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Discussions of Recent Books, Winter 1975

ISSUE:  Winter 1975
The Decay of the Angel. By Yukio Mishima. Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. Alfred A. Knopf, $6.95. Mishima: A Biography. By John Nathan. Little, Brown and Company. $8.95. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima. By Henry Scott-Stokes. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $10.00.

THE words quoted above are reported by Henry Scott-Stokes as a fragment from an after-dinner speech, delivered in English by Yukio Mishima at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo on 18 April 1966, less than five years before his suicide. It is necessary to take these words seriously if one is to see Mishima’s life and works in something like a proper perspective. The two biographies here under consideration complement each other rather nicely, and from different sides, provide the student of modern Japanese literature with a background against which Mishima’s preoccupation with suicide and with illusion begins to take shape. John Nathan met Mishima in 1964 when he commenced the translation of “Gogo no Eiko,” a work which emerged in English under Nathan’s ingenious title, “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.” At the end of 1965, arrangements for Nathan’s translating of another of Mishima’s writings broke down, and the writer, “gravely offended,” decided that he wanted nothing more to do with this translator. Nathan observes that he never heard from Mishima or saw him again, and he thus joined the ever increasing number of persons—Keene, Weatherby, Morris; later Gallagher, Marks, Bester, and others—who have had the experience of rendering one or more of Mishima’s amazingly numerous works into English. But in 1971, curiously drawn by the personality of the man whom he had known rather well before their disagreement and whose death in 1970 had attracted world-wide attention, Nathan returned to Japan, and began work on a biography. He had counted on the help of Mishima’s father, Azusa, and of his circle of friends but, quite unexpectedly, Mishima’s widow, Yoko, volunteered her assistance, and his mother, Shizue, agreed to meet with Nathan, though she insisted that these meetings be in private. As himself a literary man, Nathan’s insights into the secret imaginative background of Mishima’s thought and action are highly illuminating.

Henry Scott-Stokes’ book might well have been titled “The Death and Life of Yukio Mishima.” The first chapter is an account of the tragicomic affair in Room 201 of the Headquarters Building at Ichigaya in Tokyo, which culminated in the ritual suicide of Mishima and his aide. ScottStokes had come to know the famous author well when, in 1967, he returned to Japan as Bureau Chief of The Times of London. His biography which, following the opening chapter, is developed chronologically, shows a good journalist’s keen eye for detail and lively reportorial style; his decision to begin his book with an account of the bungled, but eventually successful suicide is highly effective since it focuses one’s attention on this gory event, thus providing the opportunity of the reader’s searching for himself in the subsequent chapters for explanatory themes. Four of Japan’s best-known writers of modem times have committed suicide: Yasunari Kawabata, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968; Osamu Dazai, author of one of the earliest major Japanese novels to be translated into English; Ryunosuke Akutagawa, author of “Roshomon” and innumerable other stories; and Yukio Mishima, whose real name was Kimitake Hiraoka. Mishima’s nom de plume— which, in the light of later events, might well be termed a nom de guerre—was carefully chosen when, at the age of sixteen, he published “Hanazakari no Mori,” “The Forest in Full Bloom.” (It may be noted here that at least seven other prominent Japanese novelists of the twentieth century have taken their own lives; it is doubtful that their names would be familiar to Western readers.) The suicide which Mishima had carefully planned was of the sort which is commonly and improperly termed hara-kiri, which literally suggests stomach-cutting, a name not used in Japan. The proper designation for this complicated, ritualistic procedure (which is indeed a stomach-cutting) is seppuku, an extraordinarily painful and difficult performance. ScottStokes’ account of Mishima’s last act is detailed, precise, and almost intolerably vivid. Few records, for instance, include the horrible olfactory aspects. In his short story, “Patriotism,” Mishima had preceded Scott-Stokes in his step-by-step description of seppuku; his own, on 25 November 1970, was marred by the inept handling of the beheading blade by his companion, Morita.

I once asked a close friend of Mishima’s whether he had anticipated that this highly successful author, three times mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize for literature, would in fact take his own life. He replied “No,” but then added, “but I should have.” That Mishima was deeply disappointed at not having been awarded the Prize was clear to all who knew him; but one is inclined to believe that this disappointment had absolutely nothing to do with his suicide. When word was received that the 1968 Nobel Prize had gone to his friend and mentor, Kawabata, Mishima immediately sat down and wrote a singularly beautiful tribute to the elderly author. The roots of Mishima’s death lie far deeper.

One of the Western writings which most impressed Mishima was Ruth Benedict’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.” Repeatedly, he referred to this work as the one book in English which came close to interpreting to the West what he felt could never really be portrayed, the essential Japanese nature. His own representation of the enigmatic character of the men of Yamato is contained in his final work, the tetralogy which he entitled “The Sea of Fertility.” The title, he told Donald Keene, “is intended to suggest the arid sea of the moon that belies its name.” The images contained in this lengthy work are complex and difficult. Occasionally, one feels that they are confused. But just when one becomes really irritated, one encounters passages of amazing clarity and beauty. Earlier writings which attracted great attention, both here and in Japan, were sometimes strongly autobiographical: “Confessions of a Mask” (1949) and “Forbidden Colors” (1951). Here, the personal turmoil of his early sexual yearnings and satisfactions, projected against the rich tapestry of illusion and its resolution, are in the forefront. Much of this material seems to represent a reaction against a domineering, aristocratic grandmother. But Mishima soon found he was capable of moving freely in other directions. In “The Sound of Waves” (1954) and in “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” (1956), for example, his themes involve a classical simplicity and the refinement (or perhaps, the over-refinement) of taste. His No plays exhibit a deep sensitivity for the Japanese theatrical tradition. His appreciation of the rôle of the samurai in the architectonic of Japanese life was represented in his organizing of his tatenokai, a kind of private army, unarmed but loyal to the traditional values as Mishima understood them. His final and crowning work was his tetralogy, the manuscript for the last volume of which he completed and delivered on the morning of his death. “The Decay of the?> Angel” ends in a scene of transcendent beauty which rises from the muck of sickness and old age. The principal character, Honda, suffers from a mysterious intestinal ailment at the age of eighty. Honda’s previous existence is set forth in the three preceding volumes: “Spring Snow” (1968), “Runaway Horses” ( 1969), and “The Temple of the Dawn” (1970). Mishima, just forty-five years of age, felt he had said everything he had to say about samsara, the force of karma, and the theory of rebirth. His own death sets forth his loyalty to the spirit of the samurai, however clumsily and amateurishly it may have been accomplished. The chrysanthemum and the sword came together for Mishima on the twenty-fifth of November 1970.


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