Mishima Yukio 1925–1970
Pseudonym of Hiraoka Kimitake. A Japanese novelist, short story writer, and dramatist, Mishima was the author of Confessions of a Mask, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and the tetralogy The Sea of Fertility upon completion of which he committed ritual suicide. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 29-32.)
The novels of Yukio Mishima are rich, complex structures in which character and action, idea and image intimately coalesce. Thus, the temptation to say something about each of these elements is very great. These facts of fiction and their unity point up the skill of the writer and, more importantly, the Weltanschauung which is key to both their harmony and their meaning. Three of Mishima's novels in English translation [Confessions of a Mask, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea] are related in this respect. They share world views which show them to be but parts of the emerging, unified corpus of Mishima's work, a work that reveals in itself the shape of meaninglessness and isolation in an indifferent universe….
Confessions of a Mask as a model of a universe is one in which all things are robbed of meaning by the fact that man remains isolated, trapped within himself. He longs for a death he fears and flees from, or an unattainable state of innocence prior to existence. There is no, progress, no essential change in the human condition, and no hope….
Unlike the narrator of Confessions, the protagonist of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion refuses to be forced by nature or circumstances to remain isolated, to be driven toward death as the alternative to false life. He is able to choose, rightly or wrongly, action as release. Even at the novel's close, when he recognizes that his action may be futile, that the real world he gains may be only brutal, ugly, and empty, his resolve remains unshaken. What there is in Mizoguchi of tragic proportions may rest precisely in this fact.
Man's isolation within himself and the meaninglessness or emptiness of the universe are also the themes of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea in which the focus is almost equally divided among the sailor, Ryuji Tzukazaki; Noboru (and the teen-age gang of which he is a member); and Noboru's mother, Fusako. The underlying structure of ideas is given in the nihilistic views of the gang of which Noboru is a member.
Robert Dana, "The Stutter of Eternity: A Study of the Theme of Isolation and Meaninglessness in Three Novels by Yukio Mishima," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 1, 1970, pp. 87-102.
Exploring Mishima's world is indeed a strange and disturbing experience. Given Mishima's linkage of Greek ideal male and Japanese samurai, the reader is justified in seeking such a figure in Mishima's landscapes. But modern No plays take the poetic spirit of the past, shatter the illusion, and replace the poetry with an ugly vocabulary of destruction and disillusion. His heterosexual lovers are more apt to be hypocrites than heroes: even young Shinji in The Sound of Waves ultimately discounts the values of his idyllic island and its Shinto gods. Nor does Mishima offer a single "untainted" Ideal Male: the youth emerging from the sea at the beginning. of Forbidden Colors may be introduced as a Greek god-like hero, but he is first viewed through the eyes of a clearly unreliable observer and later exposed as a staggeringly narcissistic anti-hero.
What remains in the midst of these ruins? Young...
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Samurai and Confessions of a Mask together offer many reliable clues: the fireman, the sailor, the muscled body-builder in his fundoshi (the Japanese loincloth paradoxically still found beneath many a western business suit); the vermilion and golden fire imagery, the black and white sea; the flashing blades of knives wielded by vengeful boys, sadistic men, and fantasy-prone youths. In Mishima's Madame de Sade, Renee asserts that we are now all living in a world created by the Marquis. But she also claims that he has built for himself (and presumably for us?) a "back stairway to heaven." Perhaps we are intended in a world of lost values to find a new aesthetic in the "beautiful" horrors of Mishima's pages.
Gwenn R. Boardman, "Greek Hero and Japanese Samurai: Mishima's New Rhetoric," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 1, 1970, pp. 103-13.
[Mishima's] "romantic impulse toward death" prompted him to begin writing—and building his body to be worthy of destruction. [He published] his first book at 19—a pretty, sensitive collection of short stories called A Forest in Flower…. [His] Confessions of a Mask [is a] fierce portrait of homosexuality—a subject with which Mishima had a lifelong fascination and, some say, involvement—Mask brought him fame. His best-known work, Temple of the Golden Pavilion, brought him a small fortune as well. From that point on, even his art was devoted to the spirit of the samurai.
