/plural ambiguous; it can be understood both as a contiguous arrangement of voices and as a simultaneous whole marked by a singular voice. The Japanese particle “no” indicates the possessive form; thus “mask's” can be understood more significantly as attribution: the mask is the subject who gives voice(s) to a confession. The Japanese title is marked by ambiguity, active voice, and attribution, which are all left unmarked in the English translation. An analysis of the terms Kamen and Kokuhaku suggests an ethnographic context for understanding the reversibility of their signification.37

Kamen is the Japanese term for “Mask” and contains two morphemes.38 The kanji for Ka means that which is borrowed temporarily, provisional, or assumed. The associated Buddhist Ke means vanity or a preoccupation with the image of oneself. The kanji for men refers to facial features, the surface, or superficial aspect; it is also associated with the term omote, which means the face as external appearance, what is shown to the public, one's public self. Kamen can be understood as one's ‘assumed (public) self’.

Kokuhaku is the Japanese term for confession and also contains two morphemes. The kanji for koku is associated with the modern form of the verb tsugeru, which means to tell or inform—thus, speaking. Tsugeru is derived from the older form tsuge which denotes an oracle and implies an experience of revelation. The kanji for haku denotes whiteness (shiro) and connotes innocence. Kokuhaku as confession can be understood as ‘innocent (oracular) speaking’.

Kamen no Kokuhaku means ‘an assumed (public) self's innocent (oracular) speaking’. An assimilation of the normative identity of a collective other, taken from the conscious experience of sedimented socio-symbolic codes, is contrasted with the innocence and power of authentic speech in a timeless and prophetic world. A Mask's Confession is a sedimented self's authentic speaking. This contrast is non-contradictory, and in fact conditions the poetic articulation of the reversibility between self and other in Confessions of a Mask. For Mishima this articulation is the nexus where the social mask becomes positioned as an oracle and the oracular confession is situated socially. There are cultural precedents for this perception of reversibility, which Mishima incorporates into his story and discourse.

Girard discusses how in primitive societies the mask is a source of power and marks the equivocal frontier between the human and the divine.39 This function of the mask can be seen in Japanese Noh drama and certain Shinto festivals, for example, where the human and divine intermingle with the aid of masks. Mishima narrates how as a child he becomes transfixed by a priest carrying a fox mask at the head of the “Summer Festival” (Obon). He also elaborates throughout the novel how his (protagonist's) masking process (“masquerade”; “machine of falsehood”) unleashes a demonic force beyond his will to control. In both instances, contact with a deity is intensified through masking. Intentional configuration of the mask is a ritual process whereby alignment with and embodiment of an imminent force becomes possible.

Confession in Western tradition has also served the symbolic function of aligning the human and the divine, and Mishima draws upon this tradition through his references to St. Augustine, predestination, and various experiences of “sin.” To confess is to engage in a process of purification through speaking, and in this light Ricoeur has characterized confession of sin as the “experience of being oneself but alienated from oneself” that through speaking “gets transcribed on the plane of language in the mode of interrogation.”40 Being oneself while simultaneously being alienated from oneself suggests Mishima's insight concerning the mask of confession. Any confession necessarily wears a mask of language that expresses truth in the same logical manner as a mask taking on flesh. In this sense, truth is not possible without the simultaneous expression of lies. The logic of Mishima's statement that only a mask taking on flesh is capable of confession and a confession not masked is impossible, becomes clearer. We now move to a discussion of this non-contradictory logic as it functions on two dimensions of language. This analysis, based primarily on Jakobson's communication theory, provides a linguistic framework for the explication of negativity in Mishima's text.

A mask which is part flesh is a metaphoric substitution for both one's actual face and an autonomous mask; the relation between mask, face, and fleshy mask is paradigmatic. A confession as masked suggests a metonymic arrangement of various speech acts, each act of the confession signifying the mask; the acts are given syntagmatically. The paradigmatic axis of language can be conceived as a vertical dimension of absent forms which can be selected and substituted for those symbols of a syntagmatic chain which serve similar functions. For example, in a sentence nouns in absentia can be selected and substituted for similar nouns in presentia, verbs with other verbs, and so on. Thus a mask substitutes for the face depending upon perceived prescriptions or proscriptions in the unfolding of textual situations. The syntagmatic axis of language is the horizontal combination of various linguistic forms presented contiguously according to syntactic rules. The sentence is the most obvious example of syntagmatic arrangement, but any text is combined syntagmatically. In this sense we can think of the confession as an elaborate intentionally constructed interrogation.

Jakobson has shown how reversibilities on the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes of language are characteristic of the poetic function of a textual message. He states that the “poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.41 In Kristeva's terms, the absence (“outside”) in the paradigmatic dimension established by rejection is projected by a speaking subject to a position within the signifying system of the syntagmatic dimension (“predicate”).42 The poetic reversibility of mask and confession on the two dimensions of language means that through reading we project the mask as an intentionally constructed utterance and the confession as a functional face. Negativity becomes embodied as we perceive the mask absorbing the confession and the confession becoming a camouflaging mask. This perceptual shift operates on the level of the genotext and requires a process of rejection. For example, Mishima discusses in the text how as a child he constructs a “machine of falsehood” based upon what others do, think, and say because what he truly desires is too bizarre to acknowledge. This contrivance becomes his “masquerade” systematically created over a period of time. The masking process connotes an unfinished product continually molded according to the subject's expression and perception of social relationships. The mask, previously conceived as a surrogate face, now becomes a syntagmatic arrangement of features that constitute the desire for confession. The confession, on the other hand, relates a masking process as story while simultaneously creating a metalevel masking through face-to-face discourse with the reader. These reversible movements on the axes of language find their concrete actualizations in Mishima's story and discourse as two forms of mimetic transposition.


Throughout Confessions of a Mask Mishima describes (1) the pantheistic forces that speak to him, (2) those persons whom he desires to become, and (3) his configuration of the ideal woman. Each of these sets constitutes a series of transformations where one voice, object of desire, or ideal form condenses and replaces what has come before in the series and displaces each of the other contiguous sets. Identification is substantiated metaphorically while identities are differentiated metonymically. The reader is also confronted with questions, comments, and arguments which situate (1) a suspension of judgment, (2) a critical reflection on the moral status of action, and (3) an intuitive grasp of a higher aesthetic morality. These sets make the mask of language self-conscious and challenge the reader to judge him or herself on the same terms that he or she judges the writer. The positioning of the appeals redirects the semiotic flow from one signifying system (the world of the story; monologue) to another (the world of the reader; dialogue).43

I have just identified two distinct yet complementary movements, each of which operates on both the syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes of language. Even though these movements are commonly understood as forms of intertexuality, Kristeva uses the term “transposition” as a way of capturing the change of perspective since it “specifies that the passage from one signifying system to another demands a new articulation of the thetic, of enunciative and denotative positionality.”44 I have limited each transposition to a movement within and among three sets, and suggest that each movement is motivated by mimesis. Kristeva considers mimesis to be:

the construction of an object, not according to truth but to verisimilitude, to the extent that the object is posited as such (hence separate, noted but not denoted); it is, however, internally dependent on a subject of enunciation who is unlike the transcendental ego in that he does not suppress the semiotic chora but instead raises the chora to the status of signifier, which may or may not obey the laws of grammatical locution. Such is the connoted mimetic object.45

For Mishima, the connoted mimetic object is continually re-articulated, positioned, and questioned as a signifier. As we shall see, each transposition retains a resemblance of truth that is not absolute Truth. For us the interrogation of this movement makes conscious our own ideological assumptions,46 which in turn become mobilized as signifiers and potentially placed in abeyance. Participating with the text in this manner engages a maieutic that enables us to mime Mishima's movement of desire, even though we are repulsed by the particular determinations of this desire. Wilshire helps us understand these processes of mimesis more clearly. His definition is a “continuous energy and absorption” characteristic of the “dangers and powers of … engulfment.”47 And the reader's assimilation of a text which repulses him/her is understood as a pre-conscious taking over of another's attitudes “without realizing that it is he who is taking over the other's attitude towards himself.”48 There are two poles for each of these forms of mimesis in reading Mishima's text. The protagonist vacillates between dark (symbolized by metaphors of evil) and light (symbolized by metaphors of Woman) as he is engulfed in the continuum of his desire. And the reader who is repulsed vacillates between his or her own assumed criteria for judgment made conscious through the criteria generated by Mishima.

The change of perspective in each mimetic transposition is significant. The movement of Mishima's desire can be heard as a melody (continuity) while the reader's assimilation constitutes the development of a harmony (discontinuity). The sets in the first movement intermingle with the sets in the second and constitute variations in tone, rhythm, recurrence, as well as sudden clashes and breaks which stop short any predictable path for negativity. Mishima's description of the “Summer Festival,” which I quote at length below, is a condensation of the entire text's musicality.49 This fragment provides one of the first images of an absent power that is heterogeneous to the signifying subject and poised for release. The absence appears to be conducting the orchestra of the ritual.

On this particular day I was standing in front of the gate with other members of the household. Both leaves of the vine-patterned iron gate had been thrown open, and water had been sprinkled neatly on the paving stones outside the gate. The hesitant sound of drums was drawing near.

The plaintive melody of a chant, in which individual words only gradually became distinguishable, pierced through the confused tumult of the festival, proclaiming what might be called the true theme of this outwardly purposeless uproar—a seeming lamentation for the extremely vulgar mating of humanity and eternity, which could be consummated only through some such pious immorality as this. In the tangled mass of sound I could gradually distinguish the metallic jingle of the rings on the staff carried by the priest at the head of the procession, the stuttering roar of drums, and the medley of rhythmic shouts from the youths shouldering the sacred shrine. My heart was beating so suffocatingly that I could scarcely stand. (Ever since then violent anticipation has always been anguish rather than joy for me.)

The priest carrying the staff was wearing a fox mask. The golden eyes of this occult beast fastened themselves too intently upon me, as though to bewitch me, and the procession passing before my eyes aroused in me a joy akin to terror. Before I knew it, I felt myself grab hold of the skirt of whoever it was from our house that was standing beside me: I was ready to run away at the first excuse. (Ever since those days this has been the attitude with which I have always confronted life: from things too much waited for, too much embellished with anticipatory daydreams, there is in the end nothing I can do but run away.)

Behind the priest came a group of firemen … and then a crowd of children. … Finally the principal shrine of the procession drew near, the majestic black and gold omikoshi. From afar we had already seen the golden phoenix on its peak, swaying and rocking dazzlingly above the din and bustle, like a bird floating to and fro among the waves; already the sight had filled us with a sort of bewildered feeling of uneasiness. Now the shrine itself came into view, and there was a venomous state of dead calm, like the air of the tropics, which clung solely about the shrine. It seemed a malevolent sluggishness, trembling hotly above the naked shoulders of the young men carrying the omikoshi. And within the guardrails of the black lacquer and gold, behind those fast-shut doors of gold leaf, there was a four-foot cube of pitch blackness.

This perfect cube of empty night, ceaselessly swaying and leaping, to and fro, up and down, was boldly reigning over the cloudless noonday of early summer.


The narrative continues to describe the sensual forms of the young men carrying the shrine, how they lose control of themselves all in one movement, and in a Dionysian frenzy destroy the garden in front of the protagonist's house. This passage illustrates the topology and potential destruction of the semiotic chora, symbolically positioned as a movement of “pious immorality.” The symmetrical and asymmetrical rhythms, tones, and textures of the procession mark the ritual boundaries which contain a power poised for release, a power situated in the omikoshi as “empty night.” When the power takes a path for release, “wanton destruction” and sacrifice are the inevitable result. The semiotic chora heard in the festival and unleashed in the garden is revealed in other forms and transposed to other sets in the story.

The first indications of Mishima's connoted mimetic objects can be heard early in the text. Transpositional movement is introduced through a narrative description and interpretation of “tragic lives.” The first tragic life the young Mishima perceives is the “night-soil man … a ladler of excrement.”

The scrutiny I gave the youth was unusually close for a child of four. Although I did not clearly perceive it at the time, for me he represented my first revelation of a certain power, my first summons by a strange and secret voice. It is significant that this was first manifested to me in the form of a night-soil man: excrement is a symbol for the earth, and it was doubtlessly the malevolent love of the Earth Mother calling to me.

I had a presentiment then that there is in this world a kind of desire like stinging pain. Looking up at that dirty youth I was choked by desire thinking “I want to change into him,” thinking “I want to be him.”


I somehow felt it was “tragic” for a person to make his living in the midst of such an odor. Existences and events occurring without any relationship to myself, occurring at places that not only appealed to my sense but were moreover denied to me—these, together with the people involved in them, constituted my definition of “tragic things.” It seemed that my grief at being eternally excluded was always transformed in my dreaming into grief for those persons and their ways of life, and that solely through my own grief I was able to share in their existences.


These two segments of narrative together provide a condensation of oppositional movement. The former introduces the desire to become what one is not, and the latter indicates the social exclusion and grief associated with such desire. An imagined inclusion exacerbates exclusion. Mishima explicitly states that this experience is “transferred through these same emotions” to others who share an apparent tragic fate. The reader is introduced to each figure in turn as the novel progresses. They include soldiers in uniform, ticket punchers at the train stations, pictures of St. Sebastian, a delinquent classmate named Omi, and the “ephebe.” The protagonist experiences transference of self-identity to an other, then connotes the identity of this other with others who embody all that he is not.

The above passages also illustrate the first commingling of mythological power, mimetic desire, and tragic fate. Mythological power is expressed by “the malevolent love of the Earth Mother.” The Japanese “Ne no haha akui aru ai” literally translated means ‘(the) Root Mother's evil intent of love.’ Ne no haha (Root Mother) is a poetic expression of an opposition between a Root … evil and Mother's … love. This association initiates a metaphoric transformation which reveals the movement of negativity between the two poles of mimetic desire. The dark pole is expressed as a presence of some absence which holds a fateful power. We have already discussed this force as symbolically residing in the “empty night” of the omikoshi, which coheres with the darkness of the “Root Mother.” This living pantheistic force, which resides in the natural and socio-cultural worlds, eventually is given a voice which mobilizes mimetic desire. Desire increases in intensity through each new embodiment and the demonic force is unleashed, again in Dionysian frenzy, beyond the protagonist's power to control. The imaginings and desires that result constitute a self which must be masked, and the protagonist begins weaving an intricate web of personal and social deception.

The protagonist's relationship to the ideal woman forms the opposite pole of his mimetic desire and forces him to confront his masquerade. Certain performers and historical figures are singled out early in his life whose features correspond to the beauty and purity of a goddess. As he matures he develops an artificial attraction toward most girls until he meets Sonoko, who invokes his earlier imaginings.

When she was almost at the bottom of the steps Sonoko noticed me and smiled. Her fresh cheeks were flushed from the cold. Her eyes … were glistening as though trying to speak. Then … she came running down the platform toward me with a graceful motion like the trembling of light.

What I saw come running toward me was … the herald of morning tidings. Had it not been for this fact, I could have met her with my usual fraudulent hopes. But, to my perplexity, my instinct was forced to recognize a different quality in Sonoko alone. This gave me a profound, bashful feeling of being unworthy of Sonoko, and yet it was not a feeling of servile inferiority. Each second while I watched Sonoko approach, I was attacked by an unendurable grief. It was a feeling such as I had never had before. Grief seemed to undermine and set tottering the foundations of my existence. Until this moment the feeling with which I had regarded women had been an artificial mixture of childlike curiosity and feigned sexual desire. My heart had never before been swayed, and at first glance, by such deep and unexplainable grief, a grief moreover that was no part of my masquerade.


Sonoko serves as a pivotal moment in the text, the moment where the protagonist realizes that the grief experienced in her presence is the totalizing embodiment of the grief sensed earlier toward tragic figures. This final “unexplainable” grief experienced through the “trembling … light” of Sonoko is a grief associated with the gradual realization that the exclusive tragic figure has become himself. In her presence Mishima sees himself unmasked. Grief is the modality of recognition which serves as a sufficient condition for confession.

We have just discussed one mimetic transposition, the protagonist's desire to become the tragic figures of desire, which are in turn associated with both a demonic force at one extreme and the radiance of a beautiful woman at the other. This movement of desire is punctuated throughout by grief, which is motivated by masking and unmasking processes that define conditions for confession. Confession entails the expressed recognition of the capitulation to the external force, the deception in the masquerade, and the potential for revelation. Mishima's discourse with the reader introduces interrogative dialogue as the modality for confession and a metalevel of masking. His questions, comments, and arguments displace our immersion in the story and our tendencies to judge prematurely.

One form of discourse is psychoanalytic commentary. For example, the protagonist's first encounter with the picture of St. Sebastian tied to a tree and pierced with arrows arouses his sexual desire. The depiction of this scene is quite graphic, and my initial repulsion is tempered by the poetic expression of the scene, the apparent innocence of the boy, and finally by Mishima's parenthetical statement:

(It is an interesting coincidence that Hirshfeld should place “pictures of St. Sebastian” in the first rank of those kinds of art works in which the invert takes special delight. This observation of Hirshfeld's leads easily to the conjecture that in the overwhelming majority of cases of inversion, especially of congenital inversion, the inverted and the sadistic impulses are inextricably entangled with each other).


This reference and subsequent references which again draw upon the insights of Hirshfeld and others provide a category for our response to the anomalous nature of increasingly sadistic (imagined) sexual acts. The testimony brackets the bizarre and indicates that the relation between inversion and sadism is a clinical condition which the author will assist us in evaluating. Subsequent to the above commentary, a short historical sketch of St. Sebastian is given, followed by a direct appeal: “Desiring that my own rapture before the legend … be understood more clearly as the fierce, sensual thing it was, I insert the following unfinished piece, which I wrote several years later” (42). Here again there is a break in the temporal locus of the story. The “prose poem” which follows this comment is replete with metaphors of ideal form, tragic fate, pagan ritual, and sacrificial violence. The topology of the chora is shown as continuous over time through discontinuity in the story, and Mishima's discourse nurtures intellectual and emotional assimilation.

Interrogation takes another form in the narrative when the protagonist hears a voice which admonishes him for his monstrous inclinations and self-deceit in the context of his attempt to feel sexual desire toward Sonoko.

Then again a different voice mocked me, secret and persistent. This voice was filled with an almost feverish honesty, a human feeling I had never experienced before. It bombarded me with questions in quick succession: Is it love you feel? If so, all right. But do you have a desire for women? Aren't you deceiving yourself when you say that it's toward her alone that you have never had a “lustful desire”? Aren't you trying to hide from yourself the fact that actually you've never had a “lustful desire” for any woman? What right on earth do you have to use the word “lustful”?


This voice continues in second person with a detailed analysis and castigation of the young man's fantasies, desires, and false pretenses. And it is through this voice that we begin to hear our own. Which text are we reading? Is it the manifest text or the text of our own judgment? Here again we transgress the phenotext and begin to hear the rhythms and intonations of the genotext. The protagonist's struggle conveyed to us through internal questioning exposes our own tendencies to judge before the confession is complete. Our pre-reflective drives to judge are made self-conscious as we witness self-conscious judgment being made reflective. This negativity, understood as a transpositional movement that structures an alignment (mimesis) between reader and writer, is made even more explicit through direct dialectical questioning.

The confession is that which is manifest in questioning, and is grasped only through the maieutic actualized between writer and reader. In order to hear the authenticity of both the mask and the confession, we should embody the melodies, harmonies, and voices of the genotextual experience. This listening becomes the necessary and sufficient conditions for judgment on the moral status of emotion, thought, and action to which we stand witness. We participate in setting the boundary conditions for accommodating an other who is quite different from, yet somehow resembles, ourselves. Mishima does not give us much of a chance to be hypocrites. For example, in considering his masquerade Mishima asks if we are innocent of desire functionally similar to his own.

But, it may well be asked, can a person be so completely false to his own nature? even for one moment? If the answer is no, then there is no way to explain the mysterious mental process by which we crave things we actually do not want at all, is there? If it is granted that I was the exact opposite of the ethical man who suppresses his immoral desires, does this mean my heart was cherishing the most immoral desires? In any case, were my desires not exceedingly petty? Or had I deceived myself completely? Was I actually acting in every last detail as a slave of convention? … The time was to come when I could no longer shirk the necessity of finding answers to these questions. …


The logic of these questions can be understood as follows: If as a reader you shirk the necessity of finding answers to these questions for yourself, then in judging you deceive yourself and become a hypocrite. If you do not shirk the responsibility, then you necessarily make culpable your own predispositions for judgment. We are asked to displace ourselves and face the oppositions of our own mask and confession. Either we legitimize our mask and prematurely judge, thus standing with the executioner who is executing the condemned, or we legitimize the confession and identify with the protagonist, thus standing with the condemned and executing ourselves. The only other alternatives are either to quit reading or to realize the reversible relation between a mask and a confession as actualized in the transpositional dimensions of textuality and sense an orientation (Sens) toward another dimension of truth. These are the logical choices in reading that need to be considered if we can begin to understand the significance of Confessions of a Mask as well as Mishima's life and death.


We have seen that Mishima's confession is an interrogation through both the story's masquerade and the discourse's mask of language. Mishima's rejection of an external, pantheistic force that is materially absent yet real suggests a conscious experience of a presence which binds him to the natural and socio-cultural network. Through this binding we see quite graphically that negativity as rejection assumes both a presence and an absence, involves an intersection between these oppositional positions, and produces the possibility of embodying others that are distinct from oneself. The placement of a power which is ostensibly beyond Mishima's will to control generates a modality of perception and expression which becomes mutated for the protagonist in ways that must be concealed from the public eye. The young boy, as an ostensible victim of the demonic predestined force, finds it necessary to create a masquerade to hide his real identity and protect himself from both himself and others. The masquerade is fodder for the demon; the greater the deception, the greater the demonic power, and conversely, the greater the need to speak the truth.

The expression of truth emerges through the genotext as a transpositional process of desire and questioning which concerns not simply individual acts and events, but also the logic and operative intentionality of a person who is reconstructing, disclosing, and in fact creating himself through the production of a text which includes ourselves. Mishima engages this structuring and de-structuring practice by unleashing and symbolically harnessing a semiotic flow which is continually on the brink of destruction of the self and assimilation of the other. This signifying practice defines the questionable subject-in-process/on-trial. Mishima depicts a conscious experience of anomalous desire in the face of socio-cultural norms, and through dialogical interrogation suggests the criteria upon which any ultimate judgment of the voice(s) we hear depends. In unabashedly facing the truth of his deception, Mishima challenges all those who read or perform his work to face such a truth for themselves. And this “feverish honesty” suggests a higher aesthetic morality that transcends moral repulsion of acts depicted in the story.

As a reader who engages in the interrogative dialogue with Mishima, and as one who is critically aware of his politics and seppuku, I can escape neither the irony of reading the text nor the desire to render a moral evaluation based upon a knowledge of his life and death. There are two ways to handle this irony of desire. The first is to produce a performance of Confessions of a Mask that depicts my interpretation of the path of negativity through both forms of mimetic transposition.50 This depiction could then serve as a basis for intercultural dialogue on the ethical relation between aesthetics and politics. The two films mentioned previously51 introduce the complexity of representation and interpretation of Mishima's ethic. Schrader's film suggests a strong coherence (iconically, indexically, symbolically) between Mishima's literary work, his autobiographical writings, and his final day. The viewer is left with a concrete judgment of Mishima's motivation.52 The BBC documentary presents more ambiguity in signification through narratives of those who knew Mishima; discussions with Mishima himself; and actual film footage of his seppuku speech, photographic sessions, and other public performances. Both films serve as models for performance, and part of my project involves the critical review of this material.

The second way to handle irony of desire in an engagement of the ethical problem is to investigate the cultural history of the pantheistic force that Mishima posits as a unitary subject. Mishima is repulsed by the “pious immorality” of this force's representation in Shinto ritual, yet he ultimately assimilates the negativity of the path this force offers. Mishima appears to become the embodiment of a unitary subject grounded in Japanese cultural history. Confessions of a Mask depicts the complex psychological and social developments of this process. If we accept the overriding view of biographers and critics, Mishima's literary work consists primarily in working through the aesthetics of this embodiment process as a political act. I have two problems with this epistemology. First, Mishima's corpus should also be read and appreciated for its own sake without a persistent imposition of political or ethical inferences. Second, a critical perspective of Mishima's aesthetics should avoid simply laying a theoretical template on Mishima's process of embodiment. Such potential ethnocentric and/or logocentric positions reveal more about the critic than about Mishima, and probably legitimize the aesthetics it proposes to critique.

I suggest that we approach the problem of rendering a moral evaluation of the ethical relation between Mishima's aesthetics and politics by first explicating the terms presented by Mishima himself and by Japanese cultural history. Some of these terms, and the judgment they implicate, are expressed eloquently in Confessions of a Mask. Perceiving Mishima's truth as a transpositional movement of mimesis enables us both to suspend our pre-conceived political and ethical terms for evaluation and to discover the terms offered by the textual experience. These terms include, but may not be limited to (1) individual sexuality as situated between pantheistic forces and idealism, and mobilized toward others who become the objects for mimetic desire; (2) the spatial structure and function of the mobilization process, which includes both the tragic identity of the persons emulated and the affective forms of mobilization; and (3) the relation between the human and divine as expressed by Japanese cultural history, which for Mishima includes living through World War II, and in Confessions of a Mask situates an ambivalence between desiring death and savoring life. These terms structure further inquiry into Mishima's dialectics of text and performance.


  1. The notion of a subject in process/on trial comes from Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia UP, 1984).

  2. The moral questions of this dialectic as embedded in Japanese cultural history are discussed in my essay “Mishima's Seppuku Speech: A Phenomenology of His Rhetorical Situation,” WSCA Convention, Salt Lake City, Feb. 1987.

  3. The most accessible biographies of Mishima in English are Henry Scott Stokes, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima (New York: Ballantine, 1974), and John Nathan, Mishima: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1974). Donald Keene provides an introduction to Mishima's work, in which he discusses salient aspects of his life, in Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984). For a more aesthetic view of Mishima's death, see Joyce C. Lebra, “Mishima's Last Act,” Literature East and West 15 (1971): 279-298. Ivan Morris dedicates his historical volume to Mishima and makes a case for a generic classification of Mishima's aesthetics-politics epistemology. See The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975). Japanese biographies of Mishima include Kuzuaki Yoshida, Mishima Yukio (Tokyo: Gundai Shohun, 1985). This account contains a diversity of analyses and graphics concerning the event of Mishima's death in particular; it also provides an extensive bibliography of Japanese publications on Mishima. See especially Matsumoto Kenichi, Mishima Yukio: Bomei Densetsu (Tokyo: Kawide Shobo Shinsha, 1987). This analysis argues that Mishima ‘defects’ (in the sense of ‘elopement’) from conventional mores while affirming certain traditions on a path of lonely excess. Paul Shrader's film is based closely on the biographical accounts, but obviously provides a unique interpretation. See Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, dir. Paul Shrader, Toho-Towa, Tokyo; Warner Bros., Los Angeles. 1985. For a documentary account of Mishima, which includes personal interviews and film footage of the speech made before his death, see Biography: The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima, dir. Michael Macintyre, prod. Anthony Wall and Nigel French, BBC, RM ARTS, London, 1985.

  4. Mishima's most succinct discussion of the relation between art and action can be found in Yukio Mishima, Hagakure: The Samurai Ethic and Modern Japan, trans. Kathryn N. Sparling (London: Souvenier Press, 1977). See also “Yukio Mishima,” The Japan Interpreter 4 (Fall, 1971). Perhaps the most poignant literary example of the ethical relation between Mishima's aesthetics and politics is seen in his short story “Patriotism,” in Death in Midsummer and Other Stories (New York: Penguin, 1966), 102-127. Mishima produced, directed, and took the lead role in his adaptation of this story for stage performance. His performance of seppuku in the story appears to have served as rehearsal for his actual seppuku. Both Scott-Stokes and Nathan provide a guide to Mishima's other literary work as it corresponds to his theory of art and action.

  5. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961), 75.

  6. In Nathan, 94.

  7. In Keene, 1183.

  8. See D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (New York: Princeton UP, 1959). The practice of living paradox is of course not peculiar to Mishima or Japan; indeed, it is characteristic of any textual experience whose actualization passes beyond the arbitrary limit of its own presupposed social or symbolic boundaries. Eric Peterson and Kristin Langellier address the same issue for performance in “Creative Double Bind in Oral Interpretation,” The Western Journal of Speech Communication 46 (1982): 242-252. See also Kristin Langellier, “From Text to Social Context,” Literature in Performance 6 (1986): 60-70. Isaac Catt discusses ethical considerations of such embodiment in “Textual Fidelity as a Problem of Communication,” paper presented to the WSCA Convention, Salt Lake City, Feb. 1987. Catt constructively critiques the post-structuralist turn in performance theory and locates the existential subject in the dialectic between text and context, which is precisely where Mishima consciously places himself. Many would argue that Catt's concerns of textual embodiment are appropriated through language and speech: See Eric Peterson, John Hollowitz, Kay Ellen Capo, Jacqueline Taylor, Carol Simpson Stern, Kristin Langellier, Kristina Minister, Jill Taft-Kaufman, and Stanley Deetz in “Symposium: Post-Structuralism and Performance,” ed. Mary S. Strine, Literature in Performance, 4 (1983): 22-64.

  9. Kristeva, Revolution, 19-90. The discussion of the semiotic and symbolic constitutes the entire first part of the book.

  10. In contrast to Saussure's notion of the arbitrary relation between the signifier and the signified. Kristeva, Revolution, 22. For a discussion of semiology in the philosophy of communication, see Richard Lanigan, Phenomenology of Communication: Merleau-Ponty's Thematics in Communicology and Semiology (Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1988).

  11. Kristeva, Revolution, 22-23.

  12. Kristeva, Desire in Language, ed. Leon S. Rudiz, trans. Thomas Gors, Alice Jardine and Leon S. Rudiz (New York: Columbia UP), 132.

  13. Kristeva, Desire, 132.

  14. My discussion of the semiotic chora is a synopsis taken from Kristeva, Revolution, 25-29.

  15. Kristeva, Revolution, 17.

  16. Kristeva, Revolution, 109. Merleau-Ponty's distinction between thetic and operative intentionality is pertinent to this discussion of negativity. Kristeva's “‘particular determination’” can be compared with Merleau-Ponty's “intentionality of act,” which is thetic insofar as we judge and take positions. The “‘ineffable’ mobility” coheres with Merleau-Ponty's notion of “operative intentionality,” which, following Husserl, is “that which produces the natural and antepredicative unity of the world and of our life, being apparent in our desires, our evaluations and in the landscape we see.” See Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, rev. by Forrest Williams and David Guerriere (1962; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1986), xviii.

  17. Kristeva, Revolution, 119.

  18. Critical theorists are concerned with oppressive and repressive aspects of this embodiment in practical consciousness. For an interpretation grounded in political communication theory, see Michael Huspek, “Language Analysis and Power,” Semiotica 72.3-4 (1988). For a discussion which addresses the Kristevan semiotic/symbolic relation in aesthetic production see Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin or Toward a Revolutionary Criticism (New York: Verso, 1981.)

  19. Kristeva, Revolution, 123.

  20. Kristeva, Revolution, 126.

  21. Kristeva, Revolution, 124.

  22. Kristeva, Revolution, 28.

  23. Kristeva, Revolution, 109.

  24. See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “On the Phenomenology of Language,” Signs, trans. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1964), 97. He states: “To the extent that what I say has meaning, I am a different ‘other’ for myself when I am speaking; and to the extent that I understand, I no longer know who is speaking and who is listening.”

  25. For an explication of this process as polyphony, see Linda M. Park-Fuller, “Voices: Bakhtin's Heteroglossia and Polyphony, and the Performance of Narrative Literature,” Literature in Performance, 7 (1986): 1-12.

  26. Kristeva defines these four signifying practices in Revolution, 90-106.

  27. Peterson and Langellier discuss the genuine pretense of performance in a similar light in “Creative Double Bind,” 242-252.

  28. Julia Kristeva, “The System and the Speaking Subject,” The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (New York: Columbia UP, 1986), 28. See also Revolution, 86-89.

  29. Kristeva, “The System and the Speaking Subject,” 28.

  30. Kristeva, Revolution, 86-89.

  31. Kristeva, Revolution, 86.

  32. The distinction between the sedimented language system (parole parlée) and authentic speaking (parole parlante) is made by Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception and Richard Lanigan in Phenomenology of Communication.

  33. Kristeva, Revolution, 99.

  34. Roman Jakobson, “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” Semiotics: An Introductory Anthology, ed. Robert. E. Innis (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985), 167.

  35. Kristeva, Revolution, 43.

  36. Kristeva, Revolution, 43.

  37. Keene suggests that “Confessions of a Mask” is the most appropriate translation of “Kamen no Kokuhaku.” See Dawn, 1186, n. 47. I am suggesting the interpretation ‘A Mask's Confession’ as a way of introducing negativity in the opposition. My analysis develops Hjelmslev's semiotic model of explicating the relation between expression (signifier) and content (signified) on three levels of connotation and denotation. See Hjelmslev, Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, trans. Francis J. Whitlow (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1953). A “connotative semiotics” suggests that each plane of expression and content contains other presupposed levels of expressible meaning; see Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976), 54-57. For both eidetic and empirical developments of Hjelmslev's model in communicology see Richard Lanigan, Phenomenology of Communication, esp. ch. 7.

  38. The meanings associated with these Japanese characters are developed from Andrew W. Nelson, The Modern Reader's Japanese-English Character Dictionary, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Charles E. Tuttle, 1974).

  39. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1977), 168. It should be noted here that Mishima read the classics of the Greek theater at a young age, and was seemingly aware that here, too, the mask functions as a persona which expresses the essential feature of a character. For a discussion of the mask in Greek theater see Bruce Wilshire, Role Playing and Identity: The Limits of Theater as Metaphor (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982), 38-42. Wilshire's synopsis presents Nietzsche's description of Greek theater as music which coheres nicely with Kristeva's discussion of the chora.

  40. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 8.

  41. Roman Jakobson, “Closing Statement,” 155. For an introduction to Jakobson's Selected Writings that is particularly pertinent to communication studies, see The Framework of Language (Michigan Studies in the Humanities, 1980). See especially the chapter on metalinguistic functions. See also Elmar Holenstein, Roman Jakobson's Approach to Language: Phenomenological Structuralism, trans. Catherine Schelbert and Tarcisius Schelbert (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976). In a complementary manner Heidegger defines logos as a gathering (reversibility?) of opposites, characterizing that which is “distinct in itself” while simultaneously gathering itself into “togetherness … Heraclitus says in Fragment 8: ‘Opposites move back and forth, the one to the other; from out of themselves they gather themselves. The conflict of opposites is a gathering, rooted in togetherness, it is logos.” Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Ralph Mannheim (New Haven: Yale UP, 1959), 131.

  42. Kristeva, Revolution, 123.

  43. See Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue and Novel,” 34-61.

  44. Kristeva, Revolution, 60. In “Word, Dialogue and Novel” Kristeva uses the term intertextuality to designate this movement.

  45. Kristeva, Revolution, 57.

  46. For a discussion of the inferential process in reading as a projection of ideological disposition, see Umberto Eco's account of the story “Lector un Fabula” in The Role of the Reader (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979), 200-266. See also Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach” in The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1974), 274-294. Kristeva discusses the inferential process as a textual productivity beyond the discursive structure of the novel in “The Bounded Text,” Desire in Language, 36-63.

  47. Wilshire, 287.

  48. Wilshire, 169. Merleau-Ponty takes up mimesis in the context of the problematic of being-in-itself and being-for-itself. See especially the chapter “Other Selves and the Human World,” Phenomenology of Perception, 346-365.

  49. All of the following quotations are from Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask, trans. Meredith Weatherby (New York: New Directions, 1958). Page numbers are indicated in the manuscript.

  50. Confessions of a Mask lends itself to lyrical adaptation for performance. See Marion L. Kleinau and Janet Larsen McHughes, Theaters for Literature: A Practical Aesthetics for Group Interpretation (Sherman Oaks, California: Alfred Publishing Co., 1980). See especially the discussion of musical form in Chapter 6.

  51. See note 3.

  52. I critique Schrader's mode of representing Mishima's aesthetic/politics relation in “Mishima and the Confluence of Reality and Illusion,” paper presented to the Film Semiotics Division, Semiotic Society of America Conference, Cincinnati, Oct. 1988.

Hosea Hirata (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Hirata, Hosea. “To Slit the Beautiful Body/Text: Mishima's Jouissance to Death.” Literature Interpretation Theory 2, no. 2 (1990): 85-94.

[In the following essay, Hirata explores the meaning of death in Mishima's texts and the meaning of Mishima's own textual death.]

“[I]t is always something like an opening which will frustrate the structuralist project. What I can never understand, in a structure, is that by means of which it is not closed” (160).

—Jacques Derrida

Mishima Yukio1: how could we seize this bloody origin—the origin of so many luxurious texts that tightly surround it? Mishima Yukio is a textual product par excellence. It seems that his whole mode of being was to produce his own “self-text.” He kept exhibiting himself. Scattered around us are his words, his books, his images, his photos, his death. It seems that we are forced to read him ceaselessly. His texts are always outward, visible, and clear. Take for example the precision of his language and the superficial transparency of his poses in his photos. Mishima Yukio is a surface. The surface is the repeatable. His text, like a photograph, guarantees the very existence and repeatability (survival) of the surface. And we read that this surface, this text that Mishima so intensely fabricated, is nothing but his “self.” Yet, it has an opening, an unrepeatable opening: death.

This paper is an attempt to read Mishima's production of self (-text) in relation to this “opening” towards which Mishima's entire text seems to be directed. This reading, however, is doomed from the start precisely because this “opening” is non-readable. It can merely trace how the drive towards death was formulated, structured, and perhaps more importantly, how our reading itself is manipulated, structured, and seduced by the Mishima-text. As the seducer, the Mishima-text thus becomes an origin—an origin of our responses, of his writing “self,” of our reading “self.” How does the Original Text enact the inclusion and the appropriation of our discourse, of our “self”?

First of all, we must admit that it is peculiarly difficult to produce another secondary (i.e. critical) text on the Mishima-text. Here we are in agreement with Saeki Shōichi who, in his Hyōden: Mishima Yukio [Critical Biography of Mishima Yukio], writes that he fears that Mishima had known already and all too clearly what critics would say about him and his work:

Why is it difficult to write a critical discourse on Mishima? It is because we cannot help feeling that Mishima always precedes us, that is, he knows beforehand everything that we may say or discuss [concerning him and his work].


The notion that the Mishima-text (the Original Text) always already exceeds and anticipates any secondary text is a paralyzing one for secondary-text-producers called literary critics.

Coupled with the anxiety of being in the position of the secondary-text-producer, of being a mere marionette of the Mishima-text, another difficulty in writing about Mishima must be addressed. That is the fact that his text is dangerous. We may even call his text, with utmost caution, evil. With his extreme and ostensible aestheticization of politics and erotic violence, in a way Mishima appears to incite knowingly our moral indignation and criticism. What troubles me here is again the thought that our oppositions and resistances against the fascist Mishima, if we may call him so, may have already been planned long before, secretly inscribed, by and within the Mishima-text itself. The moment an oppositional reading appears, the Original Text (the Mishima-text) will have always already (re)-appropriated it within the structure and the limits of the Original Text itself.

I would like to address this entrapment formulated by the Mishima-text in terms of textual seduction. The Mishima-text seduces us to speak about it, for it, or against it. In this way, the Mishima-text survives, multiplies itself, reappropriating our seemingly endless secondary discourses. Furthermore, what is so insidious about the power of Mishima's textual seduction is that it can incite not only discourses but also silence—a silence caused by being stunned. Mishima's seppuku effectively stunned and silenced us at the time of incidence. Our secondary texts certainly needed time to recuperate from the initial shock to assume their appearance of intelligibility again.

So we are already caught in the web of the Mishima-text whether we produce another discourse on it or not. But then what should we do? How should we deal with the Mishima-text and our texts caught within it? Georges Bataille in his preface to Literature and Evil proclaims: “Literature is not innocent. It is guilty and should admit itself so” (iii). My strategies to move out of the hesitations of beginning are first to acknowledge the fact that I am seduced, that I must be implicated in the guilt of Literature, in the guilt of the Mishima-text and secondly to attempt to discern the process and structure of the very seduction which incites me to speak, or to be stunned, or to be silent.

The subject of this discourse, an incessant (and self-propagating) textual movement that I have been calling the Mishima-text, is constituted not only of Mishima's literary work but also of his biography in which his actual life and death are textualized. It is true that Mishima's death stunned the world. But it was not his death proper that stunned us; it was the way he died. From various reports, we read and imagine the ritualistic process of seppuku that culminated in his death. This means that his death is not a text; his seppuku is. We do not read death, we read the ritual of death. What separates the two domains of life and death, of text and non-text? Is it possible to imagine a most tenuous membrane, the very surface of surface, an epidermis separating the realm of text from that of non-text, that is, of death? This outermost epidermis of text is infinitesimally close to death. And it is beautiful, the Mishima-text teaches us. It is dizzyingly beautiful. This ultimate surface seduces us, invites us to caress it and finally to slit it open.

What is this seduction for the final self-laceration? What is Mishima's muscle-bound abdomen? What is his body/text? And the pain? We have the necessary textual ingredients before us: Mishima's own imaginative descriptions of seppuku as well as Mishima's actual seppuku reported as biography. His seppuku was wonderfully crafted, well-staged and exposed just as his sumptuously crafted language constructed his literary texts. Thus we have Mishima's luxuriously ornamented language, his muscular body constructed by his rigorous weight-training, his ecstasies of language, of pain, of blood, of the steel blade. We learn from his biographer John Nathan that there was even a writing brush and special paper ready beside his decapitated body, with which Mishima intended to write the character “katana” (sword) in his own blood (280). We could trace Mishima's textual movement up to this point. And a death occurred. How can we directly talk about this opening, this abysmal crack in the otherwise well crafted sphere of the Mishima-text? Again, my strategy here is to focus my attention to Mishima's will to exteriority, and to let my reading surrender to the authority and seduction of the Mishima-text, and finally to arrive at the opening with “him.” Can I stare into the opening with “him”? Is there no more language? I must first begin to examine the location of exteriority in Mishima's discourse of desire and confession.

Mishima's quasi-autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask brilliantly presents various aspects and functions of surface (exteriority) in relation to such notions as truth, self, and mask. The book may well have been written as a critical parody of the shi-shōsetsu (I-novel)2 as some critics assumed when the book was published in 1949.3 The literary scene in Japan at that time was dominated by the anti-I-novel rhetorics. Mishima was absolutely clever in making the status (truthfulness) of the novel ambiguous. He writes:

Although this is a confession, I have allowed “lies” to pasture freely in my novel, and when it seemed appropriate, I gave them fodder to eat. Filling the stomachs of the lies in this way kept them from molesting the vegetable patches of “truth.”

In the same sense, only a mask which has eaten into the flesh, a mask which has put on flesh, can make a confession. The basic nature of a confession is that “confessions are impossible.” … I thought I would create a complete fiction of a confession. That meaning is also implied in the title Confessions of a Mask.

(qtd. in Keene 1185)

Of course, there is the confessor, the dominant “I,” the protagonist-narrator. But at the same time the book presents a structure of self that is irreconcilably double: the supposedly “true” self and the mask. In the crudest terms, in the novel the “true” self can be defined as the origin of his “uncontrollable” and “abnormal” desires. The mask is the consequence of his mimetic desire for normality. The narrator-protagonist performs relentless self-analyses, literally lacerating the mesh of his confused sexuality in the hope of reaching the very bottom of his ontological being. The narrator is essentially a gazer, and his discourse assumes a mask of confession. But where do the confessions originate from? Who is gazing at whom? In this way, “I” is never in the position to possess truly the center of Mishima's confessional discourse. Paradoxically, one finds no center in it. We see that the promised center of the self, the unifying point that is capable of producing one's identity is always contaminated and invaded by some elements of exteriority. The structure of the confessor, “I,” the subject, is therefore maintained solely by various surfaces, exteriors, mirrors, and trajectories of desires.

Karatani Kōjin in his Nihon kindai bungaku no kigen [Origins of Modern Japanese Literature] contends that it was not that a certain interiority preceded and thus necessitated the confessional discourse called shi-shōsetsu but rather that a system of confession instituted by the imported Christianity created the interiority (naimen) which in turn had to be confessed. At first glance, Mishima's novel Confessions does seem to expose such a secret interior, the true self. At stake here is the ontological status of the “confessed” self. Does the self thus exposed precede every mask, every falsehood? Was there, at the very origin, in the depths of an interiority, the true self that precedes every textual modulation (masks)? Or as Karatani suggests, is the true self also merely a creation of a certain discourse called “confession”? In Confessions we can discern at least this much: that this interior, an immanence of the true self, is presented only as certain manifestations of desire. And the direction of this desire is firmly set toward exteriority, surfaces, and thus, toward visibility—the site of exposed truth. Let us now trace the trajectories of “I's” desire in the novel so as to see how “I's” subjectivity is formulated.

When the protagonist was four years old, the narrator-protagonist recounts, he had his first awakening to the intense desire for the other. The other in this case was a “night-soil man, a ladler of excrement” (Confessions 8). Mishima writes: “I had a presentiment then that there is in this world a kind of desire like stinging pain. Looking up at that dirty youth, I was choked by desire, thinking, ‘I want to change into him,’ thinking, ‘I want to be him’” (Confessions 9). Here the subject longs for a complete transformation into its object of love. The object of his desire is made to be an exemplary other, for the night-soil man is associated with an environment absolutely foreign to the protective, hygienic one the protagonist has been raised in.

