Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2559
Mishima Yukio (Pseudonym of Kimitake Hiraoka) 1925–1970
Fanatically "Japanese," Mishima was "Japan's literary exotic," the slick, self-promoting samurai patriot who, before he was forty-five, wrote forty novels, eighteen plays, and twenty volumes each of short stories and essays before making his spectacular exit by ritual suicide. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 29-32.)
Part of Mishima's success [in Runaway Horses] lies in his continual contrasting of 1930s Japan with the hallowed elder world invoked by the patriot youths (for, redolent of Western fascism though they often are, the values Isao and his myrmidons represent are scarcely to be viewed as an ideology). Here are the anglomaniac nobility, drinking five o'clock tea and calming their nerves with Gibbon and classical music, there the high-hearted heroes clinging with desperate rigour to the ancient rites. The sublime paradox is that the two can even exist side by side. In such a world, samurai heroism can hardly find a place….
In the end it is the author's sheer technical skills which manage so superbly to contain and filter his obsessions. The book's breathtaking sequence of imagery and its flawless shape endure more impressively than the harpings upon death, nationalism or the imperial will. Thus to be dazzled by Mishima's mature artistry leads unavoidably to selfish regrets that the author should have followed his own Isao so closely. Good writers, even of bad books, are few enough.
"A Hankering for Heroes," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 30, 1973, p. 1466.
Yukio Mishima was obsessed with death. A decadent romantic who marveled at the beauty of destruction, he once wrote, "Violent death is ultimate beauty, provided that he who dies is young." This is a particularly Japanese idea, one that chillingly informs Mishima's literary efforts and determined his own ritualistic suicide.
The final literary product of that aesthetic, The Decay of the Angels, brilliantly epitomizes Mishima's pessimistic outlook. The final volume of his mystifying tetralogy, Sea of Fertility, it is set in Japan in the Seventies. Shigekuni Honda, who was seen in his youth in an earlier volume, here appears as an aging lawyer who adopts a beautiful sixteen-year-old boy named Toru Yasunaga. Firm in his suspicion that Toru is a reincarnation of youths presented in the earlier works, all of whom died at the age of twenty, Honda eagerly awaits Toru's twentieth birthday.
The significance of the novel's intricate plot and subplots is, of course, intensified if the reader is familiar with the characters and events of the three previous books. For it is here, in this culminating volume, that Mishima should have pulled together his various themes and resolved the fates of his characters. But instead, he manages only to cast doubt on the very concept that supposedly lies at the heart of the tetralogy—the idea of reincarnation, a concept in which, as it turns out, he never believed and for which he has not persuasively argued.
As the framework crumbles and the sheer existence of his protagonist is called into question, we are left with nothing so much as sketches of a beautiful death gone wrong, of a devastating wasteland overrun with decay.
Decay of the Angels is a work of deceptive simplicity that raises more questions than it answers. Mishima's intense precision and solemnity reveal him as an artist classically impervious to emotion and contemptuous of humanity, with a fine appreciation for the cool veneer and the punctilious manner. In Honda and Toru, his split-image self, he has created characters of unbreakable similarity, each nothing more than an impermeable surface.
Yukio Mishima is, without doubt, a supreme stylist, a mannerist, whose crystalline prose subordinates content to form. His fascination for detail, so readily apparent here, dominated his personal and professional lives: He crafted Decay of the Angels while planning his own death. (p. 27)
Susan Heath, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 1, 1974.
Ironically, the novel which established Mishima's literary reputation in the English-speaking world was The Sound of Waves, perhaps the most unrepresentative of all his works and, although a best seller in Japan, a book about which he and critics expressed serious doubts…. Mishima's style is more easily adaptable into English than that of most Japanese writers, and … there is an enormous body of work from which to select potential novels, plays and essays for translation….
Mishima was not, by any standard, the greatest of Japan's modern writers, nor was he actually a first-rate novelist. In fact, from a literary standpoint, his plays were probably of a higher caliber than his novels. His brilliant last work, The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, stands, of course, in direct opposition to these statements, both as a saga of the external and internal decay and disintegration of traditional values and culture, and as the more limited story of Japan's emergence into a meaningless world. Yet from an overall perspective, Tanizaki, Kawabata and even Dazai undoubtedly surpassed Mishima as artists…. [The] key to Mishima's aesthetic, and thus to his death, lies in the man, and to a lesser extent in the myth and the art. (p. 117)
Gordon Graham Dowling, "Mishima's Still Garden: A Place of No Memories," in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), August 17, 1974, pp. 117-19.