His highly polished style, stripped of embellishment in order to emphasize action, helped him to create the psychological realism that led to great critical acclaim and commercial success in Japan and abroad. Perhaps better than any other contemporary Japanese author, Mishima was able to articulate the conflicts of his people in their transition from the old culture to the Western mode of living….
Mishima was an impassioned romantic whose real despair at his country's course commingled like sacrificial blood with his own deep need to return to an earlier and, in his view, much nobler Japan. Many critics in Japan felt that he passed the peak of his career as a writer—Sun and Steel, an autobiographical and philosophical book published [in 1970], was not very favorably received—and that he feared reaching old age in obscurity.
"The Last Samurai," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly News-magazine; © 1970 by Time Inc.), December 7, 1970, pp. 32-7.
The recent suicide … of Yukio Mishima, unspeakably macabre by Occidental values, was nevertheless an affirmation of his most personal convictions. In the simplest terms it was an act of protest against the Establishment. Within the perspective of Mishima's considerable literary achievements, it provides a final, perfect apostrophe. For better or for worse, his reputation will be permanently enlarged.
Like Confessions of a Mask, which appeared more than a decade ago under the guise of "fiction," Sun and Steel is a memoir and a self-analysis. Its pages abound with musings on death. Nearly a dozen earlier works published in the United States since 1956 (novels, short stories, and drama) earned for Mishima here the sobriquet "best-known Japanese writer." Those who have looked for yet another dimension to this virtuoso will be disappointed, however, by this latest offering. Unlike Confessions—a perspicuous examination of Mishima's own sexuality—Sun and Steel flows with the viscosity of mud, turgid with abstraction and mystical convolution. A main essay constituting the bulk of the book is followed by a rhapsodic description of Mishima's first flight in a fighter jet and by a brief poem, also about flight.
David M. Walsten, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, December 12, 1970; used with permission), December 12, 1970, p. 38.
Mishima refers to Sun and Steel as "confidential criticism." He tells us how he began his life as one besotted with words. And although he does not say so directly, one senses from his career (fame at nineteen, a facility for every kind of writing) that things were perhaps too easy for him. It must have seemed to him (and to his surprisingly unbitter contemporaries) that there was nothing he could not do in the novel, the essay, the drama. Yet only in his reworking of the Nō plays does he appear to transcend competence and make (to a foreign eye) literature. One gets the impression that he was the sort of writer who is reluctant to take the next hard step after the first bravura mastery of a form….
[Mishima was extremely Westernized.] Mishima seldom makes any reference to Japanese literature in his work. He is devoted to French nineteenth-century writing, with preference for the second-rate—Huysmans rather than Flaubert. In fact, his literary taste is profoundly corny….
Mishima was a writer who mastered every literary form, up to a point. Reading one of his early novels, I was disturbed by an influence I recognized but could not place right off. The book was brief, precise, somewhat reliant on coups de théâtre, rather too easy in what it attempted but elegant and satisfying in a conventional way like … like Anatole France whom I had not read since adolescence. Le Lys rouge, I wrote in the margin. No sooner had I made this note than there appeared in the text the name Anatole France. I think this is the giveaway. Mishima was fatally drawn to what is easy in art.
Technically, Mishima's novels are unadventurous. This is by no means a fault. But it is a commentary on his art that he never made anything entirely his own. He was too quickly satisfied with familiar patterns and by no means the best…. What one recalls from the novels are his fleshly obsessions and sadistic reveries: invariably the beloved youth is made to bleed while that sailor who fell from grace with the sea (the nature of this grace is never entirely plain) gets cut to pieces by a group of adolescent males. The conversations about art are sometimes interesting but seldom brilliant (in the American novel there are no conversations about art, a negative virtue but still a virtue).
There is in Mishima's work, as filtered through his translators, no humor, little wit; there is irony but of the W. Somerset Maugham variety … things are not what they seem, the respectable are secretly vicious….