Another childhood memory informs us in detail of his desire to become “Tenkatsu,” a theater actress. Mishima describes her in terms of her exteriority, surfaces:

She lounged indolently about the stage, her opulent body veiled in garments like those of the Great Harlot of the Apocalypse. On her arms were flashy bracelets, heaped with artificial stones; her make-up was as heavy as that of a female ballad-singer, with a coating of white powder extending even to the tips of her toenails; and she wore a trumpery costume that surrendered her person over to the kind of brazen luster given off only by shoddy merchandise.

(Confessions 16-17)

The child is enraptured by the actress's luxurious exteriors. And he desires to belong to the beautiful surfaces. So he sneaks into his mother's room, puts on the kimono with the gaudiest colors, puts on an elaborate make-up and rushes into grandmother's sick room in order to expose the successful exteriorization of his self:

“I'm Tenkatsu! Me, I'm Tenkatsu!” My grandmother was there sick abed, and also my mother and a visitor and the maid assigned to the sick-room. But not a single person was visible to my eyes. My frenzy was focused upon the consciousness that, through my impersonation, Tenkatsu was being revealed to many eyes. In short, I could see nothing but myself.

(Confessions 18)

He saw himself alone only when he put on the exteriors of an other and placed the spectacle under others' gazes. The interior never comes into being unless it is dragged out to the surface by a desire to become the other (exteriority) and is made visible to others' eyes. This is in no way a simple exhibition of an already fully existing interior-self to others. In a very complex and paradoxical way, the interior becomes visible only as an exterior, not even as the exterior of the self but as the borrowed exterior of the other to which the original self transfers itself through desire.

Let us examine another passage describing “I's” childhood memory:

The reluctant masquerade had begun. At about this time I was beginning to understand vaguely the mechanism of the fact that what people regarded as a pose [engi] on my part was actually an expression of my need to assert my true nature [honshitsu ni kaerou to iu yokkyû no araware], and that it was precisely what people regarded as my true self which was a masquerade.

(Confessions 27)

The passage clearly indicates again that his “honshitsu” (essence) is located in the sphere of “engi” (play-acting), or in other words, in what he is not, in what he desires to be (for example Tenkatsu), or in the mask.

In one of the climactic scenes in the novel, the protagonist, who is in love with an older boy named Omi, masturbates before the ocean whose maddened waves reveal to him the visions of sacrifice: the severed head, the deathly blue sky reflected in the “eye of a person on the verge of death” (Confessions 87). Before the sea of crazed dialectics between repletion and emptiness, Mishima's language clinically traces the trajectory of an erotic desire, ultimately revealing again the double structure of the self; that is, the self desiring what it is not (in this case, Omi). Furthermore, in the process of desiring what it is not, the self desires to be what it is not and finally becomes what it is not by means of a metonymic transference. At the moment of complete transference the self must die. The self is no longer the entity of a perfect self-identity, no longer the origin of desire, but an empty receptacle. The self is usurped by what it is not, the object of its love. This is the moment of jouissance, of orgasm coupled with death.

The only possibility for survival in this double structure of love is to accomplish a rhetorical, or tropological displacement of the object of desire. In this scene, the protagonist's immediate object of desire is clearly stated: his own armptis. The image of his armpits is metonymically connected first to the picture of St. Sebastian's martyrdom (the object of his first ejaculation, to which I will come back later) and to the abundant black hair he spied once in Omi's armpits.

The shocking effect of the scene is undeniable—a naked boy staring at his own armpit and masturbating in front of the ocean. The shock comes mainly from the image of the armpits and its metonymical dimension, where the symbolic or metaphorical depth seems to be lacking. What catches us off guard is the sudden “exposedness” of the armpits, far more “exposed” than any genitals depicted in pornography, far more “visible” than a well crafted metaphor. This may be because in our discourse we have not yet coded our own armpits as masturbatory objects. Yet, more importantly, in its “exposedness” the image of his armpits succeeds in becoming the textual surface par excellence. Furthermore, at this point, we notice that this exteriority without depth is also the ultimate goal of the confessional text. Mishima's confessional discourse wants to expose everything in the bright sunlight. There, no depth, no interiority is allowed. Under his raised arm, the armpit is a surface whose incurvity is forced to open, to flatten itself, to be visible. No depth is allowed. Why? Because truth is visibility itself, exteriority itself (provided that we are still following the Platonic Idea). Truth is the non-hidden. Light brings forth truth.

The novel is filled with images of light. In fact, it begins and ends with descriptions of light. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator claims that he remembers the scene of his own birth:

It was a brand-new basin, its wooden surface planed to a fresh and silken smoothness; and when I looked from inside, a ray of light was striking one spot on its brim. The wood gleamed only in that one spot and seemed to be made of gold. … And, whether because of a reflection or because the ray of light streamed on into the basin as well, the water beneath that spot on the brim gleamed softly, and tiny shining waves seemed to be forever bumping their heads together there. …

(Confessions 3)

So his confessions begin with such lulling images of light. The dark, unknown interior, on the other hand, is placed at the center of jouissance, within the melee of a festival, in the omikoshi carried by the obscene, drunken, naked bodies of young men that forcefully invade his grandmother's garden:

Now the shrine itself came into view, and there was a venomous state of dead calm, like the air of the tropics, which clung solely about the shrine. It seemed a malevolent sluggishness, trembling hotly above the naked shoulders of the young men carrying the omikoshi. And within the thick scarlet-and-white ropes, within the guardrails of black lacquer and gold, behind those fast-shut doors of gold leaf, there was a four-foot cube of pitch-blackness.

This perfect cube of empty night, ceaselessly swaying and leaping, to and fro, up and down, was boldly reigning over the cloudless noonday of early summer.

(Confessions 31)

This perfectly vacuous darkness within the bright summer light is clearly linked to a similar oxymoronic description of his first ejaculation. As mentioned before, his masturbation is prompted by the sight of a reproduction of Guido Reni's “St. Sebastian.” Mishima again writes first and foremost of the exterior of the tormented martyr's body:

The arrows have eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy. But there is no flowing blood, nor yet the host of arrows seen in other pictures of Sebastian's martyrdom. Instead, two lone arrows cast their tranquil and graceful shadows upon the smoothness of his skin, like the shadows of a bough falling upon a marble stairway.

(Confessions 39-40)

The boy begins to masturbate for the first time:

My hands, completely unconsciously, began a motion they had never been taught. I felt a secret radiant something [kurai kagayakashii mono] rise swift-footed to the attack from inside me.

(Confessions 40)

The oxymoron is more conspicuous in the original: “a secret radiant something” is in the original “kurai kagayakashii mono,” more literally translated, “something dark, radiant.” It is important to see that the descriptions of jouissance are formulated in terms of an oxymoronic intertwining of light and dark. In jouissance, truth as exposedness, visibility, exteriority is irrevocably intermingled with its opposites—darkness, the unknown, interiority. But again we should not forget here that the ecstatic intercourse of light and dark is prompted by and directed toward a surface, toward a flat, smooth skin, which is far removed from the origin by the layers of reproductions (fact, legend, model, painting, copy, etc.). The seductive surface is thus essentially fictive, far removed from the origin.

Mishima's language of light continues. Now a radiance spreads and covers the entire city. Undoubtedly one of the most lyrical scenes in the novel, “I's” encounter with Omi in the snow-covered school yard awaits us. On the way to school, bathing in the peaceful radiance of the snow, the protagonist observes:

When I got off at the station in front of the school, the snow was already melting, and I could hear the water running off the roof of the forwarding company next door. I could not shake the illusion that it was the radiance which was splashing down. Bright and shining slivers of it were suicidally hurling themselves at the sham quagmire of the pavement, all smeared with the slush of passing shoes. As I walked under the eaves, one sliver hurled itself by mistake at the nape of my neck. …

(Confessions 54-55)

Light is committing suicide. And accidentally the light's suicide slashes “I's” neck. The exposed existence, the desire for the exterior in the light, at the very end reaches its own death, killed by light itself, by light's suicide.

Light not only exposes interiority (the site of a yet-to-be-exposed truth) in the confessional discourse but also the fictionality of the exterior, as well as the essential vacuity of the interior. Mishima continues:

For a moment I could not see a thing in the expanse of glare.

The snow scene was in a way like a fresh castle ruin [shinsen na haikyo]: this legerdemain [nise no moshitsu] was being bathed in that same boundless light and splendor which exists solely in the ruins of ancient castles. And there in one corner of the ruin, in the snow of the almost five-meter-wide track, enormous Roman letters had been drawn. Nearest to me was a large circle, an O. Next came an M. And beyond it a third letter was still in the process of being written, a tall and thick I.

(Confessions 58)4

This is another oxymoronic scene as we can see from the expression “shinsen na haikyo” (fresh castle ruin). What is exposed here is this “nise no moshitsu” (“legerdemain,” or more literally translated “a fake loss”) or the essentially oxymoronic duplicity of fictionality. So the truth-revealing light of fresh ruins visits the scene of a fake loss. And what do we see on this exemplary fictive site? The name of his desire “OMI,” whose last letter, the phallic, thick “I,” the ultimate letter of confession is just being written. It goes without saying that the letters “O, M, I” inscribed on the melting snow constitute themselves on the outermost layer of the identity named Omi, defined as the object of “I's” desire.

The tenuous exteriority of the letters in a way does enhance the protagonist's fixation with Omi's exteriority. Mishima describes Omi's face in the following way:

… it was a round face, with haughty cheekbones rising from swarthy cheeks, lips that seemed to have been sewn into a fine line, sturdy jaws, and a broad but well-shaped and not too prominent nose. These features were the clothing [ishō] for an untamed soul. How could anyone have expected such a person to have a secret, inner life [naimen]? All one could hope to find in him was the pattern [mokei] of that forgotten perfection which the rest of us have lost in some far distant past.

(Confessions 63)

Thus his face, his surface is the costume [ishō] of a forgotten, non-present, savage soul. Whether the interior [naimen], the immanent, human self of Omi exists or not is not the issue here. Omi is merely a model [mokei], a shell, of an impossible perfection. Omi is thus a signifier, a model, a visible surface, and letters in the snow.

How could one live solely within the system of desire that directs itself only to the surface? The protagonist's desperate attempt to love Sonoko is to reorient his gaze toward the interior. Sonoko offers an alternative to the dominant visibility of Omi in the form of sonority, more interior than the visible. She is introduced with the sound of the piano she plays. However, at the end of the novel, the visible overpowers the protagonist with threatening authority. The protagonist and Sonoko are in a dancing hall where he spies on a group of young thugs:

His naked chest showed bulging muscles, fully developed and tensely knit; a deep cleft ran down between the solid muscles of his chest toward his abdomen. The thick, fetter-like sinews of his flesh narrowed down from different directions to the sides of his chest, where they interlocked in tight coils. The hot mass of his smooth torso was being severely and tightly imprisoned by each succeeding turn of the soiled cotton belly-band. His bare, sun-tanned shoulders gleamed as though covered with oil. And black tufts stuck out from the cracks of his armpits, catching the sunlight, curling and glittering with glints of gold.

(Confessions 251-252)

The protagonist forgets Sonoko's presence and daydreams of this young man being killed in a fight. The novel ends with the following description of light:

It was time. As I got up, I stole one more glance toward those chairs in the sun. The group had apparently gone to dance, and the chairs stood empty in the blazing sunshine. Some sort of beverage had been spilled on the table top and was throwing back glittering, threatening reflections.

(Confessions 254)

We leave the book sensing that the protagonist is trapped in this threatening realm of light, of the depth-less visibility and exteriority. How can he escape this world of surfaces? Mishima's answer is, by now, obvious: by slitting it.

The object of desire, the most beautiful surface must be slit with a blade. This is quite reasonable when one considers that we destroy the object of desire through incorporation (eating), an assimilation of the other into the self. In fact, one of the victims in the protagonist's erotic daydreams is served naked on a large platter, surrounded with large salad leaves. The protagonist cuts into the boy's chest: “I began carving the flesh of the breast, gently, thinly at first …” (Confessions 97, italics mine). The narration of the daydream ends there. The protagonist does not eat the victim's flesh. The Sacrament is incomplete. There is only the slicing of the flesh, thinly. What is important here is, again, the “thin” surface and the slit.

Roland Barthes writing on the text of jouissance conceives it as the ultimate extension of the text of “pleasure,” where irrevocable disruptions in the order of signification occur (The Pleasure of the Text 52).5 The text of jouissance is thus “the untenable text, the impossible text” and is “absolutely intransitive.” The same intransitive text where no object (be it the reader or meaning) exists is categorized in Barthes's S/Z as the writerly text (le texte scriptible). The term signifies an incessant flow of writing wherein no “reading” (gleaning of meanings) is possible. In opposition to the writerly text, or the text of jouissance, there is the readerly text (le texte lisible), the text of pleasure. This is a text for consumption (reading), while the writerly text is a movement of pure production that defies consumption (of its meaning). The writerly text is thus absolutely excessive. And in its extreme excess, in the moment of jouissance, the text of jouissance must slit the very surface of textuality and plunge itself into the realm of non-text, of the primordial being, of non-knowledge (non-savoir), of non-meaning, of death.6

By taking the discursive mode of confession, Mishima's Confessions of a Mask posits the reader (auditor). In so doing, it claims itself quite ostensibly as a readerly text. At the same time, not only this particular text but Mishima's entire corpus posits a central question concerning jouissance: What if the primary condition of our being is not self-preservation but jouissance? This conflict between the readerly and writerly modes results in a tense textual surface supported by various intermingling dichotomies: abnormality/normality, imagination/reality, strong body/weak body, truth/mask, steel blade/resilient skin, and so on. If, however, these dichotomies functioned merely as novelistic structural devices, the text would simply remain readerly and ready to be consumed by the reader. But the Mishima-text drives itself out of such a structural confinement composed of mere dichotomies. It is the jouissance of imagination that must eventually triumph over the readerly, and over “the reality of everyday life.”

Here, one must note that in Confessions,jouissance, including death, is strictly relegated to the realm of imagination. The protagonist dreams of his own glorious death in a battlefield but could not suppress his joy when he was disqualified even to enlist. The reader is informed that his disqualification was due to his feigned ill health. Death must not occur in the realm of everyday life. Mishima writes: “Nothing gave me such a strange feeling of repugnance as the thought of a connection between everyday life and death” (Confessions 137). This again indicates that his system of desire functions only in fictionality. And what happens in his imaginary world is the detailed (thus, essentially ritualistic) reordering of reality according to the dictates of jouissance. In other words, it is a textualizing process exclusively directed towards jouissance. It is a production of more surfaces, more beautiful surfaces whose ultimate destiny is their own laceration.

Mishima's multiplying of textual surfaces is not an allegory of the proliferation of life. On the contrary, it happens at the tenuous border we call death. The lieutenant's seppuku scene in the short story “Patriotism” stretches out over five pages of sometimes evocative, sometimes clinical depictions. The hard surface of the dagger lacerates the skin and encounters the “soft resilience” of the entrails (“Patriotism” 114). Finally the interior is brought out to the surface:

Seemingly ignorant of their master's suffering, the entrails gave an impression of robust health and almost disagreeable vitality as they slipped smoothly out and spilled over into the crotch.

(“Patriotism” 115)

Even the interior (entrails) becomes another exterior surface. This movement of exteriorization parallels that of the confessional text where one confesses to expose the inner secrets. Beneath the field of sumptuous surfaces, we are led to glimpse death. A death made more glorious by the adornment of blood and pain is supposed to lie beneath the text.

Mishima came this close to death in literature. Even his actual death, as long as it is inscribed in his biography, must remain as a text. Yet no one writes death (though one may write about death). When there is no longer the possibility of a text, death may be actualized. But death cannot appear. Only ruins, tropological ruins appear. And we see nothing but the surface. Death by definition hides itself. Even Mishima's confessional desire cannot bring it to light. Death defies reading, defies the readerly text. But the text of jouissance may write itself unto death.

What if jouissance is at the center of our discourse? That is, what if the impossibility of a text is at the center of our discourse? Mishima answered it by slitting his sculptured abdomen. Finally the imaginary and the actual coincided. A writing brush lay beside his dead body. He intended to write the character “katana” (sword) with his own blood. His failure to do so certainly marks the end of his text production. Yet the unwritten word trembles with its insidious jouissance in its silence, in its death, in its failure. An absolute depth may open up in its non-being. Death is as tenuous as the failed word.


  1. All Japanese authors' names are written in the customary order of the last name first.

  2. The shi-shōsetsu is a peculiarly “Japanese” form of confessional, autobiographical writings that flourished especially in the Taishō era in Japan (1912-26). For a full discussion of this genre, see Edward Fowler, The Rhetoric of Confession: Shishōsetsu in Early Twentieth-Century Japanese Fiction, (Berkeley: U of California P, 1988).

  3. See Keene 1183. Also see Saeki 375. Saeki questions the facile conclusion that the novel is merely an “anti-I-novel in the form of I-novel” by pointing out many verifiable autobiographical elements in the novel and thus reminding us of the suffering that the author of such a confessional text must have gone through in producing the text.

  4. Note that in the original also the letters “O, M, I” are written in Roman letters and not in Japanese characters.

  5. The word jouissance is translated by Richard Miller in The Pleasure of the Text as “bliss” with a note referring to the meaning of “orgasm” implicit in the French.

  6. The moment of jouissance is also what Bataille calls “Sovereignty” by way of Hegel:

    … a point where laughter no longer laughs, and tears no longer cry, where the divine and the horrible, the poetic and the repugnant, the erotic and the funereal, coincide. It is not a point of the spirit. … Sovereingty is the reign of a miraculous non-savoir.

    Bataille, Oeuvres complètes, eds. Denis Hollier, et al., 9 vols. (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1970-1979) V. 251.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

———. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Bataille, Georges. Literature and Evil. Trans. Alastair Hamilton. New York: Urizen Books, 1973.

Derrida, Jacques. “Genesis and Structure.” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978. 154-168.

Karatani Kōjin. Nihon kindaibungaku no kigen. Tokyo: Kōdansha bungei bunko, 1988.

Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, Fiction. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1984.

Mishima Yukio. Confessions of a Mask. Trans. Meredith Weatherby. New York: New Directions, 1958. The original text: Mishima Yukio. “Kamen no kokuhaku.” Mishima Yukio shû. Shinchō nihon bungaku 45. Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 1968. 5-112.

———. “Patriotism.” “Death in Midsummer” and Other Stories. Trans. Geoffrey W. Sargent, et al. New York: New Directions, 1966. 93-118.

Nathan, John. Mishima: A Biography. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1974.

Saeki Shōichi, Hyōden Mishima Yukio. Tokyo: Chûkō bunko, 1988.

Sascha Talmor (essay date July 1991)

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SOURCE: Talmor, Sascha. “Mishima—A Passion for Life and Death.” Durham University Journal (July 1991): 269-76.

[In the following essay, Talmor discusses Mishima's view of mortality.]

Yukio Mishima (the pseudonym of Kimitake Hiraoka) was born in Tokyo in 1925. He belonged to an old Samurai family and was brought up on its traditional values. When he graduated from the exclusive Peers' School in 1944, he received a citation from the Emperor as the highest honour student. He graduated from the Tokyo Imperial School of Jurisprudence, making good use later in his fiction of his knowledge of the law, the ways of life and thought of lawyers, judges, of judicial proceedings and technicalities, as well as of his knowledge of everything connected to the prison-world.

He published his first story at the age of thirteen and, encouraged by his teacher, continued writing. His vast literary work comprises all genres—short stories, novels, novellas, essays, plays, and travel books. In addition, he also wrote the script of, played in, and produced a number of films. Like Dickens, Balzac, and other famous writers before him, he also wrote for the popular press (in order to make a living), but, since these writings have not been translated, we do not know their worth.

Most of his other work has been translated into the major European languages, especially into English and French: The Sound of Waves (1956), Five Modern No Plays (1957), Confessions of a Mask (1958; 1967), The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1959), After the Banquet (1963), The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1965), Forbidden Colours (1968), Thirst for Love (1950; 1969), and The Sea of Fertility, a cycle of four novels—Spring Snow (1972), Runaway Horses (1973), The Temple of Dawn (1975), and The Decay of the Angel (1974).1 One of his films deserves special mention—Patriotism—since it prefigured his own death.

In 1970, on the morning when he wrote the last page of his novel, he committed ritual suicide—seppuku—in a spectacular way, in the sight of his group of followers, after a desperate political attempt to reinstate a traditional military regime. His life, his work, his death, have caught the imagination of millions in the whole world.

It is difficult to discuss a writer of Mishima's stature within the limits of a short article. I shall, nevertheless, try to give an overview of his major novels and attempt to outline his view of life and death.


Thirst for Love appeared in English only in 1969, but it was written in 1950, when Mishima was twenty-five years old. He seems to have already attained maturity both as writer and man. If there is one sign of youthfulness about it, it is the uncompromising passion of the heroine, Etsoku, whom nothing can deter from her passionate love of young Saburo, nothing, that is, except the loss of hope. Arriving on the farm of her father-in-law, old Yakishi after her husband's death, she is forced to become his mistress.

From the very beginning we feel the heavy, threatening atmosphere in which all the characters move—all except Saburo. It is a closed, claustrophobic place, recalling Sartre's No Exit. Yet an exit there is, a way out of the complexities of love and life—death. Mishima is from his very first stories and novels not only half in love with death but fully so. Belonging as he did to an old Samurai family, rooted and educated in their old traditions, beliefs, rites, ideals, and code of honour, he and his characters are seen to be aware, from their earliest years of the lurking shadow of death. And this violent death—for it is almost always violent, inflicted by some on others or on themselves by means of suicide, is accepted by all as part of life, as its meaning and final goal.

For young Seppuko death is a constant companion and she never tries to escape it. She longs for it, since, given her circumstances, she can now never attain the man she loves. In Saburo, young, handsome, strong, pure, and innocent, happy with his hard work on the farm, his poverty, the portion allotted to him in life, never questioning, accepting things as they come, we find a prototype for other characters who will appear in later novels. They serve as foils to the others, those who are strong of character, determined, ambitious, and ruthless. And many of them die or are killed or commit suicide in the full bloom of youth. They are the St Sebastians of Mishima's novels, symbols of truth, purity, innocence, courage and uncompromising loyalty to an ideal or belief. In later novels, especially in The Sea of Fertility, they return again in some other equally beautiful form, embodying the Buddhist belief in the transmigration of souls. And it is through his identification with them that Mishima foresees and represents his own death in all its terrible details.

By contrast to his other novels, there is little direct violence in After the Banquet, and it also doesn't have a violent end. Like in his earlier novel, Thirst for Love, here too the main figure is a woman of strong character—Kazu. But it is above all a political novel, about parties, politicians, capitalists and pressure-groups, and the manipulation of the media and the voters by all means at the disposal of those who have the power. And, although the novel is about Japan in the fifties, it is true of all countries both in the East and West. The great realism in the presentation of his characters and plot led to Mishima's being wrongly accused of having taken a living politician as model for the character of Nogushi. He was accused of libel, then blackmailed, and finally threatened with death. Although in the midst of a successful career as a young and acclaimed writer, he felt a growing disgust with the so-called successes of mundane life and at the same time a growing feeling of the Void—a feeling which we will find again and again in many of his later novels and, above all, in his masterpiece, The Sea of Fertility.

In Kazu we find a heroine of a type we'll encounter in some of his other works as well: she is not only beautiful and attractive but also a good business woman, knowing exactly what she wants and how to get it; she is strong and courageous, and not afraid of the reverses of fortune; after having lost the battle for the election of her husband as mayor on which she staked all her fortune, she will energetically start again from the bottom: and she will succeed. On a higher social level, we will find such a type again in Keiko in The Sea of Fertility and in the young widow in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea. But in this long novella we have already entered a new domain—that of the cold violence, the sterility and the horror of our times.

“Ever since my childhood, Father had often spoken to me about the Golden Temple”. This is the beginning of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Penguin Books), a novel which is rightly regarded as a masterpiece. This first sentence sets the tone for what is to follow. For, although Mizoguchi, the young acolyte of the Golden Temple is the protagonist, the Temple itself is the real hero of the novel. And the Golden Pavilion does not only obsess ever since his childhood all the young man's thoughts, feelings, and actions, but it also comes to obsess ours. For it is not only a beautiful temple, one of Japan's most famous and treasured national monuments, but also a symbol of something else, something much greater, some power of beauty and spirit which cannot be expressed in words: perhaps it is a vision of perfection, of something that passeth human understanding.

The story itself is based on an actual occurrence: in 1950, a young Zen acolyte set fire and burned to the ground the ancient Zen temple of Kinkakuji in Kyoto. Built in the fourteenth century by Yoshimitsu a powerful Shogun and patron of the Zen cult, it was a rare masterpiece of Buddhist garden architecture, loved and admired by all Japanese and many foreigners. Mishima made use of the reports of the trial and the confessions of the culprit (who was described as a psychopath), and created from it a powerful story of obsession: the obsession of a young man, who is ugly and afflicted with a difficult stammer and hence almost unable to communicate with others, with a beauty and perfection which is beyond his grasp and remains forever out of his reach. But the Golden Temple is also a religious symbol: a sacred Buddhist relic for many centuries, it expresses not only the Zen spirit but also the Zen way of life. In modern Japan, however, which is becoming ever more Westernised, or rather Americanised, with the postwar generation losing their traditional beliefs and values in a secularised society bent on material goods and money and pleasure, the power of the Buddhist religion with its temples, shrines, priests, festivals, and teachings is steadily losing ground—in the same way as is religion in the West. If seen in this context, the burning of the Golden Pavilion becomes not only the act of a sick, lonely, and unhappy individual, but a much more general, symbolic, act: it is a violent breaking with Japan's historic, religious and national past.

The novel gives us a realistic picture of the life of young acolytes in this temple and of all the others preparing to become priests of Zen or of other religious sects. In its poverty, strict discipline, endless prayers, daily lessons, menial duties, work for the temple and its Superior, poor, insufficient food, little sleep with no respite of games, pleasure, or freedom whatsoever, it inevitably reminds us of the life led by Catholic seminarists in Western Europe. Thus Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, when describing the life of Stephen Dedalus in his Jesuit College of Clongowes Wood in Ireland, Graham Greene in his autobiography A Sort of Life (1971), Huysmans in Belgium and Bernanos in France have given a very similar description of the life and sufferings of their heroes in their youth: the dark and dusty dormitories, the fear and threats of physical punishment (which are, however, absent in the Japanese novel), are all the same and show one thing—that religion without the spirit and only the dry letter is finally of no real spiritual and human value to believers or to those training to become servants of the Lord.2

The figure of the Superior of the Temple is here of special interest: entrusted with the teaching and guidance of the young acolytes, he does not practise the holy virtues at all: on the contrary, he enjoys the good things of this world, the food, the saké, the American cigarettes, and even the geishas. Yet he is also seen in another light: once Mizoguchi finds him alone, crouched “with his head between his knees and his face covered with his long sleeves”. Nothing more is said of him and we are left to wonder: for he too is suddenly revealed to us as a lonely, suffering human being. And we are left to wonder about Mishima's real meaning, for he does not offer any further hint of making his real meaning clear.3

As befits the subject, the novel is full of Zen koans, those “riddles” or aphorisms through which the Zen students are supposed to reach wisdom or self-enlightenment. Most of these koans allow of many interpretations and misinterpretations, leaving the students of Zen and us, especially the Western readers, puzzled. One such koan is the classic Zen problem “Nansen Kills a Cat” or “Joshu Wears a Pair of Sandals on his Head”. Interpreted by the Superior on the day when the war was declared lost, it leaves his students puzzled and uneasy. And later again another more dangerous koan from the famous Zen master Rinzai is given: “When ye meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha! When ye meet your ancestor, kill your ancestor! When ye meet the disciple of Buddha, kill the disciple! When ye meet your father and mother, kill your father and mother! When ye meet your kin, kill your kin! Only thus will ye attain deliverance. Only thus will ye escape the trammels of material things and become free”. These dangerous words recall certain admonitions of Christ. As Marguerite Yourcenar in her book Mishima ou la vision du vide has said, perhaps this is meant to replace the kind of prudent wisdom of our life with a dangerous wisdom which revives us, of a freer fervour and an absolute which is mortally pure.4 As we'll see later, this kind of absolute purity is one of the highest values in Mishima's great tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility, especially in volume 2, Runaway Horses in which Isao is the very embodiment of this absolute purity and loyalty to a self-imposed task.

In all the novels discussed so far, as well as in Mishima's work as a whole, Nature plays an important task. It is nature in all its varied aspects, and it forms not only the background for the life and actions of the characters, but more than that—an integral part of their mind and soul, a reflection and objective correlative of their very being. Such passages occur all through The Temple, but one at least is worth quoting. It occurs almost at the end of the novel, before the golden temple is going to be burnt down:

When the Golden Temple reflected the evening sun or shone in the moon, it was the light of the water (in the pond before it) that made the entire structure look as if it were mysteriously floating along and flapping its wings. The strong bonds of the temple's form were loosened by the reflection of the quivering water, and at such moments the Golden Temple seemed to be constructed of materials like wind and water and flame that are commonly in motion.

(pp. 214-215)

Mizoguchi did set fire to the Temple, but its beauty was not destroyed. “If one compared this beauty to a sound, the building was like a little golden bell that has gone on ringing for five and a half centuries, or else like a small harp. But what if that sound should stop?” (p. 214).

In real life the Japanese could not let the sound of the Golden Temple stop. And so they rebuilt it and it stands again in the ancient monastery grounds of Kyoto, reborn again like the golden phoenix on its rooftop. And so the little golden bell of the Temple goes on ringing. Yet in Japan's relentless surge forward into the New World that we're all building, its golden sound may well finally cease.


From 1965 to 1970 Mishima wrote and completed his cycle of four novels entitled, ironically, The Sea of Fertility. He explained that he chose the title to suggest the very opposite, the arid seas of the moon that belies its name: “it superimposes the image of cosmic nihilism on that of the fertile sea”. This nihilism is gradually revealed in the four volumes and it reaches its final expression in the last volume, The Decay of the Angel.5 Having given to this great work all he had, he felt that there was nothing left for him to do. And so, on the same morning before committing seppuku, he sent the manuscript to his publisher. “The rest is silence”.6

The work is a family history whose classic example is Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks. Here Mishima presents modern Japan from 1912 to 1970, through the lives of four generations. Like Mann's novel, here too the family forms the axis round which the main and secondary characters revolve. The family and its vicissitudes in business, love, careers and politics, in its relations with its sons and daughters, wives and mistresses, friends, relatives, and servants, they unfold before our eyes with the clarity and inevitability which Aristotle declared to be the very heart of the tragic plot. And so, when reading these novels one after the other, we have the feeling of watching, with bated breath the fates of the heroes unrolling towards their necessary end.

Spring Snow (1972), the first volume, is above all the story of a friendship between Honda and Kiyoaki Matsugae. It is 1912, at the end of the Russo-Japanese war. Both study at the Peers School, Honda working hard—as he will do all his life—Kiyoaki the romantic dreaming and writing his dream journal which he'll leave to his friend after his death at the age of twenty. But although Kiyoaki dies already at the end of the first volume of the book, his presence will never leave Honda or the novels: for he is to appear again in different forms as Isao, then as the Siamese princess Chan and finally in the last volume as Toku, a monster. This is related, of course, to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation. Although for a westerner this may seem a difficulty in relating to the work, it is not really so: for within the context of Japanese society, its ways of life, its age-long beliefs, customs, rites, ways of doing, feeling, and expressing themselves, this belief forms an organic part of life. It is Mishima's greatness as a writer to make us accept his world as true to life.

Marquis Montsugae and his friend count Ayakura and Honda's family are already westernised. Their homes, books, clothes, food, are all Western, from their five o'clock English teas to their dinners with the menu written in French. They all belong to the new aristocracy and recall their Indian counterparts sending their sons to study in Oxford and Cambridge.

Against this social background there is the story of Kiyoaki's love for Satoko. But their families oppose their marriage and after forcing her to become engaged to prince Toin of the Imperial Family, Satoko is forced to have an abortion and escapes to a Buddhist convent. After trying in vain to see her again, Kiyoaki having climbed the hill in the midst of winter, falls ill and dies with Honda at his side. Honda will live to the age of eighty but will realise at the end of his life that in the final count he has not lived more than his dead friend. For Kiyoaki had lived to the fullest intensity, had experienced with Satoko the ecstasy of the senses whereas Honda was only a voyeur, watching others live and love and suffer. The one had spent himself, the other had frittered his life away.

Just before he dies, Kiyoaki whispers to his friend that they will meet again “under the waterfall”. In the second volume, Runaway Horses, it is young Isao that Honda will see under a waterfall. It is after Isao has won all the fights against the other kendo competitors. Having watched these matches, having seen young, handsome, self-assured Isao in action, Honda is struck by something he does not understand. But then, watching Isao standing naked under the waterfall, purifying himself before a sacred ceremony that is to follow, Honda sees, amazed, that under his left arm there are three small moles. Mystery seems to invade his life: for they're the same marks that Kiyoaki had had on his left side. This mystery, “Like a shimmering sphere of changing colors, it came plunging into the midst of the cold but well-ordered structure of his life” (Knopf, p. 43). From now on, everything changed.

Isao's figure dominates the novel from his first appearance. And into him Mishima has put everything he loves and admires. He endows him with all the manly virtues: beauty, strength, courage, loyalty to an ideal, unswerving pursuit of his chosen task, and above all, purity. And we're not surprised that Isao will, like Kiyoaki, die young.

There are some unforgettable scenes in this book. To give but some examples: the description of the kendo match where fifty young athletes participate and Isao is the winner. Mishima could give a realistic description of this duelling with bamboo staves as an insider since he himself was a kendo master of the fifth rank. We feel as if we were there ourselves, experiencing the heat, the dust, the thirst, the sun's unremitting rays at midday, the sweat and effort and strength of the young men engaged in this difficult ancient art. There is complete empathy between reader and characters and their actions. In another scene, this time on the drill ground of an army camp, Mishima again expresses his deep admiration for the martial arts of ancient Japan:

“Only on this drill ground was the hand of the sun working with a mathematical clarity and precision. Only here! The will of the Emperor penetrated the sweat, the blood, the very flesh of the young men, piercing their bodies like X-rays. From high above the entranceway of the regimental headquarters, the golden chrysanthemum of the imperial crest, brilliant in the sunshine, looked down upon this beautiful, sweaty, intricate choreography of death.”

(p. 159)

This last sentence describes succinctly the whole book which is indeed a beautiful, intricate choreography of death with Isao as both leading dancer and ballet master, and finally as the only one to die by his own hand. Another unforgettable scene describes the rite of the Ukei in which the Samurais, before going out to battle, consult the will of the gods. It is a divinatory rite and, in his loving attention to the smallest details of the rite, Mishima expresses his admiration for the traditions, beliefs, and teachings of the Samurai of the past.

No wonder that in his own life Mishima tried to bring back to his contemporaries the importance of their past; that he founded and became the leader of a group of young men ready to follow him wherever he would take them (just like Isao's small group of followers swore to commit seppuku if their plan of killing the most important members of the Zaibutsu—the great industrial trusts—should fail). Like Isao, Mishima too believed that what was happening to postwar Japan was destroying not only the power of the Emperor but also Japan's national character and identity. However, both Isao and his creator were engaged in a struggle doomed from the beginning—for the past cannot be brought back, neither for an individual nor for a people.

This is exactly the view of Judge Honda, whose highest values had always been reason, order, judgement and common sense. After reading the story of The League of the Divine Wind, the model for Isao's own group of followers, he writes to Isao that, although the story is a drama of tragic perfection, “one should by no means confuse this tale of dreamlike beauty of another time with the circumstances of present-day reality”. But Isao will not listen to this sound advice (just as Mishima would not listen in his own life).

But who were the men the new League had decided to kill, those honoured members of the Zaibatsu?

There were the bureaucrats of the Foreign Ministry, anxious to please England and America, oozing charm, only able to play the coquette. The financiers, giving off the stink of profit and greed, sniffing along the ground for their dinner like giant anteaters. The politicians self-transformed into lumps of corruption. The military cliques, so armored with the cult of careerism that they were like immobilized beetles. The scholars, bespectacled, sodden white grubs. The speculators eager to exploit Manchuria their beloved bastard child.

(p. 228)

No wonder that Mishima had many enemies of the right. Yet Honda, the man of reason will defend Isao's group against these men in power—and win the case. But Isao, for whom he had given up his career, had lost the respect of his colleagues and was ready to sacrifice all he had—for wasn't Isao a reincarnation of his dearest friend Kiyoaki?—Isao refused the gift of freedom. His freedom lay elsewhere: in killing Kurahara, the symbol of that power he wanted to destroy so as to save Japan and the Imperial Throne.

This is no doubt a difficult book for a Western reader unfamiliar with the ways of thought, the feelings, values, and actions of the Japanese. But then so is any other book or work of art issuing from and expressing a different civilization and culture from our own. Yet in our world, which is becoming smaller because of the media and swift ways of communication, we must become more familiar with what we are and what others are.

We cannot leave this harsh novel without striking a different note. We all understand directly Mishima when he writes: “The clear light of the rising sun cast a striped pattern as it shone down through the branches of the few old cedars that surrounded the shrine. Birds were singing. The air was fresh and clear. As for signs of last night's sanguinary combat, these were visible in the soiled and bloodstained garments, the haggard visages, and the eyes that burned like live embers” (p. 93). And a little later, we read:

The foothills around them were interlaced with small valleys dotted with villages, and there were terraced fields and paddies far up the steep slopes. Some sort of white-flowered bush grew here and there, along with the ripening crops of rice plants. The mountain forest spread out over the undulating terrain around the patchwork of villages scattered like so many cushions set out to dry, and the foliage of the trees, still a deep green in this early autumn, entrapped the subtle morning light to form delicate tracings of brightness and shadow.

(p. 94)

Rooted as it is in a definite land and way of life and time, such passages need no explanation or interpretation. They speak to all of us—they are universal.

In this novel there are many such delicate tracings of brightness and shadow, of hardness and tenderness. It is also this contrast between light and shadow and their subtle interweaving that make Runaway Horses so memorable.

In the third volume, The Temple of Dawn, we are in postwar Japan under American occupation. Honda has become a millionaire and is now legal adviser to one of the powerful industrial trusts of Zaibatsu that Isao has given his life to destroy. Honda has changed: from the detached observer of the human scene he has now become a simple voyeur whose only contact with others is in watching them having their sexual experiences.

Ting Chan, daughter of one of the Siamese princes who were Kiyoaki's guests in Spring Snow, is now a student in Tokyo where she leads a life of pleasure. Honda lives in a new modern villa where he has had a pool specially made to enable him, as he dreams, of watching Chan bathing naked. In the party he gives to his friends and neighbours on the occasion of opening the pool, Mishima offers us again one of those scenes of the dolce vita, of the boredom and emptiness of the life of the rich and powerful in which he excels. (He himself had tasted of this life for a while). We recall a similar scene in Runaway Horses, in the home of Baron Shinkawa, where Isao for the first time saw Kurahara and some others belonging to the establishment. But now, they too, the rich, the powerful, have like all the rest of society began to decay: they have been reduced to vain, silly, empty figures, inspiring only disgust.

But in the last volume, The Decay of the Angel,7 all these are gone. Honda has grown old and ill, and his only companion is Keiko, Chan's one-time lover. Together they travel abroad, like other old, rich tourists. And when they return home, they again set out, this time to visit ancient sacred sites of Japan. But here too decay has set in and the old beauty of the landscape and seascape are disappearing under the veneer of modernisation and factories and mechanised production.

When going to see an ancient sacred site near the sea (where the most famous of No plays is set), Hagomoro, they find that the last traces of the ancient site are disappearing under the new roads, souvenir-ships and stalls selling cheap ware. Not far from there, in an observation tower, they meet a young man who is in charge of the tower—Tóru. And when he sees him, Honda believes to find in Tóru's cold, intelligent face, the elusive smile of Chan. But he is wrong. This, his last choice, will be his doom.

Chan is the only exception, and, although her figure is not fully drawn, she is important: for Honda she is the reincarnation of Kiyoaki and Isao. And like them she will die young. We do not know whether Mishima shared in this Buddhist belief in reincarnation, but we feel that in these three figures he embodied the beauty, strength, and hope of youth or perhaps of life itself.

For Tóru is a monster. He is a product of modern society, a kind of robot, who'll use his intelligence to bring about Honda's downfall. Only after adopting him and making him his sole heir, Honda realizes his mistake, his failure of judgement. But perhaps he wanted to believe in Tóru as the last link of rare beings he had encountered in his long life, beings who accompanied him, who for him still lived and would never die. But regarding his last choice, it is too late to undo it now. And Tóru has him arrested in a public park on the charge of immoral behaviour and he is put away as senile.

But just as Kazu had saved Nogushi in After the Banquet, so Keiko now saves him. She tells Tóru about Honda's inner, hidden life and about Kiyoaki's Dream Journal. Tóru obtains it, reads and burns it. And then he tries to commit suicide by taking nitric acid, which does not kill him but leaves him blind. Honda knows that his end is fast approaching, for he is ill with cancer. He must for the last time ascend the hill as he had done, long ago. He wants once more to see Satoko again, Satoko whom Kiyoaki loved and for whom he died so young. And so slowly, painfully, he climbs the hill leading to the convent of Gensshu, where Satoko is now Abbess. She receives him graciously and he is surprised to see that she has not aged at all—she has only moved from the sun into the shadow. He dares to mention Kiyoaki's name and she replies:

“Don't you suppose, Mr Honda, that there never was such a person? You seem convinced that there was; but don't you suppose that there was no such person from the beginning, anywhere? …”

“Why then do we know each other? …”

“But did you really know such a person called Kiyoaki? And can you say definitely that the two of us have met before?”

“I came here sixty years ago”.

“Memory is like a phantom mirror. It sometimes shows things too distant to be seen, and sometimes it shows them as if they were here”.

“But if there was no Kiyoaki from the beginning—” Honda was groping through a fog. His meeting here with the Abbess seemed half a dream … “If there was no Kiyoaki, then there was no Isao. There was no Ying Chan, and who knows, perhaps there has been no I.” …

“That too is as it is in each heart”.

(p. 235)

Then, under a burning sun, she leads him into the south garden:

“It was a bright, quiet garden, without striking beauties. Like a rosary rubbed between hands, the shrilling of the cicadas held sway.

There was no other sound. The garden was empty. He had come, thought Honda, to a place that had no memories, nothing.

The noontide sun flowed over the still garden”.

(p. 236)

This is the end of The Decay of the Angel, the last volume of the whole four-volume The Sea of Fertility. It is dated November 25, 1970, the day of Mishima's own end.

In his very short life, Mishima has produced a great oeuvre. It comprises 257 books, of which 15 novels in Japan and 77 translations into English and other European languages, countless short stories and plays. Ten of his books have been filmed, but I want to mention only one of them because it depicts his own death some years later.

Based on his novella Patriotism, Mishima wrote the script, acted in it and directed it. It possesses all the purity and simplicity of a great work, and portrays with reticence and economy, the double suicide of a young couple. (Such double suicides of a couple were not unusual in Japan). The central motive of this suicide is loyalty and, as a critic has rightly noted, this would have been a better title for the film. The story is simple: after an unsuccessful revolt by a group of right-wing officers, they are all to be executed—all, except their lieutenant who has been spared because he has recently married. But both husband and wife refuse this dishonour: he will die out of loyalty to his brother officers and the Emperor, she out of loyalty to her husband. (It is worth noting that the story is based on an actual political event, the abortive military coup of 1936).


It is very difficult, if not impossible, to evaluate the greatness of Mishima in a short space, and by trying to do so much will necessarily be left out. He has been compared to Proust, Gide and Sartre, to Thomas Mann and Dostoevsky, in one word, to some of the greatest writers of our time. But what is so unique about him is the fusion of Western and Japanese culture which pervades all his work. He could do it because he himself was a product of both these cultures, so much so that some of his novels appear to many to be more Western than Japanese.8 He had mastered not only English and French literature and art, but also Greek and Latin, in addition to his mastery of classical Japanese.

The fictional world he has created is peopled with innumerable characters, and all of them, from the major characters in the centre to the minor ones in the background, are all with a personality of their own, distinct from the others by their ways, words, thoughts, feelings and gestures—just like in life. Like in Thomas Mann, the centre is occupied by the family (Japan being, like Mann's nineteenth Germany a family-centred society), with their dependents, servants, near and distant relatives. A series of brilliant figures occupy the stage (e.g. Kiyoaki, Honda, Isao), all related by ties of blood or marriage; we follow them from early childhood, through youth, maturity, to old age and death. And in the description of their lives, experiences, friendships, loves, successes and failures, ambitions, hopes, played out against the background to which they belong and the social and political fabric of the whole country, we get a life-like picture of Japan in its new form. And all this panorama throbs with the energy of life and a sense of great intensity—the same that pervaded Mishima's own life. There is an incessant surging forward toward an end, a never-ceasing quest. In fact, the quest is one of the central, if not the central, theme of his work. It is of course also the central theme of the ancient Greek, English and French epics.9

The intensity of life is there from the beginning of his work, as well as the passion, the violence, the conflicts, and the quest. For all Mishima's characters are on the quest for something above and beyond the life of every day, for beauty, love, honour, for the spiritual or religious. This quest is symbolized by an ascent—be it of a hill, a tower, the stone-stairs of a temple or religious shrine. (We recall Kiyoaki's repeated ascents of the hill leading to the convent of Gensshi, an ascent repeated after his death for the last time by his aged friend Honda). That this quest always ends in failure is perhaps to be expected: for Mishima was a Buddhist and believed in Shinto Buddhism as do many Japanese. (It was, in fact, till 1945 Japan's official religion). And for such believers this world is all appearance, transitoriness, ephemera. If one is to seek something of value one can find it only in detachment, contemplation, and serenity. Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in all of Mishima's work is that last scene of his last book when the Abbess reveals to Honda the great secret of the Buddhist faith—the Void.

