~Human life is limited, but I want to live forever~
On November 25, 1970, novelist Yukio Mishima put the finishing touches to the last instalment of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. Then, together with four members of his Tate no Kai (“Shield Society”) private army, he drove to the headquarters of Japan’s Self Defense Forces and asked for an audience with the four star general in charge.
Once in the general’s office, Mishima produced a seventeenth century sword, gagged and bound the man, and demanded that troops be gathered in the square below so that he could harangue them from the balcony. When they answered his call for insurrection against Japan’s democratic government with heckling and jeers, Mishima went back inside and committed seppuku, an agonizing form of ritual suicide which involved disembowelling himself and being decapitated by one of his young comrades.
I’m old enough to have watched the BBC news report about the “Mishima incident”, and young enough not to have had a clue what it meant. I seem to remember dark words about “rising Japanese militarism” and a general feeling that such an act was only to be expected from the Japanese.
Some years later, I came to work in Japan and found that both ideas were false. There was no trace of militarism in the air, and seppuku, vulgarly known as hara-kiri, had not been practiced since the end of the war. Mishima’s act was a deliberately anachronistic one-off that seemed to bewilder Japanese acquaintances as much as me.
When I asked a business colleague what he thought of it, he answered “crazy,” echoing the word used by Prime Minister Eisaku Sato when he heard of Mishima’s suicide. It was a convenient way of dismissing the whole disturbing episode from the national consciousness, which as the eighties boom gathered momentum, seemed to be what people wanted.
By this time, I had enjoyed several of Mishima’s novels in translation, and had also read biographies by Henry Scott-Stokes and John Nathan, both of whom had known him well. There was no doubt that Mishima was an extraordinarily talented writer who would have been worthy of the Nobel Prize that he was nominated for three times.
He was also extraordinarily active in a wide variety of fields, such as Noh theatre, kabuki, photography, body-building, boxing, karate, kendo, night-clubbing, acting in gangster and samurai films, breaking the sound barrier in a jet-fighter, as well as drilling his paramilitary outfit and planning his own death in minute detail. All this while maintaining his prolific literary outputーdivided into serious novels of ideas, and entertainment dashed off for the mass market.
Readers of Heibon Punch magazine, the Japanese equivalent of Playboy, crowned him the coolest man in Japan, ahead of actor Toshiro Mifune and baseball hero Shigeo Nagashima. The word the magazine used to describe him was the English “superstar.”
Many famous writersーJapanese and non-Japaneseーhave committed suicide. Many have strongly held political opinions. Generally, though, writers write and talk and, these days, publicize their opinions on social media. It is impossible to imagine Haruki Murakami or, for that matter, Jonathan Franzen or Margaret Atwood, organizing a private army and inciting a coup d’etat.
Mishima was influenced by Wang Yangming Confucianism, which holds that “knowing without acting is not knowing.” In other words, you have to walk the talk.
Looking Back on Mishima’s Message 50 Years Later
As the events of fifty years ago slip further into the past, they seem more astonishing not less; something that might happen in one of Mishima’s stranger stories, rather than in everyday life.
Indeed, violent death figured prominently in Mishima’s literary production, beginning with his startlingly frank autobiographical novel, Confessions of a Mask (Shinchosha, Japanese, 1949) written when he was 24 and replete with masochistic fantasies. In 1965, Mishima wrote, directed and starred in a film called “Patriotism” (Japanese title: Yukoku (1960), meaning “Grieving for Your Country”), which depicts the act of seppuku in slow, lingering detail.
If Mishima was acting out some dark private desires, he was also making a clear political statement by imploring the soldiers in his last speech to ”protect our emperor-centred Japanese tradition, our history, our culture” by rising up and forcing constitutional change. It is impossible to separate the personal from the political in Mishima’s ultimate piece of performance art.
That’s not to say that he didn’t see the absurd side of his project, which he hinted at in a published conversation with poet-playwright Shuji Terayama five months before his death. “It’s not an accident that Don Quixote encounters strange things,” he mused. “It’s caused by his personality… Don Quixote is a daydreamer. Things that a daydreamer encounters in this world are windmills and suchlike. So I’m a Don Quixote.”
Japan’s 1980s boom has slipped into the past too, and some of Mishima’s ideological positions – on constitutional approval of the Self-Defense Forces, on protecting cultural traditions – no longer seem so extreme. Perhaps it is for this reason that Mishima seems more popular than before.
Currently, Amazon Japan ranks one of Mishima’s light novels, Yukio Mishima’s Letter-Writing Class, (Shinchosha, Japanese, 1968) as number two best-seller in the Japanese language literature section, placing far above works by Beat Takeshi and mystery queen Natsuo Kirino. Not bad for a writer who has been dead for half a century.
Another entertaining work, Life for Sale, was turned into a six part Amazon Prime series for Japanese viewers in 2016.
Meanwhile, doing the round of Japanese cinemas is a fascinating documentary called Mishima: The Last Debate. Compiled from recently discovered footage, it shows Mishima’s face-off with 1,000 student radicals, who were occupying a Tokyo University lecture hall during the violent street protests of 1969. (Preview available, here.)
The clash between extreme left and extreme right turns out to be nothing of the sort as Mishima disarms the hotheads with his wit and charm. Such is the meeting of minds that he even attempts later to recruit one of the student leaders into his private army!
More of Mishima’s work is becoming available in English, including the aforementioned Life for Sale (English, Penguin, 2019) There are also two more biographies. “Persona” is a meticulously researched doorstopper by Naoki Inose, novelist and ex-governor of Tokyo, and Hiroaki Sato. “Yukio Mishima” is by Britain’s own Damian Flanagan.
Another British Mishima enthusiast was the late David Bowie, who appears to have planned his own death in 2016 with Mishima-like artistic precision. Bowie owned a bronze bust of Mishima sculpted by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, and referred to Mishima’s novel Spring Snow (1969) in his 2013 album, The Next Day.
Then we saw Mishima’s dog
Trapped between the rocks
Blocking the waterfall
In continental Europe, Mishima never really went away. Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman to become a member of the Academie Francaise, published a highly sympathetic portrait in 1983, describing him as “a true representative of a Japan which was, like Mishima himself, violently Westernized, and yet remained distinguished by certain immutable characteristics.”
In the 1990s, Isabelle Huppert starred in a French adaptation of Mishima’s novel The School of Flesh (Shuesha, Japanese, 1964), and the great Ingmar Bergman directed theatrical and TV versions of Mishima’s play, Madame de Sade (first performance, 1965).
All this would have been music to the ears of Mishima, who craved international recognition and reveled in his domestic stardom. On the day of his death, he left a note behind declaring “Human life is limited, but I want to live forever.”
Author: Peter Tasker