As Japan's most famous and busy writer, Mishima left not a garden but an entire landscape full of artificial flowers. But, Mishima notwithstanding, the artificial flower is quite as perishable as the real. It just makes a bigger mess when you try to recycle it. I suspect that much of his boredom with words had to do with a temperamental lack of interest in them. The novels show no particular development over the years and little variety. In the later books, the obsessions tend to take over, which is never enough….
Unable or unwilling to change his art, Mishima changed his life through sun, steel, death, and so became a major art-figure in the only way—I fear—our contemporaries are apt to understand: not through the work; but through the life. Mishima can now be ranked with such "great" American novelists as Hemingway (who never wrote a good novel) and Fitzgerald (who wrote only one). So maybe their books weren't so good, but they sure had interesting lives, and desperate last days. Academics will enjoy writing about Mishima for a generation or two. And one looks forward to their speculations as to what he might have written had he lived. Another A la recherche du temps perdu? or Les caves du Vatican? Neither, I fear. My Ouija board has already spelled out what was next on the drawing board: "Of Human Bondage."
Gore Vidal, "Mr. Japan," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), June 17, 1971, pp. 8-10.
On November 25, 1970, the day of his abortive coup and ritualistic death, Yukio Mishima delivered to the editor of a monthly magazine the final installment of his massive tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility, which had been running serially for more than five years. This novel was Mishima's chief literary activity at the end of his life….
The Sea of Fertility, though it encompasses many themes and moods, was clearly Mishima's testament to the world. The title itself, as he revealed in a letter, was intended to convey his conviction that life was ultimately as arid as the waterless sea of the moon that is fertile in name only.
Spring Snow, however, presents the world at its most appealing. The gardens of Marquis Matsugae's house in Tokyo are as lovely as any described in The Tale of Genji, and each detail of costume, each turn of phrase of the conversations, suggests how much of the elegance of the past still survived. Mishima's style in this work is remarkably beautiful. He exploits every resource of the Japanese language, giving new life to unbroken literary traditions of a thousand years. He was unquestionably a modern writer, speaking to modern audiences, but he created in Spring Snow a classic, an absolute evocation of a Japanese way of life that is completely intelligible but completely remote….
Spring Snow, even in [Michael Gallagher's flawed] translation, confirms Mishima's judgment that he would be remembered above all for this work. It is a book to give great pleasure and great sadness, too, at the thought of how much the world lost when the author, at the height of his powers, chose not the pen of his profession but the harsh rhetoric of a sword.
Donald Keene, "Mishima's Monument to a Distant Japan," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, June 10, 1972; used with permission), June 10, 1972, pp. 57-9.
From the time his books first began to appear, Mishima was likened to such figures as Gide, Genet, Sade and Beckett. These comparisons raise expectations that the works do not entirely satisfy. Certainly his novels and plays are rich enough in sadists, nihilists, compulsives and homosexuals, in melancholy obsessions and bizarre events—the whole sad mess somehow evoking a troubled, elusive vision of the modern world. Some of his novels are in the first person, narrated by one of his alienated anti-heroes. These fictions are often assumed to be autobiographical, despite Mishima's emphatic denials. The author himself has been characterized as an apologist for fascism or nihilism or homosexuality, again over his protest. Nevertheless, Mishima was a flamboyant public figure, who seemed to invite controversy for publicity's sake. And the development of his anti-heroes is sometimes so convincing, his exploration of their inner lives so vivid, that their words have the authenticity of personal confession. Many of these characters certainly do resemble those of Genet or Sade, and yet Mishima's attitude toward them is very different. If a part of the author went into their creation, it was a part which he feared and repudiated, just as Dostoevski feared and repudiated that part of him which went into the Underground Man.
If Mishima can be properly likened to any foreign writer, it must be Dostoevski, although Mishima is much the inferior artist. Both men were fascinated by certain currents in modern thought—materialism, egalitarianism, atheism, individualism—fascinated and appalled. Both believed that such doctrines destroy the social and spiritual bonds that define the individual's place in the universe and keep his will under control. Both looked backward to a Utopia: in Dostoevski's case, to Russian Orthodoxy and Pan-Slavism; in Mishima's, to a private vision of the Japanese past. Each created thoroughly imagined portraits of characters who had succumbed to the contagion of modern ideas, for both men were themselves endangered, tempted by those hated ideas, as if by a wicked but irresistible seductress. And because they felt that attraction, their works were subtly tainted and ambiguous….
