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.
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.
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).
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.