But there is not only the world of men with their vain pursuit of pleasure and possessions, there is also the world of Nature. Its presence informs everyone of Mishima's works, and his love of nature in all its aspects is skillfully imparted to his readers. We see the country in its changing seasons and colours, with its trees, flowers, shrubs, its rivers, waterfalls, seashore and finally the wide, wide sea. The sun, moon and stars, the sky, clouds, rain, storms, and typhoons are described in all their changing phases and forms. The sun naturally occupies a central place since it represents the Emperor in all his power and glory. The land is seen in all its changing features, colours and sounds, but is, for the most part stark and bare, giving a feeling of great space. When his heroes are about to take their life they are seen in a lonely, beautiful spot where they can, for the last time, look at the land, at a tree, a flower, the sea. Since it is with Isao that Mishima most identifies himself and has endowed him with those qualities which, following his family traditions, he valued most, it is appropriate to end with a passage describing Isao's death:

The orchard gate opened easily. At the bottom of the steps, he saw the white spray leaping high as the waves worried the rocks. For the first time he became conscious of the echo of the sea …

Finally he came to a place where the cliff was gouged out to form something like a cavern. A greenish, twisted mass of rock had been partly eroded away, and from its top the branches of a great evergreen tree hung low over this ledge. A slender stream of water, sheltered by ferns, meandered over the rock surface, flowed through the grass, and apparently fell into the sea below.

Here Isao hid himself. He quieted his throbbing pulse. There was nothing to be heard but the sea and the wind … Though there was no moon, the sea reflected the faint glow of the sky, and the waters gleamed back.

“The sun will not rise for some time”, Isao said to himself, “and I can't afford to wait. There is no shining disk climbing upward. There is no noble pine to shelter me. Nor is there a sparkling sea”.

And then the final moment has come and he commits what he had sworn to do from the very beginning: “Then, with a powerful thrust of his arm, he plunged the knife into his stomach. The instant that the blade tore open his flesh, the bright disk of the sun soared up and exploded behind his eyelids”

(pp. 419-421, Runaway Horses, the end)

On his last day, beside the completed manuscript of his last novel, there was found on Mishima's desk a slip of paper with a single sentence: “Human life is short, but I would like to live for ever”.

His passion for life had been intense—and so had his passion for death.10


  1. All these books have been published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, and Secker & Warburg, London. Penguin Books has also published Forbidden Colours, Thirst for Love, Death in Midsummer and Other Stories, and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1987. All page references are given in brackets.

  2. In this connection, see also the very moving novel of a young Irish writer, John McGahern, The Leavetaking, Faber & Faber, London, 1974 and 1984.

  3. The whole important passage with the Superior takes up almost two pages and is therefore too long to be quoted in full. But even a part of it may shed some light on Mishima's way of presenting him. At first, Mizoguchi thinks the Superior had fallen ill. But,

    Now that I observed the Superior carefully, he did not appear to be ill. Whatever may have happened to him his figure as he crouched there in the little teahouse was utterly devoid of pride and dignity. There was something ignoble about it, like the figure of a sleeping animal. I noticed that his sleeves were quivering slightly and it was as if some invisible weight was pressing against his back.

    What could it be—this invisible weight? Was it suffering? Or again, was it the Superior's unbearable knowledge of his own powerlessness?

    As I became accustomed to the quiet, I realized that the Superior was murmuring something in a very subdued voice. It sounded like a sutra, but I could not recognize it. Suddenly I was struck by a thought which shattered my pride—the thought that our Superior possessed a dark spiritual life of which we knew nothing and that, compared with his life, the little evils and negligences that I had so assiduously attempted were trivial beyond words.

    (pp. 197-198)

    We have here a whole gamut of feelings, thoughts, suppositions, retractions, just like in real life. And finally, we are left with the question, “But what is the truth about the Superior?” and the answer, as so much in Mishima, remains ambiguous, undecided.

  4. Gallimard, Paris, 1980, p. 38.

  5. As Yourcenar rightly remarks, from now on the great Buddhist ideas of detachment, impermanence, and especially the Void become predominant in Mishima's work, but what is missing is the feeling of compassion. Mishima wanted to be hard, both in body and in spirit (Ibid, p. 50).

  6. It is clear that Western readers find it difficult to understand and accept the whole idea and action of seppuku, the ritual suicide which is part of the traditional Samurai code of honour. Although, of course, suicide is found in the Western world too and simply accepted as one of the many distressing facts of life. Moreover, it is to be found in the most advanced societies just as in the most primitive. Thus Sweden with a very high standard of living, prosperity, social security, etc., has the highest suicide rate in Europe. On the other hand, as we heard recently on a B.B.C. program, it seems that the Australian aborigines commit suicide as soon as they are put behind bars and deprived of their freedom. (According to the above-mentioned report, well over a hundred prisoners have committed suicide during the last few years, a large number if we recall the small number of aborigines in Australia today).

  7. The Decay of the Angel (Secker & Warburg, 1974), was published in Japan in 1971 under the title Tennin Gosui. The Tennin are angels or genii or personified divine essences. They are not immortal or eternal but limited to a thousand years of existence after which time they decay and die. In the novel Tóru is the human form of such a decayed angel. But Yourcenar believes that the decayed angel is probably modern Japan itself and by extension, symbolizes the universal catastrophe of our time. (Mishima, p. 72).

  8. Marguerite Yourcenar (who died at the end of 1987), was a great admirer of Mishima. In her talks with Mathieu Galey, he asked her how she'd like to die. She wanted to die when she was fully conscious, she replied, and after mentioning the various places she'd like to see again, she added: “Ou rien de tout cela, peut-être, mais seulement le grand vide bleu-blanc que contemple sur sa fin, dans le dernier roman de Mishima, terminé quelques heures avant sa mort, l'octogénaire Honda … Vide flamboyant comme le ciel d'été, qui dévore les choses, et au prix de quoi le reste n'est plus qu'un défilé d'ombres”. (Les Yeux ouverts, Paris, Le Centurion, 1980, p. 333).

  9. Thus, for example, in Runaway Horses, we find the following striking simile when describing Kurahara's way of speaking: “His words, ever controlled, ever preserving the same inflection, flowed from his lips like the white pennants issuing from the mouths of saints and sinners in medieval prints” (p. 167).

    In another passage Mishima uses the Christian term Epiphany which has become familiar to us in an aesthetic sense through Joyce. Mishima writes: “Now divinity seemed so embodied in the bright-flecked clouds upon the mountain peaks that the watching men felt that they were viewing an epiphany of the Floating Bridge” (p. 95). And this, it should be noted, occurs in the chapter describing The League of the Divine Wind, whose members were Samurai who, in 1873, rebelled against the order prohibiting the wearing of swords; the rebellion was put down and all the rebels committed seppuku. What is noteworthy here is the fusion of Western and Japanese elements. One could also say that a moment of insight and illumination—an epiphany—is the same for whoever experiences it and wherever it is experienced.

  10. See Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Atheneum, New York, 1967, passim.

    At the beginning we noted that Mishima has been compared to Proust: the breadth, depth, scope and rich gallery of individualized characters of his novels, and especially The Sea of Fertility, do stand comparison with Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. But there is one scene especially which recalls Proust's famous scene of the madeleine, (tea-cake), which calls up his memories of childhood and youth and starts him on his search for lost time. In Mishima we find a very similar, but much more poignant scene of the same kind. It occurs in The Decay of the Angel, the harshest of his novels. It is recalled by Honda: a memory of his mother setting out hotcakes for him when returning home from school on a cold winter day. The whole scene is beautiful, simple, direct, and (for Honda) unusually tender. The end at least is worth quoting:

    Sixty years had gone by, as an instant. Something came over him to drive away his consciousness of old age, a sort of pleasing, as if he had buried his face in her warm bosom.

    Something, running through sixty years in a taste of hotcakes on a snowy day, something that brought knowledge to him, dependent not on an awareness of life but rather on a distant, momentary happiness, destroying the darkness of life, at least for that moment, as a light far out on a dark moor destroys an infinity of darkness.

    (p. 43)

    In general, dreams and memories play an important role in all of Mishima's work, and the dreams especially are of great visual power, and their images often frightening. They have the power of myth and seem to rise not from the individual but the racial unconscious. An analysis of these dreams, memories and half-memories deserves, of course, a study of its own. They are, at all events, gripping: see especially, Isao's dreams during the year he spent in prison.

Shira Nayman (essay date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Nayman, Shira. “‘Sadly Wasted by Words’: Mishima's Search for the Proustian Self.” Boulevard 7, no. 1 (spring 1992): 73-92.

[In the following essay, Nayman compares the work of Mishima to Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, focusing on the conflict between writing and action, and the search for self-realization.]

Two years before his suicide in 1970, the Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, endured several months of daunting training in a fighter-jet simulator so that he might take to the skies and experience the speed of sound. He anticipated the day of his flight in the F104 military plane with heightened excitement; and when it finally arrived, he was not disappointed. Once in motion, the chest-gripping pressure of zero gravity gave way to an extraordinary feeling of calm, a rare moment of serenity for Mishima, who usually felt as if his physical and intellectual worlds had been sundered. For a brief moment he was able to feel the glorious state in which, as he later wrote, “(t)he flesh should glow with the pervading prescience of the spirit; the spirit should glow with the overflowing prescience of the body” ([Sun and Steel.] SS, p. 100)

Mishima spent much of his life trying to free himself from language, a domain he felt had preceded his bodily self and kept it from developing. He documents this struggle in his early autobiographical novel, Confessions of a Mask, written in 1949 when Mishima was twenty-four, and almost twenty years later, in the autobiographical essay, Sun and Steel. Contemporary psychoanalysis tells us that narrating can be the scaffold for the construction of the self, but less often noted is the fact that for some, who sense that the self can only evolve in action, “telling” can be the self's undoing. This seems to have been the case for Mishima, who felt that words, strange weapons of obliteration, had laid siege to his very being.

The self-loathing that is palpable in Confessions has a lot to do with the protagonist's feeling that a “literary man” cannot know the unself-conscious, purely physical and heroic life of the man of action—of the samurai warrior, say, or the patriotic soldier. By the time he wrote Sun and Steel, Mishima had become a kendo swordsman and a serious body builder, as well as the leader of a private army, yet he was still plagued by the conflict between writing and action that so permeates Confessions.

It is difficult to take the violent imagery of this late essay lightly (although his friends at the time failed to take it as seriously as they might have). When Mishima invokes the image of an apple cleaved in two so that it might satisfy the wish to “see” its own core, one senses he has found an eerily precise metaphor for his own notion of self-realization; the solution he was to settle on—existence through the undeniable act of self-immolation—would certainly slam the door on literature, although also on life itself.

Yet for all his railing against the undermining power of words, Mishima was a writer, and a devoted one—so consistent that he never once missed the stringent deadlines typical of Japanese publishers, so meticulous that he seldom had need of the editor's pencil. Mishima was by no means unaware of this paradox: indeed, one of his great laments was that he should feel so at home in the literary domain, a climate he saw as fundamentally life-denying.

To gain a better understanding of Mishima's paradoxical autobiographical quest, we might compare his work to Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, perhaps the quintessential example of a successful literary quest for the self.1 The work of both Proust and Mishima considered here reflects the modern search for self-realization and the problems of alienation that such a search entails. According to Lionel Trilling, it was Hegel who first described the inevitable alienation that is associated with the constant examination of one's own experience.2 In Hegel's schema, however, alienation should ultimately lead to a greater sense of authenticity. This is, finally, the case for Proust's narrator in the Recherche, whose recognition of his vocation as writer places the self's possibility for fruition squarely in the narrative domain; the act of “telling” becomes an act of both redemption and creation, rescuing past time from oblivion at the same moment as it gives birth to the narrator's identity, or “true self.” The atmosphere of Mishima's journey, however, is altogether different and its outcome is in many ways antithetical to that of the Recherche [R]; for Mishima sought to dispossess himself of his native, writerly tongue, but as long as he kept writing, he continued to feel alienated, trapped within his isolation and despair. He lacked the irony which might have allowed him to see his own self as paradoxical but nonetheless real, a self whose burning theme is the dubiousness of its own existence and whose vision is, to borrow the apt subtitle to Marguerite Yourcenar's book about Mishima, a “vision of the void.”3 For Mishima, such a vision was as good as no vision, and literary self-representation came to seem simply out of the question. If he could be said in the end to declare any self at all, it is an anti-self, a mask.


Proust's “moments bienheureux” contain a brilliant flash of paradox. As the narrator sips his tea or stands on the uneven cobble-stones in Venice, his senses resolve the mysteries of time by immersing him in time as they simultaneously remove him from its flow. Proust's narrator does not seem troubled by this contradiction, although he is not unaware of the ambiguity; in fact, the duality of the moment infuses him with an exalted sense of selfhood:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me.

(R, I/p. 48)

The odds and ends of his daily life vanish as the present fills with immediate sensations, sensations whose wellspring, the narrator later discovers, is the long-forgotten past. The present is at the same time vivified and effaced, all under the aegis of a violently satisfying intrusion of the past. And this, to the narrator, is a recovery of time, a removal from time, and a regaining of the self (“it was me”).

It is hard to imagine a better word than Auerbach's “omnitemporality”4 for capturing this kind of temporal experience: time is here everywhere and nowhere, undeniably present to experience yet as far as could be from life's usual pace and concerns. The fate of the self in this moment is allied to the simultaneous expansion and crystallization of time: the narrator experiences a profound sense of wholeness, vitality and personal continuity.

Proust's narrator undertakes his famous search and ultimately makes sense of the intoxicating moments of involuntary memory—through realizing that art (writing) will allow him to fix these otherwise impossibly fugitive instances, and thereby to regain time. But perhaps even more interesting than the exaltation of the moment of spontaneous, visceral recollection is the way in which Proust comes so gracefully to understand that the “time” and the “self” he regains were somehow there all along, like pearls hidden in the obfuscating folds of habitual experience:

I had arrived then at the conclusion that in fashioning a work of art we are by no means free, that we do not choose how we shall make it but that it pre-exists us and therefore we are obliged, since it is both necessary and hidden, to do what we should have to do if it were a law of nature, that is to say to discover it.

(R, III/p. 915)

One finds time and self in fashioning the work of art, but this artwork “pre-exists us”: the notion of “fashioning,” then, transforms to that of “discovering.” Yet the work of art consists in the narrating of all the events of the narrator's life, a movement through time that must have predated the narrating. But remember, the work of art is taken to pre-exist this movement through the time that is found through the art. Thus, time and the self both prefigure and derive from the work of art, which also prefigures and derives from time and the self. A confusing state of affairs! Yet for all this, the narrator remains ultimately quite clear-headed on the subject, his confusion dissolved by the conviction that all along, no matter what else he might say, there is something to discover, be it now the work of art, now true time, now the true self. The order that prevails here is the order of the pre-ordained.

As perhaps with any ordering device, there appears to be some distortion here. For while Proust and his narrator seem convinced that the true nature of time and of the self have been regained, the reader may sense that Proust's search has itself created the treasures it set out to find: after all, it is in the writing of the narrator's book—the book Proust produced and we are reading—that both time and the self are given birth. On this point, the spiralling of the gyre must come to rest, for the book could not have predated the book: it had to be created, could not have been found.

The literary scholar, Gérard Genette, notes how Proust's penchant for relating repetitive events creates a feeling of eternal recurrence.5 In fact, repetitiveness is so important for Proust that even in cases in which a happening really took place just once, he often relates it as if it had happened many times. Despite the fact that Proust often explores the themes of relativism, ambiguity, and doubt, his narrative technique engenders a feeling of permanence and security: what happens has occurred before and will occur again; nothing is ever merely what it is in the moment, which is to say, purely fleeting.

As an example of the “zigzag round-trip” characteristic of Proust, Genette notes the situations in which “the narrator introduces a present, or even a past event through the anticipation of the memory he will have of it later”6: the event multiplies in the echo of the anticipated memory. Time is made to congeal in the bringing together of past (memory), future (anticipation), and present (event). Proust's famous use of prolonged metaphor contributes further weight to the repetitive feel, doubling an event or experience in the elaborate playing out of the comparison. Proust's narrative method thus layers filmy recollections into a graspable wad one can call time or the self.

An even more pervasive narrative element in the Recherche, Genette notes, further serves to reify Time and the Self: the knowing “voice” of the narrator, which derives from the fact that the “narrating I” is a transformed individual, a realized self no longer subject to the self-undermining doubts suffered by the “narrated I.” As the philosopher Richard Rorty puts it, “[h]e had written a book and thus created a self—the author of that book.”7 For Genette, the later revelation of the Recherche—that the narrator indeed becomes a writer—amounts to a “quasi-monopoly” of knowledge which infuses the entire account: the reader is subordinate to the authority of the mature narrator who willfully determines if, when, and how to include her in the circle of his knowledge.

These narrative levels make for a curious coexistence of two seemingly contradictory tones: the uncertainty which imbues the narrator's formless experience, and the “certainty of Truth”8 which is stamped into the narrative method. The work of Henri Bergson can illuminate this intriguing mix of tones—the strange coming together of a fundamentally evanescent experiential flow and a self grounded in certainty. Proust had been a careful and thorough reader of Bergson and was often seen as strikingly Bergsonian, although he minimized the extent of the philosopher's influence on his work (a minimization that at least one important critic has called disingenuous9). Proust's disavowal notwithstanding, the Recherche in many ways embodies Bergson's notions of time and experience.

While Bergson depicts lived experience as a ceaseless flux of “immediate sensations,” he identifies this flux with a deeper consciousness—the “élan vital,” or vital spirit. By truly living in the “durée réelle,” or real duration, we discover the vital spirit which returns us to our “essential selves.” Thus the sensory flux is both as unbounded as sunlight and as fixed as an anchor. Bergson conceives of these realms in a way that dissolves the possible contradiction between experience as flux and experience as containing an essence: the “élan vital” is not a fixed, static entity, but a kind of cosmic momentum, a momentum which binds us to ourselves as living, existing beings at the same time as it propels us toward some unknown telos in the shared universe of moving time.

Like a current in a stream, the present of the “immediate sensation” cannot be separated from the currents of past and future, a notion that is fully manifest in Proust's Recherche. Bergson suggests that the experiential flux is always shot through with all modalities of time10: when you smell a rose, for example, there is the drift of rose fragrances from other times, the recollection of the rose-embroidered nightdress your mother wore when you were a child, perhaps, or of a flower garden visited in the south of Spain to which you hope to return this summer. Such a confluence of sensation, recollection and expectation is decidedly idiosyncratic: no two people would experience the smell of the rose in quite the same way.

While such a vision stresses the seamless unity of time's past, present and future, we can see how the past is nonetheless accorded primacy: the accrual of associations and sensations both weights the immediate present with meaning and propels itself into the future, which will likewise come to be an accrual of sensations. The uniqueness of the experience lends further density to this grounding of the self: it is not just any meaning that permeates the present, but my meaning, my own Personal History. Bergson's notion of the present, then, contains the past as an actual and enduring force. The narrator of the Recherche has a similar notion of the present, a present in which the past inheres as the repository of vital, “true” experience.

Proust's arduous labor to create a language of the senses, like Bergson's, was enchanted by the belief that he could not fail. For Proust's “moments bienheureux” cannot go wrong: they are the startlingly authentic elements within a usually fallible memory, and it is they which can lead us back to “the discovery of our true life,” (R, III/p. 915), to a true self much like Bergson's “true and concrete self.”11

Mishima was already a serious writer when he first read Proust, shortly after his fifteenth birthday. The opening lines of Confessions, [C] the novel he wrote in his early twenties, recall the Recherche in a number of ways:

For many years I claimed I could remember things seen at the time of my own birth. Whenever I said so, the grownups would laugh at first, but then, wondering if they were not being tricked, they would look distastefully at the pallid face of that unchildlike child. Sometimes I happened to say so in the presence of callers who were not close friends of the family; then my grandmother, fearing I would be taken for an idiot, would interrupt in a sharp voice and tell me to go somewhere else and play.

(C, p. 1)

The early pages of the novel take us back to the narrator's early life, as do those of the Recherche, in which the narrator's semi-conscious kinesthetic sensations unpack the stages of his life in room-images. Here, too, the narrator plunges into the tale of his life with an unusual kind of memory; a recollection of a moment that is neither wakeful nor dream and which we are likely to take as being associated with the mysteries of the unconscious. Even the opening phrase echoes Proust's (“For a long time …”) and similarly establishes a particular kind of narrative vantage: the narrator sees not only that moment recalled, but also the ripples of habit and happening surrounding that moment which were to spread through the time of many years and the space of the family drawing room, with its nodal figure (the grandmother) and its world of social activity.

The final sentence of the passage, however, institutes a principle of extrusion in which Mishima's young alter-ego protagonist is cast out of the family circle—sent off “somewhere else” so as not to be an embarrassment to the guests. How different from the safe family circle enclosing the young narrator in the early sections of the Recherche—a portent of the estrangement and exclusion from the world of others that runs through both Confessions and Sun and Steel.

Still, Mishima situations his novel within the Proustian tradition of an inward journey toward self-discovery. Early on, Mishima, like Proust, has his narrator recount crucial childhood memories and tell of his belief that the key to his life lies in making sense of these images. Like Proust's narrator, the narrator of Confessions assesses his memories as they unfold, leafs through them to locate the origins of his later aesthetics and philosophy, fidgets at the tangle of threads that have made him a writer. Throughout, we are made aware of the dual existence of the young and the mature narrator and of their complex and shifting relationship, as in the following passage:

Ever since childhood my ideas concerning human existence have never once deviated from the Augustinian theory of predetermination. … I had been handed what might be called a full menu of all the troubles of my life while still too young to read it. But all I had to do was spread my napkin and face the table. Even the fact that I would now be writing an odd book like this was precisely noted on the menu, where it must have been before my eyes from the beginning.

(C, p. 14-15)

Both narrators embark on an interior journey, but whereas Proust's narrator seems fortified from the start by the enlivening recollection of the madeleine, Mishima's narrator trudges along with the gloomy presentiment of certain failure. The above quotation reveals the belief that casts a dark shadow over Mishima's autobiographical quest, the belief that ultimately there can be no quelling of the forces of predetermination. For Mishima, this meant there would be no escape from the emotional climate he discerned in those images of the past. Far from evoking the kind of cosmic harmony that flooded Proust's narrator as he tasted the tea-soaked crumb, Mishima's early recollections fill him with horror; and the more completely they present themselves, the more he feels at their mercy. Casting back to childhood for the “wellsprings of [his] own feelings and actions,” the narrator finds, to his alarm, that he is little different from his past self: these early moments contain the same dreaded feeling of emptiness which now plagues him—an emotional climate which the narrator senses is unlikely to change. If anything, the narrator intuits that the present is the harbinger of an even more troubling future.

[The] so-called “tragic things” of which I was becoming aware were probably only shadows cast by a flashing presentiment of grief still greater in the future, of a lonelier exclusion still to come.

(C, p. 11)

This passage reveals a soothsayer's form of reminiscence: the narrator reads his later life back onto his childhood, seeing his earlier distress as merely the shadow flashed backward of what was later to be. This is an inverted kind of predetermination in which present and past take their shape from the future, a reversal of the temporal cosmology found in the Recherche, where it is the past that is dominant and authentic—the vault of truth.

Unlike both the narrator of the Recherche and Proust himself, Mishima had had no revelation, prior to writing his novel, about the efficacy of art (writing) in regaining (creating) the self. Without advance knowledge as to what he would find, the narrator of Confessions is, at the beginning of the book, much closer to the reader's state of innocence than is the narrator of the Recherche: we feel as if we are embarking on the journey together.

Indeed, in his autobiographical quest, Mishima senses that art will be of little use. The fact that reality is fleeting and that one can never be certain of capturing it are for him two sides of the same issue. “For me,” Mishima wrote, “beauty is always retreating from one's grasp” (SS, p. 24); as skillful a writer as he was, he felt his art could lay no claim to grasping reality, and in fact might actually efface it:

[T]here comes into existence a kind of fictional “thing”—the work of art—and it is this interference from a large number of such “things” that has steadily perverted and altered reality.

(SS, p. 34)

More and more, for Mishima, art comes to seem but a shameful, skulking shadow of life, his writerly pursuits nothing more than cowardice. This sentiment could not be more different from that of Proust's narrator, close to the end of the Recherche, in the following passage:

The greatness of true art … was to find, grasp, and bring out that reality which we live at a great distance from … that reality which we run the risk of dying without having known, and which is quite simply our own life. True life, life finally discovered and illuminated, is literature.

(R, III/p. 895)

The narrator of Confessions has no such answers. The mature narrator is as puzzled as the reader: while he knows many facts about the young narrator's life, this earlier self remains a mystery. The literary task of Proust's mature narrator seems to lend itself more naturally to a narrative story line than that of Mishima's narrator, for it is a story of a fait accompli, of how Marcel became a writer. The mature narrator of Confessions, on the other hand, is pushing ahead to an unknown telos. He spreads out before himself the painful, hollow images of his past in the hope of gleaning some understanding of his present, pressing dilemmas. Mishima's autobiographical works thus read less as narratives than as chronicles—are less stories told than experiments described, an approach Mishima may well have consciously adopted. “I will turn upon myself the scalpel of psychological analysis I have sharpened on fictive characters,” he wrote in a note to his editor of Confessions, which he was in the midst of writing. “I will attempt to dissect myself alive.”12


The first crucial moment of involuntary recalls initiates the narrator of the Recherche into the belief that the past contains the essence of a greater reality—a belief so compelling that one wonders whether, despite all the signs of contradiction and distortion of time, there is some truth to the narrator's implied claim that the events of his early childhood contained the real kernel both of time and of his self. Yet, from the start, there seem to be clues that the narrator senses this “essence” might be more fabricated than revealed. In short, a puzzling question remains: are time and the self in Proust's Recherche totally fashioned by distorting, narrative means, or are the narrator and Proust more like the oyster, worrying a pre-existing speck of self with narrative until it becomes the lost pearl?

Early in the Recherche the young narrator, on a walk with his grandfather, pauses to inhale the scent of hawthorn flowers. Aware of the evanescence of this sensory pleasure, he deliberately turns away from the flowers in order to return to them afresh, as if this might make the moment of smelling more tangible, but the gesture fails. Miraculously, however, the moment is fixed once and for all by the unexpected voice of the narrator's grandfather calling from across the way: “You're fond of hawthorns; just look at this pink thorn-bush—isn't it lovely?” The narrator is immediately inspired to a state of almost divine pleasure, of the sort one is likely to feel

when we are shown a painting of which we have hitherto seen no more than a penciled sketch, or when a piece of music which we have heard only on the piano appears to us later clothed in all the colors of the orchestra.

(R, I/p. 151-2)

The smell of the flowers was certainly heavenly to the child but the rapture of this scene is the rapture of having his fondness for them named. The narrator is to spend many long years in search of just this kind of joy and will find it, ultimately, in the act of telling, an act which will transform the ephemerality of lived experience into something tangible, much as his grandfather's words had done many years earlier.

The narrator himself explains that the power of these important memories comes from the fact that they “concealed within them not a sensation dating from an earlier time, but a new truth.”13 Yet we cannot ignore the child narrator's delight in the pretty scent which was clearly present, if somewhat precariously, before his grandfather called out to him. It is in this element of true pleasure, in the “penciled sketches” or “simple piano melodies” that animate the narrator's past, that one can see the precursors of the self he is later to fashion more fully through writing.

As the novel progresses, the narrator moves towards a more conscious awareness of the creative nature of the self he has set out to find. This awareness does not, however, undercut his belief in the reality of the object of his journey but rather, heightens it. It is from within this paradoxical idea-climate that the narrator's theory of art develops: the closer he comes to realizing that the fullness of being he seeks emerges only by way of creative “interpretation,” the more compelling he finds the idea that a “greater reality” is to be reached through art.

Late in the Recherche, reading the journal account written by the Goncourt brothers of evenings at Mme. Verdurin's, Marcel is enchanted by the crowd and their glittering exchanges and yearns to be included in their charmed circle. As vivid as the account appears, however, Marcel becomes distracted by another reality which seems to be rapping steadily at the pasteboard door of this written salon—his own recollections of how tedious evenings at the Verdurin's had come to seem; how commonplace the guests, how predictable and empty the conversation and social niceties.

Marcel gives voice to the thought that these no doubt “insignificant creatures … owed their prestige only to an illusory magic of literature,” and at this thought, his regret for having “no gift for literature” momentarily eases. But almost immediately his anguish returns, intensified. Literature can hardly be dismissed as mere sophistry if it can create such full-bodied meaning. And who is to say that this literary world is not, after all, a greater reality than the one in which he had sat among “insignificant creatures,” sipping soup? In his zeal to believe in adventure and in the vitality of the spirit, the narrator blurs the line between these two “realities” and the one comes to seem a transforming conduit to the other:

[R]eading teaches us to take a more exalted view of the value of life, a value at the time we did not know how to appreciate and of whose magnitude we have only become aware through the book.

(R, III/p. 740)

Marcel is determined to consider as the “greater reality” that which most fully endows the “exalted view of the value of life.” This is a vision that conflates objective “fact” and subjective “creation”: the past is seen as more truly alive for having been apprehended through literature. It is art that makes possible “the discovery of our true life” (R, III/p. 915).

The tenor of Mishima's autobiographical literary enterprise, by contrast, is one of deep distrust. For him, language is always tied to thoughts which can only push further away the immediate sensations it was summoned to retrieve. Mishima concludes not only that narrative decisively undoes the self, but also that from early childhood, words had prevented him from ever feeling real, alive and whole. To what extent, we might now ask, was Mishima's retrospective conviction about his past an accurate recollection, and to what extent a projection backward of the opaque emotional reality of his adult self?

I do not know whether it was my mother, a nurse, a maid, or an aunt who was leading me by the hand. Nor is the season of the year distinct.

(C, p. 7)

With these words the narrator of Confessions begins the account of his earliest memory. Gone is the social and familial activity of the novel's opening paragraph; here we see a child unaware of the beauty and rhythm of nature and attached to a mere hand: “Someone was coming down the slope. … He was a night-soil man, a ladler of excrement” (C, p. 7). The young narrator, a child of four, is transfixed by the image of this young man, but it is a painful encounter: “Looking up at that dirty youth, I was choked by desire, thinking, ‘I want to change into him,’ thinking, ‘I want to be him’” (C, p. 9).

We know that the early memories of Proust's narrator opened for him a mystically pleasurable emotional domain. How different recollection is for Mishima's narrator, who tells us that the series of memories he is about to recount “kept tormenting and frightening me all my life” (C, p. 8). But what was the source of this anguish? To begin with, the above passages reveal the child's extreme isolation. There is no god-like maternal presence, no favorite nurse or relative, only some “unremembered woman.” Simply unaware of the possibility of human involvement, the child's attention fixes on the surfaces of things and palpates them for meaning. Unable to imagine emotional exchange, the child improvises another means of allaying his isolation, at least in his mind's eye: the idea of virtually climbing into the skin of the other, whose existence seems embedded in the specificity and strangeness of his occupation (“‘I want to be him’”).

The narrator puzzles to understand the curious reaction of this past four-year-old self and discovers that the night-soil man's occupation seemed to embody “a feeling like a remarkable mixture of nothingness and vital power” (C, p. 9). Other occupations would invoke in the child this same unsettling emotion, and the narrator circles around these images, gleaning further clues to their mystery:

It seemed that my grief at being eternally excluded was always transformed in my dreaming into grief for those persons and their ways of life, and that solely through my own grief I was trying to share in their existences.

(C, p. 10)

Feeling excluded from existence itself, the child fixes his gaze on the visible signs of “identity” he sees around him, as if by the sheer force of his yearning he might take them for his own. The mixture of “nothingness and vital power” that the child attributed to the night-soil man's occupation might now be more easily understood. Feeling unformed himself and without an identity, the narrator could perhaps most strongly identify with the force of nothingness: how potently attractive, then, might seem an occupation which could whip “vital power” into this self-same realm.

The narrator comes to believe that he is excluded from the world of others and from the possibility of an existentially grounded identity because of his physical weakness. This he attributes to a precocious facility with words which overtook him long before he could issue protest and which estranged him from the life of the body. The “re-creation” possibilities of narrative in the Recherche that Genette points to, then, could not be further from Mishima's notion of writing:

In the average person, I imagine, the body precedes language. In my case, words came first of all; then—belatedly, with every appearance of extreme reluctance, and already clothed in concepts—came the flesh. It was already, as goes without saying, sadly wasted by words.

(SS, p. 6)

Mishima's is a very specific kind of Cartesianism. The mind-body duality of his vision involves a split between intellect and flesh in which the emotional life, like some extra organ, is just another aspect of physicality. Mishima explains that language had corroded his emotional universe from early childhood the way acid acts on a metal plate; elsewhere, he says words had infested his being like termites, eating away his emotional and physical vitality as it struggled to emerge.

Implicit in these images is the narrator's belief that he had never really experienced a vital, existentially secure self in the past. It is partly this supposition that leads the narrator early in Confessions to intuit that his self-discovery mission is futile. In the following passage from Sun and Steel, Mishima is referring to a childhood moment that was to stay with him his entire life—the time that he stood, mesmerized, watching the shrine-bearers shouldering their festive yoke:

I had a premonition at that instant that all my feeling of subjective time, or timelessness, might one day gush forth from within me and flood into the mold of that scene, to become an exact imitation of its people and movements and sounds; that simultaneous with the completion of this copy, the original might melt away into the distant perspectives of real and objective time; and that I might be left with nothing more than the mere imitation or, to say it another way, with nothing more than an accurately stuffed specimen of my childhood.

(SS, p. 29)

The first part of the passage is an uncannily close description of what in many ways Proust did achieve in the Recherche. But Mishima then voices the fear that such a recollected self would be a “mere imitation.” The narrator does not believe, ultimately, in the possibility of self-creation through even the most evocatively relived or narrated memory: he would be left with only “an accurately stuffed specimen” of childhood, no more than a false and useless replica. Mishima had read Proust when he wrote this passage, which seems to judge as misguided any attempt to create a self through recovering lost time.

On the other hand, it may be that Mishima did not so much condemn the idea of a self grounded in literary recollection and expression as bemoan his own inability to achieve such a self:

In a more “healthy” process of development, the two tendencies [physicality and writing] can often work together without conflict, even in the case of a born writer, giving rise to a highly desirable state of affairs in which a training in words leads to a fresh discovery of reality.

(SS, p. 7)

Although he was not, of course, without conflict, Proust's narrator, as we have seen, did believe in the possibility of rediscovering reality through writing, a possibility Mishima sees as resting on a crucial precondition, that of having first “possessed the reality of the flesh still unsullied by words” (SS, p. 7). Mishima could be talking about his literary predecessor, Proust, whose Recherche does achieve a “rediscovery” of reality. But Mishima goes on to say that any attempt on his own part to “rediscover” reality would be simply absurd, because he had never, in the first place, achieved the kind of “reality of the flesh” he equates with “reality.”

Unlike Proust's narrator, then, Mishima could not see childhood as a reservoir of emotional plenitude, since he believed that from the start words had precluded his own “healthy” emotional development. Far from feeling he needed to find the writer in himself, Mishima longed to be free of an art that possessed him, an art that was not the soil in which the self might grow, but a burial ground for its remains.

Mishima himself wrote that words could return a once healthy self, gone astray, to itself. But without a self to be waylaid in the first place, he came to feel that writing could only increase his alienation. In this sense, Mishima differed from his romantic and modernist predecessors who believed their task lay in finding ways to put true experience into words. The challenge, as Mishima saw it, was not to overcome some gap between words and experience, but to free the body from the strangle-hold of language in order to make true sensation possible.

We recall Mishima's belief that from an early age he had been “sadly wasted by words”; he was convinced he did not have the automatic birthright to existence that others had. But one can't help hearing in his repeated, emphatic claims, a certain, if somewhat inverted, cult of the self, just as one sees the worshippers in a black mass gripped by a driving, if perverse, faith. Circling around the image of his own enfeebled self, Mishima pays homage to that same priesthood of the self which is so sanctified in Proust's Recherche.

Both Proust and Mishima finally took extreme measures in their respective quests for self. Proust, as is well known, sealed himself away from society for the last nineteen years of his life so he could devote himself to his monumental book, reducing his once flamboyant social existence to exchanges of letters or the briefest of visits from the occasional friend. Mishima, on the other hand, became increasingly committed to physical activities. For the last ten years of his life, he devoted his days to muscle-building and swordsmanship, although he continued to write through the nights as he had always done. At the age of forty-three, two years before his death, Mishima formed the private army he called the Shield Society and threw himself into running the organization—designing uniforms and writing manifestos, making public speeches and plotting military-style strategies. Those who knew him say Mishima became noticeably happier from this time on, and more affectionate toward others. He particularly enjoyed his leadership role and acted the father-figure to his young recruits, receiving them at all hours of the night to hear their troubles or to offer advice (Mishima had never before allowed his night writing-time to be interrupted). Determined to achieve the kind of heroic life he had for so long glorified, Mishima gradually withdrew emotional energy from his literary endeavors.

The Shield Society was to be his vehicle to action. Although many people saw this right-wing organization as an indication that he had become politically driven, Mishima had, in fact, never really been a political man. In his biography, Mishima, John Nathan argues convincingly that in founding his organization, Mishima was simply looking for a means to enact his long-held vision of a certain kind of life. “[T]here was something inside me that couldn't be satisfied with art alone,” Mishima explained to students at a “teach-in” late in 1968: “It occurred to me that what I needed was action with which to move my spirit.”14

“Action” soon came to mean “seppuku” for Mishima. Nathan suggests that as Mishima's commitment to this idea firmed, he became impatient with his writing. Mishima had never left any project incomplete and was hardly about to abandon his final work, then in progress, The Sea of Fertility. But, Nathan goes on to say, entire sections of the final volume of this tetralogy were written in distraction, for he was at this time concentrating on the plans for his ritual suicide. Mishima completed the novel about three months before his death, and from that day on, occupied himself almost exclusively with the final, elaborate arrangements for his final, horrifying deed. On November 25 of 1970, Mishima strode into Army Headquarters with his three assistants and tied up the head of the Japanese Armed Forces, keeping dozens of officers at bay with ancient, wildly swinging ceremonial swords. After delivering a speech to the troops (he had insisted they be assembled) about the need to return to the Samurai ways of Old Japan, Mishima disembowelled himself, then was beheaded by an assistant, all according to his carefully devised scheme.

“Dress my body in a Shield Society uniform,” he wrote as a last request to the intelligence officer of his organization:

Give me white gloves and a soldier's sword in my hand, and then do me the favor of taking a photograph. My family may object, but I want evidence that I died not as a literary man but as a warrior.15

Who is Mishima, here, intent on convincing? He no doubt guessed that the world would continue to think of him as an author—after all, he had written some hundred volumes of drama, fiction, and criticism, and had been nominated three times for the Nobel prize in literature. Perhaps Mishima wanted this “evidence” for himself: the request has the ring of a man who protests too much. But as aggressively as he tried to distance himself from his literary life, Mishima was, in the end, buried also as a writer. His wife, Yoko, perhaps understanding just how irrevocably her husband had been a man of words, flouted his final wish to be buried only with his sword. At the last minute, she slipped Mishima's fountain pen into the coffin, along with a handful of manuscript pages.


  1. The works of Mishima discussed here are more avowedly autobiographical than Proust's, and so one must exercise caution when drawing parallels between the narrator of the Recherche and Proust himself. We do know, however, that Proust had a revelation about his literary vocation that was similar to the narrator's in the Recherche and that generally, there was a close parallel between Proust's and the narrator's relationship to writing. (See, for example, Roger Shattuck, Marcel Proust, New York: Viking Press, 1974; and Wallace Fowlie, A Reading of Proust, Chicago: Midway Reprint, 1963) On this point, then, the parallel between Proust and his narrator might be less controversially made than on points having more to do with biographical detail or the relationships between characters.

  2. Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).

  3. Marguerite Yourcenar, Mishima: A Vision of the Void (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1986).

  4. See Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953), p. 544.

  5. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse, trans, by J. E. Lewin (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), p. 159.

  6. Genette, Narrative Discourse, p. 82.

  7. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 102.

  8. Genette, Narrative Discourse, p. 259.

  9. See Roger Shattuck, Marcel Proust (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 142-4.

  10. See Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. T. E. Hulme (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1949), pp. 160-165.

  11. See Schwartz, Matrix of Modernism, p. 25-30.

  12. Quoted in John Nathan, Mishima: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1974), p. 94.

  13. Quoted in Paul Jay, Being in the Text (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 148.

  14. Nathan, Mishima, p. 241.

  15. Quoted in Nathan, Mishima, p. 273. Nathan also quotes from Mishima's last letter to his family: “I have thrown the pen away. Since I die not as a literary man but entirely as a military man I would like the character for sword—bu—to be included in my Buddhist (posthumous) name. The character for pen—bun—need not appear” (p. 273).

Gabriele Schwab (essay date summer 1992)

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SOURCE: Schwab, Gabriele. “A Gaze into the Temple of Dawn: Yukio Mishima's ‘Absence in Presence’.” Discourse 14, no. 3 (summer 1992): 131-51.

[In the following essay, Schwab examines the dualities of Eastern/Western and masculine/feminine in The Temple of Dawn.]

“[A]s long as self-consciousness (the self) existed and perceived, the world was nothing more than a phenomenal shadow, a reflection of the ego's perceptions; the world was nothing and therefore nonexistent” (125). These reflections in Yukio Mishima's The Temple of Dawn pertain to its main character, Honda, the “Western Japanese” lawyer who, looking back at his life, comes to “realize that what had permitted him to live the way he had was the strength of Western thought, imported from the outside” (25).

The Temple of Dawn, the third novel in Mishima's tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, is a novel about the cultural contact between East and West in this century which Mishima traces from a Tokyo in 1912, with its decline of the ancient aristocracy and the emergence of a new elite of rich provincial families, to the late sixties, the last years of his own life. Mediated through Honda's relationships with Kiyoaki Matsugae and later with Isao, the young patriot for the Emperor's Japan who until his premature death through seppuku uncompromisingly clings to the purity of traditional Japanese culture, the text also probes the “question of an unadulterated Japan” (25). Honda and his counterparts, Kiyoaki and Isao, are cast as complementary characters who represent the tension between cultural hybridity and a sometimes militant nostalgia for purity. At one level of the narrative, this tension is enacted through the notion of transmigration. Apart from materializing in Kiyosaki's and Isao's reincarnations, the latter is also reflected in Honda's attempt to integrate Eastern and Western transcendental philosophies. Cultural contact is thus not restricted to concrete forms of contact between East and West but also encompasses a mediation between Eastern and Western histories of philosophical dualism. We find Honda's narrative interspersed with numerous theoretical reflections on the historical development of Buddhism as well as the opposition between immanence and transcendence, emotion and rationalism, passion and detachment or sensual perception and pure consciousness. These dualisms determine Honda's actions which also reveal them as deeply gendered oppositions.

Toward the end of the novel, Honda, about whom the narrator remarks that “he had once been the personification of cerebration” (25), concludes his confrontation between Eastern and Western thought with the statement: “Unfertilized thinking brings death” (25). The Sea of Fertility is a text which—as Mishima puts it in a remark to Donald Keene—“superimposes the image of cosmic nihilism on that of the fertile sea” and thereby reenacts and, as I will argue, inadvertently complicates the conventional binarism between masculine transcendence and feminine immanence.

As Simone de Beauvoir has argued in The Second Sex, Western philosophies have predicated this opposition on a binary model of self and other in which the subject is always linked to masculine transcendence. This tradition is invoked at the end of The Temple of Dawn in a “peephole-episode” which echoes Sartre's famous “keyhole-episode” in Being and Nothingness. Mishima thus also superimposes the image of an Eastern cosmic nihilism on that of a Western existential nihilism, creating an intertextual resonance which confronts Sartre's transcendental philosophy and its inherent “cerebration,” with the “fertile sea” of immanence and desire. As I want to show in the following, this meditation on “being” and “nothingness” by a “Westernized Japanese” draws out tacit assumptions of both cultural traditions.

In the last section of The Temple of Dawn, Honda peeks through a hole in the wall behind his bookshelf in order to gaze at Ying Chan, a nineteen-year-old Thai girl. Honda suspects this exotic Other to be the third link in the chain of reincarnation which embraces his two friends who both died at age twenty, Kiyoaki Matsugae and Isao, whose life Honda records in Runaway Horses. This reincarnation ignites a mystical love for Ying Chan in Honda and leads him to undertake a long spiritual pilgrimage to India and the holy places of Buddhism which thoroughly transforms his whole philosophy of life.

A decade later, however, we find Honda's spiritual enlightenment “contaminated” by the seductions of postwar hedonism and the attractions of Japan's new hybrid culture in the fifties. This is when he meets Ying Chan again at a party which he hosts at his house. And this time, far from confining himself to the mystical nature of his desire, he succumbs to an obsessive desire to see her naked.

Honda pursues his plan to spy on her with an ingenious and meticulous network of intricate arrangements. After building a swimming pool in his garden for the sole purpose of having her exposed in her nakedness, he invites a number of friends over to celebrate the opening of the pool. Ying Chan is accompanied by their mutual friend Keiko, a woman of about fifty years of age who, being one of those New Japanese women who pursue a “perfectly splendid mingling of East and West” (269), is also Honda's confidante. The two women are supposed to stay overnight in different guest rooms, one of them adjacent to Honda's room with the peephole.

Honda's project, however, is complicated by the fact that two other friends insist on staying overnight which, in turn, requires that he put Keiko into one room with Ying Chan. When Honda finally peeps through the hole, he, to his horror, discovers the two women in the act of making love. But he also discovers the three moles on Ying Chan's body which finally identify her without any doubt as a reincarnation of Kiyoaki Matsugae. At this moment, his act of voyeurism is interrupted by his wife. Using his discovery of the three moles in order to cover up his voyeurism while asserting his transcendence, Honda invites her to peep through the hole and thus enters into a game of complicity with her which eventually leads to the conclusion of the book.