Mishima's vision of life was simplistic. Just this lack of complexity and objectivity made him fall short of the greatness he aspired to, for he was a master of lively incident and characterization. He never understood that people might accept modern thought because they thought it probable or true; he never admitted that anyone could live by it without becoming altogether depraved. Democracy, individualism, nihilism, rationalism, materialism: all were one to him, variant names for a single willful evil. The world, as he saw it, still offered plentiful opportunity for meaning, beauty, joy and purpose, all of which comtemporary man rejects because they threaten to cut his ego down to size. I don't mean to imply that Mishima was naive enough to suppose that evil had been invented in the 20th or even the 18th century. But he did seem convinced that in the past it had been kept on the defensive by the force of religious and social sanctions, and that since modern philosophy had weakened those sanctions and provided a rationale for egoistic self-assertion, it had grown ever more militant and threatened now to overwhelm the world. This notion has some basis in reality; Mishima's folly was that he tried to make it explain too much.
Barbara Wolf, "Mishima's Testimony, Wanton and Reverent," in Nation, June 12, 1972, pp. 758-62.
Mishima was an immensely fertile writer, and Spring Snow is the most capacious and technically accomplished of his novels, at least of those that have been translated into English. It is the first in a cycle of four novels, the other three soon to be published in this country, which were completed on the eve of Mishima's suicide in 1970, and which evidently were intended as his masterpiece. It is not as long as Forbidden Colors, his famous novel about homosexuality, but is better shaped and even more intricately plotted. Serious novelists in America may have abandoned storytelling, but Spring Snow has an elaborate story to tell. Of all Japanese novelists Mishima seems to have understood best how to construct a plot that was more than a loose line of fortuitous episodes, how to write from his characters outward toward the actions they have to take. His escape from the confessional mode of his earliest fiction was complete. Spring Snow is not at all an I-novel, although the hero's self-absorption is one of its most pervasive themes….
Mishima was a virtuoso who wrote too much, and his work was inevitably very uneven, some of it slick and unconvincing; but he communicated a wider grasp of human nature than any writer of his generation in Japan, and he ranks with Kawabata and Tanizaki among the most distinguished novelists of the last 30 or 40 years. His work will put off some readers by its rather arty preoccupation with beauty which sometimes degenerates into exhibitionism. Beauty he linked with art, with reality, with sexuality, and from the beginning, with death….
The cry that passion rules reason in a sense became his trademark, and along with that sometimes went the view of woman as an ornament or plaything. But he was far too keen and curious an observer of Japanese life merely to write metaphors about the unity of sex, love, death and beauty. In some of his works one runs headlong into people who are not merely personified philosophical abstractions but who are so objectively moving, so filled with life, that they cannot fail to involve any reader in the human situations in which they are involved.
Lawrence Olson, "Japanese Modern," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), June 24, 1972, pp. 25-6.
Mishima himself was intensely romantic: his death was so romantic that its seriousness alone saved it from melodrama. But, as Mishima might have asked: what is the matter with melodrama?—it too is a form of drama, and drama is life. (To which one must also answer that Mishima saw drama as theater—The Marquise de Sade, and the untranslated My Friend, Hitler, and The Leper Prince are examples—and one may infer that for him, often if not always, life also was a kind of theater.) But when I say romantic I do not mean a taste for its more conventional trappings (though Mishima certainly had these: his devotion to Beardsley, his lifelong admiration for Huysmans, his untranslated monograph on Saint Sebastian, his favorite modern novel: Hadrian's Memoirs), and I certainly do not mean the kind of escapism the word romantic has now come to connote.
A romantic such as Mishima is a man who compares things as they are with things as they have been or could be and who, in the face of public indifference and private doubt, has the strength of character to live by those standards he himself finds suitable….