According to Mishima's own remark, the title [of The Temple of Dawn, the third of his tetralogy, Sea of Fertility,] 'is intended to suggest the arid sea of the moon that belies its name, or I might say that it superimposes the image of cosmic nihilism on that fertile sea'. What emerges so far is an incredibly vivid image of futility imposed on the cosmos, as far as Mishima's spectacular imagination could envisage it. Through a history of modern Japan, Mishima weaves his fantasies of sex, violent death and reincarnation; in terms of fiction, the result is startling. (p. 59)
There is in [the third] work more of directly-expounded Buddhist philosophy than there is in the other two, but we should be wary of taking it too seriously—possibly Mishima did not intend us to do so…. [His] attempt to portray life through the framework of reincarnation, based as it is on Hindu and Buddhist teaching, is paradoxical. Comprehension of these religious philosophies—except on superficial levels—can only be obtained by practise, usually of Zen or Yoga; they are essentially philosophies of self-discipline; but the understanding obtained by Honda, whose story links the series, is paralleled by self-indulgence. In characteristic fashion, the truth that Mishima was trying to deny, his artistic integrity reveals. The different incarnations of Kiyoaki are really disguised aspects of the Mishima who is revealed to us in his previous works; his view of reincarnation is an artist's view, it is a means of self-expression rather than of self-realisation. This contradiction is a major flaw, if this work is considered as complete in itself.
All this having been said, how good are these works as novels? The answer must be that we can't really know until we have seen them all. So far, Spring Snow is the most convincing because it is the least like a Buddhist tract—however imaginatively written—and the most like a novel, and because the actual Kiyoaki is the most convincing of the major characters. We can really believe he is a Hein prince of one thousand years ago, born out of time, who would have wished to conduct his love-affair by means of poems. And the combination of East and West, the mixture of Millais and Meiji, impresses as authentic. [Runaway Horses] has a good deal of Mishima's power but less of his panache, because Isao is a less interesting character than Kiyoaki, and represents more of what Mishima wished to be rather than what he was.
The Temple of Dawn illustrates, more than the previous books, Mishima's view—or rather, Honda's view—that man does not influence history but attempts to get involved with history; in this work, this slightly vitiates the tension. So far, the Kiyoaki element represents an impossible striving after sterile fulfilment, and Honda's voyeurism has degenerated to blatant pornography. But we are not yet at the end, even though Honda is now seventy-four. If we know Mishima, we may yet expect the unexpected.
Whatever else it may not contain, The Temple of Dawn does include some of Mishima's finest descriptive writing, especially concerning Honda's visit to Benares, the Holy City of Hinduism…. Mishima is a worthwhile writer for such descriptive powers alone, and if it is true—as, I believe, Proust maintained—that we read novels mainly for their purple passages, there are many splashes of that royal colour, thrown off, perhaps, by Mishima's left hand, to be savoured in this book. (p. 60)
Maurice Capitanchik, "Means to an End," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Hansom Books 1974), December, 1974, pp. 59-60.
I don't know how well Mishima's reputation as a novelist will wear. Certainly, even those novels of his that have been translated into English show him to have been a very erratic writer, and he wrote much, much more than that…. He wrote far too much, even by Japanese standards, and, in the last few years of his life, his reputation was decidedly beginning to slip. Those critics who had earlier praised him extravagantly were beginning to mutter unkind things about him, there were suggestions that perhaps it was just as well that Kawabata, and not he, had been given the "Japanese" Nobel prize. Yet, though Mishima did indeed abuse his talents, and the growing skepticism about him was not entirely unjustified (he was, let us admit it, a real trial), he was still the most exciting Japanese writer of his generation. When Confessions of a Mask appeared four years after the end of the war, no Japanese novelist before him had written about a sexual deviant with such elegant abandon. What a book it was, for its time and place. It burst out like a gust of fresh air, seemingly from nowhere, blowing away all the cobwebs left from the war. It was truly a book without nationality; it dazzled, perhaps even touched, us all, Americans, Englishmen, and Japanese alike.