In order to understand Mishima's superimposition of the two different epistemologies of the gaze in Eastern and Western culture, it is important to observe how his peephole-episode mirrors its Western equivalent in Sartre's Being and Nothingness. For Sartre, the pursuing gaze of the Other fashions the very mode of being. The keyhole episode, a narrative of spying and being spied upon, functions as a parable of the dynamic which constitutes the relationship between self and other in general: a person, “moved by jealousy, curiosity, or vice,” looks through a keyhole. Behind the door “a spectacle is to be seen.” All of a sudden, the person—whom we may assume to be male even though (or because) Sartre attempts to efface gender from his theory—hears footsteps in the hall and realizes that someone is looking at him. “What does this mean?” Sartre asks. “It means that I am suddenly affected in my being and that essential modifications appear in my structure—modifications which I can apprehend and fix conceptually by means of the reflective cogito” (319).

Far from being innocent, the dynamic of gazing, which forms and modifies the very structure of subjectivity, is, for Sartre, born out of pride and shame—two emotions which, in our culture, regulate the internalization of social norms. Shame is “shame of self; it is the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the Other is looking at and judging” (320).

Sartre's judgmental Other inflicts shame, guilt, anguish, and alienation. For Sartre, esse est percipi is tantamount to installing a “panopticum” within the subject. From this perspective, Kafka's The Trial appears as the imaginary world which best evokes the mode of affection which the gaze of the Other, the “Surveyor,” imposes onto the self: “that gloomy, evanescent atmosphere of The Trial, that ignorance which, however, is lived as ignorance, that total opacity which can only be felt as a presentiment across a total translucency—this is nothing but the description of our being-in-the-midst-of-the-world-for-others” (326).1

For Sartre, the very fact of being an object for the Other's gaze is an experience of a degrading fixation: “Pure shame is not a feeling of being this or that guilty object but in general of being an object, that is, of recognizing myself in this degraded, fixed and dependent being which I am for the Other” (338). Being an object for the Other is, then, a process of pure “objectification,” a reduction or fixation—and ultimately a destruction—of subjectivity.

However, Sartre does designate one intersubjective space that ostensibly remains “protected” from the destructive gaze of the Other: the sanctuary of love. And yet, even though love is, according to Sartre, the only form of relating differently to the Other, a close reading reveals that his discourse on love remains caught in his general concept of the Other and obeys the same logic of objectification. When Sartre asks “Why does the lover want to be loved?” he can only conclude that “[t]he lover wants to capture a consciousness,” and that “it is the Other's freedom that we want to get hold of” (448). The Hegelian dialectic of master and slave provides Sartre with a structural framework for conceptualizing love according to a dynamic of power and domination. This dynamic turns Sartre's “enterprise of love” into a paradox: the lover wants to get hold of the Other's freedom, but in order to sustain love, this freedom would have to be maintained. “The man who wants to be loved does not desire the enslavement of the beloved” (448). This is where seduction enters the stage, so to speak, as a substitute for the “will to power.” Since love cannot be willed, “love can in no way be distinguished from the enterprise of seduction” (454). Inverting the original dynamic of the gaze, seduction means to put oneself beneath the Other's gaze and to risk the danger of “being-seen.” Paradoxically, the lover's gaze must, according to Sartre, neither seek to objectify the Other nor to reveal the lover's subjectivity. It rather attempts to “assimilate the Other's subjectivity” (454).

For Sartre, the paradox of love results from his assumption that, while love is a “pure engagement without reciprocity” (458), it is nonetheless shared by two subjects who have reciprocal expectations of being loved. This paradox turns love into a spiraling abyss of illusions and delusions, “a system of indefinite reference … a game of mirrors” (459). The lover's illusion of “transcendence” or “pure subjectivity” is, however, always inherently threatened by the actual or virtual gaze of a third person: “it suffices that the lovers should be looked at together by a third person in order for each one to experience not only his own objectivation but that of the other as well” (460).2

Precisely this position of lovers, looked at by a third person, provides the starting point for Mishima's peephole episode. It comes as no surprise that one of the great writers of the Japanese, whom John Hersey once characterized as “a people obsessed with a fear of being spied upon” (4), would be highly responsive to the cultural paranoia of the gaze in Sartre's existentialism. And yet, Mishima's text not only mirrors but also complicates Sartre's famous episode by introducing two elements which remain so obviously repressed in Sartre's narrative: first, instead of positing the dynamic of love as an exception, he incorporates it into the peephole scenario, and second, instead of confining his readers to the spectacle of the voyeur, he implicates them in the secret behind the door.

In fact, Mishima draws to the center of the scene a glaring absence in Sartre's episode, namely the fact that the object of the voyeur's gaze is usually a sexual act. Sartre leaves us completely on one side of the keyhole, barring us, so to speak, from the spectacle behind the door. Along with the conceptual effacement of gender or, more adequately, the feminine, Sartre thus also obliterates the traces of sexual politics involved in the act of voyeurism. It is precisely these blind spots in Sartre's reading of his own fictional scene which allow him to exempt the dynamic of sexual politics from this spectacle of voyeurism. Mishima, by contrast, emphasizes the intricately intertwined relationship between love, sexual politics, and voyeurism and exposes the latter as a radicalization of the psychosocial regulation of perception and visibility.

The ensuing “endless game of mirrors” that entangles Mishima's characters is accordingly embedded in a textual strategy that explicitly focuses on sexuality and gender. At the same time the text incorporates this focus into the larger framework of a philosophy and epistemology of perception and a cultural code of the gaze and of visibility. Honda is cast as the mediator for this double coding of perception. Rather than as a simple voyeur, Honda is presented as a highly complex and intellectually sophisticated figure who is not only deeply self-critical about his own act but also attempts to redeem his voyeuristic pleasures by embedding them within a cosmological theory of perception. On the one hand, the text leaves no doubt that Honda's attempt to turn his voyeurism into a sublime experience of transcendence is a rationalization, a product of his old “cerebration” which may never fully account for his desire. Yet, on the other hand, it reveals that this pathology is not merely a personal idiosyncracy but a cultural pathology which is already operative at the level of a philosophy of perception which polarizes and hierarchizes the opposition between immanence and transcendence. This becomes most obvious after Honda's exposure to the gaze of his wife Rié, cast in the role of Sartre's “third person” who discovers the voyeur.

From the outset, Honda's high self-reflexivity mirrors his actions in the theoretical reflections of a voyeur who is not only able to “see” his own “perversion” but has already viewed it in an epistemology of perception as paradox in which whatever you can see is already contaminated by the gaze's confinement to immanence. Honda is already an object to his own perception before he concretely becomes, like Sartre's protagonist, an object of the other's gaze. Moreover, the narrative strategies which cast Ying Chan as the object of the male gaze are themselves highly self-reflexive. They perform a narrative mimicry of the internal dynamic of the gaze in order continually to remove Ying Chan from the locus of perception—even during the voyeuristic scene proper. This removal, in turn, is self-reflexively attributed to the paradox of the voyeur's inability to see: “Honda's perception itself became a screen and was defective, an infinitesimal obstruction” (Temple 297).

Equally telling is that the narrative of this voyeur, who grounds his philosophy of the gaze in the awareness that “the world could be transformed through observation” (322), opens with the line: “The reality of Ying Chan was limited by the Ying Chan he could observe” (296). The paradoxical function of the gaze is related to the known on the one hand and to love on the other. Loving Ying Chan, for Honda, would mean to do exactly the opposite of the voyeur, namely, “to keep Ying Chan as far away as possible from the talons of his perception” (296). Love, as Honda knows, depends on the unknown, the secret, and the desire of the voyeur is focused upon “seeing the unseeable” and upon unveiling the secret while remaining undetected:

Therefore his desire to see Ying Chan in the nude, a Ying Chan unknown to anyone, became an unattainable desire divided contradictorily into perception and love. Seeing already lay within the sphere of perception, and even if Ying Chan was not aware of it, from the moment he had peeped through the luminous hole in the back of the bookcase, she had become an inhabitant of a world created by her perception. In her world, contaminated by his the moment he laid eyes on it, what he really wanted to see would never appear. His love could not be fulfilled. And yet, if he did not see, love would forever be precluded.


This paradoxical desire to see what cannot be seen brings the “base desire” of the voyeur into proximity with the “temptation of sublimity” (316): “Manifestly only ugliness and disgrace lay in store, yet these palpitations had the richness and the brilliance of a rainbow; something indistinguishable from the sublime burst forth” (315-16). Representing the unrepresentable founds the paradox of a gaze which obliterates the subject, a representation verging on death. Both partake in the negation of the other. For Honda, however, Ying Chan exists only insofar as he is able to perceive her. If he were able to remove that “infinitesimal obstruction,” the gaze, he would enact his own death:

It now became clear that Honda's ultimate desire, what he really, really wanted to see, could exist only in a world where he did not. In order to see what he truly wished he must die. When a voyeur recognizes that he can realize his ends only by eliminating the basic act of watching, this means his death as such.


Like Sartre, Mishima emphasizes the deadening quality of the gaze. But while Sartre assumes that it is inherent to the gaze in general, Mishima attributes it specifically to a voyeurism predicated on a nostalgia for transcendence in relation to which immanence appears only as an illusion of the real. Crucial for the implied politics of gender and the emotions in these transcendental philosophies is the fact that, however different they may be otherwise, they both can posit “love” only as an impossible project and in terms of a paradox related to the gaze and perception. For Honda, the death brought about by the gaze no longer remains a mere metaphor for the obliteration of subjectivity. Honda literally fantasizes the scene of his own suicide, his “exit from a world contaminated by perception” (297). But in a battle of the sexes carried out through the gaze, Honda's death would be Ying Chan's triumph: “at the very moment of his departure she would stand radiantly before him; nothing was so predictable as this” (297).

The epistemological intricacy of Honda's position as a voyeur is enhanced by the fact that the fantasy of this “Western Japanese” approximates Western theories of representation to Eastern philosophies of mind. (The “indispensable formalities” which open the “ceremony” of voyeurism contain a subtle irony: in order to gain access to the peephole, Honda must remove from his bookshelf the classics of Western literature which, in this case, form a very concrete “obstruction” for his perception.) Sartre's definition of symbolization and representation as a destruction of the object finds its Eastern equivalent in Honda's adoption of the philosophy of the Yuishiki School, which considers the root of perception as “the eternal alaya consciousness that discards the world one instant without regret and renews it in the next” (297).3 This consciousness is in constant flux, formed not only by all mental activities but also by the physical objects of perception. Alaya consciousness is considered to be “the migrating body and generative power of samsara and reincarnation” (121) in that it makes all mind and matter materialize.

As products of alaya consciousness, both “self” and “soul” are reduced to ideation. The differentiation between self and other is itself such an ideation, produced by the seventh sense, manas, which creates a temporary illusion of individuality and gives rise to egotism and the “attachment to self.” This position marks precisely the paradox of Honda as a voyeur and frames the scene of voyeurism at the end of The Temple of Dawn:

Honda could not but think that both the formation of so-called consciousness of self in modern times as well as the fallacy of egotistic philosophy found their origins in the second seed.


According to the Yuishiki school, the world “lives and dies at every moment … and only the present instant which one can touch with one's hand and see with one's eyes is real” (124). Since this also holds true for the existence of the self, we encounter here an Eastern version of esse est percipi very different from the Western ones that inspired Sartre's Being and Nothingness. And yet, curiously enough, these different theories gain their closest proximity in the position of the voyeur. For Honda, the self exists only as long as that self continues to perceive. At the same time, the world of this self is but a reflection of the ego's perceptions.

What most marks the position of the voyeur is that consciousness only is haunted by sensuous desire. From the perspective of alaya consciousness Honda appears as being “too attached to his perceptions” and therefore unwilling to “give himself completely to this doctrine” (297). Considering the tension between Eastern and Western ways and philosophies of living played out by Honda in this text, one could also say that Honda is already too “Westernized” to completely renounce his attachment to perception, desire, and confirmable reality that encompasses past and future. This becomes most obvious in the fierce belief which shapes and frames his reflections on the Yuishiki school like a refrain, an incantation that recurs after each reflection on basic assumptions of the Yuishiki school: “But the world must exist!” (see 125-27).

These reflections on the ontological and epistemological dilemma of a voyeur—who, being torn between Eastern and Western models of the gaze, is falsely attached to his perceptions—precede the narration of the actual voyeuristic scene. The narrative exposure of Honda's act of voyeurism is thus anticipated and broken into myriad reflections on perception and the gaze, and this (quasi)-theoretical sublimation, in turn, orients the perspective of the reader. It effects, in fact, a complex inversion of the standard reaction to voyeurism. While the philosophical reflections prevent us from seeing Honda as a mere voyeur—which would turn him into “the other,” the pervert who deserves guilt and shame—these reflections also build suspense surrounding the voyeuristic scene. After such a subliminal theoretical foreplay we can anticipate a climax: that is, the revelation of a secret. Or, as Sartre puts it, we expect that behind the wall “a spectacle is to be seen,” and the dynamic of the narrative tells us that it has to be more than the spectacle which Honda expects to see. Instead of leaving us at the safe distance of a pure onlooker, this anticipation shifts the object and focus of aesthetic pleasure and implicates us in Honda's voyeurism. We are pulled away from the myriad reflections on consciousness only and plunged into a world of immanence.

The suspense is intensified during the preparation of the voyeuristic scene. Honda's wife Rié escorts the nineteen-year-old Ying Chan and nearly fifty-year-old friend Keiko onto the terrace in their swimming suits. Honda's attention shifts to Keiko who “seemed voluptuous” and “when seen in profile talking with Rié her curves flowed with statuesque majesty, and the sovereignty of buxom flesh was apparent in the symmetry of the swelling breasts and buttocks” (309). This same cold male gaze which veils degradation in idealization then turns toward Ying Chan:

Clad in a white suit, she was holding a white rubber bathing cap in one hand and pushing back her hair with the other in a relaxed pose, one leg extended beyond the other. In her manner of placing one leg slightly forward, visible from a distance, was a kind of tropical asymmetry that excited people. Strong and yet slim, the long thighs supporting a well-developed torso somehow imparted a feeling of precariousness.


Is this Honda's gaze or the “objective” gaze of a neutral narrator? It does not make any difference, for it is a gaze which transforms the world of these two female characters through observation. Ceasing to exist as subjects, they become bodies—if not body-effects. And yet, in the context of the previous reflections upon the obstruction of the gaze, their aloofness and mysterious absence evokes a curiosity to see behind the aesthetics of an objectified beauty of bodies. Honda's perception is turned back at him so that, for the reader, it is Honda, not the women, who becomes the “object” of a perception which reveals more about the perceiver than about the perceived object.

This inverted direction of the gaze turns into another framing device for the act of voyeurism. Honda's scheme to use the peephole in his library in order to observe Ying Chan sleeping alone had been undermined by the necessity to have her share the room with Keiko. The “spectacle to be seen” then turns out to be Ying Chan and Keiko making love. Again, the scene is cast in terms of a pure facticity focusing on a quasi-objective description of their bodies. But while Honda's gaze focuses on the bodies of the two women, the narrative focuses on Honda's body. The whole scene conveys the obliteration of subjectivity and life on all levels: the annihilation of the two women's subjectivity under Honda's gaze, the transmutation of Honda's emotions into “mechanical, rapid palpitations” (315) of the heart, the vanishing of desire under the “indispensable formalities” of Honda's pleasure. Honda's actions assume the rigidity of a compulsive and mechanistic order where each detail has to be under total control, where the order in which he removes books from the peephole never varies, where he could guess the exact weight of each and knew the odor of accumulated dust. “The touch and the weight of these solemn and imposing volumes and the precision of their arrangement were the indispensable formalities of his pleasure” (317).

Honda's gaze is as objectifying as the ritualistic formalities with which he prepares the voyeuristic scene. It is a decidedly aesthetic gaze. Its formalistic aestheticism, however, has a coldness to it, since it contains the emotional involvement and closes it off from the “object” of love. Idealization and degradation are two inseparable sides of this “politics of love” that pertains to the voyeuristic gaze. Honda sees “inextricably entangled limbs writhed on the bed,” “a white plump body and a dusky one,” “two heads of black shadowy hair,” “two black pubescent mounds,” “breasts with nipples turned toward the light” and “perspiration flowing slowly down the spine” (317-18). Under the shock of witnessing the two women making love to each other, Honda's gaze aggressively turns them into “fragmented bodies” exposed to the gaze in a stage of disfiguration like iconic remnants of their dissolution as subjects:

Ying Chan's beautiful, dark breasts were drenched with perspiration, the right one crushed and disfigured beneath Keiko's body, while the left, heaving vigorously, lay voluptuously on her left arm with which she was caressing Keiko's belly.


These cold and distancing notations of a voyeur, one whose passions are self-enclosed and contained within the aesthetics of ritual, reveal how the assumed “objectivity” of a purely descriptive gaze is, in fact, a dis-figuration—if not a deadening stare. In this respect, too, the voyeuristic gaze is linked to death: while the only way really to see what the voyeur wants to see would entail his own death as such, the only way to bring his field of vision under the same control as the environment surrounding it would entail the death of the perceived object. It is in accordance with the inner logic of this gaze, then, that Ying Chan reminds Honda of “the fresco at the Ajanta cave temple depicting the dying dancer” (309). Honda's gaze must compulsively turn the flow of life in the act of love between the two women into stasis. Their perspiration, their passionate caresses, their flowing hair, and the wild movements of their bodies have to be transformed into frozen images, the still life of the voyeur's closed field of vision. The desire incarcerated in this vision is a desire for the constancy of stable and clear-cut objects, for the enclosure of the controllable and the exclusion of otherness. It is, in other words, the desire for the constancy of petrified objects which, as Sartre has emphasized, is inherent to the basic categories of Cartesian epistemology.

Mishima shows how Honda's gaze must assimilate the love-scene and the passion he witnesses to this fear of the uncontrollable flow of life, and, more importantly, the desire of women. In the distorting mirror of voyeuristic vision, the scene of love turns into a male fantasy of struggle and destruction.

When the envisioned summit, that unknown golden limit was manifest, the scene was completely transformed, and Honda could see the two women entangled beneath his gaze only in their suffering and torture. They were battered by the dissatisfaction of the flesh, their gathered brows were filled with pain, and their hot limbs seemed to writhe as though trying to escape from what seared them. They possessed no wings. They continued their futile thrashings to escape from their suffering; and yet their flesh firmly retained them. Only rapture could bring release.


Horrified by this spectacle of lesbian desire and sexuality, Honda can only perceive its purely carnal manifestations. Moreover, his perception transforms their sexual act according to his own projections in which their jouissance can only appear as “suffering,” “torture,” “battered by the dissatisfaction of their flesh,” “filled with pain,” and “trying to escape.” The lesbian lovers are, in other words, “firmly retained by their flesh”—frozen in immanence.

But once again we become witness of a curious inversion of the gaze. The narrative leaves no doubt that the scene behind the door is transformed by the voyeur's perception. Inadvertently, the spectacle behind the door mirrors the voyeur whose own gaze falls back on him once it is mediated through the narrative. Thus we come to perceive Honda as the one who is caught in the immanence of the others' flesh, while the two women remain curiously “innocent” and untouched by his gaze.

This scene of a visual disfiguration of lesbian desire by a male voyeur is, however, followed by one of double recognition: Ying Chan exposes her side and reveals the three moles which identify her as a reincarnation of Kiyoaki Matsugae. When Honda sees the deeper source of his mystical love confirmed, he is released from the prison of his own gaze: under the forceful destruction of the voyeuristic gaze which the discovery of the moles brings about, a different “seeing” look is born—if only for a fleeting moment. “As if his eyes had been pierced with arrows” (320), the infinitesimal obstruction of the gaze is finally removed and Ying Chan's subjectivity “restored” in a matter of seconds. This transformation, however, still removes her as a subject in a different way, precisely because the restoration of subjectivity is bound to its fusion with another subjectivity: that of his friend Matsugae.

After Honda's discovery of the moles, Ying Chan ceases simply to be the woman whom he desires (or, for that matter, the woman who desires another woman). She merges with the man whom Honda had tacitly desired all his life and is thus transformed into a complex figure of overdetermined homoerotic desire. She now incorporates Honda's desire for Matsugae, the sensitive melancholy youth who “was praised for his extraordinary beauty” (Spring Snow 8). Ying Chan's reincarnation of Matsugae suggests that, perhaps unconsciously, Honda's desire for her had already traversed the boundaries of gender. Her subject position is hence marked—for Honda and the reader—as that of a man of feminine beauty and sensitivity, reincarnated as a woman. In this position she ideally combines for Honda the mystery of the feminine (immanence) with the mystery of transmigration (transcendence).

This mystery, however, is destroyed in the act of voyeurism. As a woman who makes love to another woman Ying Chan had become, under Honda's gaze, a figure exposing immanence trapped in carnal desire. As the reincarnation of a man, by contrast, she figures the hope of transcendence. This ambiguity also reveals that, for Honda, Ying Chan becomes a subject only as a figure of transcendence. As a woman she remains a figuration of immanence, that is, Other. The temporary presence of Ying Chan as a subject and a figure of transcendence is immediately disrupted by another devastating scene of recognition. Honda's wife Rié taps on his back: “‘What are you doing? I suspected as much’” (320). Honda, the voyeur discovered in his shameful act, now turns into the object of his wife's contemptuous and judgemental gaze. And yet the guilt that one would expect to follow this discovery is effaced by the emotional impact of the discovery of the moles which had transformed the nature of the voyeuristic act itself. Honda, however, turns this discovery into a second betrayal of Ying Chan by skillfully using it in order to both involve Rié in his voyeurism and veil his carnal desire in an aura of transcendence and mystic connectedness. He invites Rié to peek through the peephole, knowing that her curiosity will out-win her dignity.

The abyss of these multiple refractions of the gaze in connection with the scenes of involuntary recognitions is widened onto a further level: when Honda observes “the demeaning position of his wife” he recognizes himself in her. By way of a negative identification Honda thus becomes the object of a different self-perception. Seeing himself in his wife makes him other to himself. The dynamic of the gaze is carried infinitely further than in Sartre's key-hole episode: while Honda can still maintain his defenses when discovered by his wife, they break down when he becomes the witness of her demeaning act which mirrors his own. His shame is also the shame of having sunken as low as his wife, whom he holds in contempt. Against Honda's will, however, their complicity binds them together—even though each of them sees a quite different spectacle. Rié delights in the scandalous spectacle of love between her rival and another woman and is instantly cured from her jealousy, while Honda marvels at the mystery of transmigration and mourns the lost “innocence” of his mystical love—which he nonetheless betrays when he invites his wife to partake in his voyeuristic act.

If the transgression of the voyeur lies in violating the secrecy of sexual intimacy, Honda links the secret of Ying Chan's and Keiko's intimacy to a deeper secret that he shares with his wife: the secret of Matsugae's reincarnations. Rié, however, had already violated this secret long before when she was raking through Honda's study and read Matsugae's diary. By exposing Ying Chan to Rié's gaze under the pretext of sharing with her the discovery of the moles, Honda becomes complicit after the fact in Rié's earlier violation. He thus betrays both Ying Chan and Matsugae to Rié in order to cover up his own shame. Rié's and Honda's complicity in these violations of secrets, however, only reveals the abyss between their different relations to birth and death. Rié, who cannot have children of her own, envied Ying Chan's presumed fecundity—an envy revealed in her earlier remark to Honda: “With a body like that she ought to have a lot of children” (313). She is cured from her envy and jealousy when she discovers that Ying Chan sleeps with a woman. The complicity between Honda and Rié does not remain restricted to her becoming a “co-conspirator by having been a voyeur too” (322), but is followed by their collectively ostracizing Ying Chan for her otherness. Despite Honda's condescension toward his wife, he is overcome by a sudden impulse to share her disdain for Ying Chan and Keiko.

Honda felt momentarily how good it would have been if they could have been like so many other couples in the world, if they could flaunt their impeccable moral rectitude like immaculately white aprons across their chests, sit at table three times a day and proudly eat to their satisfaction, if they could assume the right to disdain other things in the world.”


What both Honda and Rié gain from their voyeurism is the shared disdain for otherness, and “what remained now was mutual consolation” (322). By turning Ying Chan into an odious other and thus destroying the mystic ground for Honda's love, Rié has been “cured” and gains the strength to ask Honda about adopting a child. Honda, however, has already transcended to another scale of desire: his sense of death and birth is no longer bound to a woman who gives birth, because he already reaches for immortality through reincarnation. His desire for Ying Chan was bound to the impossible love of a voyeur and is inseparable from the notion of his own death. Voyeurism thus appears as the ultimate antithesis to love.

Discovering Ying Chan with Keiko has destroyed Honda's voyeuristic pleasure. “Death has flown from Honda's heart the moment he had seen Keiko and Ying Chan together” and has made room for the mystery of transmigration: “Now there was reason to believe that he might be immortal” (323). Since he is immortal, his need for children has vanished. Instead of raising children, he will be reborn himself. “‘No,’ he said with determination, plucking a piece of tobacco from his lip, ‘it's better to live by ourselves. I prefer not having any heir’” (323). In this moment, Honda and Rié—in the midst of their complicity of shared secrets and despite Honda's seeing himself as object in Rié—become incompatible others to each other.

The reader may come to feel about all protagonists in this scene what Honda projects onto the two women while he watches them make love: “the fact that every atom of their bodies was still isolated in maddening aloneness. They were feverishly striving to come closer, toward the greater intimacy, to fuse one into the other, but to no avail” (318). This is the deepest tension which Mishima conveys throughout his texts, his lesson about the gaze and otherness: his characters, isolated in maddening aloneness, feverishly striving to come closer, are mirror-effects of a language which mimics their yearning for a greater intimacy, but at the same time celebrates the indispensable distancing formalities of an aesthetic pleasure which knows the intricacies of the gaze and its intimate connection to language.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre analyzes the gaze and its mediation of otherness as “a fundamental mode of language” (455). According to Sartre, language is already given in the recognition of the Other. In this sense, Mishima's style and mode of discourse, his figurations of poetic language can also be read as his mode of mediating otherness. Mishima's precisely calculated spacing of aesthetic distance has the power to masterfully draw the reader in, thus evoking a yearning for greater intimacy similar to the one which his characters indirectly expose.4 At the same time, however, he makes one realize that such intimacy may only be obtained by reaching beyond the vicissitudes of a gaze that gives one “the right to disdain other things in the world” (322).

Honda's epistemology of perception as paradox is thus mirrored in Mishima's aesthetics of reading as paradox. What one experiences most painfully while reading his texts is what one will never find there. The “absence in presence” paradoxically turns into a “presence in absence.” The very paradox of Mishima's superimposition of the image of cosmic nihilism on that of the fertile sea generates its own rebirth in the reader—as Other.

This assumption entails interesting ramifications if we ask how a reading of Mishima's texts differs according to gender or culture. We may assume that a female reader reacts differently from a male reader to the decidedly masculinist if not sexist perspective of most of Mishima's main characters, as well as to the gendered assumptions about transcendence and immanence. We may equally assume that the reader's reception of Mishima's “mingling of East and West” and his depictions of the tension between the old and the new Japan differs according to the cultural background of a specific reader (and her attitude to this culture). What interests me here, however, is the multiplicity of possible readings, a multiplicity which is rooted in the complexity and ambivalence of Mishima's characters as well as in the poised ambivalence of the text itself. Rather than simply criticizing Mishima for the beliefs and ideologies of his characters, I have chosen to pursue a reading which emphasizes their ambivalence as part of a general textual ambivalence. This method of reading ultimately determines how one evaluates the gender politics of this text as well the status one gives to Mishima's reflections on transcendence and immanence.

While at a general philosophical level the polarity between cosmic nihilism and the fertile sea recalls Western and Eastern traditions of masculine transcendence and feminine immanence, Mishima also links this model more specifically to the historical equation of the feminine with immanence in Japanese thought in the early twentieth century (see Jackson 7). And yet, as we have seen, the peephole episode in The Temple of Dawn inadvertently challenges Mishima's model of male transcendence. The sexual politics implicit in its dramatization of gender not only performs a gendered intertextual response to the existential nihilism of Sartre's keyhole episode, but also threatens to undermine Mishima's own cosmic nihilism from within. It may be true that, on one level, Honda embodies masculine transcendence, while Rié embodies feminine immanence. But this perspective is revealed as a deeply ideological one. At the level of dramatic action, Honda is caught in a humiliating act of voyeurism, a discovery which leads him, moreover, to resign himself to a bondage of complicity with his wife. On the practical level of his quotidian life with Rié, his attempted withdrawal from the world into cosmic transcendence is reduced to nothing more but the shared disdain of “other things in the world.” His complicity with Rié thus betrays his own Buddhist philosophy of cosmic transcendence.

But the scene also reveals how Honda's hope of cosmic transcendence is contaminated by the intricate series of his betrayals. In his act of voyeurism he betrays both the mystery of his homoerotic bond to his friend Matsugae and his mystical love to the “Other,” the Thai woman. To become obvious, this betrayal needed the “third person,” Rié, who exposes the dynamic of the voyeur's gaze to Honda as well as the reader at the very moment in which she partakes in it. At a philosophical level, Honda's double betrayal also entails a double betrayal of the feminine: caught in the immanence of his voyeurism, Honda violently rejects his own alignment with the feminine. He destroys his desire for Ying Chan and, by giving away the secret of Matsugae's reincarnation, betrays the friend who, during his life, embodied the eroticism of the feminine male and who, after his death, is reincarnated in the exotic female.

Mishima's narrative enacts this destruction of the feminine in the final scene which figures Ying Chan's death. Bitten by a cobra, Ying Chan dies because she is ignorant of the Sutra of the Peacock Wisdom King which Honda knows: “If you are bitten by a snake, all you have to do is chant this spell: ma yu kitsu ra tei sha ka” (294). The very last sentences of The Temple of Dawn speak of Ying Chan's final convulsions which uncannily recall her convulsions during the act of making love to Keiko. But, as we recall, this first scene of a convulsive love was an effect of the voyeuristic gaze of Honda, for whom desire is intricately linked to death—“How alike were the voices of pleasure and death!” (315)—and who had envisioned Ying Chan as a “dying dancer.”

If we recall that classical Japanese literature was configured as feminine (see Jackson 7) and the feminine was equated with immanence in Japanese thought in the early twentieth century, then Honda's cosmic nihilism might appear as a recourse to a philosophical system used defensively in an attempt to suppress the feminine in Japanese culture. Earl Jackson, Jr. argues that Mishima's model of male transcendence must be understood in the context of his role in the re-masculinization of Japanese culture through selective internalization of Western attitudes toward the Other (7).

The intertextual game of mirrors, which reflects Mishima's peephole episode in its Sartrean model, however, exposes this attempted suppression or sublimation of the feminine and invites the reader to read the text against the grain of Honda's “masculinist” ideology of its male characters in order to discover its cultural and political unconscious. One aspect in particular complicates Honda's denigration of feminine immanence, namely the transgression of gender boundaries in both the love-scene between the two women and the game of reincarnation. To be sure, when Honda falls in love with Ying Chan he, on one level, desires a woman. But the recognition of the moles and the discovery that she is a reincarnation of Matsugae inserts a shift in this desire and reveals that, at a deeper level, Honda desires in Ying Chan a man. The latter remains a forbidden desire which can be lived only in the sublimated form of an imagined transcendence. Inadvertently, however, the intricacies of this desire and its relation to the game of reincarnation challenge the deceptive conceptual purity and simplicity of a binary opposition between masculine transcendence and feminine immanence.


  1. The fact that Kafka's sinister fictional world best evokes the atmosphere which grounds Sartre's phenomenology of the gaze reflects how deeply Sartre's model is embedded in the historical context of fascism in Europe and in a cultural perspective of otherness for which the Jew has become the paradigmatic figure. (L'Être et le Néant was published in 1943.) But this context also invites one to question the status of a model which totalizes the persecuting and destructive Other (whose tacit agent is the fascist), a model which subsequently constitutes the basis of an ontology of the gaze with universalist claims. Does this move not end with the consequence that the model inadvertently encrypts the “fascist Other”?

  2. Sartre's existentialism in Being and Nothingness is one of the most striking examples of a tradition of Western theories of otherness based on a deeply rooted cultural paranoia. Sartre does not deem it problematic to construct his theory of the gaze—which, in turn, becomes the basis of his theory of otherness as well as his theory of language—after the model of a gaze involved in an act of voyeurism, or, more concretely, the judgmental gaze of a third person on a voyeur who is peeping through a keyhole. The paranoia which governs Sartre's theoretical model of otherness, of course, finds a most fertile ground in the cultural conditions of the time and provides powerful tools to describe the destructive patterns of relating to cultural otherness which prevail in our century. Sartre also writes from within a larger tradition which shares this cultural paranoia. Apart from the fact that Sartre universalizes his model by conceptually eclipsing questions of gender or racial and cultural otherness, he creates a structural problem when, instead of describing specific historical structures, he ontologizes his premises.

    Yet it would be wrong to conclude that the widely shared critique of these obvious theoretical and conceptual problems has rendered Sartre's theory defunct. Although it is true that Sartre has long been removed from the mainstream of the discussion in philosophy and critical theory, the impact of Sartre's Being and Nothingness on theories of otherness and its dissemination of cultural paranoia can hardly be underestimated. Despite the widespread dismissal of Sartre's phenomenological ontology, the conceptual model of a persecuting, objectifying, and annihilating gaze is retained to this very day by many theories and philosophies as the framework which describes the relationship between self and other, as well as the patterns of relating to cultural otherness. And while most contemporary theories are highly critical of Sartre's existential nihilism—which incidentally provides a perfect conceptual ground for his deeply rooted sexism—many of these theories have inherited not only basic features of his structural model but also his cultural paranoia.

    Lacan's theory of the gaze, for one, is deeply affected by Sartre's phenomenology of the gaze which—as he asserts in “The Object Relation and the Intersubjective Relation”—he finds “irrefutable” (Seminaire 216). Mediated through Simone de Beauvoir's feminist revaluation of Being and Nothingness in The Second Sex and enforced by the intense Lacan-reception among feminists, Sartre's theory also continues indirectly to inform the discussion in feminism—often by serving as a negative model, which nonetheless governs the terms of the debate or the structure of theoretical models. I see Laura Mulvey's seminal article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” as an example of such a mediated reception which has enforced a decisive trend of cultural paranoia within film theory.

  3. As Mishima tells his readers by way of Honda's theoretical reflections, Yuishiki, or “consciousness only,” developed as a school in response to Buddhism's rejection of the idea of an innate essence in all creation. This rejection which implied the rejection of the idea of soul, atman, introduced deep contradictions and inconsistencies into Buddhism concerning the question of transmigration since Buddhism inherited the idea of karma but denied the existence of a transmigrating substance. (Regarding the historical development of the Yuishiki School see Temple 23, 119.) The Yuishiki school overcame this contradiction by adopting the concept of “seed perfuming” from the Theravada Sautrantika school according to which “the effect of a good or bad deed remains in one's consciousness, permeating it as the fragrance of perfume permeates clothes” (24). Using this notion, the Yuishiki school established a seventh sense, manas, which complements the ordinary six senses and applies to all mental powers that perceive self and individual identity. These seven senses are, in turn, integrated into “the ultimate consciousness”—alaya—which “stores away all ‘seeds’ of the phenomenal world” (119-20).

  4. The possibility and the extent of this yearning depends, of course, on the individual readers' own attitudes toward or capability for intimacy. In this respect, we may assume that there are important cultural and gender differences in the reception of Mishima's text.

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Hersey, John. Hiroshima. 1946. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Jackson, Earl, Jr. “Queering Japan: The Masculine Fetish and the Cross-Cultural Gaze.” Draft manuscript.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Object Relation and the Intersubjective Relation.” Seminaire. Book I. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. John Forrester. New York: Norton, 1988. 209-19.

Mishima, Yukio. The Decay of the Angel. Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Knopf, 1974.

———. Runaway Horses. Trans. Michael Gallagher. New York: Knopf, 1973.

———. Spring Snow. Trans. Michael Gallagher. New York: Knopf, 1972.

———. The Temple of Dawn. Trans. E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Segawa Seigle. New York: Knopf, 1973.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.

Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel Barnes. New York: Washington Square, 1966.

Reiko Tachibana Nemoto (essay date summer 1993)

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SOURCE: Nemoto, Reiko Tachibana. “The Obsession to Destroy Monuments: Mishima and Böll.” Twentieth Century Literature 39, no. 2 (summer 1993): 230-49.

[In the following essay, Nemoto analyzes parallels in the post-World War II novels of Mishima and Heinrich Böll, focusing on attitudes toward destruction.]

In Japan and in Germany the aftermath of World War II brought a preoccupation with the destruction of monuments (both real and fictional) by fire. In 1950, in the city of Kyoto in Japan, a famous Zen temple that was more than five hundred years old was burned down in an act of arson by a Zen acolyte named Hayashi Yoken, who said that his motive was “antipathy against beauty” (Tasaka 105).1 This event became the subject of Mishima Yukio's 1956 novel Kinkakuji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, hereafter Temple), which retells the destruction of the temple from the retrospective viewpoint of an invented arsonist named Mizoguchi, who is “pursued by the idée fixe of beauty” (Nakamura 306).2 In 1959, three years after Mishima's sensational work, Heinrich Böll published a novel called Billard um Halbzehn (Billiards at Half Past Nine, hereafter Billiards) in which the central act is the deliberate burning of St. Anthony's Abbey, a fictitious structure that, as the book explains, was built at the beginning of the twentieth century by an architect named Heinrich Fähmel and destroyed by his son Robert at the end of the war.3

In Japanese and German postwar literature the destruction of buildings or entire cities is a commonly shared experience. In Germany the first literary attempts of several “coming home” writers, including Böll, have been called Trümmerliteratur (rubble literature), i.e., literature whose setting is a battlefield or a bomb-ravaged city, usually presented with an immediacy of perspective and a lack of detachment. Similarly, in Japan genbakubungaku (atomic-bomb literature) portrays hellish pictures of the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The uniqueness of the two novels by Mishima and Böll lies not in their subject matter, but in their attitude toward their protagonists' deliberate violence against historical monuments. Both authors seem to justify the act of destruction, or at least to find such conduct inevitable in the dehumanized postwar society in which they live: the striking similarity of these novels lies in the ostensible endorsement of violence as a tool of aesthetic, political, and ideological expression. The symbol of the destroyed monument constitutes what Neil H. Donahue calls a “primary nexus” (58), demonstrating, as Ernestine Schlant suggests, that “literary truth often goes deeper than political or economic analysis, and [that] it reflects the conditions and values of the society under which it was created” (1).

The similarities between the two novels can be related, in part, to the fact that Japan and Germany have similar recent political and literary histories. They became modern states at almost the same time. After an approximately three-hundred-year isolation under the feudal Tokugawa shogunate, Japan opened her door to the West during the Meiji Restoration or Revolution of 1868, embarking, as Oda Makoto puts it, upon “the path leading to the status of a modern nation, under the strong and autocratic rule of the ten'no (emperor) system, a path that led to World War II, and Japan's total defeat” (264). Mishima's ideal image of the emperor centers on this period, that of the Meiji (1867-1912), Taisho (1912-1926), and Showa (1926-1945) emperors, in which the concept of kokutai (the national polity) or “the sacred nature of the Japanese nation” (Tasker 138), placed great emphasis on the emperor's divinity as a descendant of the Sun Goddess, and on the nobility of the Japanese people as “children” (sekishi) of the emperor God. Similarly, the German peoples' dream of the unification of their numerous small states came true in 1871, when the Prussian Count Bismarck established the Second Reich under Kaiser (Emperor) Wilhelm I, the head of an “authoritarian, conservative, ‘military-bureaucratic power state’” (Spielvogel 5) with policies which would lead Germany into World War I during the reign of Wilhelm II. Like the Japanese kokutai ideology, the German focus on the Kaiser reinforced the ideology of the Volk (nation, people, or race), asserting the superiority of German culture and “the idea of a universal mission for the German people. This meant that individuals must be willing to sacrifice themselves for the higher claims of the Volk” (Spielvogel 6). The humiliation of the Versailles treaty as the result of Germany's defeat in World War I and the crisis in the Weimar Republic triggered the rise of Hitler, who, emphasizing the concept of the Volk and Aryan blood, promised to restore a “great” Germany.

The literary movements of Japan and Germany reflect the contemporary social and political situation. During the 1920s and early 1930s harsh conditions led to the development of an active “literature of the left” in both countries (Donahue 59). In Japan, however, after the 1933 police murder of Kobayashi Takiji, one of the dominant leftist figures, literary protest waned. Prudently, many Japanese leftist writers then chose to practice tenko or “conversion” literature, which was characterized by a complete reversal of the writers' earlier political stance, that is, by their total submission to authority. There was no significant literary objection when in 1937 Japan declared a “holy war” on China in the name of the “divine” Emperor. In Germany, as in Japan, the economic crisis of the 1920s enabled a protest movement to develop, but here too it was short-lived. The major leftist literary figures, such as Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, and Alfred Döblin, were forced into exile when Paul von Hindenburg handed power over to Adolf Hitler in 1933. Writers and intellectuals who remained in the Third Reich either lived in a condition of “internal exile,” that is, passive resistance, or became dutiful supporters of the Nazis. Thus for both Germany and Japan 1933 marked the death of intellectual freedom and the silencing of critical literature.

After their defeat in World War II in 1945, under Allied occupation the Japanese and the Germans devoted themselves to “the sublimated attempt to dominate the world economically instead of militarily” (Schlant 11). In both countries writers expressed their discomfort with the fact that the change in national policy involved means but not ends. It is not a mere coincidence that Mishima's and Böll's novels appeared in the late 1950s, when Japan and Germany were “enjoying” economic miracles. Böll's and Mishima's descriptions of postwar society closely resemble one another: both authors see madness and emptiness in the postwar world, portray their characters as alienated from that world, and thus express their disillusionment with modern existence. In a speech delivered in 1975 Böll clearly manifested his discontent with the situation in Germany:

After [World War II], quite apart from questions of de-Nazification … we ought to have started something which might have been called socialism, links between Christian and social or socialist ideas. … But in the end it turned out that what we call Restoration almost unavoidably recreated the old structures: family egoism, striving for possessions again, middle-class values again.

(Reid 43)

Böll's disappointment with postwar Germany is also shown in his resentment of Konrad Adenaeur, who served as Chancellor from 1949 to 1963. Adenauer, like Böll a pious Catholic and a resister of the Third Reich, nevertheless pursued mere economic gains, as Böll saw it, and constructed a new Germany based on old political and social structures. For Böll this continuing presence of the undesirable past in modern society has seemed intolerable. Correspondingly, Mishima was discontented with modern Japan, although for very different reasons: for him the past had been too readily abandoned. He strongly believed that the moral degradation he perceived in postwar Japanese society resulted from Emperor Hirohito's denial of divinity under pressure from the Allied Powers. For Mishima the loss of the Emperor's divine identity meant the loss of the Japanese soul, with social chaos as the result.

Mishima's Temple is a confessional story in which Mizoguchi, serving as the first-person narrator, tells why and how he “killed” the Golden Temple, even though the monument was both his personal ideal of beauty and a national treasure, a symbol of the old Japan and of the imperishability of Japan's cultural heritage. Mizoguchi's combined love and hatred for the monument reflect the ambivalent feelings of the Japanese people, and especially of Mishima's generation, toward the Emperor who, they feel, betrayed them through his Ningen-Sengen of 1945, the proclamation that changed a divine figure of authority into a merely human function of the state. Mishima considers his hero Mizoguchi to be a victim of this evil world that has lost its traditional moral center, and this loss accounts for the desperation of the young man's actions. As Noguchi Takehiko puts it, “for Mishima, the Golden Temple is synonymous with postwar Japan, which should have vanished at the defeat in the war. By killing the temple in his writing, Mishima took revenge on the world in which he lived” (305).4 For Billiards the Catholic Böll chooses a Catholic abbey, presented as “a historical and artistic monument of the first rank” (155), to symbolize Germany's surrender to the evil powers of the Third Reich. The reason why Robert Fähmel demolishes the abbey is revealed by first- and third-person narrators and flashbacks: the abbey represents the guilt of the Church as an institution and the guilt of those individual Germans who directly or indirectly supported the Nazis. Fähmel's action is described as revenge for the people whose lives were ruined in the Third Reich.

Through these religious monuments both Mishima and Böll express a Manichean or dichotomized view of the world as constituted of fundamental dualities—good and evil, beauty and decay, life and death. Mishima traces symbolic dualities drawn from the traditions of Zen Buddhism, while Böll's dualities are derived from a non-institutional Catholicism. Temple illustrates the theme of an intertwined obsession with beauty and destruction through two main dichotomies: the contrast between Mizoguchi and his friend Kashiwagi at the Zen university; and the opposition between the Life-Giving Sword (katsuninken) and the Murdering Sword (setsuninto) in the Zen story of the cat. In Billiards Böll symbolizes the eternal confrontation between victims and victimizers, and good and evil, in the dichotomy between the Host of the Lamb and the Host of the Beast.

Throughout his novel Mishima emphasizes his hero Mizoguchi's alienation from the world, a distancing originally due to his childhood stuttering and physical ugliness. In this alienated context the young Mizoguchi's obsession with the Golden Temple begins and grows, fed by comments made by his priest father. “Ever since my childhood, Father had often spoken to me about the Golden Temple” (3), says Mizoguchi at the beginning of the story. The monument thus represents the child's desire to fulfill the value system of his father, as well as the collective Japanese cultural devotion to the traditional past. Living far away from the temple, and seeing it only in pictures, the boy increasingly escapes from reality by living in a romanticized inner world that is suffused with the monument's imagined beauty. When Mizoguchi actually travels to see the temple, however, he feels betrayed, and it is not until his return to the provinces that an awareness of its beauty revives within him. His view of reality at this point is severely affected by the standards he has created in his mind: the temple seems most beautiful when it is absent. The seed of Mizoguchi's compulsion to destroy or deface beauty is planted here. When a young hero from the Naval Engineering Academy visits the boy's school and proudly talks to the students about his experience, Mizoguchi, as an outsider among his peers, secretly engraves “ugly” cuts on the scabbard of the hero's beautiful sword, which is the object of admiration of all the other listeners. His simultaneous idolization of beauty and wish for its destruction foreshadow the burning of Kinkakuji.

