Yukio Mishima

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 107,627 words.)