If he had not written it, his death as an avowed nationalist twenty years later would have had little poignancy for me. If he had not written so subtle a book as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (it may be imperfect, but there are few Japanese novels quite so intelligent), his pathology would have been of little interest to me…. [He] was a considerable man of letters, who could write and think rings around most other Japanese writers of his time. (pp. 582-83)
Edwin McClellan, "Mishima," in The Yale Review (© 1975 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1975, pp. 579-83.
Death in Midsummer is almost a microcosm of Mishima's whole work, representing most of his major styles except for the polemic and the directly confessional. Together, the stories suggest both where he was broad in his concerns and limited by his obsessions.
Death in Midsummer must be surprising to those familiar with Mishima only through headlines. The title story … is quite unrelated to nationalism, fascism, homosexuality, or seppuku [ritual suicide]. Rather, it is an elegy on the death of the innocent, and a study of the psychology of mourning.
The main character, Tomoko, is the mother of two young children who are drowned in a commonplace incident at a resort. Mishima's method is one with many affinities but no equivalents. The narration is a controlled Tolstoyan analysis, phase by phase, of his character's evolving perceptions, proceeding to an epiphany that is left as ambiguous as a Zen koan or haiku, and that is therefore utterly un-Tolstoyan. There is also something rather like Poe or Dostoevsky in the extraordinary lucidity of the descriptions, coupled with the intense hysteria of the passions described. Yet although the passions are hysterical, the person who suffers them is fundamentally sound, and not at all like a character out of Dostoevsky or Poe. Tomoko's irrational state is simply normal for one in her circumstances….
For all their outward diversity, the majority of Mishima's sympathetic characters come down to a type much like Tomoko: an individual entranced by inner conflicts, isolated from an exterior world as unconsciously cruel as it is beautiful. Yet it is the diversity that is more immediately obvious. (p. 849)
The moment in Mishima tends to have such enormous consequences, because it so often represents a forced awakening from an innocence that is really a kind of unreflecting solipsism….
Like that of Dostoevsky, and of Tolstoy in his last phase, Mishima's power seems largely a product of his own desperate sincerity, which is of a kind that can find no outlet in the world of action. Such passion creates grand, symbolic gestures, and characters and situations that seem to demand them—in art if not in life.
Yet intense as they are, Mishima's sympathetic characters live in constant doubt as to their sincerity and are continually challenging it. (p. 850)
Every story in Death in Midsummer is rich in ironies, but perhaps the supreme irony is that the martyred lovers of "Patriotism" are the only truly happy characters in the whole volume. They alone are free from both triviality and alienation. They alone are in communion with each other and with the world. Their acceptance of a transcendent principle endows their emotions with beauty and meaning and permits them to live and die both serenely and intensely…. [What] is being celebrated in "Patriotism" is not thirties-style militarism per se, but the self-realizing force of idealism and the bliss of martyrdom. The specific principle is less the cause than the occasion.
Mishima's fiction is fiction, not polemics or propaganda. It is true that a good deal of what he wrote conveys an open or implicit criticism of modern society. True, he traced much of the inauthenticity of modern Japanese society to the rejection of tradition that followed defeat in the Pacific war. It is even true that in his last years he became a spokesman for a kind of right-wing reaction, and ultimately martyred himself for that cause. But it is also true that practically nothing in Death in Midsummer, except possibly "Patriotism," reasonably lends itself to a right-wing, or even political, interpretation. And only one story in all ten, "Onnagata," is even remotely concerned with homosexuality. Mishima, of course, did write polemics and confessions, but only on a few occasions did he disguise them as fiction….
Since Mishima universalized his private experience when he wrote, the passions and issues that concerned him personally were rarely allowed to intrude into his fictional universe. Within the limits of his sensibility, he could be an objective and dispassionate artist. Many of his characters do not resemble him at all, but are specimens of types held up for examination. Those in whom he did invest himself are far less likely to share his opinions and habits than his loneliness, his alienation, and his passionate integrity. In other words, the dovetailing of influences that produced hysteria in his life created intensity in his art, just as it did with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Poe. (p. 852)
Barbara Wolf, "Mishima in Microcosm," in The American Scholar (copyright © 1975 by the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa; reprinted by permission of the publishers), Vol. 45, No. 1, Winter, 1975/76, pp. 848-52.