Even when Mizoguchi moves to join the community at the Golden Temple as an acolyte, an event the novel places in the summer of 1944, when the war was already going badly, the distance between the beauty in his mind and the real monument remains. However, the romanticized, imaginary temple and the real one paradoxically seem to merge through the possibility that the temple might be burned down during an air raid. In the protagonist's mind the tragic beauty of the object that awaits its own imminent destruction, and the idea that he too might share its fate, unexpectedly shorten the psychological distance between him and the temple, and between the imaginary and the real. His expectation of bombing leads him to the thought that the destruction of the whole world is both inevitable and desirable. The idea of beauty, by now firmly entangled with the idea of destruction, gives him the “darkest thoughts that exist in this world” (48) and alienates him from what would seem to be normal perceptions and experiences. He retreats into a “dreamlike” state during the war: “Because of the war, life is far away. … For us boys, war was a dreamlike sort of experience lacking any real substance, something like an isolation ward in which one is cut off from the meaning of life” (46-47). But in spite of his expectation, at the end of the war the Golden Temple remains unchanged—and to him this outcome is unwelcome. “The bond between the Golden Temple and myself has been cut” (64) and the Golden Temple's eternity “awoke, was resuscitated, and asserted its rights” (64), says Mizoguchi, on August 15, 1945, the day of Japan's surrender. In the chaotic postwar world, Mizoguchi's obsession with the destruction of beauty grows, as his passion for imaginary loveliness overpowers his ability to accept what is real.

Through traditional elements of Zen Buddhism, Mishima illustrates the process by which Mizoguchi's combined love and hatred of ideal beauty develops. The famous koan (parable) known as “Nansen Kills a Cat”—an episode from the Mumonkan, a thirteenth-century collection of forty-eight koan—is discussed at the Golden Temple during the last night of the war. In this story, while a group of monks are quarreling about a cat, Master Nansen lifts the cat up, saying that it will be saved if any of them can speak a word of Zen, but that otherwise he will kill it. Nobody is able to answer and so Nansen kills the cat. When Nansen later meets the chief disciple Choshu, tells him what has happened, and asks for his opinion, Choshu removes his shoes and puts them on his head. Nansen laments, saying that if Choshu had been there earlier, the cat's life could have been saved. In Mishima's novel the Superior at the Golden Temple explains that Nansen, the man of action, killed the cat in order to “cut away the illusion of self and to cut off all contradiction, opposition, and discord between self and others” (66-67). This is the Murdering Sword. By contrast, Choshu's action is the Life-Giving Sword: “By performing an action of such infinite magnanimity as wearing filthy and despised objects like shoes on his head, he had given a practical demonstration of the way of the Bodhisattva” (66). Through the Superior's choice of this koan to analyze on the night following the Emperor's surrender, which was broadcast on the radio, Mishima implies the death of Imperial Japan and of the divine Emperor by the Murdering Sword; because no voices of wisdom spoke on their behalf, and no one performed actions of “magnanimity,” they, like the cat, had to die. In a sense Mizoguchi has sought the Life-giving Sword throughout his life, but has failed to find it. He takes up the Murdering Sword instead and kills the beauty of the Golden Temple, as Mishima would later choose the Murdering Sword to kill himself (he committed harakiri in 1970).

The theme of freeing oneself from a romanticized inner world not by changing one's perception of reality but by destroying the object of romanticization and thus changing the world is clearly reflected in Nansen's killing of the cat. Mizoguchi's university friend Kashiwagi sees that the cat is equivalent to the Golden Temple. “[The cat] was beautiful,” he remarks, “you know. … Incomparably beautiful. Her eyes were golden, her fur was glossy” (143). However, killing the cat, an object of obsession, does not lead to a solution, because “the root of the beauty had not been severed and, even though the [cat] was dead, the [cat]'s beauty might very well still be alive” (144). On the premise that beauty derives from knowledge (ninshiki) of the world, the concept of beauty remains even though the object of beauty is destroyed. In contrast to Mizoguchi's emphasis on action, his friend Kashiwagi here insists on the significance of knowledge, saying, “What transforms this world is—knowledge. … Nothing else can change anything in this world … human beings possess the weapon of knowledge in order to make life bearable” (215-16). But Mizoguchi is committed to action. He had happily expected that he and the Golden Temple would die together during the American wartime raids, and his happiness can return only when he decides to destroy the temple. In fact, his belief that his world and the world of beauty will become one through his act of arson makes him ecstatic. Toward the end of the novel he recalls how, a few hours before the accomplishment of his desire, he was filled with anticipation of the happiest moment in his life:

It wouldn't be long now, I thought; I must just remain patient for a short while. The rusty key that opened the door between the outer world and my inner world would turn smoothly in its lock. My world would be ventilated as the breeze blew freely between it and the outer world. The well bucket would rise, swaying lightly in the wind and everything would open up before me in the form of a vast field and the secret room would be destroyed. … Now it is before my eyes and my hands are just about to stretch out and reach it … I was filled with happiness as I sat there in the darkness for about an hour. I felt that I had never been as happy in my entire life.


Mishima allows the protagonist to use words from Zen tradition to justify his action, though he misinterprets them according to his own perception: “When ye meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha! … when ye meet your father and mother, kill your father and mother … only thus will ye attain deliverance” (258). Rinzai, the original speaker of these words from the Rinzairoku (the ninth-century record of Rinzai's sermons, compiled by his disciples), was not insisting on actual murder. Instead, he was affirming the principle that a bond with any object likely to entail dependence should be cut off. In contrast, Mizoguchi misreads the remark, taking it literally, and kills the temple “precisely because it [is] so futile” (258). Mishima concludes the story at the moment of Mizoguchi's act of destruction, which coincides with his remarkable statement of satisfaction: “I … started smoking. I felt like a man who settles down for a smoke after finishing a job of work. I wanted to live” (262).5 The smoke of the destructive fire and the smoke of the cigarette have coalesced into an image of restfulness and comfort. This finale clearly manifests Mishima's interest in the protagonist's psychological process before, and during, the act of destruction. He is not concerned with what happens to his hero afterward. Because of this ending, Kobayashi Hideo comments that “the Golden Temple is not a novel, but lyric poetry. It would become a novel if Mizoguchi's life after the arson were added” (“Ima” 192).

As Mizoguchi, at the end of the novel, expresses his wish to live, so Mishima himself began a new life, forming his fragile body into something beautiful: in the summer of 1955, while he was writing Temple, he sought to reshape his body through weight-lifting. In an essay entitled Sun and Steel, stating that his lack of “the muscles suitable for a dramatic death” had prevented him from dying in the war, he confesses his longing for a vision of eschatology, for what he calls the Dionysian “tragic world”6 that would let him “breath freely, that was so utterly remote from the commonplace and lacking in future—this world [he] had pursued unceasingly, ever since the war had ended, with a burning sense of frustration” (28, 62). This fascination with destruction and ultimately with self-destruction on Mishima's part originated in the Japanese Romantic School, the so-called Nihon Roman-ha, which emerged in the mid-1930s simultaneously with the rise of fascism. Borrowing some of its central ideas from German Romanticism, the Nihon Roman-ha movement considered Japan to be a nation inhabited by a superior race and culture, for which the divine Emperor was the uniting force. For Nihon Roman-ha writers, the ideal death meant dying young, at the height of one's beauty, for the Emperor. This expectation of self-destruction led these writers to a desire for the world's destruction as well: beauty and destruction were thus their ultimate values. Basing his novel on this aesthetic concept, Mishima makes Mizoguchi create a tragic world, a world lacking a future, through his destruction of the Temple; and in reality Mishima performed his own aesthetic tragedy as well. As Mizoguchi both loves and destroys the eternal beauty of the Golden Temple, the narcissistic Mishima loved his beautiful body and yet destroyed it because of its mortal mutability, for he wanted to die before the beauty of his body decayed. Through his suicide by the sword, it is generally recognized, Mishima attempted to stir up Japanese sentiment to restore the traditional role of the Emperor, yet, as Joel Black puts it, “Mishima's call for a return to Japanese imperialism was less a political or ideological [manifesto] than an aesthetic credo, based on the samurai perfection of both literary and martial arts (bunburyodo)” (208). Mishima's handsome muscular body finally allowed him to accomplish a dramatic death in the name of the Emperor at the age of forty-five, fifteen years after the writing of Temple. In this act of violence Mishima unified the concepts of beauty and destruction, or, to state it differently, he demonstrated that to him the desire for destruction was itself beautiful.

In a sense, Böll's Billiards starts where Temple ends. Whereas Mishima's story concludes at the moment of Mizoguchi's act of arson, Böll describes Robert's life after his destruction of St. Anthony's Abbey. On the day of the grandfather Heinrich's eightieth birthday, on September 6, 1958, three generations of a middle-class architectural family, the Fähmels, are reunited. To the reader or to an internal audience of intimate listeners, each family member narrates his or her painful life in the period of the Hohenzollern empire, the Third Reich, and the postwar era. Like Mishima, Böll presents a Manichean vision of the world and constructs a paradoxical psychology for his narrators, including Robert and his mother Johanna, both of whom withdraw from external life through a process described as “inner emigration” (151): Johanna chooses to live in a mental hospital, Robert in rigid daily routines. This alienation symbolizes their passive resistance to a society in which the evil of the past still enjoys power.

Just as Mizoguchi's life after the war is described as “a return to the unchanging, eternal Buddhist routine” (67), Robert's life is filled with schedules and formulas. As “an architect who's never built a house” (149), he shuts himself up every morning from half past nine until eleven to play billiards at the Prince Heinrich Hotel. Nobody except his family is allowed to interrupt this curious preoccupation. His alienation, we learn, is deeply rooted in his school days. In the summer of 1935, Robert's schoolmate Schrella had been tortured by the policeman Nettlinger and the gym teacher Old Wobbly for swearing “never to put the Host of the Beast to [his] lips” (42)—in other words, the schoolboy was opposed to Nazism. Robert supported Schrella, and later he too swore “not to make oblation to the Host of the Beast … [for] revenge for Ferdi Progulske whom they executed only that morning … [because] Ferdi had sneaked into Old Wobbly's apartment and thrown a bomb at Wobbly's feet” (49).7 As a result, the twenty-year-old Robert and Schrella have to go into exile. After two years, owing to Johanna's appeal, Robert is allowed to come back to Nazi Germany on the condition that he refrain from political activity and join the army immediately after graduation. Schrella returns only after twenty-two years, on Heinrich's birthday.

Mishima's novel, as noted, reflects dichotomized or polarized concepts; so does Böll's. By contrasting the Host of the Beast with the Host of the Lamb and using animal figures reminiscent of apocalyptic writings, Böll categorizes his characters in two groups: the victimizers Nettlinger, Old Wobbly (Vacano), and Otto, who are representatives of the Beast; and the victims Ferdi, Schrella, and Robert's wife Edith, representatives of the Lamb. Drawing upon concepts of Manichean dualism, Böll depicts, as Walter Sokel describes it, the unending struggle between “buffalo and lamb, Cain and Abel, World and Christ. [Labels] and watchwords change, but the essence remains the same” (21). In the postwar setting of 1958 most of the Lambs have been killed by the Beast, or, like Edith, died in the bombed city. Schrella, after his long exile, is now stateless and homeless. Most of those who partake of the Host of the Beast, however, continue to live, thrive, and enjoy their power in modern Germany. This prosperous group includes Nettlinger, the former Nazi chief of police, who is now a “democrat.” By depicting the world as still divided between victims and victimizers, Böll shows the continuity of Germany's catastrophic history (die deutsche Misere) as being symptomatic of an ahistorical condition of the world, for history becomes a permanent condition in which the conflict between good and evil never ceases.

Böll asks whether individual resistance against the Beasts is nevertheless possible, and, if so, how. The answer seems to involve the acceptance of violence as a form of political expression. By naming his main character Robert Shepherd and having him support the Lambs, Böll sets him in opposition to the Abbey, which represents “the self-betrayal of the Catholics, that is, the betrayal of the Lambs to the [Beast]” (Sokel 30). Böll here reverses the conventional polarity between good and evil, “justifying” Robert's act of bombing as resistance to the Beast who ruins the Lamb. Robert's obsession with destroying the Abbey is transformed into action just three days before the end of the war:

[Robert] had waited through five years of war for that moment. The moment when the Abbey would be his booty, lying there like a gift of God. He had wanted to erect a monument of dust and rubble for those who had not been historical monuments and whom no one had thought to spare. Edith, killed by a piece of shrapnel; Ferdi, would-be assassin condemned by process of law … Schrella himself, who had to live so far away from the land where Hölderlin had lived; and the many others who had gone marching off, singing [“The rotten bones shiver”].


Robert's desperate tone resembles Mizoguchi's anxiety in the moments before he sets the fire, but Mizoguchi's act of arson is accomplished for his own sake, whereas for Robert the destruction of the Abbey means the erection of “a monument of the Lambs no one had fed” (157) and embodies the completion of his active revenge for them, since “he froze his thoughts of vengeance into formulas and carried them … with him [during the war]” (221). Robert's deed is an act of resistance to the Third Reich as well as to the Church, which had bent before the power of evil. As Robert says to himself, “Hatred destroyed [the Abbey]” (228). His act of destruction manifests his anger toward the self-betrayal of the Church and toward an immoral regime: “The Abbot … did have a taste of [the Beasts'] sacrament, of respectability, orderliness and honor. They celebrated it, monks with flaming torches up. … A new age began, an age of sacrifice, of pain” (146). Yet Böll does not expect society to improve as a result of his protest. He criticizes the Church not only because it supported fascism, but also because “despite the lessons of the past, the Church in no way seems to have reconsidered its attitude to the morality of war” (Sokel 21);8 as an institution it has not fundamentally changed. The Catholic Böll himself does not illustrate Christian forgiveness in his criticism of the Catholic establishment. He merely presents his characters' powerlessness and sufferings as they are.

In addition to the destruction of the Abbey, Robert later urges attacks upon all the historical monuments in postwar Germany, saying to his father and other men:

Away with it—blow it up. … Do it, before people come back into the city—there's no one living there now so you needn't worry, tear it all down. … I am leaving you in the lurch if I have to worry about every chicken-run from the time of the Romans. Walls are walls as far as I'm concerned, and believe you me there are good ones and bad ones. Away with all the rubbish. Blow it up and make some breathing space.


As the Land of Humanität perished in the war, every monument should be torn down to protest the evil of the Third Reich. Robert's daughter Ruth remarks on his passion for destruction: “Remember how happy father was when he could still blow things up? He's only grown so serious now that there's been nothing more to blow up” (260-61). Whereas Mishima, through Mizoguchi, manifests his nostalgia for the old Japan, Böll, through Robert, advocates his desire to entirely eliminate the old structures from postwar society.

Moreover, through Robert's revengeful action, Böll attacks a value system that gives material things, represented by historical monuments, priority over human life. Robert's father Heinrich says that after the war the British commanding officer apologized to him for “having bombed the Honorius Church and destroyed the twelfth-century crucifixion group.” Heinrich commends, “He didn't apologize for Edith [who was killed by shrapnel], only for a twelfth-century crucifixion panel. ‘Sorry’” (164). An American officer also explains to Robert that the Allies “would have agreed to postpone the advance for two or even three days, rather than harm the Abbey” (155-56). Demonstrating his resentment against this mentality, Böll has Robert repeatedly express regret at failing to destroy the outstanding architecture of St. Severin's, which he sees himself pursuing like a hunter: “Now I am stalking the prey sticking up against the far horizon, gray, slender St. Severin's” (167). This monument recalls the famous Gothic cathedral in Böll's home town of Cologne (the novel's setting seems to be Cologne, although Böll never mentions the name of the city), a historical structure which, though damaged, escaped destruction due to its cultural value. It is curious that in spite of Mishima's and Mizoguchi's expectations, Kyoto was saved from American air raids for the same reason.9 For Böll, it is preposterous that both Hitler's army and the Allies attached such importance to the preservation of historical monuments while so many of the Lambs lost their lives.

The theme of violence is renewed in Billiards when a second act of protest is planned by Johanna. On the day of her husband's birthday in 1958, she comes out of the mental asylum and attends a parade, where she plans to take revenge on behalf of all the Lambs by shooting a former Nazi, either Nettlinger or Old Wobbly. However, at the last moment Johanna suddenly changes her target, shooting not at either of them but instead at a “bigger” politician, a Bonn minister, in order to accomplish the “murder of respectability” (254); her bullet misses its mark. For Johanna the leadership of modern Germany represents the persistence of the past. With Johanna's action, as Wilhelm J. Schwarz puts it, Böll “tries to indicate the continuity of German militarism as shown by the parades before World War I, before World War II, and in 1958” (119). As a madwoman's deed, her attempted assassination does not affect the political system, but it makes her husband Heinrich realize how much he has been absorbed into society, leading a life contrary to his true self; he finally sees that his passive attitude has allowed the Beasts to grow fat. He also comes to understand his son Robert's wartime destruction of the monument, a building in which he too is involved, for fifty years ago Heinrich had made his debut as an architect by designing and erecting St. Anthony's Abbey.10

The story of the Abbey, however, does not end in rubble. Built by the twenty-nine-year-old Heinrich in 1908, and destroyed by his twenty-nine-year-old son Robert in 1945, the Abbey is partially reconstructed by Robert's twenty-two-year-old son Joseph in 1958.11 (The Golden Temple was rebuilt in 1955, a year before the publication of Mishima's novel.) Like the Temple in Mishima's novel, the Abbey symbolizes the old traditions; but it also represents the military restoration of postwar Germany: “For West Germany the period 1954-1958 was the era of military restoration, the period when Germany rearmed as an integral part of the West's military defenses” (Conrad 134). To Böll, the German empire of Kaiser Wilhelm, the Weimar Republic, Hitler's Third Reich, and the postwar period of reconstruction all show the continuation of Germany's militarism and aggressive economics.

Throughout the novel Böll portrays his characters' destructive acts as symbolic of their interior mental or psychological conditions, and of the society around them. Judith Ryan interprets Robert's action as pragmatic, saying that by destroying the Abbey he “hoped to accelerate the Allies' advance into Germany, and thus the ultimate conclusion of the war” (134), and indeed Robert's action definitely “hurried [the Allies' advance] up” (156). However, I believe that Böll's depiction of his motive goes beyond any such military purpose, to which very little attention is given, and focuses instead on the symbolic value of the act, on what Robert describes as “the erection of a monument to the Lambs.” This focus is also neglected by Rainer Nägele, who sees Böll's writings as displaying “emotionally colored anarchistic behavior patterns directed at vaguely defined authority relationships” (53). Böll's description is, to the contrary, not effectively anarchistic, since politically nothing changes, but symbolic. By dramatizing apparently meaningless acts, Böll wants to present, as Lee Nahrgang puts it, “a moral argument against the social inequities which cause the suffering and violence” (112), and to induce the reader to assess whether individual acts of resistance against social evils can be personally meaningful even if politically ineffective.

Moreover, the concluding gesture of the story, in which the grandfather performs another symbolic act of “destruction,” reinforces Böll's intention: flushing deeply and swallowing his anger when the staff at the Café Kroner bring him a huge birthday cake made by Mrs. Kroner in the shape of the Abbey, Heinrich “cut off the spire of the Abbey first, and passed the plate to Robert” (280). When he was a young man fifty-one years ago, Heinrich suddenly became famous as the winner of the competition for architectural designs for the Abbey project, but now his response to such a “reconstruction” of the Abbey is not appreciation but hostility. As with the last scene of Mishima's novel, where Mizoguchi sits smoking a cigarette, this conclusion has caused critical disagreement. Sokel interprets the scene as “the execution of [the grandfather's] pride which his son had performed actually” (28). Responding to Roy Pascal's criticism of the “obtrusive symbolism” in the last scene, Judith Ryan asks, “But isn't this, after all, the whole point? The sense of futility we feel at Heinrich's systematic demolition of the hated model of the abbey carries over to our perception of Johanna's futile shooting. What difference can a mere gesture possibly make?” (90). Ryan thus accepts Heinrich's symbolic protest as serving to emphasize Böll's meaning (“the whole point”). As the smoke of the cigarette and of the temple fire “peacefully” merge in Mishima's novel, here the destruction of the model abbey by the father and the actual abbey by the son overlap the past with the present. For Mishima, the old Japan has easily disappeared like smoke, whereas for Böll the historical monument is something to be “consumed” like a cake, in order, as Robert states, to erect “a monument of the Lambs no one had fed” (157).

Böll presents Robert's and Johanna's acts of violence as inevitable (if ineffective) protests against social evils, just as Mishima depicts his hero's resort to arson as a desperate act in a struggle against a dehumanized world.12 Mishima and Böll portray the obsession with further destruction—an obsession which might initially seem wholly negative or evil, in the aftermath of a war that had already left so much in ruins—as a characteristic of personality, indeed a compulsion, that we must understand and even accept. In their view, acts of violence and arson are the manifestations of the eternal struggle between good and evil, victim and victimizer, or, in Mishima's terms, between beauty and decay, life and death.

Despite their similar themes of destruction and their Manichean view of the world, Mishima's attitude toward his hero is amoral, in the sense of focusing on the individual's aestheticized experience without concern for others, whereas Böll emphasizes his characters' active or passive resistance from a socially engaged and in this sense a moral point of view. In a word, Mishima's sole concern is aesthetics, while Böll's focus is the individual's moral responsibility in society. Creating a fictional arsonist who is preoccupied with beauty, Mishima justifies his actions and sympathizes with him. In fact, Mishima and his hero Mizoguchi often overlap in the novel. In his diary entry of June 11, 1958, in Ratai to Isho (Nude and Costume), Mishima comments: “I wrote The Temple of the Golden Pavilion in order to study the motive of the crime. I wanted to show that even a trifling concept, like ‘beauty,’ can be the motive for such a serious crime as the burning of a national treasure. In other words, in order to live through the present age, one needs to believe in such a trifling idea and make it a motive to live. Hitler is a good example of how this idea may become a motive for suicide or death” (62, my translation). Mishima's reference to a “trifling” concept masks his sorrow for something he sees as beautiful but lost or destroyed—kokutai, or the institution of the divine Emperor—as increasingly became evident in his obsession with a self-destructive, “beautiful death” in the name of the Emperor.

Robert's burning of the Abbey, in contrast, suggests that Böll, a devout Catholic, was concerned with social structures such as family, church, and government. Robert's action serves to provoke readers to reconsider morally the society in which they live, for the destruction of a fictitious Abbey symbolizes the deprivation of humanity under the Third Reich, and also implies Böll's distrust of institutionalized Christianity. By stressing the continuing presence of the past in Billiards, Böll presents that past as part of an eternal pattern and implies his skepticism of the supposedly new German political system. In the Frankfurt lectures of 1963-1964, he clearly acknowledges his suspicion of political ideology: “What is difficult for one who has experienced an empire, a republic, a dictatorship, an interregnum, and a second republic before he was thirty … is to believe in states” (Reid 121).

In addition to their different amoral-moral points of view, Mishima and Böll present their narrators from diametrically opposed perspectives which reflect their own recent past: the perspective of the victim versus that of the guilty. Mishima's narrator is portrayed as a victim of the war and of the Emperor, whereas Böll stresses his characters' guilt. Like his narrator, Mishima experienced his happiest period during the war, dreaming of a desired “romantic” death for the divine Emperor. “It was that rare time [1944-1945], when my personal nihilism and the nihilism of society at large about its fate perfectly corresponded,” he remarked (Nathan 63). Mishima regretted deeply that he had missed the chance to die at the height of his youth, regarding his postwar days as a “leftover” life. Temple clearly manifests his longing for the vanished Imperial Japan, in which the Emperor was the unifying force and the center of Japanese culture.

In contrast, Böll was opposed to imperialism and made several attempts to avoid military service, though eventually he served in Hitler's army for six years, like Robert, and was taken to a prisoner-of-war camp at the end of the war. He describes his repugnance for the Nazis. “They revolted me, repelled me on every level of my existence: conscious and instinctive, aesthetic and political” (What's 4). As a representative of the “coming home” generation, Böll expresses continued responsibility for the sins committed in the name of the Nazis. Robert's and Johanna's “trifiling” actions of revenge reflect not only their anger but also their feeling of guilt that each individual's passivity allowed the Nazis to flourish. There is no nostalgia here for the prewar or wartime era.

Though different perspectives, Mishima and Böll both legitimize violence in their novels, Mishima for his aesthetic credo, in which beauty and destruction intertwined, and Böll for his ideological belief, in which the institutions of the past deserve to be destroyed. However, as writers they succeed in containing the acts of destruction within the verbal object of the text, integrating arson into the narrative in such a way that its meaning derives from the specific context, and thus in these two novels they stop just short of a general endorsement of violence.13 Neither writer issues a real call to anarchy, for both recognize that society does not change as a result of such acts. Even as Mizoguchi sets fire to the Golden Temple he realizes the “futility” of this action (258), and when Robert destroys the Abbey he knows that his deed “obviously makes no sense whatever, either tactically or strategically” (156). The religious monuments that must be destroyed serve primarily as a central device to depict the characters' psychological states within a Manichean world view, and to express the two writers' responses to their own wartime and postwar experiences. By using the Golden Temple as a symbol of the old Japan, Mishima, through his narrator, describes his “left-over” life in a tone that betrays his nostalgic yearning for the past. Employing the Abbey as a symbol of the institutional betrayal of humanity, Böll portrays the dehumanized modern world which (he feels) has mistakenly perpetuated the past. It is curious that, though both writers seem to share the obsession with destruction—at least within the framework of fiction—the worlds in which they would prefer to live are very different indeed.


  1. All translations from Japanese criticism are my own. Japanese names throughout the article, are written in Japanese order, surname first. In the case of Hayashi Yoken, for instance, Hayashi is his family name or surname, and Yoken his given name. Japanese names have no comma between surname and the given name in the list of Works Cited.

  2. Mishima investigated the arsonist Hayashi Yoken thoroughly and used several of his real characteristics, such as his stuttering and his being a novice from a religious family. The term Mizoguchi literally means “estrangement-mouth or gap-mouth” (mizo means gap, gulf, ditch or gutter; guchi or kuchi means mouth). Thus the protagonist's name implies his stuttering. See also David Pollack's analysis of the names of Mishima's characters.

  3. Whether Böll knew Mishima's novel before writing his own remains uncertain, but seems improbable. Kinkakuji was translated into English in 1959, the year Billiards was published, and into German in 1961. The dates make influence from the German version chronologically impossible and from the English version unlikely.

  4. Tanaka Miyoko calls Mishima's novel an “autobiography of the soul of defeated Japan” (haisen nihon no tamashii no jijyoden, 135). Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit also points out “the author's systematic and deeply meaningful allusions to the war in the story” (111).

  5. In his excellent essay (74) Tsuruta Kinya comments on the unnaturalness of this ending, saying that a person who sits smoking after the completion of his work is not preoccupied with the serious problems of life/death, and agreeing with Kobayashi Hideo (n. pag.) that Mishima should have killed Mizoguchi instead of allowing him to survive.

  6. Mishima is influenced by Nietzsche, particularly by The Birth of Tragedy. See Tasaka Kou 13-38.

  7. Böll's autobiographical essay Was Soll aus dem Jungen Bloß Werden, translated as What's to Become of the Boy? describes a fearful experience of his youth which overlaps Ferdi's case. In 1933, as the fifteen-year-old Böll witnessed, “seven of the seventeen accused [young members of the Red Front Fighters' League] were [without any conclusive evidence] condemned to death, on the charge of murdering two Storm Troopers … and a few months later they were beheaded with an ax” (25). In a 1961 interview with Horst Bienek, Böll also mentioned this historical incident as the germ of Billiards; see Wilhelm J. Schwartz 29.

  8. The Nazis concluded a concordant with the Vatican in July 1933. As Spielvogel indicates, “The concordant's recognition of the Hitler regime by the Catholic church was a tremendous boost to the prestige of the regime” (112).

  9. At the direct order of Secretary of War Henry Stimson on May 30, 1945, Kyoto was removed from the list of proposed atomic bomb targets because of its cultural value, although it was militarily important. See Richard Rhodes 640-41.

  10. Robert realizes only after the destruction of St. Anthony that the building is his father's work; Böll thus carefully avoids the notion of the Oedipus complex as Robert's motive.

  11. Christian Kollerer regards St. Anthony's Abbey as symbolizing the phases of German society in the twentieth century—construction, destruction, and reconstruction (48).

  12. Interpretation of Johanna's and Robert's actions has been controversial. In his essay “Lob des neunzehnte Jahrhunderts,” Georg Lukács interprets Johanna's act as “einer der wenigen menschlich echten Bewältigungen der faschistischen Vergangenheit in Deutschland, gerade weil in diesem Bewältigungsversuch auch die Vorgeschichte und die Nachgeshichte Hitlers mitgemeinst ist” (331; “one of the few humanly genuine attempts to surmount the fascist past in Germany, since her attempt also means to deal with the pre- and post-Hitler eras”). Robert C. Conrad comments, “What justifies the violence of Ferdi, Robert and Johanna is that they work from a position of weakness, not power, that they strive to right wrong, not to do wrong—a distinction some readers will find difficult to accept” (137). Diana Stevenson justifies Johanna's action: “Once it is established that there is, in fact, a threat to the German future, Johanna's attempted murder of one of the state's most corrupt citizens became justifiable according to the moral framework operating within the novel. … Neither Ferdi nor she actually succeeded in killing Vacano. … Since Vacano is not killed, Ferdi and Johanna remain innocent of actual wrongdoing; they are responsible for intent only, and therefore we are not called upon to justify the taking of one life in order to prevent the occurrence of future evil” (112). Although Stevenson's article is impressive, I disagree with her on two points. First, Stevenson misunderstands in indicating that Johanna, like Ferdi, attempted to kill Vacano. Johanna has planned to kill Vacano or Nettlinger, but she changes her mind at the last moment, and shoots at Mr. M. instead; thus no attempt on Vacano's life occurs here. Second, Stevenson's argument that Johanna and Ferdi are innocent because their attempts are unsuccessful is not convincing: attempted murder is normally regarded as “actual wrongdoing.”

  13. Böll nevertheless states that literature is “Transportmittel politischer Aktion” (“the vehicle of political actions”) in Im Gespräch (34), and that a writer should have the liberty “to provoke, to test how far it is possible to go” (Parkes 168).

Works Cited

Black, Joel. The Aesthetics of Murder. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.

Böll, Heinrich. Billard um Halbzehn. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch, 1974.

———. Billiards at Half Past Nine. Trans. Leita Vennewitz. New York: McGraw, 1962.

———. Im Gespräch: Heinrich Böll mit Heinz Ludwig Arnold. München: Boorberg, 1971.

———. Was Soll aus dem Jungen Bloß Werden. Bornheim: Lamnuv, 1981.

———. What's to Become of the Boy? Trans. Leita Vennewitz. New York: Knopf, 1984.

Conrad, Robert C. Heinrich Böll. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

Donahue, Neil H. “An East-West Comparison of Two War Novels: Alfred Andersch's Die Kirschen der Freiheit and Shohei Ooka's Fires on the Plain.” Comparative Literature Studies 24.1 (1987): 58-82.

Hijiya-Kirschnereit, Irmela. “Post-World War II Literature: the Intellectual Climate in Japan, 1945-1985.” In Schlant and Rimker. 99-119.

“Ima Mishima Yukio o Yomu” [A Reading of Mishima Yukio] (Special Issue on Mishima Yukio), Kokubungaku 32.9 (July 1987).

Kobayashi Hideo. “Mishima Yukio: Bi no Katachi” [Form of Beauty]. Bungei (January 1957): n. pag.

Kollerer, Christian. Heinrich Bölls Konzeption von Literature Zwischen Moral und Sozialer Erfahrung. Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 1990.

Lukács, Georg. “Lob des neunzehnte Jahrhunderts.” Sachen Böll. Cologne: Kiepenheur, 1968.

Mishima Yukio. Kinkakuji. (Originally published in the periodical Shincho in 1959.) Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1960.

———. Ratai to Isho [Nude and Costume]. Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1983.

———. Sun and Steel. Trans. John Bester. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1970.

———. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Trans. Ivan Morris. New York: Knopf, 1959.

Nägele, Rainer. “Aspects of the Reception of Heinrich Böll.” New German Critique 7 (1976): 46-68.

Nahrgang, W. Lee. “Heinrich Böll's Pacifism: Its Roots and Nature.” University of Dayton Review 17.2 (1985): 107-18.

Nakamura Mitsuo. Epilogue. Mishima, Kinkakuji. 303-08.

Nathan, John. Mishima: A Biography. Boston: Little, 1974.

Noguchi Takehiko. “Mishima Yukio's World.” In Tanaka. 299-313.

Oda Makoto. “A Writer in the Present World.” In Schlant and Rimer. 263-77.

Parkes, Stuart K. Writers and Politics in West Germany. London: Croom Helm, 1986.

Pollack, David. “Action as Fitting Match to Knowledge.” Monumenta Nipponica 40.5 (1985): 387-98.

Reid, J. H. Heinrich Böll. Oxford: Wolff, 1988.

Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon, 1986.

Ryan, Judith. The Uncompleted Past: German Novels and the Third Reich. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1983.

Schlant, Ernestine, and J. Thomas Rimer, eds. Legacies and Ambiguities: Postwar Fiction and Culture in West Germany and Japan. Intro. Schlant. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.

Schwartz, Wilhelm J. Heinrich Böll: Teller of Tales. New York: Ungar, 1967.

Sokel, Walter Herbert. “The Novels of Böll.” The Contemporary Novel in German. Ed. Robert Heitner. Austin: U of Texas P, 1967.

Spielvogel, J. Jackson. Hitler and Nazi Germany. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice, 1988.

Stevenson, Diana. “The Temporal-Moral Matrix of Heinrich Böll's Billiards at Half Past Nine.” Twentieth Century Literature 36.1 (1990): 95-114.

Tanaka Miyoko, ed. Mishima Yukio. Nihon Gendai Bungaku, Ser. 23. Tokyo: Kadokawa, 1980.

Tasaka Kou. Mishima Yukio Nyumon [Guide to Mishima Yukio]. Tokyo: Origin Shuppan, 1985.

Tasker, Peter. The Japanese. New York: Talley, 1987.

Tsuruta Kinya. “Kinkakuji: Genjitsu to Fukushu” [The Golden Temple: Reality and Revenge]. Hikakubungaku Kenkyu [The Golden Temple: Reality and Revenge]. Hikakubungaku Kenkyu [Studies in Comparative Literature] 55 (1989): 60-75.

Author's Note: An earlier version of this article was presented at the American Comparative Literature Association Conference, Columbia University, April 1992. My thanks to Caroline Eckhardt and Stanley Weintraub for comments and help in revision.

Michael Thomas Carroll (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Carroll, Michael Thomas. “The Bloody Spectacle: Mishima, The Sacred Heart, Hogarth, Cronenberg, and the Entrails of Culture.” Studies in Popular Culture 15, no. 2 (1993): 43-56.

[In the following essay, Carroll explores commonalities in imagery of sacrificial violations of the human torso, including in Mishima's writing and ritual suicide.]

Of the many acts of violence in literature, few compare with that which forms the central scene of Yukio Mishima's “Patriotism,” in which a young lieutenant performs seppuku—the military form of ritual suicide—when he finds that his fellow officers have not included him in a coup attempt. David Lodge, addressing the subject of literature in translation, notes that literary narrative operates a number of codes simultaneously, and in most of them “(for instance, enigma, sequence, irony, perspective) effects are readily transferable from one natural language to another (and even from one medium to another). A flashback is a flashback in any language; so is a shift in point of view, a peripeteia, or an ‘open’ ending” (105). Geoffrey Sargent's excellent translation of Mishima proves Lodge's point, for there is one narrative quality that must have been in the original and which is forcefully apparent in the translation. This quality, however, is not one that Lodge catalogues—what Girard Genette calls focalization, a term which attempts to disentangle “to say” and “to see,” the two verbs which are implicated in the Anglo-American term “point-of-view” (Genette 189; cf. Newman 1029). In “Patriotism,” Mishima's narration profoundly privileges the gaze:

The lieutenant's eyes fixed his wife with an intense, hawklike stare. Moving the sword around to his front, he raised himself slightly on the hips and let the upper half of his body lean over the sword point. That he was mustering his whole strength was apparent from the angry tension of the uniform at his shoulders. The lieutenant aimed to strike deep into the left of his stomach. His sharp cry pierced the silence of the room.


Mishima continues to transfix us with this bloody spectacle for several pages; he tells us—or rather, directs us to see—the lieutenant's progress as he attempts to complete the ascribed pattern, the blade becoming “entangled with entrails” which push it “outward with their soft resilience,” and then the bursting of the intestines through the self-inflicted wound, the “wildly spurting blood,” and then the “final flinging back of the lieutenant's head” (1188-1189).

It is easy to dismiss this disturbing scene as either an instance of Japanese extremism, or, at the very least, Mishima's extremism. After all, the suicide ritual is uniquely Japanese, and it has been noted that Mishima, who took his own life in such ritualistic fashion in 1970, dealt with the theme of violent death in stories like “Patriotism” as well as in the bizarre series of photographs by Kishin Shinoyama called “Death of a Man,” one of which has Mishima, hands tied above his head, his torso pierced by airbrushed arrows, in the posture of the Christian martyr St. Sebastian as seen in the Guido Reni painting (cf. Black 203).

But already any culturally specific interpretation has been undermined, for if Mishima and Shinoyama used Reni's painting as a focalizer for their own version of a violent and sacrificial death image, then certainly we are dealing with, if not a cultural universal (a somewhat discredited concept for a number of suspicious reasons), then at the very least a transcultural motif. One need not contemplate long before coming to the conclusion that images of a sacrificial victim undergoing what I will call “torsic violation” may be found in a variety of cultures and aesthetic media. The question is, what is the source of their commonality? More importantly, what needs do they satisfy? In short, why do they exist?

The image of violent death, and ritual disembowelment in particular, is something with which Mishima became obsessed, as evidenced not only by “Patriotism” and the Shinoyama photographs, but also by the fact that Mishima himself played the young lieutenant in a 1965 film based on the story; he also played-out a similar suicide scene in the 1969 film, Hitogiri, about the samurai warrior class. As Henry Scott-Stokes remarks, Mishima “endlessly rehearsed his own death” (26). However, as Joel Black reveals in The Aesthetics of Murder, we must bear in mind that Mishima's rather nationalistic interest in this distinctly Japanese ritual is at least partially informed by a study of contemporary philosophy, particularly that of Georges Bataille, who Mishima credits for inspiring the idea behind “Patriotism,” that of choosing the moment of one's own death. Bataille refers to violent suicide as a superlatively erotic experience, a moment of “rupture” in which the body overcomes its isolation and reestablishes itself as part of the greater world in a moment that is both orgasmic and transcendent; Mishima himself once referred to ritual suicide as “the ultimate masturbation” (Scott-Stokes 308; cf. Black 205), and in “Patriotism” the ritual is carried out immediately after the lieutenant and his wife make love for the last time and with the understanding that she must play the role of voyeur at this grizzly event. And thus we may posit that torsic violation, as a cultural icon and the object of visual focalization, is characterized, in terms of the phenomenology of reception, by its dual, contrary pulls, one towards the body, into the body, and hence sexuality; the other beyond the body, and hence spiritual and transcendent.

It would be rhetorically and logically appropriate to move from Mishima's highly focalized tale to the realm of iconography, for iconography is an originary cultural practice, an informing one as regards literary texts which focalize on overdetermined symbolic acts. It might, however, seem less appropriate to move from the profane to the sacred, from the culture of contemporary Japan to that of medieval and early modern France, from, in short, Mishima's “Patriotism” to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

In its most familiar form, this icon seems to be derived from Christ Pantocrator—the image of Christ with the Bible under one arm and his hand in front, two fingers up, a gesture signifying both wisdom and authority and which is still used in our own time by the Popes. In the Sacred Heart icon, however, Christ's left hand, rather than holding the Bible, is holding open his robe to reveal his disembodied heart. The precise origins of this devotional practice are obscure; there are some passages in the Bible that make reference to the heart of Jesus, but these references, which will be discussed later, seem to have little relation to iconographic practice. Some accounts claim that it dates back to the days of the church fathers, but there is little evidence for this (M. P. Carroll 134; Bainvel 127). However clear the relationship of the Sacred Heart icon to the larger Christian theme of human sacrifice and the attendant image of the Crucifixion, the pagan elements of the worship of the Savior are the more predominant, and thus it is more likely that the icon dates to approximately the 12th century, to the pagan sensuality of medieval Catholicism rather than the post-Alexandrian intellectualism of Augustine and the fathers.

During this era, for instance, several nuns—Beatrice de Nazareth, St. Gertrude the Great, and Mechtilde of Mageburg—had visionary experiences in which they claimed to have seen the physical heart of Jesus. Further, it is from this era that the earliest extant example of the icon is found: an escutcheon of German or Flemish origin (Male 103). Clearly, when we compare the Sacred Heart image as we know it with this original, several things become evident: first there is, to our modern eyes, a peculiar grizzliness here in that the most painful and visceral elements of the crucifixion have been amplified. As historian Emile Male says, this “is a strange world. [Here] we breathe an atmosphere of ardent and almost uncivilized piety” (103). Also, during this time we hear the first promotion of this practice on the part of a clerical figure: Dominic of Treves (1384-1461) suggested that devotees kiss a likeness of the sacred heart once a day. In the next century, the Carthusian Lansperg's recommended (in 1572) that Christians might assist their devotions by using a figure of the Sacred Heart as a kind of focalizer, a suggestion later echoed by Francis de Sales in 1611. More than a Christian abstraction, then, the sacred heart is an image, a focalizer, just as Mishima's fictional, cinematic, and photographic rehearsals for his own sacrificial death served for him as a focalizer.

The ultimate acceptance of this devotion was predicated on its popularity, which in turn was predicated upon the renown of Margaurite Marie Alacoque, a French nun to whom, so it is claimed, Christ made a series of visitations (the Paray-Le-Monial visions, 1675-1693) in order to proclaim, among other things, that the worship of his heart was acceptable to him. Alacoque recorded these proclamations in her autobiography, which is, in essence, an imaginary lover's discourse between herself and Christ. Alacoque reports, for instance, that Christ said to her, “I wish thy heart to serve Me as a refuge wherein I may withdraw and take My delight when sinners persecute and drive me from theirs” (8). And later: “Our lord loves you and wishes to see you advance with great speed in the way of His love. … Therefore, do not bargain with him, but give him all, and you will find all in His divine Heart. … We must love this Sacred Heart, with all our strength and with all our capacity. Yes, we must love Him, and He will establish His empire and will reign in spite of all His enemies and their opposition” (61). Alacoque's visions yield a number of interpretations concerning, for example, the essential imperialism of Christianity and the male/female power matrix expressed within the formulation of male body/female worshiper. Also significant are the psychosexual elements—the veiled language of surrender, of penetration and of exchange. As M. P. Carroll, drawing on Kleinean psychoanalysis, suggests, there is an element of phallic symbolism in the heart image with may explain the enduring power of this icon.

Alacoque's director, a Jesuit priest named D'Columbre, promulgated this practice with particular zeal, and he was soon joined by other Jesuits. While the beatification of Alacoque did not occur until much later, in 1864, the act firmly established the practice, and since that time the feast of the Sacred Heart has been kept at Catholic churches, appropriately enough, on the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi. And here it is worth noting that while the Sacred Heart vision in medieval visionary history is seen only by women, men have been primarily responsible for the promotion of the ritual—Domnic of Treves, Francis de Sales, D'Columbre. This suggests a binary code in which the essential creative force is feminine while the bureaucratizing, commercializing force has been male, a code which of course in imbedded in the structure of Catholicism if not all organized religion.

In addition to its manifestation in female visionary experience, the devotion to the Sacred Heart also had an impact on a more ethereal realm of the late medieval superstructure, that of philosophy. This form of devotion was, as one might expect, subject to the controversies which resulted from the conflicts of philosophical and pagan forms of Christianity. The Jansenists, for instance, stood in particular opposition to the practice, and they denounced the “Cardiolartrae” for worshiping a divided Christ and thus giving to the created humanity of Christ worship which belonged to God alone. The conflict here is between the worldly and transcendent elements, between, appropriately enough, the heart and the head of Christianity, an elemental conflict indeed, for as Elaine Scarry remarks, the very fact of Christ's having a body is a central preoccupation of the gospel narratives, as in Luke 24:36-40, when Christ asks the apostles to touch and handle him in order to reassure themselves that he is not a spirit. Ultimately, Jansenist objections to the Sacred Heart devotion were censured as injurious to the Apostolic See, which had already approved the devotion and bestowed a large number of papal indulgences in its favor, this under the guidance of Pope Pius VI. In 1794 Pius provided official approval of the devotion in a papal bull which states that the physical Heart of Jesus is not “mere flesh,” but is “united to the Divinity.” However, the Church did continue to resist the establishment of a feast in honor of the Sacred Heart until the mid-nineteenth century, a fact which makes palpable the official ambivalence towards this practice.

But what has this devotion to do with the seppuku ritual, with the self-destructive act imaged by that personification of Japanese machismo, Yukio Mishima? First, there is the sexual dimension that attends the image of torsic violation. In Mishima's rendering of Lieutenant Takeyama's “wildly spurting” blood as well as in Mishima's adaptation of Bataille, the sexuality of death is orgasmic.

