Yukio Mishima

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Yukio Mishima was a critic, an essayist, and a poet (though largely unpublished in the latter genre) as well as a dramatist. His aesthetic is carefully set forth in Taiy to tetsu (1968; Sun and Steel, 1970) and Hagakure nyumon (1967; On Hagakure, 1977). No doubt, however, he is best known as one of Japan’s most accomplished and prolific novelists of the immediate post-World War II period, and it is as a novelist that he will be known to future generations. His major novels include Kamen no kokuhaku (1949; Confessions of a Mask, 1958), Kinkakuji (1956; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1959), Gogo no eik (1963; The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, 1965), and his tetralogy, Hj no umi, published between 1969 and 1971, and translated into English between 1972 and 1974 as The Sea of Fertility: A Cycle of Four Novels, comprising Haru no yuki (1969; Spring Snow, 1972), Homba (1969; Runaway Horses, 1973), Akatsuki no tera (1970; The Temple of Dawn, 1973), and Tennin gosui (1971; The Decay of the Angel, 1974). In addition to the above-named works and several other significant novels, Mishima published some fine short fiction and a large quantity of other writings, ranging from literary criticism to slick formula fiction produced strictly to maintain his expensive lifestyle.


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The paradoxical Yukio Mishima brought to the West an awareness of modern Japan both as a unique culture and as a lively leader in the world, as a nation with much in common between its individuals and those of other cultures and an appreciation of the complexities of contemporary life. Most important, perhaps, he drew attention to human problems and human verities that stretch across the entirety of history. It was appropriate that he chose for much of his drama the ancient and classical N form as base, as its ultimate concerns are based in timelessness.

The young Mishima early gained the attention of the established novelist Yasunari Kawabata . Kawabata, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, was to be an advocate of Mishima’s work throughout his career. He participated in Mishima’s wedding to Yoko Sugiyama on June 1, 1958, and himself committed suicide seventeen months after Mishima. It was Kawabata who said of Mishima’s work, “Such a writer appears once in three hundred years.”

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Yukio Mishima wrote more than eighty short stories; twenty novels; more than twenty plays, several in the manner of the classical N dramas, as well as plays for the Kabuki theater; several essay collections; two travel books; a bit of poetry; and a handful of works that defy clear-cut classification.


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The collected works of Yukio Mishima form thirty-six volumes, more than the literary production of any other writer of his time. The Japanese writer best known outside Japan, from the viewpoint of Western critics he is the most gifted of the post-World War II writers. Mishima also combined his knowledge of classic Japanese literature and language with his wide knowledge of Western literature to produce plays for the Kabuki theater and the first truly successful modern N plays.

While uneven in some volumes, style is the most distinctive feature of Mishima’s work. His writing is characterized by beautiful but rarely lyric passages. Figures of speech, notable in his later works, are also present in his juvenilia. He consistently used ornate language, though he could also write realistic dialogue.

A Nobel Prize hopeful at least two times, Mishima is among those Japanese writers closest to attaining the rank of master of twentieth century fiction.

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In addition to serious novels and his lighter fictional“entertainments,” Yukio Mishima (mee-shee-mah) wrote a number of works in a variety of genres and styles. His short stories, particularly “Ykoku” (“Patriotism”), written in 1961,...

(This entire section contains 193 words.)

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are among his most sharply etched and emotionally charged works of narrative fiction. Mishima’s writing for the stage earned for him an important reputation as a dramatist in Japan, both in the older forms of twentieth century drama such asshimpa (a hybrid between Kabuki and modern theater), for which he created a masterful melodrama of nineteenth century Japan, Rokumeikan, in 1956, and in the contemporary theater, perhaps most effectively for the play Sado kshaku fujin (pr., pb. 1965; Madame de Sade, 1967). He also wrote dramas specifically composed for performance by traditional bunraku puppet troupes. Mishima’s modern versions of traditional Japanese No plays, reconceived for modern actors, were also widely admired.

In addition, Mishima earned considerable fame as an essayist, particularly for his confessional Taiy to tetsu (1968; Sun and Steel, 1970), in which he explored his newfound commitment to and trust in his body, superseding what he had come to see as the limitations inherent in the life of the mind.


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Many Japanese readers and critics, and a large number of enthusiastic readers of Yukio Mishima in translation, are willing to place him at the forefront of postwar Japanese writers, perhaps even among the best writers of the entire modern period in Japanese literature. There remains, however, a certain disparity between foreign and Japanese views of Mishima and his accomplishments. Many intellectuals in Japan view Mishima’s talents and attitudes with a certain reserve. For many Japanese, Mishima’s flamboyant life and death lacked the dignity appropriate to a great writer, yet his often sensational subject matter (homosexuality, right-wing patriotism, mental derangement) was not necessarily frowned upon per se. Nevertheless, the posture frequently adopted in Mishima’s writings of the novelist/narrator as a kind of voyeur seemed to some critics self-indulgent and inappropriate. It should be noted, however, that the very levels of emotional and erotic life that Mishima sought to chronicle were and are a part of human, specifically Japanese, mentality, and he bears genuine witness to aspects of Japanese life that may well make his novels and other works outlive their first popularity and attain a classic status.