In his first novel, Confessions of a Mask, Mishima showed us the initial step, revealed the seeds from which his life sprang, when he spoke of the first of those who became an ideal. "I had a presentiment that there is in this world a kind of desire like a stinging pain. Looking up at that dirty youth, I was choked with desire, thinking, 'I want to change into him,' thinking, 'I want to be him.'" This is a common emotion, almost everyone must have felt it, but for Mishima the emotion was so strong that he truly became what he most admired.
This is the subjective (or the romantic) triumph. It is this that makes him an extraordinary novelist as it made him an extraordinary man. As Mishima more and more became the man he wanted to become, he more and more saw himself (as every artist does) as, in his turn, an exemplar, a kind of model. His suicide, like his novel, was a call to order. Both acts are consistent with this character that he (like all of us, but consciously) chose to create; and both (novel and death) are intended, in this sense, as creative.
Donald Richie, "The Last True Samurai," in Harper's (copyright © 1972 by Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co., Inc.; reprinted from the September, 1972, issue of Harper's Magazine by special permission), September, 1972, pp. 105-07.
Mishima's ritual death, as the culmination of years of training for such an act, side by side with a body of work increasingly invested with the idea of death as the ever-present blood-beneath-the-skin and the possible grail of action, asks us to put his life on the level of his art, and past it. What does it mean when a writer wants to transcend words? And knows to the end that we must and will re-examine that life? Mishima's death and words put these matters once again in their vital juxtaposition. Even if one ascribes his suicide to a certain madness, either by occidental terms or modern Japanese ones—as I do not—there are few writers at the moment of whom one can say the same….
But has he succeeded in that final coincidence of flesh and mind he hoped for, of dual chariots whose crash was to be the final bloom of existence? For himself perhaps an assumption into the tragic life, for us an echo. Perhaps he attained the nonreflection he wanted. He leaves us with his lifetime of reflection. The words—to the end his avowed snare, yet as much his weapon as the dueling staves he used in kendo—are what remain most clear…. Assessment of his full work must wait for translation; English has merely a small part of the 228 works, which include the 20 long novels he considered "literary," 13 articles, 143 short stories, 21 full-length dramas and 31 one-act plays.
The work we do have—for the most part grave, somberly exciting, formidable with self-analysis, able to canvas the crowd and the ages, but more often with the fixed, internal stare of the diarist—is in some ways peculiarly fit for Western eyes. The violence we are facing with such difficulty, hypocrisy or extravagance in our daily life and art, he gives us simply, domestically, in all its subcutaneous horror and myth; like the Greeks, he pours the blood that is there. And, taking into account the samurai gestures surrounding his end, and so at variance with the exquisite sanity of his self-explanation, I have come to believe that his was a cross-cultural death….
We tend to think of writers outside the Western framework, if not as "simples" or "originals," then as the primitive genii of other anthropologies or thought-systems which attract us for their qualitative difference—as Buddhism does the solid Madison Avenue matron or the floating intellectual—rather than for their intelligence. In dealing with "Sun and Steel," as with all Mishima's work, one must never forget that one is encountering a mind of the utmost subtlety, broadly educated, a man in whose novels, for instance, the range may even appear terrifying or cynical, to those who demand of a writer steadily apparent or even monolithically built views. These are there, indeed touchable at every point in his work, but the variation of surface, and seeming reversals of heart or statement, sometimes obscure them. And the Western split may have done that, in his work as in his life. So that, as he foresaw, his death better explains both. Leaving us to review the explanation….
Still, he is telling us that death is one of life's satisfactions. We may not be able to believe it, or may wish that death had not so enhanced itself for him. But he tells us how he came to this pass, and crosses cultures to do it, to tell us how a man bent on seppuku might come to it by way of St. Sebastian….
Mishima is explaining his life and death in admirable style, in words that hold their breath, so that the meaning may breathe. In a low voice just short of the humble. On the highest terms of that arrogance which decrees him the right to. His soul and ours may not be cognate, but he makes us feel again what it is to have one.
Hortense Calisher, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 12, 1972, pp. 56, 58, 60.