Sexuality in a far diminished form may be found in the Sacred Heart images with which most of us are familiar—any one of the thousands of the mass produced portraits, holy cards, statues, and scapulars which may be purchased in any religious goods shop and which are blessed and widely distributed by such Catholic organizations as The Sacred Heart Monastery in Hales Corners, Wisconsin. These images are characterized, in startling contrast to the early and rather gory images, by a dominant tone of sentimentality, which should not surprise us, for such images began to be distributed in an era dominated by sentimentalism—in the 1870s, following Alacoque's beatification.

Sentimentality and sexuality are not, as we know, as far apart as they might appear. In the most common of these images, Jesus gently pulls his cloak to one side with his left hand while his right elbow further parts the cloak, thus suggesting disrobment; further, the soft eyes and the generally inviting demeanor of the portrait suggest something like a “come hither” look. If this reading seems extreme, consider Leo Steinberg's The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion, in which various images of Jesus, crucifixions in particular, are discussed in terms of their sexuality, with particular attention to the iconographic tradition of ostentatio genitalium—the exposing of Christ's penis. Nor should we ignore the sexuality of the heart itself, at one time believed to be the seat of emotion, that remains to this day an emblem of passionate love in the Saint Valentine's Day celebration. And as the word “passion” has reared its, well, passionate head, we might pause momentarily to consider its dual role, in phrases like “the passion of Christ” and “passionate lovemaking.”

If the psychosexuality which informs Mishima's concept of seppuku is sublimated in the Catholic icon, so too is the violence. The exposed heart is not violently ripped from the chest, but simply hovers there, mysteriously. Nonetheless, images of violence and violation are evident. The Sacred Heart is surrounded by thorns, a reminder of the humble crown bestowed upon Christ by Pilate's soldiers; and it is pierced on the left, blood dripping from the wound made by the spear of Centurion Gais Cassius. This violent image, perhaps, finds its biblical source in John 19:34, “One of the soldiers struck a spear into his side, and immediately blood and water came forth,” while the more idealized element of the icon has its origins in Matthew 11:29, “Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart.” Moreover, the sheer viscerality of Christ's heart is contradicted by the transcendent fire of divine love, emanating from the aorta like a sacred gas jet, and by the celestial glow which surrounds this exposed organ.

No treatment of this subject would, I think, be complete without consideration of William Hogarth's series of engravings, The Four Stages of Cruelty. This series, a typical didactic narrative, depicts the moral decline of Tom Nero, whose career of gratuitous violence includes acts such as inserting an arrow into a dog's rectum, flogging a horse, and finally, murder. The most shocking picture, however, and the one that warrants our interest here, is the finale, entitled “The Reward of Cruelty,” a thoroughly gory depiction of an autopsy being performed on Nero's cadaver following his execution. The last of the verses accompanying the engraving read: “His heart, expos'd to prying eyes, / To pity has no claim: / But, dreadful! / from his Bones shall rise, / His Monument of Shame.”

“The Reward of Cruelty” captures, as does much of Hogarth but rarely as well as here, that odd combination of civility and brutality that was 18th-century England. That dichotomy is pictorially realized in the line of descent which extends from the subordinating gaze of the chief surgeon seated at the center of the picture to the more vigorous engagement of the surgeons who are actually performing the autopsy. As James Twichell notes in Preposterous Violence, “we find one freshly killed monster being dissected by other monsters, who are made all the more frightening by virtue of their social and ethical position” (242). The dichotomy is also paradigmatically realized in the contrast between, on the one hand, the symmetry of the surgical theatre—a symmetry informed by the Enlightenment's ideology of reason and order—and, on the other hand, the random disorder of the scholars as they ghoulishly press in to see the dissection and, more significantly, the disorder of the interior of the human body. The victim's intestines and organs are spilling onto the floor, and a dog is warily sniffing at the victim's dislodged heart. One of the surgeons is gouging Nero's eye out with a knife, a gesture that emblemizes the final objectification of the human corpus by denying it the power of the gaze.

More significant still is the way in which the elements established in the discussion of Mishima and Christ—sexuality, transcendence, and focalization or gaze—dominate the picture. In spite of the detachment of the chief surgeon, his gaze suggests an almost prurient interest in the dissection. There is an almost pornographic quality to the 18th-century “medical gaze”—a gaze that lingers somewhere between scientific detachment and sexual or sadistic attraction. In this regard, the chief surgeon's posture is noteworthy: his pointer is held directly in front of his crotch, and it extends in a phallic manner from his hand to the breastbone—where Nero's heart once was. This phallocentric diagonal line follows through in the engraving in both the upheld knife of the surgeon, in the insertion of his left hand into the chest cavity, and, perhaps most explicitly, in the hand of the underling as he removes the intestines.

It is noteworthy that the first and fourth pictures of the series seem to be commonly motivated by an interest in “what's inside” the body, an interest we see in both Mishima and the Sacred Heart cult. This interest in internals in “The Reward of Cruelty” is a scientific one, but this does not sever it from other instances of torsic violation, for if Mishima's seppuku ritual is an attempt to transcend the duality of self and world, and if through the divine love of Christ, emblemized by his Sacred Heart, we may eventually transcend earthly being and earthly desire, then in this unsparingly satiric depiction of medical autopsy, we glimpse the ideology which, in Hogarth's 18th century, replaced Christianity and its notions of transcendence, or at least usurped a good measure of its authority. And that ideology, of course, is that of science. Institutionalized science is denoted throughout the picture, in the mortarboard caps and in the only object other than Tom Nero's corpse that is the subject of penetrating gaze, a medical book. As this was the era in which medicine became institutionalized, we may then see the frantic activity of the surgeons as an attempt to colonize the body, to force it to yield to scientific explanation and technological mastery. Perhaps their efforts seem so frantic and desperate because, compared to the advances taking place in the natural sciences, the medical establishment was more or less powerless in the face of the mystery of the human body, the mystery of life and death. And of course, by yoking Tom Nero's violation of a dog's body with the violation of Nero's own corpse by medical men, Hogarth suggests that science may not, after all, have gotten very far away from more primitive forms of violence.

Our probing the entrails of culture will conclude with the 1988 film, Dead Ringers, the product of the Canadian director, David Cronenberg. Cronenberg's bizarre psychodrama, based on a true story, concerns the lives of identical twins, Elliot and Beverly Mantle, who at an early age evince a peculiar fixation for the internal workings of the female body. They progress from performing mock surgery on a plastic model, to Harvard medical school, and finally into a lucrative private practice in gynecology, supplemented by research grants bestowed upon them for their innovative techniques. The first of these techniques is the “Mantle Retractor,” a device the brothers invented in medical school for holding open the abdominal wall of the patient and which later became, in the words of a speaker at their Harvard commencement, “the standard of the industry.” This idyll of prenatal identity, perversely extended into adult life and institutionally legitimated, begins to unravel when the twins are faced with the prospect of “an unexpected turn in the Mantle saga;” that is, a woman, Claire Niveau, comes between them. Niveau's presence causes a “rupture” in the brother's intense psychic bond, a bond which has its roots in the biological bond of identical twins and which lies at the very core of their identities.

And, indeed the problem of identity is the prime motivation for the Mantle brothers' obsession with the internals of the female body, for through visceral knowledge, through the subjugation of the female to their subordinating medical gaze, they hope to solve the mystery of their own origins and to obtain self-knowledge. Their obsession with female internals takes a bizarre, aestheticised turn, for as Elliot Mantle proclaims, “There ought to be beauty contests for the inside of the body—you know, most perfect spleen, most perfectly developed kidney.” In one alarming dream sequence which has the brothers conjoined at the hip like the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, Elliot watches as Claire bites through the twin's shared flesh to draw out their shared viscera with her teeth. And in the final sequence of the film, Beverly makes a surgical incision into his brother's abdomen in an attempt to solve their psychic dilemma, a solution which proves fatal to both.

There are of course, many other examples of torsic violation coupled with the transfixed gaze. Examples that readily spring to mind include Eraserhead, in which David Lynch's existential nerd/anti-hero, in a moment of what would seem to be irrepressible curiosity, carves open the abdomen of his mutant infant son and watches in fascination as the contents hideously expand. Think also of the disembowelments in the films of Hershel Gordon Lewis, the “godfather of splatter,” whose 1963 Blood Feast inspired a host of grotesque productions: the comic disembowelments of the Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, George Romero's intestine gobbling zombies in Night of the Living Dead, and not coincidentally, the work of David Cronenberg.

But we are left with the question with which we began: why, in terms of cultural motivation, do such artifacts exist? There are a number of possibilities. The most elemental factor is the quality of overdetermination that exists in the bloody spectacle, the presence of the contrary qualities of bodily death, spiritual transcendence, and sexual release, a heady admixture which gives such scenes the power to transfix the human gaze and thus make them spectacular, worthy of intense focalization. In both Mishima's death rehearsals and the Sacred Heart Icon we have phenomena which imply transcendent values, for both the seppuku ritual and devotion to Christ have at stake the same thing—the possibility of transcending the body/spirit dichotomy—and yet, the scene is inherently corporeal, inherently and perversely sexual. And as we saw in our examination of Hogarth, science too has the goal of transcendence; science too has its transcendent and sexual elements.

The human subject is brought face to face with these dichotomies as well as with the dichotomy which, as Aristotle long ago pointed out, accompanies any true spectacle, that of one's own pity and fear. The pity is inspired by the commonality that we feel for the victim of acts of bodily violation. As Little Alex, the protagonist of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, proclaims while gazing upon a piece of his violent handiwork, the blood flows the same from all bodies; it flows “like it was all from the same factory.” As for the fear—it is perhaps better described as horror. As Milan Kundera says, the horror of death is rooted in two things: the prospect of “non-being” and the “terrifying materiality of the corpse” (171). There is likewise the horrific fear of degradation—perhaps we too will be poked and prodded like Tom Nero.

The bloody spectacle is, seemingly, a moment of truth—a literal seeing into things: into the mystery of Christ's sacrifice, or into the “sincerity,” as Mishima describes it, of seppuku, or, as in Hogarth, into the empirical truth of scientific examination in 18th-century autopsy, or, as in Dead Ringers, into one's identity in the context of twentieth century state-of-the-art gynecology.

According to Julia Kristeva, “The corpse seen without God, and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as an object” (3-4). The bloody spectacle is often seen in the light of God, but never entirely; often in the light of another god, Science, but again, never entirely so. Thus, the spectacle of torsic violation is always somewhere between godliness and defilement, between, on the one hand, the purity of science and transcendent idealism, and, on the other, the degradation of mere brute fascination and sexual drive. It is through this overdetermination that the bloody spectacle is, and will remain, an enduring image in the gallery of culture.

Works Cited

Alacoque, Margaret Mary. Thoughts and Sayings of Saint Margaret Mary For Every Day of the Year. Compiled by The Sisters of the Visitation of Paray-le-Monial; Tr. The Sisters of the Visitation of Partridge Green, Horsham, West Sussex. Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc. 1935.

Bainvel, Rev. J. W., S.J. Devotion to the Sacred Heart: The Doctrine and Its History. Tr. from 5th French; ed. by E. Leahy. London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1924.

Bataille, George. L'Erotisme. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1957.

Black, Joel. The Aesthetics of Murder. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. NY: Abelard-Schuman, 1972.

Callahan, Annice, R.S.C.T. Karl Rahner's Spirituality of the Pierced Heart: A Reinterpretation of Devotion to the Sacred Heart. N.Y.: UP of America, 1985.

Carroll, Michael P. Catholic Cults and Devotions: A Psychological Inquiry. Kingston, Montreal, London: McGill-Queen's UP, 1989.

Clover, Carol. Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton UP, 1991.

———. Interview with Johnny Ray Huston. The SF Weekly. San Francisco. July 8, 1992 Vol XI, No. 19. 23-24.

Genette, Girard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Tr. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.

Cronenberg, David. Dead Ringers.

Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror. NY: Columbia UP, 1982.

Kundera, Milan. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. NY: Penguin, 1981.

Lodge, David. “Milan Kundera, and the Idea of the Author in Modern Criticism.” Critical Quarterly Spring-Summer (1984): 105-121.

Male, Emile. Religious Art in France: The Late Middle Ages. Bollingen Series XC.3. Princeton UP, 1986.

McCarthy, John. The Official Splatter Movie Guide. N.Y.: St. Martin's, 1989.

———. Splatter Movies: Breaking the Last Taboo of the Screen. N.Y.: St. Martin's, 1984.

Mishima, Yukio. “Patriotism.” Trans. Geoffrey Sargent. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. 4th Ed. N.Y.: Norton, 1978. 1171-1192.

Newman, Beth. “‘The Situation of the Looker-On’: Gender, Narration, and Gaze in Wuthering Heights.PMLA 105: 1990. 1029-1041.

New Catholic Encyclopedia. Washington, D.C.: Catholic UP of America, 1967. Vol 12, 818-822.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain. Oxford UP, 1985.

Scott-Stokes, Henry. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima. N.Y.: Knopf, 1973.

The Shape of Rage: the Films of David Cronenberg. A publication of the Academy of Canadian Cinema. General Pub Co. Ltd. Toronto Ed. Piers Handling.

Shinoyama, Kishin. “Death of a Man” (photographs of Mishima), 1970.

Steinberg, Leo. The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion. NY: Pantheon, 1983.

Tsukamoto, Shinya, dir. Tetsuo: The Iron Man. 1989. Script by Shnya Tsukamoto, Produced by Kaiyu Theatre.

Twitchell, James. Preposterous Violence. NY: Oxford UP, 1989.

Alice H. Hutton (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Hutton, Alice H. “Decay of Mishima's Japan: His Final Word.” International Fiction Review 20, no. 2 (1993): 99-102.

[In the following essay, Hutton discusses Mishima's antipathy toward Western influence in Japan.]

Japan's Yukio Mishima gave a clue as to his reasons for his seppuku (samurai ritual suicide) five years before his death, when in 1965 he announced his plan for a tetralogy of novels tracing Japan's history in the twentieth century, after which he would have nothing left to say. That series of novels, The Sea of Fertility, indicts the West with its democratizing, commercializing influence for the erosion of traditional Japanese culture and morality. Mishima alerted Japan to his intent in his stage play Madame de Sade, appearing the year he started his tetralogy. Just as the democratizing French Revolution, the background of the stage play, hastens the erosion of traditional society and culture in the European West, so too the democratizing revolution in Japan, starting with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, erodes traditional society and culture in Japan, with what were, for Mishima, unacceptable results.

His tetralogy covers four crucial periods in twentieth-century Japan, during each of which there is a declension of social leadership. In the first novel, the leaders of society are still the Emperor, his court nobility, and the newly made aristocrats, who were promoted for fighting to establish the authority of the Emperor over the feudal shogun dictators, their daimyo, and their samurai. But the feudal aristocrats suffer from displacement, while the newly made aristocrats corrupt court morality. The second novel shows Japan's social leaders to have become the commercially successful, whether as aristocrats or crass provincials. The third novel, set during and following World War II, shows the leaders to be the United States Occupation personnel and their Japanese hangers-on, with traditional morality and culture subordinated to financial gain. The final novel, in the 1970s, shows Japan winning the economic war, becoming “Japan Inc.,” and losing its soul in the process.

Mishima could not accept Western democracy in Japan. His biographer, Henry Scott-Stokes, asserts that his paternal grandmother, Natsu, had indoctrinated him in childhood with the myth that her mother's family, the Matsudairas, were, along with the Tokugawa shoguns, “pinnacles” surrounding and defending the Emperor, “the highest being.”1 Mishima's rejection of democracy appears in his writing as early as 1960 when he turned to a political theme in his short story “Patriotism.” According to Masao Miyoshi, with this short story, “Mishima began to be deeply concerned with ‘the essence’ of Japanese culture.” Miyoshi explains that “these were the years when Japan was shaken by a great number of social and political crises signaled by a nearly endless series of demonstrations and protests,” which were much larger than those at the same time in the United States and centered on outrage about Japan's apparent subservience to the United States-Japan Security Pact against supposed communist aggression.2 Kokusai Shinkokai concurs when he states, “Mishima represents a young generation disillusioned by World War II defeat, moral chaos, unfamiliar democracy.”3 Democracy had not been taught in Japan until 1945, when the United States Occupation insisted that it be included in the curriculum. By that time Mishima had graduated from Tokyo University.

With his Madame de Sade, Mishima turned his energies toward an indictment of the corrupting influence of Western democracy then flooding the world. Madame de Sade [M.d.S.] covers the seventeen-year span from 1772 to 1789, showing the erosion of ethics and morality in France in the buildup to the French Revolution. Perhaps only one of the characters in this all-female piece is still admirable at the play's conclusion. Interestingly, as the morality of the women of France decays, the attractiveness of the Marquis de Sade himself decays during his imprisonment for his vices, allowing for a sharp reversal at the conclusion. The play opens with Madame de Sade and her mother discussing the Marquis's debauchery in Marseilles, where he and his manservant had fornicated with four prostitutes in a bloody orgy of reciprocal beating. Despite her mother's pleas to leave her husband because of his sadomasochism, Madame de Sade chooses to hear only of his beautiful appearance in Marseilles: “The Marquis de Sade wore a gray surcoat lined with blue, a waistcoat of orange silk, breeches of the same color, and on his golden hair, a hat with a feather. He carried a sword and a stick with a gold knob.”4

Other scenes celebrating de Sade's philosophy of debauchery include his eloping with his wife's younger sister and his bloody beatings of fellow perverts in Venice. Moreover, a female acquaintance of the Marquis, the Contesse de Saint-Fond, attempts to equal de Sade's vice by permitting black masses to be performed with her stomach as altar. Finally, Madame de Sade exults in her husband's daring in his ambition to rewrite the moral codes of the West—“not sporadic acts of evil, but a code of evil, not deeds so much as principles”—so that the marquis's prison writings espouse an alternative to conventional religion, “a back stairway to heaven” (M.d.S. 102). Madame de Sade feels that her husband is above conventional morality because he is a close relative of the king and a man of wealth, beauty, and fame. It is not until de Sade has abandoned his aristocratic world to identify with the revolutionaries he met in prison that his wife rejects him. After his shift toward revolution, de Sade slides into poverty, obesity, and slovenliness. At this point his wife shows herself devoid of the wifely loyalty she had formerly claimed as her duty. When her maid comes to announce that the Marquis has been freed from prison and is now at the door, his wife at once asks the maid about the Marquis's appearance, only to hear, “He has changed so much I hardly recognized him. He is wearing a black woolen coat with patched elbows and a shirt without a collar, so dirty. … I took him at first for an old beggar.” At this, his wife refuses him entry into her presence: “Please ask him to leave. And tell him this. ‘The marquise will never see him again’” (M.d.S. 106). In the end, traditional French society has fallen into decay. Madame de Sade's mother has quit condemning her son-in-law's vices in hopes that he will defend her title and wealth to his new revolutionary friends. Saint-Fond had died in a revolutionary skirmish while dressed for debauchery. Madame de Sade and her sister had parted earlier over rival claims to de Sade. Only the Baroness de Dimiane finds a haven from the revolutionary chaos of France in 1789: she retreats into her traditional religion by entering a nunnery.

The Decay of the Angel, [D] Mishima's final novel and the last of his tetralogy, is a novel of what was, to Mishima, the final decay of modern, Westernized Japan. Finished on the day of his suicide in 1970, it projects into the future to the years 1973-77. The title, referring as it does to the demise of a deva or good spirit in Buddhist theology, refers also to the corruption of the spirit of Japan in the twentieth century. The five signs of decay of a deva include bad odor, loss of luminosity, and loss of rightful dress, all now visible in Japan's smog, stench, and beaches littered with cola cans as a result of Western industrialization.

The protagonists of this final novel are a young orphan, Toru, age sixteen and already at work, and his adoptive father, Honda, the observer in the previous novels in the tetralogy. Honda is now in his seventies. The theme of the orphan and one's need for a father expresses the mood of many postwar Japanese, as Susan Napier shows in her Escape from the Wasteland: “The loss of World War II and the Emperor's renunciation of divinity” made the Japanese “feel orphaned, abandoned in history,” so that writers portrayed the postwar world as one of “loss, betrayal, alienation,” and thus Mishima's tone is one of “bitterness, loneliness, frustration.”5 Napier further explains that “the generation of Mishima … grew up with … a schizophrenic world view, as a result of one hot August day in 1945 when the Emperor announced Japan's defeat,” so that the former view of “pre-war orthodoxy of an emperor-centered communalist philosophy of obedience to certain absolute values that were presented as being uniquely Japanese” was after the war challenged by the “American-enforced, supposedly international perspective, based on a belief in individual rights and democracy.”6

The young protagonist, Toru, is an orphan as rootless as is Japan without its strong Emperor-as-Divine-Father. And although Toru, like Japan, is brilliant, with an IQ of 159, he feels futureless, purposeless, and ambiguous toward himself. Toru cynically allows Honda to adopt him and rescue him from his blue-collar job as a harbor-watcher in an international port, where he has cared only for material things like ships but could form no personal relationships; instead, he had malevolently scanned the people outside his glass observation post as if they were “zoo animals” in light of his own beauty and intelligence.7 He does not realize that Honda has chosen him because of a curious birthmark of moles under his left arm which has been a sign of reincarnation in a chain of Honda's friends who had, in previous novels of Mishima's tetralogy, all died young. But Toru makes no plans to channel his intelligence, even when Honda hires a tutor to prepare him for university. He prefers the sports car he demands from Honda and liaisons with girls. In his ambiguity toward himself, he vacillates from feeling invincible, “too perfect,” and at the next moment “not human,” and later “a monster” (D 142-46).

Toru brings about his own destruction at age nineteen. He has read a “dream journal” bequeathed to Honda by his boyhood friend, Kiyoaki. Learning about the early death of the elegant Kiyoaki, Toru decides to suicide immediately to prove that he too is a member of a special group of Honda's friends (Kiyoaki, Isao, Chan) who had died by age twenty, in their peak of youth and beauty. But Toru, in attempting suicide with poison, succeeds only in blinding himself. Toru now must vegetate in the care of a slavish, lunatic girlfriend. He plans to marry her so as to bring forth flawed descendants for Honda, while he himself continues to lose his cleanliness, his beauty, and his self-determination. Japan's spirit as represented in the Kiyoaki-Isao-Chan trilogy of reincarnation has decayed progressively throughout the twentieth century.

Sadly, the aged Honda, having known something of a better Japan earlier in the century, now exhibits some of the corruption Japan has suffered as the century has continued. For example, he turns voyeur, either observing his woman friend Kieko with a female prostitute or strangers at night in a Tokyo park, for which he and a host of other watchers are arrested. Nevertheless, Honda's life undergoes a reversal near the end of this novel, as had the lives of the Marquis de Sade and his wife in Madame de Sade. Ill and facing impending surgery, Honda suddenly yearns to see someone from his youth, from the time of a better Japan. His only remaining tie from the early twentieth century is his deceased boyhood friend Kiyoaki's sweetheart, Satoko, who had entered a Buddhist nunnery at the end of World War I. As Honda ascends the steep mountain to the Gesshu Buddhist nunnery, his weakened condition makes the hard climb an ascent of faith. When Satoko, now the honored abbess, agrees to see Honda, he finds her at eighty-three a “pale figure in a white Kimono and a cloak of deep purple” whom “age had sped in the direction not of decay but of purification,” transforming her into “a perfect jewel” (D 232).

Satoko has something to give to Honda as a reward for his climb of faith. “Mr. Honda has been kind enough to come all this way. I think he should see the south garden. I will take him there,” (D 234). The garden is “without striking features”; it is empty, with “no memories, nothing” (D 235-36). And there in the Zen garden of emptiness, in the noonday sunlight and quiet, Honda releases his grasp on the tumultuous century which has almost destroyed him. The reality of his life or that of his past friends fades into insignificance in the timelessness of this garden where, as Satoko has explained, consciousness is “as it is in each heart” (D 234). And so, Honda retreats into the tradition of Japanese Buddhism.

For Mishima himself, the conclusion of his final book in the tetralogy which he had called his last word to the world is a gesture of return to the “old Japan,” the one in which his grandmother's family had claimed aristocratic status, the status his grandmother had indoctrinated him to reclaim as his birthright. With his seppuku suicide the day he finished this last novel, Mishima, a writer of such acclaim that he was reputedly a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, nihilistically rejected the Westernized Japan which no longer had anything to offer him.


  1. Henry Scott-Stokes, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974) 64.

  2. Misao Miyoshi, Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974) 175.

  3. Kokusai Shinkokai, ed., Synopses of Contemporary Japanese Literature: 1936-55 (Tokyo: Japan Cultural Society, 1970) 162.

  4. Yukio Mishima, Madame de Sade (New York: Grove Press, 1967) 3. Subsequent references are to this edition and will appear in the text after the abbreviation M.d.S.

  5. Susan Napier, Escape from the Wasteland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991) 13.

  6. Napier 145.

  7. Yukio Mishima, Decay of the Angel. The Sea of Fertility: A Cycle of Four Novels (New York: Knopf, 1974) 32. Subsequent references are to this edition and will appear in the text after the abbreviation D.

Donald H. Mengay (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Mengay, Donald H. “Body/Talk: Mishima, Masturbation, and Self-Performativity.” In Genealogy and Literature, edited by Lee Quinby, pp. 193-210. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Mengay examines Mishima's portrayal of the Japanese identity in a Westernized society.]

The social upheavals caused around the world by western imperialism were also felt in Japan, despite the fact that the west never established a formal colonial bureaucracy there. One of the early outcomes of the western “influence,” which began with an act of aggression, the American insistence in the 1860s that Japan open its borders, was the reconfiguration of the terms of a debate about the individual's relation to society. As H. D. Harootonian and Masao Miyoshi point out, this discussion, as well as a more general one related to modernity and modernization, began in Japan well before the invasion by the west.1 An effect of the western presence, however, was the relabeling of indigenous individualism as “westernism,” a semiotic slippage that reveals western attempts to define the terms of the discourse, to take credit for the purported good (human rights, equality, the individual), and to assign the negative to the Japanese (fascism, mindless conformity, ultranationalism, nonrecognition, and even abuse of the individual).2

One of the tasks of modern Japanese writers has been to work against such simplistic portrayals. This effort constitutes much of the tension in the work of Yukio Mishima, which when taken as a whole struggles to reconfigure the relations between east/west and individual/society. These become for him and his characters a complex, wrenching, and inescapable conundrum, which he underscores the immediacy and intimate nature of by linking them metonymically to sex, and sexuality generally. More precisely, the mandate and desire to conform to sexual norms is offset by physical urges, desires, and demands that set the individual apart, that have no respect for the collective or for social norms. Sex and sexual acts, particularly masturbation and its attendant upheaval or shaking of the body, both individual and social, constitute the loci of desire and difference and ground a much broader discourse on identity. Drawn into this debate are issues about what it means to be Japanese in an increasingly westernized, or alien, culture; to be a “failed” man, sickly and weak and with (illicit) homosexual desires in a purportedly hetero/patriarchal culture; to write across the gap between east/west and to establish oneself as both international and “uniquely Japanese”; and to hail from a family with (weak) aristocratic links in a strongly class-conscious society.

The time when Mishima began writing, directly after the war, stands out as one of extreme cultural flux in Japan. In placing sexuality at the center of this debate, Mishima locates the quest for self against a historical backdrop that both mandates reproduction and questions the point and even usefulness of it, given the possibilities of mass destruction. This flux is metaphorized mostly in images of fluidity and bodily flow and gets at the impossibility of locating a “solid,” essential, definable identity. To employ western, Derridean jargon: the self is established as a process of differing—always, through desire, to be found in another place—and deferral, ungraspable and without closure in time.

This of course approximates what in the west has come to be called the postmodern condition. “The postmodern identity is frequently theorized as an atomic identity, fractured and disseminated into a field of dispersed energy,” writes Diana Fuss, the term “atomic” referring to “multiple identity particles bouncing off each other.”3 For Mishima, these “particles” or coordinates of identity (the entire litany of class, ethnicity, gender, race, sex, and so on) are portrayed as cultural flux occasioned largely by the domineering presence of the west in Japan.

In the works of Japanese writers the referent of this “atomic identity” is perhaps also the atomic bomb, and for them to employ it as metaphor is perhaps also to create a signifier far more immediate, and more vexed, than the use of it as mere figuration, as one finds in the west. It signifies the inversion of the relation of the self to the (epi)center, the negation of the signifier center-as-privileged-space.4

Writing as a westerner amid the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, I find Mishima disturbingly relevant, both because of the leveling effect, that is, of hierarchies of power (inside/outside, margin/center), caused by what gets perceived, even mythologized, as an irrational destructive force, and also more generally because of the placement of sex as the central metonym for exploring the effects of this destruction. Sex is portrayed by Mishima as central to an understanding of the self—not to mention that element that is most avoided, occluded, and reviled in social discourse. Positing the centrality of sexuality to modern notions of the (western) self, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that “many of the major nodes of thought and knowledge in twentieth-century Western culture as a whole are structured—indeed, fractured—by a chronic, now endemic crisis of homo/hetero definition.”5 It is precisely along these lines that Mishima configures a postwar Japanese self, thus effecting a bridge between eastern and western notions of identity.

Without labeling Mishima or his fictional self, Kochan, “gay” in any western sense of the word, the struggle of identity that occurs in his texts (and in Confessions of a Mask especially) focuses nevertheless precisely on the issue of (homo)sexuality and gender, expressed in the short-circuiting of relations between language and the body—issues faced uniquely by the contemporary western, queer reader. It is after all the sexed body, and particularly the “gay” diseased body, that constitutes the modern homosexual as inhabitant of both the margins and center, but the center as conceived by Andrew Holleran, as “ground zero.”6

For all intents and purposes, Confessions of a Mask (1949) is the narrative of Mishima's own youth. In this novel he details his experiences as a weak, sickly child forced to live with, and attend to, his equally sickly grandmother. Like André Gide's Michel in L'immoraliste, it is through aesthetic/erotic experiences with other men that a desire to live and be strong is planted in Kochan. He quickly discovers not only that his desire to live is intimately linked with homo desire (for example, for the night-soil man and for Omi) but that this desire is also socially unacceptable. He knows instinctually that to fit in is to manifest the “proper” desires, and so he endeavors to suppress his homo urges in order to cultivate hetero ones—specifically, for a young woman named Sonoko. Of course, this leads to disaster, to confusion and self-loathing. Kochan discovers he is capable of hetero desire, but he nevertheless is forced to admit to the persistence and irremediableness of his desire for young men.

Put another way, while Kochan tries to front a stable, culturally approved self, he is troubled by a concomitant, persistent marginalized self, one that threatens to obliterate the respectability that attains through conformity, expressed here in sexual attraction. Central to his struggle is the desire for agency, for the ability to dismantle the regulatory system of sexuality that limits the possibilities of desire.

The tenacity of these sexual norms is revealed in several ways, but most significantly in Kochan's experience of masturbation, with all of its decadent resonances. The latter is the subversive act for Kochan, precisely because of the specificity, for him, of its connection to same-sex desire. In this act of privacy he flaunts compulsory demands of heterosexuality in his infatuation with other men. On the one hand his position is rebellious, but on the other he is painfully aware of his investment and his own complicitous reinforcement of the very prescriptive modes he seeks to undermine.

Beauty encompasses the many binarisms marking these regulatory norms. Mishima's notion of beauty, an unusual hybrid of Japanese-samurai, classical Greek and Wildean aesthetics, incorporates both death and sex in such a way that sex appropriates, imitates, and metaphorizes death. Quoting Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov in his epigraph, Mishima asserts an aesthetic in which “Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it never has and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but riddles. Within beauty both shores meet and all contradictions exist side by side.” Not merely a zero-sum game in which binaristic forces cancel one another out, beauty becomes a site in which excess is engaged in for the purpose of baring the nature of binarisms themselves, inherent in societal norms. Beauty's iconography is a pastiche of signifiers in which, for example, “the ideal of Sodom” is metonymically linked with “the ideal of the Madonna”—a connection that both implicates the one in the other and retains its antinomies along the lines of the contestatory/subservient, denaturalized/naturalized, homo/hetero, illicit/licit, male/female, pagan/religious, and profane/sacred. Moreover, vitiation and innocence are contrasted in homo and hetero desire, even if directions for connecting the bilateral set of dots are unclear.

Kochan both reinforces and subverts notions of homosexual desire as degradation, asserting its primacy and innocence; hetero desire must be “learned,” as in the case of his relationship with Sonoko, but homo desire is decadently cast as “natural.” The beautiful, in other words, represents a means of escape from a sanctioned extreme—univocity, lopsidedness. For Mishima, it seems that it is a way out of “normal” (i.e., societal) formulations of the acceptable and the licit, even if the escape is ephemeral.

Mishima metaphorizes beauty in fluidic images that hint at unity and continuity (blood, river, sea, semen, urine), each of which is linked in some way to masturbation. This act molds Kochan's aesthetic, engaging elements of body/language, life/death, and stoppage/flowing, but it also is an expression of his mind-set both as determined subject and agent of resistance. As a performative act masturbation, like beauty, also does not represent a zero-sum game. Opposed to a synchronic perspective in which Kochan experiences only self-negating and warring forces is a diachronic one in which the iteration of the masturbatory act itself accrues, for all of its essentialist resonances, self-knowledge, even if the knowledge gained never seems to serve as a finality. Masturbatory “knowledge” of the self is significant not because the self is an existentialist entity defined merely by the aggregate of its acts, but because through masturbation Kochan discovers the nature of his desire.7 Through masturbation Kochan scrutinizes his own erotic phantasmatics in order to glean a sense of himself in the broader signifying economy of society; in it he takes stock of his same-sex desire as constitutive of a “real” self.

The groundwork for a problematized thematics of the self is laid at the point the reader learns that Kochan suffers, as a four-year-old child, from “autointoxication” (7).8 This disease, jika chudoku (self-poisoning), signals a somatic dissonance—literally, the body against itself—that foreshadows a cognate mental turning-against-itself, a self-poisoning or psychic nihilism. The illness, typified by a retention or blockage of the flow of bodily wastes (the body here reconstituted as the locus, the bursting receptacle, of conflicting social signifieds) is cured for Kochan through circulation and emission—that is, when he urinates. His uncle declares him alive upon seeing the escape of urine, commenting that “it showed his heart had resumed beating,” the pumping prefiguring the significance of blood in Kochan's aesthetic and constituting the resignifying process (7). This bout develops, though, into a chronic illness striking about once a month, an indication of a kind of somatic ambivalence. “I encountered many crises,” he comments; “I came to be able to sense whether an attack was likely to approach death or not” (7).

Kochan problematizes his body, an entity that assumes greater importance when he begins to see it in contradistinction to that of others. He speaks in comparative terms, indicating for example that he was an underweight baby (5) and that in adolescence he was an abnormally small and frail boy (79-80). His early years were spent in his grandmother's sickroom that was, tellingly, “closed and stifling with odors of sickness and of old age”—the insalubrious atmosphere of the room serving as a metaphor for his oxygen-deprived blood, an effect of the disease but also the body struggling to exist in an atmosphere hostile to it (6). Like Gide's “immoralist” Michel, he decides to fight against physical and mental weakness, remarking in frustration, “now I became obsessed with a single motto—‘Be Strong!’” (80). He fetishizes health and puts forth an aesthetic/transgressive model of the body, epitomized in his classmate, Omi:

Life-force—it was the sheer extravagant abundance of life-force that overpowered the boys [at school]. They were overwhelmed by the feeling [Omi] gave of having too much life, by the feeling of purposeless violence that can be explained only as life existing for its own sake. … [Omi's] flesh had been put on this earth for no other reason than to become an insane human-sacrifice, one without any fear of infection. Persons who live in terror of infection cannot but regard such flesh as a bitter reproach.

(78-79; emphasis added)

Kochan becomes preoccupied with, eroticizes, the healthy body, which, as he says, “exists for its own sake” and which enjoys a certain agency inaccessible to him. The healthy body defines its own fate, serving as a law unto itself. Paradoxically, though, the healthy body is not only expendable but even developed for the sole purpose of its own destruction. In a world in which the body is subject to—is “infected” by—strict regulation, the uninfected body is nothing but an ephemeral anomaly, doomed to early destruction. It is characterized by circular coursings that must end in emission. The ability to spill (blood, shit, urine) is a sign of the body's flaunting of norms of containment, its relish in excess, but also of its moribundity.

Accordingly, Kochan's first physical attraction is to a ladler of excrement (funnyuo: manure/urine), an episode that comes close on the heels of his initial bout of autointoxication and reinforces his tendency to apotheosize health-as-reformulation/emission. The ladler collects and circulates waste, disseminates it. Waste is the symbol of a reconstitution process in which initial stages (i.e., eating) engage one set of norms regulating food consumption, and terminal stages engage another, centered around not just excretion but death as well. Among humans the entire process is regulated by taboos, all of which vary in kind and intensity specific to the particular stage in the process. For example, it appears ludicrous and revelatory to consider the differences in amount of time allotted to a “proper” experience of eating and shitting. Also, handlers of food occupy a very different status than handlers of excrement. A finely articulated hierarchy exists among food preparers that engages an elaborate industry of culinary schools, market guidelines, rules for presentation and arrangement, nutrition, order of consumption, manners, and so on. Kochan reconstitutes not just shit-handling but the shit-handler as an object of desire in a (at this point very unconscious) move to counteract norms of acceptability and rejection, a move psychodynamically related to what is occurring in his own body.

This ambiguous recognition manifests itself in the first glimmerings of desire. He comments:

The scrutiny I gave the youth was unusually close for a child of four. Although I did not clearly perceive it at the time, for me he represented my first revelation of a certain power, my first summons by a certain strange and secret voice. It is significant that this was first manifested to me in the form of a night-soil man: excrement is a symbol for the earth.


The “summons” and “certain power” to which he is drawn relate in one sense to his own practical need to defecate, which he cannot seem to do. To pass, expel, or disseminate become self-imposed health mandates and, again, emblematic for the need to redirect social limitations on the body. But the connection of excrement to the social role of the shit-ladler and the mapping of that role on a sociohierarchic grid—a role that Kochan valorizes and eroticizes—indicate the attraction is identificatory as well. In short, Kochan is as much captivated by the stigmatized status of the “manure man” as he is by the act of dissemination.

One effect of Kochan's pairing of recirculation/emission fantasies with the ladler of excrement manifests itself in a homoeroticized coprophilia, in which health and beauty are linked with the collection/dispersal of soil/feces. Compare, for instance, the “invitation” of Omi's footprints in the snow “the color of fresh black soil” (56)—scatological leavings of “coal black earth” that Kochan follows after spotting them from his window (57). These footprints relate to the “traces” Kochan leaves after masturbation and represent a text inscribed by the body, a signature, on the landscape. At the same time, Kochan's interest in them underscores the coprophiliac tendency to play with shit, in the same way Omi does, metaphorically. In a school competition, Kochan notices Omi “[stretch] his hands down leisurely to the ground and [smear] his palms with damp sand from just beneath the surface” (77). The erotic/scatological significance of soil here and in the episode of the excrement ladler is related to other themes, particularly those of beauty and death as they relate to masturbation.

Kochan fetishizes shit as a stigmatized bodily emission by linking it to others, including vomiting (6), sweating (13), bleeding (45), the growth of hair in the armpits (88), disembowelment (93), and ejaculation. These constitute what Mishima would later term, speaking in another context, “the body's loquacity,”9 its means of articulating (illicit) drives and desires outside of the realm of a sanctioned, verbal signifying order, which becomes an antagonistic force in the text. He contests the linguistic order, implicating it as the mode by which oppression and limitation take place. Agency is not achieved through words; the “free” self that Mishima constitutes is identified with bodily acts.10

Operating in Mishima's semiotics of the body, Kochan is obsessed in particular with the coursing of blood, which he images in an endless, fatalistic circularity. “Abundant blood coursing richly throughout [Omi's] body” represents “an untamed soul” (63) eager to escape its endless, goalless meandering like the peripatetic shade of a Noh protagonist. “Life … enslaved [Omi]” (87), Kochan indicates. Blood, the specter of the untamed and untameable, must escape the body in the same way other wastes must escape—which is in turn a metaphoric allusion to Kochan's desire to escape the “body politic.” Paradoxically, only in the spilling or passing of blood does “life” become possible. As a result, a central trope in Kochan's erotics is a puncturing of the imagined object's flesh in order to liberate blood/soul/self.11 This mythology reformulates death as the site of freedom; it prefigures Georges Bataille's notion of death as “identified with continuity,” as that which “denotes passion” and is linked to eroticism.12 Kochan recasts life, by which he means social life, as an entombing force. Death, that is, of the body, liberates.

This and similar passages elucidate that element in the episode of the night-soil man (and the general coprophilia of Mishima's text) in which Kochan comments that it was “Mother Earth that was calling to me” (8). Excrement/soil/earth beckon Kochan's body not only to divest and “void” itself, but quite literally to become earth, to die and decompose. The synecdochic connection between footprints/scat and Omi works both ways: the part (feces) represents the whole (the body) to the degree that it is generated by the body; but so is the whole ultimately nothing more than the part. That is, the body is no more than soil/shit, to the degree that it is nourished and unified with the earth. Unlike the mind, which is fractured and dichotomous, the body tends toward unity. Also, while the mind is socially determined, the body offers the potential for freedom.

The greatest possibility of this comes in the moment of orgasm. The experience, including the buildup to it, engages Kochan's aesthetic of death in which the self is asserted solely in somatic terms (semen), but also annihilated, lost in an emptiness without set boundaries or specificity (in this case, in “intoxication”). The semiotics of sameness and difference are played out in orgasm in the sense that the self is distinguished from its erotic object while it identifies with that object. Describing his first masturbatory experience, Kochan narrates:

That day, the instant I looked upon the picture [of Saint Sebastian], my entire being trembled with some pagan joy. My blood soared up; my loins swelled as though in wrath. The monstrous part of me that was on the point of bursting awaited my use of it with unprecedented ardor, upbraiding me for my ignorance, panting indignantly. My hands, completely unconsciously, began a motion they had never been taught. I felt a secret, radiant something rise swift-footed to the attack from inside me. Suddenly it burst forth, bringing with it a blinding intoxication. …


The image to which Kochan responds (Guido Reni's painting of Saint Sebastian) is important in that it both accords with Kochan's pattern of fetishizing bodily emission (blood escaping from Sebastian's arrow-wounds) and originates the highly articulated erotic themes that he later associates with Omi: integumental penetration, recircularity, the ebbing of life in the escape of blood, and a well-formed body. In referring to his joy as “pagan” he recognizes his tastes as atavistic, recalling ancient aesthetic formulations, as well as transgressive, in that his fantasy object is not only male but western. The unconscious aspect of his masturbatory movements foreshadows Kochan's realizations toward the end of the text, in which he recognizes his “selves” to have been less freely determined than he expected. Again, although this self may be unconsciously generated, it is also obliterated in a state of intoxication (meitei).

The Japanese term for intoxication refers literally to drunkenness, a word that reinforces the notion of circularity by metaphorizing semen as urine, an effect of drinking, but also invokes other more archaic meanings that evoke the decadence of a Shinto festival in which Kochan reads in the faces of the young men carrying a shrine “an expression of the most obscene and undisguised drunkenness in the world” (33). After this first experience he frames his erotic narratives in similar secular/religious terms, calling the act of masturbation a “pagan ceremony” and the masturbatory image—“victim”—a “ritual sacrifice” (175).

In the first ejaculatory episode, semen, like feces, is disseminated, and in this case dots the top of his worktable “leadenly” (40). “My blood soared up,” Kochan remarks, and then, significantly, “my loins swelled as though in wrath.” “The monstrous part” approaches the point of bursting if it doesn't soon, like Kochan's four-year-old, autointoxicated body, relieve itself (40). This “something” (mono) that the body releases is troublesome in its indeterminacy. As it is here contextualized, one way it signifies is as a kind of artillery of the body. “I felt a secret, radiant something rise swift-footed to the attack from inside me,” the Japanese word for attack (seme) used primarily in the military sense. This “aggression” may imply several things, including the strength of Kochan's healthy resolve; a long-overdue—and therefore overcompensated—effort to assert a (homo) self; a violent attack against the restrictions that society places on the body; and even a carryover of Japanese-western hostilities, which had “ended” only three years before Mishima began writing. In the original text, Mishima employs the Latin term ejaclatio (37), which evokes the valence of not merely ejection/discharge but, literally, the hurling of a spear (or in the Sebastinian context, an arrow), the word ejaclatio meaning to throw away (a javelin, for example). Fixated on the image of Sebastian, whose body is riddled with arrows, Kochan objectifies him, even “attacks” him, but so does he identify with him as a symbol of salubrity. Evoking the samurai tradition of shinju or double suicide, Kochan's “little death” signifies a dying with Sebastian.13

Kochan's first ejaculation also serves as a complex interchange between body and text—or it reconfigures the body as a (censored) urtext. The body in effect rewrites itself:

I looked around the desk I was facing. A maple tree at the window was casting a bright reflection over everything—over the ink bottle, my schoolbooks and notes, the dictionary, the picture of St. Sebastian. There were cloudy white splashes about—on the gold-imprinted title of a textbook, on a shoulder of the ink bottle, on one corner of the dictionary. … Fortunately, a reflex motion of my hand to protect the picture had saved the book from being soiled.


The juxtaposition of the ink bottle—the covering of it—with semen foregrounds the nonverbal “loquacity” of the body to that of the verbal signifying order. Through his somatic “speech act” he attacks the social hegemony of this order, signified in the dictionary, schoolbooks, notes. Twenty years after the writing of Confessions of a Mask, in Sun and Steel, Mishima would refer to the way words corrode and destroy the body (82). The notion of ejaclatio as an “attack” (seme), therefore, also relates to the desire to go against the prevalent foregrounding of the written, verbal text, insofar as it is a culturally privileged medium, one that constitutes the body-text as inferior, governable, colonizable.