One Japanese critic has remarked that Japan needed Mishima in the same way that Victorian England needed Oscar Wilde: Both writers used the beauty of the perverse to reveal crucial aspects of life in their societies that were tacitly banned from examination or open discussion. In many ways, Mishima was a man living out of his time, particularly because of his seemingly total lack of interest in social and political issues. The postwar literary scene in Japan has had at its center a considerable number of distinguished writers who show a genuine social commitment, often of a Marxist orientation. To such writers, Mishima merely seemed self-absorbed and narcissistic. The fact that Mishima, toward the end of his life, combined his aesthetic responses to life with a highly charged personal sort of homoerotic militarism that resulted in his own suicide remains distasteful and disturbing to many. In other ways, however, Mishima was the very prototype of the best-educated Japanese of his period—cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and often intellectually daring.

The legend of Mishima the man will doubtless continue to fascinate the general public, but at the same time, a certain amount of his work will surely continue to find an important place in the literary history of the twentieth century, for its beautiful language, psychological insights, and the close ties many of the works show with the techniques and philosophies of the great Japanese classical masterpieces so much admired and made use of by this most artful and self-aware of modern Japanese novelists.

Discussion Topics

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Yukio Mishima revived No plays. What are the features of these plays?

What did Mishima see as the chief reasons for the decay he saw in Japan?

Is the capacity to see beauty in the death of young warriors a defect in Mishima or primarily an unfortunate consequence of the circumstances through which he lived?

Mishima “bravely faced the worst in himself” and made art of the experience. Can you think of other writers of whom such a statement might be said?

Does the confessional mode of Confessions of a Mask contradict the expectations of a bildungsroman?

Is Mishima’s finding “an empty garden” at the end of his life a disappointing conclusion or a satisfactory one?


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Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Fiction. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. A massive study of the fiction produced since the Japanese “Enlightenment” in the nineteenth century. The last fifty-eight pages of the text are devoted to Mishima.

Keene, Donald. Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology. New York: Grove Press, 1956. Pieces compiled by Keene from various genres. His last selection is “Omi,” extracted from Confessions of a Mask. The evaluation of Mishima in Keene’s long introduction is of historical interest, because it was made so early in the novelist’s career.

Keene, Donald. Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciation of Japanese Culture. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1971. The section on Mishima and his work comments on a variety of his works but especially on Confessions of a Mask, because, atypically, this novel is autobiographical, providing insight into his thinking and his relation to his own work. As in most works, Mishima’s preoccupation with death is explored. Includes a short reading list but no index.

Keene, Donald. “Mishima in 1958.” The Paris Review 37 (Spring, 1995): 140-160. Keene recalls his 1958 interview with Mishima, in which Mishima discussed influences, his delight in “cruel stories,” the importance of traditional Japanese theater for him, and his novels and his other writing.

Miyoshi, Masao. Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Chapter 6 in part 2, “Mute’s Rage,” provides studies of two of Mishima’s major novels, Confessions of a Mask and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, as well as comments on works that Miyoshi considers to be important. Includes notes and an index.

Napier, Susan J. Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio and e Kenzabur. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Napier uncovers shocking similarities as well as insightful dissimilarities in the work of Mishima and e and ponders each writer’s place in the tradition of Japanese literature.

Nathan, John. Mishima: A Biography. 1974. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2000. The classic biography of Mishima, with a new preface by Nathan. Index.

Scott-Stokes, Henry. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima. Rev. ed. New York: Noonday Press, 1995. Following a personal impression of Mishima, Scott-Stokes presents a five-part account of Mishima’s life, beginning with the last day of his life. The author then returns to Mishima’s early life and the making of the young man as a writer. Part 4, “The Four Rivers,” identifies the rivers of writing, theater, body, and action, discussing in each subsection relevant events and works. Part 5 is a “Post-mortem.” Supplemented by a glossary, a chronology, a bibliography, and an index.

Starrs, Roy. Deadly Dialectics: Sex, Violence, and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishima. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. A critical and interpretive look at sex and violence in Mishima’s work. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976. Mishima is one of eight Japanese writers treated in this volume. While Ueda discusses certain novels in some detail, for the most part his discussion centers on philosophical and stylistic matters and suggests that Mishima’s pessimism derived more from his appraisal of the state of human civilization than from his views on the nature of literature. Includes a brief bibliography and an index.

Wolfe, Peter. Yukio Mishima. New York: Continuum, 1989. Wolfe asserts that common sense explains very little about motives in Mishima. “What makes him unusual is his belief that anything of value exists in close proximity to death.”

Yourcenar, Marguerite. Mishima: A Vision of the Void. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. This edition of a biography of Mishima published in 1986 contains a foreword by Donald Richie, a well-known critic and Japan expert.


Critical Essays