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The Ballad Of Mishima April 22, 2008

Posted by Mitch in Random.

In previous entries I’ve mentioned the Japanese author, Yukio Mishima and, having just finished a biography of him, I decided to share a little about him.

He was born Kimitake Hiraoka (公威平岡) and began writing ridiculously early. Even though his writing style began, and indeed remained, flowery and philosophical, the sheer fact that he was able to compose works so erudite at such a young age, is indication enough of his genius. In one of his first pieces of fiction, called Sorrel: A Memory of Youth, he told the story of a 6 year old who happens upon an escaped convict:

He took from his pocket a white ball and threw it high into the air…The sky clung to the ball, rose, then fell with terrible swiftness. He caught the ball and rejoiced, as if he had captured the blue sky. Then he breathed the air, deeply…It was more like eating than breathing. Into his mouth he stuffed the air with its strange taste and fragrance…
The man sighed…”I had a child. A pretty boy just like you…Now he is a seagull flying above the vast sea. And when he spies the silver glitter of scales among the waves he thrusts his neck into the water and he says, I was murdered on the grey evening sea. My murderer sank to the dark, dark bottom. Until he floats to the surface I must remain suspended here on these white wings in the low clouds of the sky…But the devil who killed that poor poor seagull has found his way up to the surface. And you know who showed him the way – it was you.”

I could quote interesting excepts from all of his books, but I realise that most people have neither the patience nor a tolerance for wordy, long-winded passages. But as a man he was also fascinating. In his life as an author, he never missed a deadline. His final tetralogy, collectively referred to as The Sea of Fertility, was in fact finished almost an entire year before the last installment was required. He had two very differing styles. He was able to write long, theological and philosophical novels that explored a whole array of complex emotions inherent in him, but also managed to turn out a popular, contemporary chick-lit novel once a year. He wrote many plays, his main expertise in resurrecting archaic kabuki-style language and tackling the task of updating traditional Nō theatre. He even wrote a ballet, titled Miranda. He was fascinated by the Ancient Greek emphasis on classical beauty and travelled there twice as a pilgrimage. He had a rather disturbing blood-lust that is made clear in his almost autobiographical novel (and the first released as a “serious” author), Confessions of a Mask where he indicates his erotic desire to murder his male classmates and eat parts of them. His sado-masochistic tendencies stayed with him until his death in 1970, when he committed ritual seppuku. He conceived the idea of the beautiful death and took delight in the bloody deaths suffered by knights when fighting dragons in fairy tales. He was enamoured with a picture in one of his childhood books of a knight riding bravely into a battle that had very little possibility of victory. When he discovered that it was actually a picture of Joan of Arc, he lost all interest in it, rejecting her femininity. He valued the masculine willingness to die for the Emperor and relished his chance to prove his support for the Imperial Family. That said, when he was required to take a physical exam to determine suitability for the Imperial Army, he faked a case of tuberculosis and was dismissed. By all accounts, he looked on that day as his gravest mistake. If he had been conscripted, the face of modern Japanese literature would be vastly different.

In general, most of his works weren’t greatly appreciated by the critics whilst he was alive. But there were certain novels that helped gain him the esteem he wanted and needed. Confessions of a Mask continued to sell about 50,000 copies a year from when it was published until he died. It would not be doubtful that this number rose following his very public demise. He did become a public figure as well. He was garish and favoured Western etiquette, even though towards the end of his life he became a staunch imperialist. He was quite hirsute for a Japanese man (I had to look up ‘hirsute’ when I first read it – it means hairy) and would walk through the streets of Tokyo in an open shirt, revealing his supposed masculinity. The thing is, he wasn’t overly masculine. He starred as gangsters in a few movies and even though his acting bettered as the years passed, critics all agreed that his features were far too gentle and so when the camera closed-in he was betrayed as lacking a certain manliness associated with such roles.

As his ideals became more and more extreme and Rightist, he set up a society called the Tate-no-kai, or Shield Society. Their role was to undertake military training in order to become the Emperor’s own army. Ironically, Mishima despised the Emperor (at that time, Hirohito) for his renunciation of his divinity, following Japan’s defeat in World War II. He idolised what he called the Emperor of Culture – the idea of all Japanese culture descending from the Emperor. Following the growing decadence of Japan at that time, Hirohito was apparently unworthy of this title.

As mentioned previously, Mishima was enthralled by the image of the beautiful death. However, he reasoned that death could only be beautiful if the dying body was beautiful. So he set about weight training and, for the last 15 years of his life, religiously trained 3 times a week, come what may. He neglected to work on his legs, however, and so became rather visually odd – he had weak, thin legs to support his bulky upper body.

With the Tate-no-kai, he found an outlet for his fanaticism. Tired and bemused by the new system of government, they planned to storm the training ground of the Japanese Self Defence Forces, enlist these men to help and then march on the government, determined to reinstate the divinity of the Emperor. Mishima desired a kirijini death. This was a warrior’s death in battle and so he was truly ready to give his life for his cause. The possibility of such a death decreased, the more the Tate-no-kai gained notoriety. Together, he and a select few planned their first and only coup. On 25th November 1970, Mishima and a handful of others barracaided themselves in the office of the Commandant, taking the man prisoner. According to the group’s wishes, the men of the Self Defence Forces were gathered below the balcony. Mishima intended to speak for 30 minutes, rallying support for their attack on the Japanese Diet (the government). He was drowned out by the boos and jeers from the crowd and cut his speech short after only seven minutes. He then retired inside and drove a sword into his side. Dragging it across his abdomen, he sliced open his stomach. He had intended to write the Japanese character for sword on a piece of paper in front of him, but the pain was too much. Instead, he gave the signal and his second swung his sword. Unfortunately, the blow failed to decapitate the author, increasing the unbearable pain. After a second failed attempt, Morita (the man Mishima named as his decapitator) relinquished his sword and another man finished the deed. Morita then also committed seppuku and the same man decapitated him too. The commandant was released and all present bowed to the corpses.

The author of the biography, John Nathan, speculates that the pain of the deed, besides being incredible and overwhelming, probably held an erotic desire in Mishima, who had spent all his life dreaming of this death and had actually been planning it for well over a year, with the help of Morita. In the words of Mishima’s brother “[He] always wanted to exist but never could.” Even Mishima’s mother dubbed the funeral as a celebration, as death was the only thing that he had done that he had truly wanted to do.

My Favourite Japanese Author



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