Kochan protects only the image of Sebastian from being “soiled,” the term signaling his own ability now to disseminate “shit.” This recalls Gide's protagonist Michel, who in the throes of tuberculosis coughs up blood and mucus, which marks a turning point in his fight against the disease. “J'en étais extraordinairement soulagé,” Michel remarks. “C'est le fin du rhume” (“I was extraordinarily relieved. … It was the end of the [disease]”).14 Similar to Kochan, illness for Michel is dispelled through the emission of blood/phlegm: “je crachais,” Michel says, the verb cracher meaning to spit/come out with/splash. His masturbatory expectorations work in harmony with the carriage in which he is riding, les cahots (the jerks) of which mimic the motions of his body.15 For Kochan, too, ejaculation represents a significant triumph, a telling moment in his struggle to “express” himself, achieve health, construct a self as agent.

This liberatory moment, however, lasts only for the duration of the orgasm itself. No sooner does he experience it than he undergoes an intensification of guilt. “This was my first ejaculation,” he explains at the end of the episode. “It was also the beginning, clumsy and completely unpremeditated, of my ‘bad habit’” (akushu) (40-41). This negative characterization (the Japanese aku: bad, evil) of the repetitive act that masturbation represents, both in a single masturbatory moment and in its temporal constitution as “habit” (shu) over time, indicates just how inescapable the norms are of which Kochan seeks to divest himself. Identifying generally with his schoolmates, for instance, he is nonetheless aware of a key difference:

Suffice it to say, then, that—always excepting the one shameful difference I am describing—in that most colorless phase of the bashful student I was exactly like the other boys, that I had sworn unconditional loyalty to the stage manager of the play called adolescence.

(122; emphasis added)

Awareness of difference between himself and his (putatively hetero) classmates in both desire and its complicated thematics affects him negatively and leads him to, in short, an epistemology of the closet. This locution, formulated by Sedgwick, posits silence as being “as pointed and performative as speech”16—a posture Kochan adopts while privately resorting to masturbation as the means of achieving “utterance.” He can do it, he learns, but at the price of guilt and remorse. He finds the regime of compulsory heterosexuality indomitable and indelibly “written” on him; all he can do is mask or outwardly silence the prohibited, (what he takes to be) “real,” self.

In her article “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Judith Butler, speaking of her own self-constitution as a “lesbian,” articulates a dynamic similar to that promulgated by Mishima:

How and where I play at being [a lesbian] is the way in which that “being” gets established, instituted, circulated, and confirmed. This is not a performance from which I can take radical distance, for this is deep-seated play, psychically entrenched play, and the “I” does not play its lesbianism as a role. Rather, it is through the repeated play of this sexuality that the “I” is insistently reconstituted as a lesbian “I”; paradoxically, it is precisely the repetition of that play that establishes as well the instability of the very category that it constitutes. For it the “I” is a site of repetition, that is, if the “I” only achieves the semblance of identity through a certain repetition of itself, then the I is always displaced by the very repetition that sustains it.17

This rather masturbatory iteration of an “I” at once engenders and destabilizes it; in Derridean terms, both repeats and alters it.18 Again, it is the diachronic experience of masturbation that works toward granting Kochan some sense of knowledge about the self. Reinforced patterns, even if contestatory or “illicit,” get taken for the “true” self while deviations from these repetitions appear to him artificial. Taking hetero desire as utterly foreign—and therefore immoral in Kochan's ethics—he comments, “I mastered the art of delusion until I could regard myself as a truly lewd-minded person” (115). Linking homo desire to physical passion and hetero to another form, he complains:

In order to delude myself that [heterosexual] desire was animal passion, I had to undertake an elaborate disguise of my true self. The unconscious feeling of guilt resulting from this false pretense stubbornly insisted that I play a conscious and false role.


The early, essentialist notion of the self mapped along an axis the termini of which constitute the true/counterfeit, normal/anomalous, licit/illicit informs Kochan's self-understanding and induces bouts of self-reproach (172, 173, 203, 206). This stems from his consciousness of what he considers to be cross-gendered sexual desire as a conscious “masquerade” (100-101), a “counterfeit” (106), “a machine of falsehood” (108), “the art of delusion” (115), a “camouflage” (120), “the machinery of deception” (201), and the “playing [of] a part” (229).

But this repetition—of albeit a “false” self—both reinforces its falseness and calls it into question, in the same way Butler's “I” is both constituted and called into question by its “deep-seated play.” “My ‘act’ has ended by becoming an integral part of my nature,” Kochan comments. What he has assumed to be a conscious performance has been “psychically entrenched play.”19 That is, no play at all. Kochan remarks:

My “act” has ended by becoming an integral part of my nature … It's no longer an act. My knowledge that I am masquerading as a normal person has even corroded whatever of normality I originally possessed, ending by making me tell myself over and over again that it too was nothing but a pretense at normality.


The degree to which “play” is meant in neither the ludic nor western-histrionic senses inheres in the Japanese word for play, engi. It carries the notion of a staged performance, but one in which the requirements for “acting” are different from those in the west. As Donald Keene points out, Japanese stage actors (here, of Noh) begin their training in infancy and continue until the “last tottering appearances on the stage.”20 They live the subtle nuances and intonations they “perform” on stage until the movements—each of which are encoded with gender valences—become “unconscious.” The main kabuki actor, the onnagata, must repeatedly enact his “role” as well. As Mishima writes in his short story “Onnagata,” “unless the onnagata lives as a woman in his daily life, he is unlikely ever to be considered accomplished.”21 The “performed” self and the “real” self, then, become in a sense conflated, but they are also called seriously into question. The onnagata is an appropriate metaphor for Kochan in that he inhabits stereotypically male and female roles, and in so doing proliferates another possibility. The “counterfeit” and the “real” become in part moot categories, because the onnagata represents both.

Prefiguring the western notion of the postmodern condition, the “unified” or “normal” I becomes impossible for Kochan. He finds only tension, and a strong measure of guilt. After proclaiming his love for Sonoko, he comments (assuming his [male] reader shares his early essentialist demands for a continuity of self):

The reader who has followed me this far will probably refuse to believe anything I am saying. He will doubt me because there will seem to be no difference between my artificial and unrequited love of [Sonoko] and the throbbing of the breast of which I am now speaking, because there will seem to be no apparent reason why on this occasion alone I should not have subjected my emotions to that merciless analysis I had used in the former case. … He will think that I say a thing simply because I want to say it so, without any regard for truth, and anything I say will be all right so long as I make my story consistent.

(143; emphasis added)

This notion of truth-as-consistency foils Kochan in his early attempts at self-knowledge. He solicits the reader to accept the possibility of a self, other than the norm-flaunting one with which he has identified early on, a gesture that exposes as problematic the binarisms artificial/real and foreign/naturalized. “What appeared to be the inside was the outside,” Kochan comments, “and what appeared the outside was the inside” (177). This destabilization of the self as a single pattern of desire, so contrary to culturally bound (and I would add western as well as eastern) notions of the self, is difficult for Kochan to accept. “Even the strength of a Samson would not have been sufficient to make me adopt a manly and unequivocal attitude toward Sonoko,” he admits, assuming that a “manly” attitude is a rigidly consistent one. It is this socialized assumption, outside of the realm of his understanding, that, he says, “aroused my disgust” (203; emphasis added).

Worse, however, is the possibility that equivocal desire equals no desire. Deciding not to marry Sonoko, who is interested in marrying him, Kochan considers how to bow out:

Even though my heart was filled with uneasiness and unspeakable grief, I put a brazen, cynical smile upon my lips. I told myself that all I had to do was clear one small hurdle. All I had to do was to regard all the past few months as absurd; to decide that from the beginning I'd never been in love with a girl called Sonoko, not with such a chit of a girl; to believe that I'd been prompted by a trifling passion (liar!) and had deceived her.


He surprises himself to discover that the mask he has assumed is not a role now but another identification. Formerly having concretized the “true” as the homo “I” of his masturbatory fantasies, Kochan now realizes despite himself that this “I” is not the only one, that there is another axis along which his now-split self is mapped. The hetero, “masked,” identity becomes a habit paralleling the self of Kochan's “bad habit,” and in this way also becomes naturalized.

Both the complicitous hetero self and the transgressive homo self are all of a rather tattered piece: two possibilities engendered by a prohibitive, heterosexist economy. If he realizes the potential for either identification, he nevertheless comes to discern the limitations of agency as well. The homo-transgressive, if no longer constituted as the real or only self possible, nevertheless represents the more “immutable” and consistent for him. In a series of several meetings with Sonoko, who has now married another man, he repeats his early, now-formulaic, homonarrative fantasy. Standing next to Sonoko he is “drawn to … a youth of twenty-one or -two [who] … had taken his shirt off and stood there half-naked, rewinding a belly-band around his middle” (251). This belly-band recalls for him the samurai ritual of seppuku, again reiterating his antiregulatory, aesthetic thematics:

I was beset by sexual desire. My fervent gaze was fixed upon that rough and savage, but incomparably beautiful, body. … I had forgotten Sonoko's existence. I was thinking of but one thing: Of his going out onto the streets of high summer just as he was, half-naked, and getting into a fight with a rival gang. Of a sharp dagger cutting through the belly-band, piercing that torso. Of that soiled belly-band beautifully dyed with blood. Of his gory corpse being put on an improvised stretcher …

(252; emphasis added)

This fantasy is followed by an orgasmic moment marked again by martial rhetoric. “I felt as though I had witnessed the instant in which my existence had been turned into some sort of fearful non-being,” he remarks, referring to the state of intoxication and orgasm/melding of the self that we saw earlier (253). This orgasmic moment is also marked by “some sort of beverage [that] had been spilled on the table top and was throwing back glittering, threatening reflections” (254). As is his pattern, this moment is followed by yet another awareness of regulatory sex norms, which he refers to as his “icy-cold sense of duty” (253).

The experience of masturbation remains for Kochan a temporary escape from the force field of compulsory heterosexuality. His desire and unconscious pull toward subverting heterosexist injunctions engage him in the masturbatory act that is apotheosized in the moment of orgasm/death, arrived at through beauty and its attendant thematics. The moment of fusion that beauty/death represents, though, the stepping “outside,” is a fleeting one, followed by the reinforcement, the relaying of the prohibitive grid on the subject as it returns to “sobriety,” to its social prison.

This same circularity characterized the act of writing for Mishima, which, like masturbation for Kochan, became a self-revelatory act in which the text became “seminal,” both physical proof and a search for the self. “What I have written departs from me,” Mishima remarked a short time before his death by suicide, underscoring the importance for him of expelling that which was inside.22 But the text as ejaculation/iteration, Mishima realized, was not enough finally to constitute a stable self; the notion of a fixed self itself is problematic. Writing “never [nourished] my void,” he explains in his notes for the Tobu Exhibition. Self-solace (with all of the masturbatory connotations of the Japanese jii) achieves only in the (repetitive/masturbatory) act of writing itself: “I still have no way to survive but to keep on writing one line, one more line, one more line …”23 This is the same principle at work in Mishima's presentation of body building as he discusses it in Sun and Steel, which is also effected through repetitive motions.24 In accordance with his nihilistic aesthetic, the construction of a “pumped up” body served as a preparation for (his own) death through seppuku, a process in which emission is achieved in the form of a slitting of the abdomen in order for the viscera to escape, as well as in the form of beheading.25

If Kochan is incapable of actually escaping the heterosexist signifying order in which he himself has been constituted, he nevertheless achieves a certain kind of agency through a fantasy of excess.26 The formulation in particular of death as excess—whether in the temporary “death” of desire/passion/orgasm, the unifying death of decomposition/defecation, or the obliterating death in the physical act of seppuku—seems to have been one in currency among mid-twentieth-century Japanese writers. Several, including Ryuunosuke Akutagawa, Osamu Dazai, Yasunari Kawabata, and Mishima himself, committed suicide.

Confessions of a Mask represents for Mishima a deliberate writing against the social grain, against what Jakobson referred to as the “stagnating slime” that caused many Russian poets to take their own lives.27 Mishima's case is complicated in that the forces he bucked were the same ones he would find provided him a privileged status. His death fantasies, and by extension those of Kochan, appear to be an admission of the immutability of these forces, as well as their limitation. His familiarity with “the deadly absence of fresh air” that Jakobson speaks of is metaphorized in the “closed and stifling” sickroom—that is, the broader cultural sphere—in which his protagonist is forced to stay (6).

As civil-rights-minded people in the United States have learned, windows of change open and shut quickly. The potential for appreciable change remains limited at any time, given entrenched social patterns. Tragic scenarios of mass destruction (the slave trade, the holocaust, the bomb, AIDS), which Mishima metaphorized in the “destroyed” or shaken orgasmic body, are often avoided, occluded, or even denied rather than occasioning soul-searching and self-knowledge. If in his later works Mishima would revert to a more traditional, atavistic, and even reactionary conceptualization of Japanese identity, one rejected by and large by the Japanese themselves, the subversive questioning—directive—of the early text remains.


  1. H. D. Harootonian and Masao Miyoshi, Postmodernism and Japan (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989), x.

  2. There is great irony and even hypocrisy in this when one considers that at the height of U.S. intervention in Japan, the postwar occupation during the forties and early fifties, the United States was enforcing Jim Crow laws, treating women as the legal property of their husbands, holding Japanese-Americans in internment camps, imprisoning and “treating” homosexuals, and denying legal land rights to Native Americans.

    For western views of the American relationship with Japan, see Meiron and Susie Harres, Sheathing the Sword: The Demilitarization of Postwar Japan (New York: MacMillan, 1987); Edwin O. Reischauer, The Japanese (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979); Peter Tasker, The Japanese: A Major Exploration of Modern Japan (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987). Reischauer in particular stands out as one who avoids giving credit to the United States for what was indigenous to Japan, before the western intrusion.

  3. Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989), 103.

  4. For a disturbing portrayal of the physical and cultural effects of the bomb, see Ibuse Masuji, Black Rain, trans. John Bester (New York: Kodansha, 1979).

  5. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 1.

  6. For Holleran's employment of the bomb as metaphor for AIDS destruction, see his Ground Zero (New York: New American Library, 1989).

  7. For a discussion of the existentialist model of identity, see Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).

  8. Page references in this section are to Yukio Mishima Confessions of a Mask, trans. Meredith Weatherby (New York: New Directions, 1963).

  9. Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel (New York: Kodansha, 1970), 18.

  10. See Mishima, Sun and Steel, 50, 64-65, 66.

  11. Among the many such fantasies are the following: the killing of Wilde's knight (11-12); the Rose Elf being stabbed to death (21); Kochan imagines Andersen's prince being torn apart by dragon's teeth, then dying: Kochan rewrites the story (23); the plaintive melody of a chant “piercing through” the confused tumult of the festival, mating humanity with eternity (30); dueling scenes/hard-ons (35); death by bullets (36); Sebastian (39-40); Sebastian pierced by countless arrows (42); Omi's fingers in game, like weapons about to run through Kochan (69); Kochan's ritual sacrifice of youth in his imagination during masturbation (175); penetration of the ephebe and delight in seeing blood flow trace ephebe's curves when running down (177); the twenty-one- or twenty-two-year old man on the street (252).

  12. Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), 13, 20, 59.

  13. The notion of shinju is an element of the samurai code of honor, bushido, which is limned in the eighteenth-century book Hagakure (A life hidden behind the leaves). As Tsuneo Watanabe points out, the text “teaches how one may be ‘beautiful’ in death.” This beauty is both ethical, militating a preparedness and even eagerness for one's own death, and aesthetic, suggesting that the samurai “should always carry rouge and powder” with him in order to preserve an appealing aspect at the moment of mortality. Sebastian, according to legend a martyr for the Christian cause, approximates many of the requirements of honor encoded in the term bushido. See Tsuneo Watanabe, The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality, trans. D. R. Roberts (London: GMP, 1989), 116.

  14. André Gide, L'immoraliste (Paris: Mercure de France, 1902), 25.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 4.

  17. Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” in Diana Fuss, ed., Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (New York: Routledge, 1991), 18; emphasis in original.

  18. See Jacques Derrida, Limited, Inc., trans. Samuel Weber (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 53, 61-65, 70, 76, 92, 100, 102, 105, 119.

  19. In her book Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), Judith Butler further explains the notion of performativity: “Performativity is thus not a singular ‘act,’ for it is always a reiteration of a norm or set of norms, and to the extent that it acquires an act-like status in the present, it conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition. Moreover, this act is not primarily theatrical; indeed, its apparent theatricality is produced to the extent that its historicity remains dissimulated (and, conversely, its theatricality gains a certain inevitability given the impossibility of a full disclosure of its historicity” (12-13). The discovery of a personal-historic dimension to his “performance” indicates to Kochan his actions are not merely “acts,” but something “deeper.” This personal dimension is in turn related to the social norms of contestation and, in Foucauldian terms, reverse discourse, revealing the fractured nature of dominant discourse of (hetero)sexuality. Kochan's “performance” exposes the hidden flaws in purportedly rigid or univocal, social ideal.

  20. Donald Keene, Noh and Bunraku: Two Forms of Japanese Theater (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 57.

  21. Yukio Mishima, “Onnagata,” in Death in Midsummer and Other Stories (New York: New Directions, 1966), 144.

  22. Henry Scott-Stokes, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima (Tokyo: Tuttle, 1990), 124.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Mishima, Sun and Steel, 25.

  25. For Mishima's characterization of body building, see Sun and Steel, 25. For an elaborate and graphic portrayal of seppuku, see Mishima's short story “Patriotism,” in Death in Midsummer and Other Stories, 93-118.

  26. This notion of excess as a means of subversion is based on one suggested by Judith Butler during a workshop at the CUNY Graduate Center, December 7, 1991.

  27. Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature, eds. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 227.

Dennis Washburn (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Washburn, Dennis. “Structures of Emptiness: Kitsch, Nihilism, and the Inauthentic in Mishima's Aesthetics.” In Studies in Modern Japanese Literature: Essays and Translations in Honor of Edwin McClellan, edited by Dennis Washburn and Alan Tansman, pp. 283-306. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 1997.

[In the following essay, Washburn discusses the paradoxes of modernism evident in Mishima's works and life.]

Charles Jencks, in a famously acerbic account of recent developments in architectural style, has asserted that “Happily, we can date the death of modern architecture to a precise moment in time,” which he claims was “July 15, 1972 at 3:32 p.m. (or thereabouts).”1 At that moment, several blocks of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, Missouri, which had been built from an award-winning design based on the ideals of the Congress of International Modern Architects, were dynamited. Hailed at the time of its construction as the model of a machine for living, the complex proved to be uninhabitable. Its failure was so complete that it not only called into question the viability of large-scale urban planning, but also, for some, discredited architectural modernism altogether. The demise of an aesthetic movement that had represented the hopes of so many for creating a humane and comfortable urban environment would normally elicit more sober reflection, and yet Jenck's undisguised glee is perhaps understandable when we consider the inhuman scale of so many modernist projects—not to mention the rarity of an event that allows the historian of aesthetics to periodize with exact precision.

Those engaged in the study of Japanese literary history can be grateful to have the same rare good fortune as their counterparts in architectural history, since the death of literary modernism in Japan may also be traced to a more or less precise moment in time: 25 November 1970 at around 12:15 p.m. It was then, in Tokyo, that the writer Mishima Yukio (1925-70) thrust a sword into his abdomen and ended his life in ritual suicide. Although the death of literary modernism in Japan was, in contrast to that of modern architecture in the United States, marked by the implosion of a single individual, it was still a spectacular event reported around the world. Mishima's suicide elicited widespread interest not only because of the lurid personal tragedy of an internationally famous writer, but also because of the various interpretations of the meaning of it all—often reflections on the conflict between modernity and tradition.2 Looking back at this after twenty-five years, one thing seems clearer: Mishima's death brought to a momentary focus all the inherent contradictions of Japanese modernism, which has since collapsed in on itself. Beyond that, its legacy is that literary historians of Japan no longer have to deal with the problem of imprecise periodization. Even those who prefer that cultural history be left messy and open-ended can take comfort in the fact that the motives for the suicide have not been precisely determined, leaving some discursive space for interpretive maneuvering.

With the death of literary modernism in Japan, the imploding contradictions of Mishima's life remain compelling now only because the author was so audaciously aware of them, inviting us to read them as the contradictions of modernism itself. Like many other modernist writers, he eagerly cultivated a reputation as a serious artist; at the same time his commercial instincts, his thirst for international recognition, his exhibitionism, and his comic-opera emperor worship all waged a self-conscious war against that reputation. He was a prolific fabulist, but seemed to have sensed that all of his narratives, including the narrative of his life, were little more than empty structures. His skepticism made him a sharp critic of postwar Japanese culture, yet throughout his life Mishima's critique of the sterility of that culture coexisted uneasily with his crass exploitation of it. Mishima was an artist in revolt against the aesthetics of modern culture, but his struggle resulted in an aesthetics of the inauthentic in which he became, near the end of his life, a kitsch artist.

Even if we resist Mishima's strategies to persuade us to read him as the representative of modernism for Japan, the particular contradictions in his work remain an expression of a more widespread, fundamental paradox associated with modernism, and it is this serious aspect of his struggle that complicates judgments of his work. The modernist revolt against the modern is grounded in a preoccupation with origins and authenticity—with giving priority to the present over the past and future. The paradox of modernism arises from the presence of two opposing but equally compelling responses to that preoccupation: the effort to return to or regain origins, which necessitates a rejection of the present, and the attempt to obliterate origins, to make everything start with the present, which necessitates a rejection of the past. The impossibility of ever completely reconciling these responses results in a sense of loss for the modern artist, who must either deny the individual concept of self that gives personal meaning to the present or isolate the self from the inherited communal values that impose meaning and order from without. Zygmunt Bauman terms this sense of loss “the tragedy of culture” and describes the image of modernity as one of

twisted dialectics of inextricable contradictions: the absolute manifesting itself only in the particularity of individuals and their encounters; the permanent hiding behind fleeting episodes, the normal behind the unique. Above all, the drama of modernity derives from the “tragedy of culture,” the human inability to assimilate cultural products, over abundant because of the unbound creativity of the human spirit. Once set in motion, cultural processes acquire their own momentum, develop their own logic, and spawn new multiple realities confronting individuals as an outside, objective world, too powerful and distant to be “resubjectivized.” The richness of objective culture results therefore in the cultural poverty of individual human beings.3

In literature the modernist sense of loss is frequently expressed as a problem of time. The tragedy of culture is a recognition of the lack of duration in both human and narrative time, which forces a turning inward, a reliance on the subjective consciousness and autonomy of the individual to give significance to human experience. This turn inward is accompanied by skepticism toward the act of narration, by an embrace of relativism, and by gestures toward nihilism. Concurrently, there is a reaction against this loss of absolute values and a displacement outward, a decentering of the self reflected in antimodern obsessions with finding in the heroic, in nostalgic visions of the past, and in death itself substitutes, or simulacra, for absolute values, beliefs, or identity. A modernist, such as Mishima, can only express the significance of his moment through time and so is driven toward an end that makes him ever more aware of the futility of the effort to fix his “presentness” in an eternal form.

There is a close relationship between the aesthetics of loss and two important manifestations of modernism: nihilism and kitsch. Nihilism is an extreme reduction of the modernist paradox. George Steiner argues that the defining feature of modernity is what he calls a “break in the covenant between word and world.” He defines that covenant as the presumption that being is “sayable,” and that the “raw material of existentiality has its analogue in the structure of narrative.”4 Steiner notes:

The break with the postulate of the sacred is the break with any stable, potentially ascertainable meaning of meaning. Where the theologically and metaphysically posited principle of continuous individuality, of a cognitively coherent and ethically responsible ego is dissolved …, there can be neither Kant's “subjective universality,” nor that belief in shared truth-seeking which, from Plato to the present, from the Phaedrus to now, had underwritten the ideals of religion, of humanism and of communication. It is this very impossibility that defines modernism.

Thus the seductive force of the deconstructive semiotics of the “after-Word” is that of a rigorously consequent nihilism or nullity (le degré zéro).5

A preoccupation with the incommensurability of language and reality undermines the ability to do what is right based on a knowledge of what is true. The truth imperative is impossible to achieve in a world fragmented and made relative by the subjective self-consciousness of modernism. As Johan Goudsblom puts it, “the nihilistic problematic originates in the sense of a lack, in the realization that essential truth is missing. One has to know the truth in order to know how to act, but the truth is unknowable.”6 The nihilist/relativist problematic is thus an especially important manifestation of the paradox of modernist aesthetics. Once the modern artist recognizes the lack of absolutes, that aesthetic forms and values are relative constructs, then the emptiness of those constructs becomes apparent. The modernist, even in the guise of a nihilist, must either accept the task of creating arbitrary meaning out of a world of appearances, or despair at the loss of absolute values, meaning, and identity.

Kitsch is one possible aesthetic response to the nihilist problematic. It is a self-conscious stylization of the authentic that tries to be both a reaction against despair and an acceptance of the world of appearances. Kitsch art is inauthentic because it seeks to replicate art that is viewed as absolute, timeless, or sublime in order to mask or to compensate for the loss of what is felt to be authentic. As Matei Calinescu states, “the great psychological discovery on which kitsch is founded lies in the fact that nearly everything directly or indirectly associated with artistic culture can be turned into something fit for immediate ‘consumption,’ like any ordinary commodity.”7 The connection with nihilism, and thus with the modernist paradox, is apparent in the inauthentic aesthetic response of kitsch art:

Kitsch is the direct artistic result of an important ethical mutation for which the peculiar time awareness of the middle classes has been responsible. By and large, kitsch may be viewed as a reaction against the “terror” of change and the meaninglessness of chronological time flowing from an unreal past into an equally unreal future. Under such conditions, spare time—whose quantity is socially increasing—is felt as a strange burden, the burden of emptiness. Kitsch appears as an easy way of “killing time,” as a pleasurable escape from the banality of both work and leisure. The fun of kitsch is just the other side of terrible and incomprehensible boredom.8

What distinguishes kitsch aesthetics, as the term is used in this essay, is its self-conscious embrace of the inauthentic in an attempt to find a substitute for the real. This usage narrows the meaning of the term, bringing it closer to the notion of “campiness” in pop art. However, it is important not to mistake this usage for a definition of kitsch. It is not the intent of this essay to offer a standard by which to judge whether or not a work of art is kitsch (indeed, it is impossible to offer such a standard without willfully embracing the contradictions of modernism). Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and so a painting of Elvis on black velvet or a plastic dashboard Jesus may be kitsch to some, but objects of veneration to others. The point is that kitsch is an operative concept only to those who self-consciously manipulate the difference between the authentic and the fake, between high culture and low culture.

This narrowing of the use of the term kitsch aesthetics is important in enabling us to discuss kitsch art in general and Mishima's art in particular. The self-conscious embrace of the inauthentic typical of kitsch aesthetics reveals, behind its campy attitude and surface, the need to overcome or avoid, if not actually to resolve, the modernist sense of loss. Kitsch art wears its counterfeit nature on its sleeve. The aesthetic lie at the heart of kitsch art is not so much its pretense of uniqueness or originality, as its pretense that, because of the self-consciousness of the artist, the forgery, or simulacrum, somehow reproduces the aesthetic value of the work or style being copied. The aesthetic lie of kitsch may result in the same kind of bad faith that Walter Benjamin argued comes with the mass production of art. For Benjamin “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.” However,

that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object produced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind.9

Kitsch and nihilism replicate the contradictory responses to the preoccupation with origins at the heart of the modernist paradox. The covalence of kitsch and nihilism is always observed in trite images used to represent the loss of meaning. For example, widely recognized character types, such as the blasé sophisticate who commits suicide out of boredom, or the spurned lover who seeks death on the battlefield, or the tortured artistic genius whose blinding Nietzschean insights into the emptiness of existence leads to despair and self-destruction, are all popular, stylized, kitsch representations of the nihilist problematic. However, these trite representations create a strange incongruity by virtue of their connection with the authentic experience of death, and the images that perhaps best display this incongruity are objects with quasi-religious associations that convey an antirational, antimodern mysticism. An example of the effect of this type of image is the morbid sentimentality that has come to attach to death photographs, especially the photographs of children, popular in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America. The incongruity in the photographs arises from the denial of death by the use of cute, innocent clothing and the pious poses of the dead children. This denial was both an expression of authentic grief and an effort to assuage that grief through the production of a stylized, contrived, religious “authenticity.” The popularity of the photographs, made possible by the mass-reproduction technology of the camera, is a testament to the emotional and psychological effectiveness of these images. The original owners, the bereaved families, certainly did not think of these photographs as kitsch, if for no other reason than that they lacked the self-consciousness to perceive them as such, that is, the meaning and associations called forth by the photographs were grounded in authentic emotions. However, now that the original owners are gone and with them their authentic grief, the photographs, which were mementos meant to comfort and serve the purpose of denial, have lost their “aura,” and the resulting incongruity—the subjects are, after all, little corpses—creates a distance from the viewer that makes the photographs eerily kitschy.

Saul Friedlander has remarked on the incongruity, or what he calls the “frisson,” between kitsch and death that arises from the fact that, on the level of individual experience, death creates “authentic” feelings of dread and loneliness. Moreover, he argues that the juxtaposition of kitsch and death is the bedrock of fascist aesthetics, a point that, as we shall see, has relevance to Mishima's work.10 Although the incongruity of kitsch treatments of death in American funeral customs may seem at first glance far removed from the kitsch of fascist aesthetics, the use of modern technologies in the service of antimodern impulses is emblematic of the twisted contradictions that characterize responses to the paradox of modernism. The religious sentimentality that informs the contrived photographs of dead children is no different from the fascist sentimentality that revolts against the loss of moral certitude and tradition. Insofar as these photographs serve as reminders of death, their sentimentality inevitably fails to convey spiritual authenticity when severed from their origins—the genuine feelings of grief that gave the photographs their “aura” in the first place. Similarly, the quasi-religious, mystical sentimentality that accompanies fascist revolt carries as a precondition an awareness of the nihilist problematic and so is doomed to fail in its effort to overcome the modern. Fascist aesthetics are obsessed with the moment of simultaneous creation and destruction, and the emblematic hero of fascism is the beautiful youth destined to die young. The very appeal of such a doomed hero derives from the subliminal realization that the myth-making of fascist aesthetics is an empty structure: a mask that represents only a single, contingent possibility in a relative universe. As Friedlander notes:

the young hero destined for death is surrounded by a nimbus of complex emotions; he is the carrier of either one of two banners, one proclaiming an implicit [Christian] religious tradition, the other that of a cult of primitive and archaic values. He confronts that which denies them: the abject world of modernity, the obscure weight of material powers, the revolting inanity of nonhuman factors. Unvanquished unto death, the hero takes on an almost supernatural incandescence.11

Like other antimodern aesthetics—fascism, primitivism, heroic aestheticism, postmodernism—kitsch is a revolt against the paradox of modernism, and it is therefore no surprise to find elements of kitsch, especially the incongruity between the “authentic” experience of death and “inauthentic” kitsch representations of it, throughout the works of a modernist who was as conflicted as Mishima. Accordingly, an analysis of his aesthetics, his modernism, may properly begin with his suicide. This does not mean we should read his works solely through the prism of that act. Nevertheless, in order to be able to engage his aesthetics we must at least recognize the powerful impulse to exert a kind of absolute control over the texts of his art and his life. At first sight the connection between his aesthetics and his death may suggest a rather simplistic correlation between his life and art, a correlation it is tempting to resist on two grounds. First, there is the reasonable expectation that, whatever common elements run through his life and writings, all of his works have a formal autonomy untouched by his death. Second, there is the natural impulse to resist the pressure of an author, even one who commits suicide, to force the reader to read in a prescribed way. Even so, no matter how much we may want to reject the intrusiveness of the author, the suicide of Mishima compels us, out of consideration for the possible authenticity of his motives, to at least consider the terms on which he apparently wanted us to read both his life and his art.

The underlying contradictions of Mishima's modernism were apparent to his contemporaries. Isoda Kōichi saw Mishima as a man who was appalled at the weakness and collaboration of Japanese intellectuals with postwar politics, a situation arising from the inability of intellectuals to assume individual responsibility. Isoda felt that a paradox arose in postwar modernism, for while postwar modernists rejected the prewar ideology of the roman-ha (romanticists), for example, they nonetheless held to totalizing concepts of perfectibility that made them “legitimate offspring of the Japanese roman-ha.” According to Isoda, when Mishima is considered in light of this paradox:

his radical modernism is self-evident. The will that seeks for the sympathy and understanding of another person and that tries to place the masses under its control was nothing at all to Mishima. Even if we assume that all individuals possess autonomy, it turned out that absolute self-autonomy was achieved not by some left-wing intellectual but, ironically, by Mishima Yukio. There are perhaps various opinions about the content and political meaning of his thought. However, I think its actual meaning is supported by an extreme ultramodernity that utterly rejects the collusion of Japanese community. If Yasuda Yojūrō embodied the character of Japanese community, then what separates him from Mishima is in fact nothing more than this ultramodernity—the logic of achieving independent responsibility, which is a heterogeneous concept of modernism close to Western individualism.12

Isoda's characterization of the difference between Mishima and Yasuda as a difference in emphasis between the individual and the community is justified in terms of the appeal of their work. However, Mishima, like other postwar modernists, clearly owed a debt to the roman-ha, and that debt is apparent in his antimodernism. Antimodern impulses, such as the mythic confabulations and hero-worship of fascism or the nostalgic yearnings of primitivism, are but one side of the modernist paradox. In that respect Yasuda was as much a modernist as Mishima. Yasuda's communitarianism was forged from an idealized past and is thus an antimodern swerve. However, his later postwar denials of the power of his vision to lead young men to their death calls into question the authenticity of his vision, that is, it breaks the covenant created by his vision. Mishima was a radical modernist insofar as his nostalgia and his contempt for the sterility of postwar Japanese society was turned inward, and yet the expression of his critique of modern Japan was a fascist turn toward a martial code that, because self-consciously revived, was anachronistic and inauthentic.

In the end, what distinguishes Mishima's modernism from that of the roman-ha is the degree of self-consciousness he possessed toward the inauthentic, which he recognized but accepted as a way to make the present moment timeless through a return to Japan's martial past. In a late autobiographical piece, Taiyō to tetsu (Sun and Steel, 1968), Mishima states his understanding of the modernist paradox:

In this way, wielding both the sword and the pen is to hold at the same time a flower that falls and a flower that does not; it is to hold at the same time the two most contradictory desires of human nature, and the two dreams of the realization of those desires. …

The destruction of these ultimate dreams occurs upon learning the secret that the flower that dreams of the sword is nothing more than an artificial flower, while learning the other secret, that death supported by the lie that dreams of the pen is not death with any special grace. In short, all salvation is cut off by the dual way of the pen and the sword, and its dual secrets, whose fundamental essences must never be revealed to one another, mutually see through the other's mask. [The dual way] must be self-composed, possessing in a single form the final destruction of the principle of death and the final destruction of the principle of life.

Is it possible for humans to live this kind of ideal? Fortunately, it is extremely rare for the dual way of the pen and the sword to assume that absolute form. And even when it becomes a reality, it is an ideal that is over in an instant. Because even if there is always an awareness and premonition [of the end], which takes the form of a sense of unease, this final pair of secrets, which mutually assault one another, has no chance to prove itself until the moment of death.13

Mishima's idealized vision of the moment of death as the point when the modernist paradox is resolved in the fusion of the literary and the martial leads inevitably to the realization that outside such an ideal both the pen and the sword, words and world, are inauthentic, empty structures. Mishima understands that the realization of nihilism can never exist in real life except, perhaps, at that fleeting moment when the subjective consciousness slips, like an object falling into a black hole, beyond the horizon of the singularity of death:

To devote death to one's heart each day, and to converge moment by moment on death, which must come to us, is to place the power to imagine the worst possible outcome in the same location as the power to imagine glory. … In that case, [that devotion] is sufficient to be able to transfer things carried out in the world of the spirit to the world of the flesh. As I have stated before, in order to receive this kind of violent transformation, even in the world of the flesh, I thoroughly prepared myself and readied an attitude to be able to receive it any time. Thus the theory that everything had the potential to be reclaimed was born within me. Because it had been proven to me that even the flesh, which ought to be a prisoner by virtue of growing and decaying moment by moment with time, had the potential to be reclaimed. It is therefore not strange at all that the thought that even time itself could be reclaimed should have come to life within me.

For me, the fact that time could be reclaimed, at once meant that the beautiful death I had been unable to achieve previously had become a possibility.

([Mishima Yukio zenshū] MYZ 32:101-2)

Mishima is convinced that he can overcome the modernist problem of time, that he can break through his self-consciousness and achieve the modernist dream of reconciling the momentary with the eternal by returning to those traditions epitomized by the selfless life of the warrior, who accepted the inevitability of death.

Because Sun and Steel is a late autobiographical piece, the statement of his aesthetic purpose is based on a retrospective look at his life experiences. Mishima's aesthetics are inseparable from the context of his critical self-interpretation, and thus it would be a mistake to indiscriminately project this statement back onto his earlier works of fiction as a guide for reading. However, if we separate the self-destructive purpose for which he put his principles to work late in his career, we find a remarkably consistent presentation of his ideas about art and beauty as we move back through his earlier works. The presence of this common element in his work is significant in that it suggests that the modernist paradox is a developing theme, not a retrospective interpretation imposed on the reader by the author.

In Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1956), for example, Mishima finds a metaphor in the burning of the famous Zen temple in 1950 for the creative/destructive duality that marks nihilist aesthetics. The young acolyte, Mizoguchi, the narrating “I” who commits the infamous act of arson, is a stutterer who is utterly incapable of connecting his words with the world. The weariness and impotence that come over him as he contemplates the beauty of Kinkakuji, which has been an object of veneration for him since his childhood, are the result of his unceasing struggle to reconcile reality with his perceptions of it. He had hoped that the war would provide a way out of his predicament either through his death or through the destruction of Kinkakuji by American bombs. Because neither happened, he resolves to break through that weariness by the nihilistic acts of arson and suicide. By planning to destroy the barrier between his vision of beauty and the reality of the temple, Mizoguchi hopes to resolve the modernist paradox.

In the buildup to the climax of the novel, Mizoguchi ponders the beauty of the temple one last time. This beauty has so enthralled him that it is now as much a product of his memory as it is the product of his direct experience of it. Therein lies the discovery of the true nature of the temple's beauty. Unable to make out the details of the building in the darkness of the night on which he sets the fire, he closes his eyes and relies on his own vision to determine what it is that has such a hold on him:

However, as my memory of its beauty grew ever stronger, the darkness became the ground onto which I could self-indulgently draw my visions. Within this dark, crouching shape, every aspect of what I thought of as beauty lay concealed. Through the power of memory, the details of beauty came sparkling one by one out of the darkness, and, as the sparkling diffused, at last Kinkakuji gradually became visible beneath the light of a mysterious time that was neither day nor night. Never before had Kinkakuji appeared to me in such a completely detailed form, glittering in every corner. It was as though I had gained the powers of vision of a blind man.

(MYZ 10:265)

The beauty of the temple is the creation of the young acolyte's vision, or memory, of it. It is no longer connected to the real presence of the temple but arises out of a synthesis between the form of the temple and the individual mind contemplating it. The world of art and the world of experience are completely sundered for Mizoguchi, who is forced to create an architecture of the mind. And in that architecture he finds that it was

beauty that not only unified the struggles, the contradictions, all the discordances of the various parts, but actually controlled them! Like a scripture that has been copied painstakingly, letter by letter, with gold dust on dark-blue parchment, the temple was a structure built out of gold dust in the long, dark night. However, I did not know if beauty was Kinkakuji itself or something identical to the empty night that surrounded it. Perhaps beauty was both. It was the particulars, it was the whole structure, it was the temple, it was the night that enveloped the temple. Thinking about it in that way, I felt that the enigma of the beauty of Kinkakuji, which had heretofore tormented me, was halfway solved. The reason was that when I examined the beauty of each detail … in no way did the beauty end in them nor was it completed by them. Instead, a foreshadowing of the beauty of the succeeding detail was contained in every part. The beauty of each detail was filled with an uneasiness in itself. While dreaming of perfection, it was drawn toward the next beauty, the unknown beauty, never knowing completion. Foreshadowing was linked to foreshadowing, and each foreshadowing of beauty, which did not exist here, became, as it were, the theme of Kinkakuji. Those foreshadowings were the signs of emptiness. Emptiness was the structure of this beauty. Thus, naturally the foreshadowings of emptiness were contained in the incompleteness of the details, and this delicate construction of fine timber, like a devotional necklace swaying in the breeze, was trembling in the foreshadowing of emptiness.

(MYZ 10:267)

This idea of the nature of beauty may be likened to the Buddhist notion of the emptiness of reality. The existence of beauty depends not on any absolute but on the relationship of individual details, images, or memories. The creation of beauty requires the totalizing power of the imagination, but the subjective ordering of those relationships in turn requires an acceptance of the relative nature of aesthetic values.

Mizoguchi's aesthetic discovery, then, is double-edged. The recognition of the beauty of Kinkakuji, which is nothing more than the recognition of his own concept of the temple, gives him the freedom to control the reading of the temple's beauty, but in his understanding of that beauty he also feels an uneasiness that foretells the emptiness of his own aesthetic concepts. Mizoguchi, of course, cannot resolve the nihilist/relativist problematic. He is limited to making a gesture toward nihilism by destroying himself along with the temple, an act that would at least conjure the sense of authenticity that comes with death. Mizoguchi's failure is an explicit critique of the inauthentic: he is a kitsch aesthete. Mizoguchi is at last capable of destroying the object he believes blocks the expression of himself, but his self-awareness causes him to lose nerve, and he is incapable of completing his vision of self-immolation. Having committed arson, he retreats to a nearby hill and watches the blaze, casually smoking a cigarette. By failing to extinguish the self, Mizoguchi fails to destroy the subjective inner vision of Kinkakuji that is the source of his dilemma.

Temple of the Golden Pavilion gives a vivid critique of counterfeit aesthetics, but it is neither the earliest nor the most original formal expression of that critique. That distinction belongs to Mishima's first major novel, Kamen no kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask, 1948). In this work Mishima achieves a technical innovation by reversing the formula of the naturalist confession that art is life. For the narrator life is art: its essence is observable only through a subjective, relative perspective, and thus, like beauty, it is an empty structure. The complexity of the narrative arises from the contradictory nature of the confessional form. As the title suggests, it is not clear if the narrative is a “true confession” or a “false confession” and the lack of clarity is important to the conception of the work. A number of critics, most notably Donald Keene, have expressed puzzlement over the failure of critics to fully understand this work as a “true confession,” and they seek to set the record straight by emphasizing that Confessions of a Mask is in fact a sincere, autobiographical account of Mishima's early life, not a parody of a confession.14 However, it does not follow that simply because some readers have assumed that Mishima was not really talking about himself that the author was not deliberately playing with the ambiguities of the confessional narrative. Moreover, Keene's entire account of Mishima in Dawn to the West is rendered suspect by a kind of critical boosterism, which implicates Keene in the least savory aspects of Mishima's commercialism.

The use of the term “false confession” here is meant to point to the playful aspects of the work, and the contradictory self-parody implied by the term is an accurate description not only of Mishima's technique in this novel, but also of the narrator's self-image. Even so, to speak of Confessions of a Mask as a “false confession” is perhaps a little redundant, since confession by its nature shows a dual tendency. On the one hand it seeks to idealize or exemplify an individual life, in the manner of the religious confession of Augustine, for example. At the same time confession points out the uniqueness of the individual, and thus calls into question accepted norms even as it seeks to establish the narrated, confessed self as the new norm. Thus, there is in any confession an ulterior motive that threatens to make the narrative false. The narrator actively plays on this duality at those points in Confessions of a Mask where he professes fear at his abnormality and uniqueness, while confirming his abnormality by pointing out that fear.

Confessions of a Mask is the account of a young man who, tormented by his growing awareness of his homosexuality, strives to mask that real self that makes him different and thus isolated. However, the narrator is so self-aware and so critical of his own stratagems to hide his real identity that he cannot tolerate those self-delusions. The endlessly regressive self-exposure of the narrative, which reduces self-identity to nothing more than a mask, is the insoluble problem that the narrator must confront. Rather than try to overcome this dilemma, the narrator identifies what he takes to be his true nature not only in his homosexual longings, but also in the unstable act of self-exposure, in which the real presence of identity always slips away. The narrator describes his method of self-analysis as a Möbius strip, with the internal and external elements of his narrative twisted together to make a one-sided perspective that gives the illusion of being multi-dimensional:

[M]y powers of introspection had a structure that defied one's imagination, just like those circles made by twisting a long narrow piece of paper once, and then pasting the ends together. What you think is the outer surface turns out to be the inner. And what you take to be the inner surface is really the outer. In later years I slowed down a little, but when I was twenty-one I did nothing but run blindly around the track of my youthful emotions, and the speed of my rotations became dizzyingly fast due to the frenzied apocalyptic feelings that arose with the final stages of the war. I was allowed no time to go one by one into causes, effects, contradictions, or confrontations. The contradictions continued, just as they were, to rub against each other at a speed so great that they were not discernible.

(MYZ 3:291-92)

The paradox confronting the narrator is given wider significance by his questioning of the way in which all people create their identities. The narrator gains credibility by his self-questioning, but at the same time he forces himself and the reader to see that credibility as just another pose or mask. The mere utterance of the dilemma of an individual who cannot speak of his true identity does not by itself resolve that dilemma if there is no certainty in the absolute meanings of words. And if the narrative act of confessing is nothing more than assuming a mask, then are not all efforts to define the self—or indeed all human experience and memory—empty and illusory? When self-awareness becomes an end unto itself, then all human activity, like the narrative structure of Confessions of a Mask, spirals forever inward, making genuine knowledge of the self impossible.

At one point the narrator claims to desire death as the means for hiding what he sees as his difference from others. The appeal of death is the promise of nothingness in the face of the inability to break down the divide between the narrator's perception of his “abnormal” self and the “normal” reality of the world. Yet when he has the chance to seek out death at the time he is drafted into the army, he receives a medical discharge on the basis of a misdiagnosis of a lung inflammation as tuberculosis. By accepting what he knows to be false, he rules out the possibility of death in war. In reflecting upon his actions, he writes:

Then suddenly my other voice spoke up, saying that not once had I ever really wanted to die. These words allowed me to loosen the knots of my shame. It was a difficult thing to say, but I understood that my wish to go into the army only to die had been a lie, and that instead I had been embracing some carnal expectations of army life. And I understood that the power that let me persist in this expectation was the primitive, mystical belief all humans hold, the belief that I, at least, would not die. …

… Nevertheless, this thought was extremely disagreeable to me. So I preferred to feel that I was a man who had been forsaken by death. I preferred to concentrate my delicate nerves, like a surgeon operating on an internal organ, to look dispassionately upon the strange agony of a person who desired death, but who had been repudiated. I felt that the degree of my pleasure in this thought was wicked.

(MYZ 3:263)

The narrator, who fails to take the step toward death, is a clear literary antecedent of Mizoguchi. The predicament in Confessions of a Mask is, however, more complicated in that the narrator is forced to confront his lie and his failure. He tries to make his experience universal by confessing his fear of death, but then stresses the uniqueness of his situation by adopting the rationalization that he alone has been refused by death. He admits the falsehood of his sense of uniqueness—his sense of immortality—but even the honesty with which he confesses his self-serving actions does not give them a sense of authenticity and so does not allow him to connect with the world.

Mishima pushes the autobiographical confession, with its narrow perspective, to a radically new use. There is of course no doubt that the story is based on the facts of Mishima's life, but the simple equation of art and life is of little help in resolving the predicament of the narrator. The early disbelief concerning Mishima's homosexuality, far from being a complete misreading of the text, points out the difficulty at the heart of Confessions of a Mask. The skepticism toward his credibility, which the narrator invites by constantly pointing out the underlying motives for his confession, extends in a peculiar way to include the question about whether or not Mishima is telling the truth about his real life. A crucial part of his confession is the revelation of his impulse to write or narrate himself, to play with the text of his life. This proclivity is illustrated early on when the narrator rewrites a Hungarian fairy tale that tells of a beautiful prince who, like all the other noble heroes who attract the narrator, is fated to die young. In this story the prince undergoes numerous horrible deaths only to revive each time and gain victory. The narrator is fascinated in particular by the gory killing of the prince by a dragon, but he is dissatisfied with the part of the story that tells of the prince coming back to life. As a result, he begins to cover up that part with his hand and to read the story according to his own preference. He writes:

Adults would have perhaps read as absurd the sentence that resulted from that method of cutting. However, this young, arrogant censor, who was so easily addicted to his own whims, while clearly discerning the contradiction in the two phrases “he was torn to pieces” and “he fell to the ground,” could not discard either.

(MYZ 3:180)

The urge to rewrite, to represent death in a consciously contrived form, reveals the incongruity between words and death and thus puts the narrator's edited tale in the realm of kitsch. This self-conscious, belated urge to rewrite and interpret is turned upon the narrator's own life when the problem of his sexuality becomes more pronounced. At the beginning of chapter 3, he tells us that the idea that life is a stage, a kind of dramatic performance, became an obsession with him, and that he came to believe that life was nothing more than assuming roles. Accordingly, when he begins to be troubled by what he sees as his different sexuality, he looks for models to define himself as a “normal” boy. At this point in his life his early tendency to define himself in terms of the literature he has read becomes even more pronounced:

The time was nearing when one way or another I would start out in life. The preliminary knowledge I had for this journey came first of all from my numerous novels, a one-volume dictionary of sex, the dirty books that had circulated among my friends, and the many innocent, lewd conversations I heard each night that we went on outdoor exercises. My burning curiosity was a more faithful traveling companion than all of these. For my attitude on my departure, I decided it was best to be a “machine of deceit.”

(MYZ 3:241)

The narrator's dissociation and his inability to connect with others is thus explicitly related to the literary quality of his life, and he relies on fiction to learn about normal behavior. He pretends to be the same as the other boys, but the desires that drive them, especially their sexual desire for women, is beyond the vocabulary of his self-created identity, since he suffers from what he calls a deficiency in the power of his mental associations.

When the narrator confesses that he is being untrue to his real self by donning a narrative mask to define his persona, he is also assuming the paradoxical pose that he is giving a true portrait of himself. This double-edged confession makes any interpretation of the story problematic from the standpoint of judging its truthfulness. Are we to doubt him when he exposes the self-deceptions he has used to justify his actions? Conversely, are we to believe him when he makes claims for the truthfulness of his story? Throughout the text these questions are complicated again and again by the narrator's awareness of them. The novel opens with a crucial example of this awareness when the narrator discusses the trustworthiness of his memory, the faculty that makes his memoir, his fictional life, possible. The problem of credibility with his memory arises because it is apparently too good to be true. He claims to be able to remember scenes from his birth, a claim which both amuses the adults around him and threatens them, since they see the claim as a childish trick to get them to talk about human sexuality. The narrator, however, assures us that there was no such ruse behind his memory, which is of a light striking the basin where he was first bathed. Whatever explanations there might have been for this false memory—that it was suggested to him later or that he made it up—the narrator insists that he clearly saw the light:

The refutation that had the most power against this memory was the fact that I was not born in the daytime. I was born at nine in the evening. There could have been no sunlight streaming in. Even when teased with suggestions that perhaps it was an electric light, I was still able to walk with no trouble at all into the absurdity of thinking confidently that, even though it was nighttime, a ray of sun shone down on that one spot on the basin. The brim of the basin on which the light flickered somehow lingered in my memory as being something I definitely saw at the time of my first bath.

(MYZ 3:164-65)

The significance of this memory is twofold. First, the image of the light, with its extraordinary implication of an almost preternatural self-awareness on the part of the narrator, recalls Friedlander's description, cited above, of the typical fascist hero aglow with his supernatural incandescence. This light imagery is a recurring motif, and the story ends with an image of reflected sunlight described as both alluring and menacing because it confirms, by arousing, the narrator's different sexuality and because it calls to mind the emptiness of his confession, which is a presentiment of his death. Second, it creates confusion over the good faith and credibility of the confession. The danger of this confusion is apparent to the narrator, for he is careful to completely assure the reader that the next earliest memory he talks about is true (MYZ 3:167). The importance of this memory, which is of a handsome young night-soil man, is that the appearance of the man excited in the narrator his first feelings of sexual desire. The dual scatological and eschatological associations of this memory, which also seems neatly contrived, create the confusion of sexuality and the sense of difference that force the narrator into a life of assuming one mask after another in order to connect himself with normal human experience.

The problem of his sexuality is the dominant question for the narrator, and his early propensities are established by the homoerotic images of his earliest memories and of the first storybooks he read as a child—images that eventually evolve into graphic, violent adolescent fantasies. As noted above, he is particularly drawn to stories of beautiful young princes who die bloody deaths. Moreover, he is a sickly child, and when he is finally allowed out to play with a cousin named Sugiko he finds that he must go against the image of himself he has created and act in a manner that conforms to the expectations of others. He tells us that in Sugiko's house

I was required, without anything being said and without being told, to be a boy. The masquerade so uncongenial to my heart had begun. From about this time I began to vaguely comprehend the mechanism by which the thing reflected in the eyes of others as my acting was a manifestation of the need for me to return to my true nature and that what was reflected as my natural self in the eyes of others was my acting.

(MYZ 3:182)

The narrator's homosexuality is demonstrated to us, and to the narrator himself, many times. His first orgasm is achieved while he stares at a picture of the martyring of St. Sebastian, an image that explicitly conveys for the narrator associations of sexual desire and death; his first pangs of love are felt for a male classmate; and, near the end of the novel, the narrator gains what he takes to be absolute proof when he fails to have an erection during an encounter with a prostitute. However, the narrator presents such proof not simply to convince the reader of his true nature, but also to convince himself. The need to convince himself arises from his uneasy conviction that his true nature and identity, the things that make him an individual, are what separates him from the rest of humanity. The predicament of the narrator is most clearly portrayed in his relationship with Sonoko. She is for him the ideal woman, but she is ideal in an abstract sense, as an image of beauty not of sexuality. She represents the ideal referred to in the quotation from The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevski, which prefaces the novel:

Ah, Beauty! The thing I cannot stand at all is that even splendid people who possess a pure heart and surpassing reason often start out embracing the ideal of the Madonna and end up with the ideal of Sodom. There is something even worse. Namely, those people who embrace in their hearts the ideal of Sodom while at the same time not denying the ideal of the Madonna, and who keep aflame in their hearts the longing for a beautiful ideal from the depths of their soul, as in the pure days of their youth.

(MYZ 3:162)

The story of the narrator's relationship with Sonoko takes up much of the second half of Confessions of a Mask. He seeks her out in part to confirm the suspicions he has about himself, and in part as an ideal, asexual beauty that will provide him an image of permanence through which he can assuage the anguish caused by his predicament. Although there is always a distance between them—a distance created by the narrator observing the ways in which Sonoko assumes his normality and thus misreads him—she nonetheless represents a solution to his isolation in the same way as death. The problem is that the attainment either of the ideal or of death must remain beyond the experience of the narrative, a fact felt by the narrator almost from the moment he first sees Sonoko. He tells us that he felt purified by the sight of her beauty, but then stops to address the reader directly:

Having written this, those who have read to this point will probably not believe me. This is because it may seem there is nothing to distinguish between the artificial first pangs of love I felt toward Nukada's younger sister, and the throbbing of my heart on this occasion. Because there was no reason why the ruthless analysis of the earlier instance should have been disregarded this time only. If that is the case, then my act of writing has been meaningless from the beginning. For it will be thought that what I am writing is nothing more than the product of the desire to write in this manner. Because, for the sake of this desire, anything I write is OK so long as it is coherent and accords with reason. However, an accurate part of my memory recalls one point of difference with what I felt now and what I had felt earlier. That difference was a feeling of remorse.

(MYZ 3:265-66)

He claims his feeling of remorse is genuine and not part of his masquerade because her beauty strikes him as ideal and asexual. He also tells us that he was confused by his feeling of remorse and did not understand its origins and explicitly connects these feelings with the problem of the credibility of his feelings and of his memory. The connection between his confused emotions and the problem of confession is important to the design of the narrative as a whole, because he feels that his remorse may have been a presentiment of sin. His confession confirms his abnormality, his sin, over and over, but it never allows him to establish absolutely his identity, and it prevents him from ever connecting with his ideal of beauty, Sonoko. To the very end she presumes his heterosexuality, and he is thereby forced to continue to lie and to hide his predicament from her. Confirming the reality of his homosexuality cannot stop the masquerade, because his confession lacks the power to become real. He is in the same situation as when he first met Sonoko:

The usual “act” had been transformed into a part of my personality. It was no longer an act. The consciousness that I was masquerading as a normal person had corroded the original normality within me, and I was finally forced to persuade myself each time that this consciousness was nothing more than a feigned normality. Put another way, I became a person who believes only in the counterfeit. That being the case, this feeling in my mind that I wanted to regard the attraction of my heart for Sonoko as counterfeit perhaps in reality revealed a masked desire that wanted to think of that feeling as true love.

(MYZ 3:273)

The maddening circularity of the narrator's self-analysis is not a sign of indecision, but signifies an irreparable breach between reality and the means to express it. Once the narrator is conscious of the fact that the narrative of his life (the expression of his selfhood) is a pose, he can never express his true identity, nor can he connect with his ideal of beauty. Instead, his story is reduced to a series of paradoxes. There is the paradox of his identity. He wants to confess his difference and assert his uniqueness, and yet he fears the isolation that would result. To resolve this paradox he confesses his tendency to masquerade, but in the end the mask becomes the image of himself, suggesting once again that he cannot connect with the reality of his life. The confession of a mask is by nature an empty narrative, and the narrator's self-conscious acceptance of that makes him a kitsch aesthete.

The emptiness of narrative is related in Confessions of a Mask to the specific predicaments of identity and credibility, but it has wider implications concerning the validity of social and moral values. The narrator touches on those implications when he describes the ravages of war he witnessed with Sonoko upon their return to Tokyo following the great air raids of the spring of 1945. The fire bombings destroyed everything that served as evidence of human existence. Not only did property go up in flames, but so did the primary relationships that held civilization together. In a desperate effort to stay alive, women killed their lovers and children murdered their mothers (MYZ 3:278-79). Like the beauty of Kinkakuji, the very fabric of human relationships and social values are exposed as relative, contingent, and empty, and when those values are placed under the same intense scrutiny that the narrator turns on himself, they lose all substantiality. The aesthetics of emptiness that informs the narrative emerges from the struggle between the conception of an ideal and the impossibility of representing that ideal.

The obsession with surfaces and false appearances that dominates Confessions of a Mask became the single most important recurring element in Mishima's writing. That constant obsession raises the question of how seriously Mishima's work is to be taken. Is it possible to distinguish between inauthentic art and art that is about—that critiques—the inauthentic? In the case of Mishima the answer is a qualified yes, since he plays upon the modernist paradox to brilliant formal and psychological effect in both Confessions of a Mask and Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The sad irony of Mishima's career is that the very nature of his aesthetic breakthrough imprisoned him within his early achievement. Like Hemmingway, Mishima found himself trapped by the realization that what he had become as an artist and an individual was an identity of his own construction, and thus one that held no absolute meaning. This could not have been a satisfying situation for a self-absorbed artist driven by the modernist preoccupation with certainty; by the time he wrote Sun and Steel his critique of the inauthentic had played itself out and he was becoming a kitsch artist. Mishima recognized what was happening, and no matter how much he may have enjoyed the masquerade, his knowledge about himself was obviously a burden heavy enough to make him long for the authenticity of death.

The attempt by Mishima to impose a final, authoritative reading on his life grew out of a lifelong project of narrating and renarrating his literary self. Mark Freeman, arguing for a method of critical psychology that moves toward the reintegration of language/text with experience/world, writes:

[T]he narrative imagination, engaged in the project of rewriting the self, seeks to disclose, articulate, and reveal that very world which, literally, would not have existed had the act of writing not taken place. In this sense, life histories are indeed artifacts of writing; they are the upsurge of the narrative imagination. This, however, is hardly reason to fault them or to relegate them to the status of mere fictions. We too, as selves, are artifacts of the narrative imagination. We, again literally, would not exist, save as bodies, without imagining who and what we have been and are: kill the imagination and you kill the self. Who, after all is said and done, would want to die such a death?15

Who perhaps but Mishima? His suicide was both an intellectual and emotional response to the irreconcilable loss of values and meaning in his life. And unlike his fictional characters—the narrator of Confessions of a Mask or Mizoguchi in Temple of the Golden Pavilion, who were objects of his critique of the inauthentic—Mishima sought to resolve the problem of the inauthentic, to make whole again the breach between his words and his world, and to reclaim time itself by consciously opting to overcome his self-consciousness in the only way he thought possible.

In the end, the irony of his death is that it can be interpreted as just another expression of the inauthentic. There is a disturbingly contrived, self-consciously literary quality about his suicide, with its counterfeit political motives, that limits the horizon of expectations we bring to his fiction.16 Through his death he in effect rewrote all of his works by making his career seem developmental. He imposed his own interpretation of his life and art as inseparable, as leading inexorably toward that final moment when what Steiner calls the “compulsion to freedom,” the “agonistic attempt to repossess, to achieve mastery over the forms and meanings” of one's own being,17 coincided with an absurd, excruciating act of self-immolation. Even if we resist his efforts at control, Mishima's suicide makes a claim on us by highlighting the contradiction at the heart of his lifework. The horror of the event is grounded in Mishima's drive to give his life a formal closure, but the overt staging of his death seems out of proportion with the finality of the event. For all of its horrible reality, his suicide, his seppuku, was also just another piece of writing: a forgery, a simulacrum, a work of kitsch art.


  1. Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (New York: Rizzoli International, 1984), 9.

  2. For a representative response, see Henry Miller, Reflections on the Death of Mishima (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1972). Miller's work is especially interesting in that it provides an almost parodic catalogue of modernist attitudes prevalent at the time, attitudes which include an exotic view of the traditions of Japan that Mishima lamented.

  3. Zygmunt Bauman, Legislators and Interpreters (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), 114-15.

  4. George Steiner, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 90, 93.

  5. Ibid., 132-33.

  6. Johan Goudsblom, Nihilism and Culture (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980), 87.

  7. Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987), 247.

  8. Ibid., 248.

  9. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 220-21.

  10. Saul Friedlander, Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, trans. Thomas Weyr (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 27.

  11. Ibid., 33-34.

  12. Isoda Kōichi, “Mishima no kindaisei,” in Romanjin Mishima Yukio: Sono risō to kōdō, ed. Hayashi Fusao et al., (Tokyo: Roman, 1973), 50-51.

  13. Mishima Yukio, Mishima Yukio zenshū (hereafter MYZ) (Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 1975), 32: 96-97. Mishima's use of the phrase “apprehension” (zoruge, written with the characters for fuan) suggestively echoes Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's (1892-1927) explanation of his reasons for choosing to die. In the two autobiographical pieces he wrote just before he committed suicide, Haguruma (Cogwheel) and Aru ahō no isshō (The Life of a Fool), the vague unease Akutagawa felt was explicitly linked to the paranoid delusions that had shattered his psyche, but it also points to a more general malaise: the modernist paranoia at the inability to trust or believe in the certainty of art and experience. See Bauman, Legislators and Interpreters, 114.

  14. Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984), 1:1183-84.

  15. Mark Freeman, Rewriting the Self: History, Memory, Narrative (New York: Routledge, 1993), 223.

  16. There is an important parallel here with the suicide of Akutagawa, whose death was also interpreted as evidence of the crisis of modern culture. In that interpretation his death became a literary act, a way to take control over his life and identity by imposing or willing a form onto himself and by constructing an ending that turns his life into a work of art. Such a reading of course trivializes his death on one level, but the shock felt by many of Akutagawa's contemporaries at his suicide was severe, perhaps because his death could in fact be read as a literary act. For a brief summary of the interpretations of Akutagawa's suicide as a literary act, see Nakamura Shin'ichirō, “Akutagawa Ryūnosuke nyūmon,” in Nihon gendai bungaku zenshū, vol. 56 (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 1960).

  17. Steiner, Real Presences, 205.

Marjorie Rhine (essay date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Rhine, Marjorie. “Glossing Scripts and Scripting Pleasure in Mishima's Confessions of a Mask.Studies in the Novel 31, no. 2 (summer 1999): 222-33.

[In the following essay, Rhine argues that Mishima's novel Confessions of a Mask can best be understood through the later chapters of the novel, in which the work becomes “theatrical” in its portrayal of homosexuality.]

Yukio Mishima's first novel Kamen no Kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask) not only catapulted him into prominence as one of the top writers of postwar Japan when it was published in 1949, but also remains one of the most popular and most often taught and discussed of his novels today, more than twenty-five years after his spectacular death by ritual suicide in 1970. Most critics, however, have focused their attention only on the first half of the novel, in which an I-narrator retrospectively describes his childhood and adolescent experiences in an attempt to isolate early signs of his homosexuality, ostensibly to aid and abet his “rhetoric of confession.”1 I argue here that it is only through careful attention to the later chapters, which describe a strategic attempt to mask homosexual desires through courtship with a young woman, that the complicated structure of this novel can be fully appreciated. With the help of Judith Butler's theory that gender is best understood as a performance played out within available social scripts (rather than as the result of a biologically-determined “essence”), we can see that the overt staging of this heterosexual “plot” reveals that the confessional pose of the narrator is just as theatrical: he is really neither apologetic nor interested in repressing his homosexual desires. In fact, it is precisely through writing his supposed confessions that he creates an opportunity to manipulate or outwit the social scripts which might otherwise dictate or direct his performances. He finds an escape from the strictures of heterosexuality (particularly acute in the wartime setting of the novel) because a confessional stance allows him the opportunity to linger over male bodies, devoting his descriptive energy to their curves or muscles. He also creates a small space—the scene of writing or fantasy—in which he can imaginatively escape what Deleuze and Guattari have described as “oedipalized territoriality,” in this case, that of a nation set on war.2 In the midst of a vast war machine in which every male body must be marked as visibly heroic or pathetically unfit, the narrator subversively focuses on other machines: the body as a system of hydraulics and plumbing (erection and ejaculation) and the construction and maintenance of an elaborate “machine of falsehood” to mask his homosexual desires.

The narrator himself describes his construction of a heterosexual identity or mask as a disciplinary task. For example, when he is pressured into visiting a brothel with some suspicious college friends, he prepares for the venture through an exercise of sexual discipline:

I devised a pathetic secret exercise [renshū]. It consisted of testing my desire by staring fixedly at pictures of naked women … As may be easily imagined, my desire answered neither yes or no. Upon indulging in that bad habit [akushū] of mine, I would try to discipline my desire, first by refraining from my usual daydreams, and later by forcibly calling up mental images of women in the most obscene poses. At times it seemed my efforts were successful. But there was a falseness about this success that seemed to grind my heart into powder.3

The repetition of the ideogram read phonetically as “shū” in the two Japanese words that I have signaled out in this passage suggests an early displacement of writing as discipline (the renshū of school exercise) to (a type of) writing as pleasure, the bad habit or exercise (akushū) of masturbating. However, the narrator's attempts to exercise or discipline his sexual performance so that he can pass as heterosexual prove futile. He is unable to get an erection during this visit to the brothel, and his friends suspect as much. Yet his emphasis that he can sustain a fabricated heterosexual performance by training his corporeal self to act the “right” way comes surprisingly close to recent theorizing about gender as performance. For example, Judith Butler argues that gender identification is fashioned by an idealized coherence which is, in turn,

an effect of a corporeal signification. In other words, acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause. Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means.4

Mishima's narrative highlights the ways in which practices of cultural coherence (adherence to cultural definitions of heterosexuality, for example) shape a social space for the body through what Butler calls “regulatory grids of intelligibility” (p. 131). This is dramatized in Mishima's novel in that the novels and sex encyclopedias which the narrator consults to help him define and understand heterosexuality (scripts, of sorts, for his performance) can be read as literal examples of such regulatory grids. The actual writing of the text that is Confessions, on the other hand, allows the narrator, who is very self-consciously writing the text we read, the opportunity to manipulate vocabulary and typography in order to ensure that the body of his text, if not his own body, attests to the naturalness of his desires. Using Butler's terminology again, the narrator fabricates a heterosexual identity by manufacturing and sustaining this mask through the discursive means available to him—the act of writing the novel.

In the narrator's attempts to manufacture and sustain a simulacrum of desire that will match the real desire of his peers, he must determine just what gesture or act is the clearest and most convincing sign of a masculine, heterosexually-aligned identity. Ejaculation has been called “the trace that authenticates the ‘truth’ of the male body, a signifier that verifies male subjectivity,”5 but ejaculation is not the whole issue for Mishima's narrator. If this were the case, the effusive ejaculations described in chapter two of the novel, for example, the first explosive response to Guido Reni's painting of St. Sebastian, or the dramatic beach scene in which the narrator is aroused by the seething violence of the waves, would leave little doubt that this desiring body does indeed signify male. But for the narrator of Confessions of a Mask, ejaculation is no guarantee of the elision of difference between himself and his male peers. As a maturing adolescent, he seeks to understand this difference, focusing on the visible sign of desire on his body and what this same sign might signify on the bodies of his peers. In retrospect, he realizes,

I never guessed that they could be sharply distinguished from me, not only in their inner feelings, but even in hidden external signs. I did not realize, in short, that they immediately had an erection when they saw a picture of a woman's nude body, that I was alone in remaining unmoved at such at time …

Novels abound in kissing scenes, but none that I had read made any reference to such a thing as erections on such occasions. This was only natural [tōzen], as it is scarcely a subject to be described in a novel. But even the sex encyclopedia said nothing concerning erection as a physiological accompaniment of the kiss, leaving me instead with the impression that erection occurred only as prelude to carnal relations or in response to a mental picture of the act. I thought that when the time came, even if there were to be no desire, I too would suddenly [totsuzen] have an erection, exactly as though it were an inspiration from beyond the skies.

(Pp. 109-10; Kamen, p. 92)

Erection, then, especially when kissing a woman, becomes the guarantee that the mask adequately represents, i.e., that this simulacrum can convincingly be taken to be real.

The narrator's inquisitive forays into novels or sex encyclopedias sometimes lead to more troubles than comforting answers, yet he characteristically negotiates such problems through the means of clever linguistic play in the text he writes, the narrative we read. When he explains, in the quote above, that writing “naturally” doesn't include the details he seeks, he uses the word tōzen (naturally, the right or appropriate way) to characterize writing. The second ideogram in this compound, phonetically zen, is the same one that appears in shizen, nature. The implication here seems to be that if he were “natural,” he too would know what others don't need to learn and which thus “of course” or “naturally” is not detailed in novels. The narrator, however, finds a way around this; when he writes that even without desire he will suddenly rise to the occasion, the word translated as “suddenly” is totsuzen. The narrator comes close to re-fashioning his fantasized sexual reaction as natural [tōzen] through this homonymic echoing, for the second ideogram in this compound is again the zen of tōzen and shizen. In addition, because the ideogram for totsu carries the meaning of “to lunge or thrust,” the narrator grants himself, through his writing, the phallic energy he fears will be missing when the time comes.

This insistence that erection signifies normalcy marks this passage in another way as well. In the nine sentences which detail the narrator's later realization of the differences in sexual response between himself and his male peers, from which I quoted above, the Latin word erectio, conspicuously written in roman script, is repeated six times. The letters e-r-e-c-t-i-o are written sideways, following the top-to-bottom structure of the Japanese orthography. These repetitions of erectio, the letters strikingly visible in their simple, rounded lines amidst the columns of densely stroked ideograms, end up “performing” as little textual erections, achieving on a textual or typographical level what the narrator is unsure he can achieve when he kisses a woman.

The narrator not only fashions the text which he is writing into one which linguistically or typographically encodes his heterosexual success, but he also deals with the constricting definitions of gender in the tales he reads by negating the role played by physical desire in these stories, so that he can find a place for himself in their worlds of happily-ever-afterdom. The narrator explains.

Surprisingly enough, I was so engrossed in tales of romance that I devoted all my elegant dreams to thoughts of love between man and maid, and to marriage, exactly as though I were a young girl who knew nothing of the world. I tossed my love for Omi [a male schoolmate to whom the narrator has been extremely sexually attracted] onto the rubbish heap of neglected riddles, never once searching deeply for its meaning.

(P. 81)

This tendency to separate romantic love and sexual desire into two distinct spheres comes to the fore when the narrator tries to enact such idealized romances in his relationship with the young woman Sonoko. When the narrator meets Sonoko and her family to accompany them on a visit to her brother Kusano, who is away at boot camp, he describes his first glimpse of Sonoko as follows: “What I saw come running toward me was not a girl, not that personification of flesh which I had been forcibly picturing to myself since boyhood, but something like the herald of the morning tidings” (p. 143). To describe Sonoko as a “herald of the morning tidings” is to position her in the world of fairytale, myth, or romance, in the world of the “elegant dreams of thoughts of love” which the narrator evokes as he reads. But what is potentially more interesting here is the narrator's claim that he has been forcibly picturing personifications of “girl” flesh since boyhood. This is a rather glaring example of the ways in which the narrator fictionalizes and restructures the past. He fails to mention here the male bodies that he so pleasurably remembers (and which attract the bulk of the narrative's attention to detail). Instead, he emphasizes the female bodies that he supposedly so forcibly pictures to himself. However, evidence that he has not been subjecting himself to picturing “girl” flesh appears elsewhere. Compare his earlier admission:

But at the moment of indulging in my bad habit [akushū] did I never even once picture to myself some part of a woman? Not even experimentally [shikenteki]? No, never. I explained this strange lapse to myself as being due simply to my laziness.

In short, I knew absolutely nothing about other boys. I did not know that each night all boys but me had dreams in which women—women barely glimpsed yesterday on a street corner—were stripped of their clothing and set one by one parading before the dreamers' eyes …

Was it out of laziness that I had no such dreams? Could it have been because of laziness? I kept asking myself. All of my earnestness toward life as a whole arose out of this suspicion that I was simply lazy. And in the end this earnestness [kinben] spent itself in defending myself against the charge of laziness on this one point, insuring that my laziness could remain laziness still.6

All of his earnestness is supposedly part of the “Spartan course in self-discipline” (p. 79) which includes the writing of Confessions. Yet his earnestness also affords and protects a small space where laziness can remain laziness, where desire can operate and respond in a way less circumscribed by the limits and disciplinary constraints of compulsory heterosexuality.

Further evidence that the narrator is not too apt to forcibly picture “girl personifications” shows up a page later when he relays his decision to catalogue his memories of women: “This earnestness led me in the first place to resolve to gather together all my memories concerning women, starting back at the very beginning. What an extremely meager collection it turned out to be!” (p. 112). He can “collect” only the memory of a cousin who lays her head on his lap and that of an anemic young lady on a bus.

These examples emphasize that the narrator has, at best, only a scanty psychic reservoir of images of women as corporeal, as desirable or desiring bodies. When things between the narrator and Sonoko progress to the inevitable first kiss, he relies not on these meager experiential memories to try to understand Sonoko's reactions, but on the scripted roles of his storybooks, pointing out that “There had always been a storybook quality about her face and figure. Now there was an air about her that reminded one exactly how a storybook maiden looks and acts when in love” (pp. 197-98). He also compares Sonoko to Shakespeare's Juliet; in addition, part of his seduction strategy is played out through books. He lends Sonoko books and explains to the reader (of his book) that “There will be no need to give their titles when I say they were just the sort of novels that a young man of twenty should choose for a girl of eighteen” (p. 163), and adds later that “Like an errand boy from a book shop I again held out several sugary novels” (p. 168).

When the narrator receives his first letter from Sonoko, the expectations resulting from the heterosexual scripts enacted in these sugary novels are mocked and criticized. So eager over receiving the first love letter of his life that he cannot wait until he reaches home to open it (as per Sonoko's instructions) he hurriedly opens it on a train, and,

As I did so the contents all but spilled out. There were several silhouette-cards and a sheaf of those imported colored postcards that seem to be the delight of mission-school students. Among them was a doublefold of blue notepaper, decorated with a Disney cartoon of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.

(P. 171)

The little note under the cartoon, “written in neat characters that smacked of painstaking penmanship” (p. 171), is just as banal as the childish contents, for this note contains nothing more than an expression of gratitude for the loan of the books, a promise to write again (Sonoko's family is evacuating war-torn Tokyo), and her address. The narrator fumes and rages at his own foolishness, chastising himself and laughing bitterly over his dashed expectations of a love letter worthy of his idealized romance.

However, just as he has written earlier that his earnestness is a protection or defense [bengo] which safeguards his laziness (i.e., his difference) so here his desire to write a reply “gradually arose to the defense [bengo] of the first ‘state of ecstasy’ I had ever had” (p. 172; Kamen, p. 143). He continues,

The training she receives at home, I immediately told myself, is scarcely the kind to make her proficient in the writing of love letters. Because it's only natural that her hand should be cramped by all sorts of doubts and hesitations and shyness when writing her first letter to a boy. Because every movement she made this afternoon [this refers to her awkward shyness when delivering the letter into his hand] revealed a truer story than any word in this empty letter.

(P. 172)

In order to foster or defend his first state of ecstasy, to validate the heterosexual love story he enacts here, the narrator must read or interpret Sonoko's body rather than rely on the penned lines emptied of meaning due to the restricting constraints of her kateikyōiku—literally, household education. This is extremely ironic, given that he acts within similar constraints (the constraints of the discipline or schooling of his desire) but then blames constraints for apparently prohibiting Sonoko from playing out the script according to his directorial cues.

The narrator's love story—largely an epistolary one—nears its culmination in the letter Sonoko's brother writes requesting that the narrator clarify his intentions regarding marriage. The narrator is at first shocked, for he has regarded what he refers to as the “romantic sway of war” (p. 211) as an excuse to perpetually delay the denouement of the comedy he plays out in his masked performances. He at first considers a Don Juan pose:

I put a brazen, cynical smile upon my lips. I told myself that all I had to do was clear one small hurdle. All I had to do was to regard all the past few months as absurd; to decide that from the beginning I'd never been in love with a girl called Sonoko, not with such a chit of a girl; to believe that I'd been prompted by a trifling passion (liar!) and had deceived her.

(P. 212)

He is aware, however, that this pose doesn't quite suit him: “And yet I could not have been ignorant of the fact that there is no such thing as a libertine who abandons a woman without first achieving his purpose” (p. 213). Of course, the jarring difference between his role as a libertine and the role, and the goal, of his literary libertine precursors is the absence of the denouement he so assiduously avoids: the final, sex “act.” Ironically, it is precisely because his relationship has not included sexual intercourse that his mother approves of his decision to decline the invitation to declare his intentions to marry, and thus to sever his ties with Sonoko. When he consults his mother, she cuts through his lame excuses with a straightforward: “So then, how do you really feel? Do you love her, or don't you?” However, she returns a few minutes later to worriedly inquire: “‘Listen, about what we were just saying—’ She looked at me with an odd expression, as though she were a strange woman looking at me for the first time, ‘—about Sonoko. You—she—if you've—well—.’” The response, given what the reader knows, but what the mother does not, is extremely ironic: “Do you really think I did any such thing? Do you trust me so little?” (p. 215).

The allusive reference to sex in this conversation between mother and son—a word never directly pronounced within the discourse of the novel—presages the conversation between the narrator and Sonoko which ends the novel. In turn, this final conversation with Sonoko, in which she playfully but euphemistically refers to sex, parallels a scene at the beginning of the novel in which the narrator as a young boy perceptively observes that the adults fear that he knows more than he should about sexuality. A close look at each of these scenes reveals what these thematic and structural parallels contribute to the overall structure and complexity of the narrative. In both the final scene with Sonoko and the opening scene of the novel, the narrator manages to successfully subvert the pressures and pretense of both confession and reform by lingering over descriptions of gleaming or glittering fluids, which, I argue below, are metaphorically linked to a homosexually-aligned pleasure and identity.

A year or so after Sonoko has married another man, the narrator and Sonoko meet for a walk, talk, and end up at a tawdry dance hall. The two seek refuge from the sweaty, raucous activity of the hall by sitting in the courtyard. Here, for the first time, the narrator's morbidly obsessive fantasies involving the gory deaths of muscled toughs surface in daylight, in a narrative space not specifically delineated as therapeutically confessional or as a dream. The narrator's attention zooms in on one particular young man in intensely detailed fashion, a passage worth quoting at length because it vividly portrays the power of the narrator's descriptive art when it focuses on male bodies:

His naked chest showed bulging muscles, fully developed and tensely knit; a deep cleft ran down between the solid muscles of his chest toward his abdomen. The thick, fetter-like sinews of his flesh narrowed down from different directions to the sides of his chest, where they interlocked in tight coils. The hot mass of his smooth torso was being severely and tightly imprisoned by each succeeding turn of the soiled cotton belly-band. His bare, sun-tanned shoulders gleamed as though covered with oil. And black tufts stuck out from the cracks of his armpits, catching the sunlight, curling and glittering with glints of gold.

(Pp. 251-52)

Sonoko's sudden comment that “There's just five minutes left” in their meeting disturbs the narrator's reverie and brings him crashing back to reality. Her voice disrupts his immersion into the sphere of fantasy; in fact, for the first time the two spheres he has kept so painstakingly balanced—his heterosexual performance versus his private indulgence in homosexual fantasies—are now in danger of spinning irrevocably apart, tearing off the mask and tearing him in two:

At this instant something inside of me was torn in two with brutal force. It was as though a thunderbolt had fallen and cleaved asunder a living tree. I heard the structure, which I had been building piece by piece with all my might up to now, collapse miserably to the ground. I felt as though I had witnessed the instant in which my existence had been turned into some sort of fearful non-being. I closed my eyes and after an instant regained a hold on my icy-cold sense of duty.

(Pp. 252-53)

This rather precarious stint on the edge is occasioned by the narrator's awareness that he has no essence (“my existence had been turned into some sort of fearful non-being”) without a performance that sustains his existence, a position with which many contemporary theorists of gender would agree. Recall Butler's comment that words, acts and gestures, the signs which designate any given person's gender identity, do not reveal an essence but instead “produce the effect of an internal core or substance” (p. 136). Sonoko's teasing inquiry about heterosexual experience which follows—“Of course you've already done that, haven't you?”—forces the narrator to pull himself together, snap the mask back in place, and assert his heterosexual experience and identity by answering that he has indeed already done that. The novel ends, however, with a backward glance to some shiny, spilled liquid left behind by the young burly men who had so excited the narrator:

It was time. As I got up, I stole one more glance toward those chairs in the sun. The group had apparently gone to dance, and the chairs stood empty in the blazing sunshine. Some sort of beverage had been spilled on the table top and was throwing back glittering, threatening reflections.

(P. 254)

Before mulling over what such glittering fluid in the last lines of the novel suggests, I want to turn first to an analogous scene at the beginning of the novel. The first page opens with the narrator's explanation that as a child he believed and insisted that he could remember his first, post-natal bath. The description of the glittering reflections of light on the tiny waves of the bath is lyrical and convincingly detailed:

However that may have been, there was one thing I was convinced I had seen clearly, with my own eyes. That was the brim of the basin in which I received my first bath. It was a brand-new basin, its wooden surface planed to a fresh and silken smoothness; and when I looked from inside, a ray of light was striking one spot on its brim. The wood gleamed only in that one spot and seemed to be made of gold. Tongue-tips of water lapped up waveringly as though they would lick the spot, but never quite reached it. And, whether because of a reflection or because the ray of light streamed on into the basin as well, the water beneath that spot on the brim gleamed softly, and tiny, shining waves seemed to be forever bumping their heads together there.

(Pp. 2-3)

This is the earliest and perhaps most blatant fiction in a novel that sets itself up to be an eyewitness, first-person account. The narrator admits as much; in fact, he says “the strongest disproof of this memory was the fact that I had been born, not in the daytime, but at nine in the evening: There could have been no streaming sunlight” (p. 3). He explains that his repeated insistence as a child that he could remember this bath characteristically left adults a bit suspicious or uneasy. The narrator recreates their concerns: “The little rascal is surely trying to trick us into telling him about ‘that,’ and then what is to keep him from asking, with still more childlike innocence: ‘Where did I come from? How was I born?’” (p. 2).

In both Sonoko's mocking words at the end of the novel, “Of course you've already done that,” and in the description of the adults' worries here, the occlusion of a word and an act is motivated by propriety. Sonoko, teasingly, but modestly, refrains from saying things more directly than she has to, and the adults mask what they don't want the child to know. However, in both cases, this occlusion or containment of (hetero)sex is set up in opposition to the narrator's lyrical or descriptive indulgence in the gleaming reflections of fluids: the glittering reflections of the spilled beverage left behind when the young toughs head off to dance, the tiny dancing waves of the bath.

To understand the full import of these images of light-reflecting fluids within the structure of the narrative, a return to the first ejaculation scene is necessary. The narrator explains that after getting aroused by gazing at a picture of Saint Sebastian in an art book, his hands “completely unconsciously, began a motion they had never been taught” and he describes the aftermath of his explosive ejaculation as follows:

Some time passed, and then, with miserable feelings, I looked around the desk I was facing. A maple tree at the window was casting a bright reflection over everything—over the ink bottle, my schoolbook and notes, the dictionary, the picture of Saint Sebastian. There were cloudy-white splashes about—on the gold-imprinted title of a textbook, on the shoulder of the ink bottle, on one corner of the dictionary. Some objects were dripping lazily, leadenly, and others gleamed dully, like the eyes of a dead fish.

(P. 40)

In this passage, the narrator's homosexual desire, manifest in an ejaculation inspired by Saint Sebastian, overtly marks objects which are themselves texts or are metonymically related to texts: books, notes, tiles, ink bottles. Thus, to refer back to my title, he “glosses” texts with the fluid of his body, so that they “gleam dully, like the eyes of a dead fish.”

The glittering images of a spilled beverage and the tiny waves of the bath, in their vividness, detail and strategic placement at the opening and close of the narrative, also mark the text of the narrative we read. Given the narrator's highly-charged description of the young man winding his soiled belly-band in the dance-hall courtyard, a description which ends with an observation of a sticky fluid on a table, it doesn't seem too outrageous to read these bright reflections as metaphorical displacements of the narrator's (fantasized) ejaculatory pleasure, tropic variants of the literal, gleaming ejaculatory fluid that leaves traces on texts in the Saint Sebastian scene detailed above. It may be true that semen doesn't glitter in the same way as do the spilled beverage and dancing waves. Nonetheless, I want to suggest that the supposedly repressed, confessed or exorcized homosexual desires manifest themselves in these images of shimmering fluid as the novel closes and circles back to its beginnings. This is not to say that the baby bath-water is somehow a clue to the closet; instead, I contend that the final scene, certainly, builds up to a rhythmic, highly charged descriptive indulgence in the young man at the dance hall and ends with a sticky fluid left behind, as if the narrative rhythm echoes the explosive tension and release of male orgasm. The fact that this image recalls the opening may suggest that the narrator intends to emphasize that his desires go back to his very beginnings.

Throughout the narrative, then, it is as if the narrator only rises to the occasion (both literally via physical arousal and figuratively in his moments of powerful, descriptive prowess) when his attention focuses on the men of his childhood who aroused his interests or when he indulges in the written recreation of his male-centered fantasies. So, although the narrator claims that it is the disciplinary task of confession and consequent change that inspires and sustains the project of writing, it is not this that propels the narrative but the vividly descriptive textual machinery that details the narrator's homosexual interests. The narrator, it turns out, is neither apologetic nor interested in rigorously repressing his homosexual desires. Instead, he subverts the discipline to which he pretends to adhere by creating, in the process of writing, the opportunity to linger over male bodies in detail, touching upon them once more, and thus scripting or inscribing pleasure. The narrative that is Confessions of a Mask, despite by its very title purporting to be a difficult and relentless exercise in self-hermeneutics, undermines any expectations that remorse or self-improvement might be a product of the narrator's confessional pose. Instead, this confession ends up affording its narrator with myriad opportunities to dwell on his own “second comings”—masturbatory delights—in addition to demonstrating his precocious literariness.


  1. For examples of readings which compare Mishima's biography to this novel, see Andrew R. Smith, “Seeing Through a Mask's Confession,” Text and Performance Quarterly 2 (1989): 135-52, and also Dan P. McAdams, “Fantasy and Reality in the Death of Yukio Mishima,” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 8 (Fall 1985): 293-317. In The Rhetoric of Confession: Shishōsetsu in Early Twentieth Century Japanese Fiction (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), Edward Fowler examines the tradition of shishōsetsu, an autobiographical form that flourished in Taishō Japan (1912-26). Fowler has much of interest to say about the tensions inherent in this form, pointing out that it is “riddled with paradoxes. Supposedly a fictional narrative, it often reads more like a private journal. It has a reputation of being true, to a fault, to ‘real life’; yet it frequently strays from the author's experience it allegedly portrays so faithfully. Its personal orientation makes it a thoroughly modern form; yet it is the product of an indigenous intellectual tradition quite disparate from western individualism” (p. xvi). Fowler, because he is tracing this tradition within the confines of 1907 to the 1920s, does not discuss Mishima's work beyond a brief reference in a note, but his comments about the rhetoric of confession as a construction of a seeming truth are suggestive in thinking about Mishima's own play with the shishōsetsu form in his later Confessions of a Mask.

  2. See Mark Seem, Introduction to Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983):

    Against the oedipal and the oedipalized territorialities (Family, Church, School, Nation, Party), and especially the territoriality of the individual, Anti-Oedipus seeks to discover the “deterritorialized” flows of desire, the flows that have not been reduced to the Oedipal codes and the neuroticized territorialities, the desiring machines that escape such codes as lines of escape leading elsewhere.

    (P. xvii)

    Mishima's narrator finds such an escape not only from the constraints of compulsory heterosexuality but away from the “oedipalized territoriality” of a nation set on war. Jennifer Robertson, “Gender-bending in Paradise: Doing ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ in Japan,” Genders 5 (Summer 1989), analyzes gender-bending within the ranks of the all-female Takarakuza Academy/Musical Revue in Tokyo during the pre-war years, and emphasizes that war-time articulations of male and female roles, as might be expected, were particularly fierce (pp. 59-61).

  3. Yukio Mishima, Kamen no Kokuhaku (Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 1972), p. 185. The English translation is Confessions of a Mask, trans. Meredith Weatherby (New York: New Directions, 1958), p. 223; the ellipsis is Weatherby's. Hereafter, reference to Weatherby's translation will be by page number alone. Reference to the Japanese text, when applicable, will be to Kamen.

  4. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 136; italics are Butler's. Recent theorists writing about how the body is marked or shaped by cultural constructions of sex, gender and sexuality of course owe much to Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990). For example, in Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality, trans. D. R. Roberts (London: Gay Men's Press, 1989), Tsuneo Watanabe and Iwata Jun'ichi adopt Foucault's analysis to argue that the modernization of Japan, an “indigenous capitalist and industrialist movement,” (p. 124) instigated a governing of sex through knowledge in a way analogous to the genealogy Foucault describes. For an entertaining survey of the status of male homosexuality throughout various historical periods in Japan, see Nicholas Bornoff, Pink Samurai: The Pursuit and Politics of Sex in Japan (London: Grafton Books, 1991), pp. 422-47.

  5. Kevin Kopelson, “Wilde, Barthes, and the Orgasmics of Truth,” Genders 7 (Spring 1990): p. 27.

  6. P. 111; Kamen p. 92-93. The use here of the adverb shikenteki intensifies the emphasis on schooling, as shiken is the most common word used for school quizzes and tests.


Mishima Yukio (Pseudonym of Kimitake Hiraoka)


Mishima, Yukio (Pseudonym of Kimitake Hiraoko)