Profile: Yukio Mishima

It’s hard to discuss mercurial writer, playwright Yukio Mishima (January 14, 1925 -— November 25, 1970) without the spectre of his demise casting a pall on the dialogue.

From Wikipedia (edited for conciseness):

On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four cohorts visited the commandant of the Ichigaya Camp – the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. Once inside, they proceeded to barricade the office and tied the commandant to his chair. With a prepared manifesto and banner listing their demands, Mishima stepped onto the balcony to address the gathered soldiers below. His speech was intended to inspire them to stage a coup d’etat and restore the Emperor to his rightful place. He succeeded only in irritating them and was mocked and jeered. As he was unable to make himself heard, he finished his planned speech after only a few minutes. He stepped back into the commandant’s office and committed seppuku (ritual suicide).

Now that’s an exit.

The full story on Mishima is complex and troubling: a sheltered child raised by a temperamental and artistocratic grandmother (who came from a samurai bloodline), only to return at the age of 12 to his parents. His father was a strict disciplinarian and it is suggested that his relationship with his mother bordered on incestuous.

Writing in secret (so that his father wouldn’t find out), Mishima’s stories focused on recurring themes of death, obsession, dishonour, and the consequences of unexamined emotions.

Mishima was gay, yet paradoxically (considering the society he inhabited) became obsessed with martial arts and militaristic self-discipline.

Of his more popular works is The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea.The novel takes place in post-WWII Japan and concerns the blooming love between a sailor on-leave and a wealthy industrialist whose son is part of a devilishly manipulative cabal of disaffected local children.

His critically-praised work includes the semi-autobiographical Confessions of a Mask and the fiction tetralogy Sea of Fertility. Mishima submitted the final draft of the fourth novel in the series, The Decay of the Angel, to his publisher on the same fateful day he and his colleagues would drive to the military school.

Having read a selection of his work (Confessions, Sailor, and the short story collection Acts of Wisdom), it’s clear that Mishima was an individual tortured by his own demons. One may argue he was born into a society which could never support his dynamic shape. His narrative style is poetic and sensual, though often critical of society and soaked with the tragedy of characters misdirected by love and self-discipline. Beautiful though they are, Mishima’s stories are often dark and painful. It’s for this reason I would be lying if I said I read his work regularly – though I wouldn’t hesitate to describe them as rewarding (if not seminal) works for the fiction reader.

If you’re curious about Yukio Mishima – and while I would not call it a definitive example – you may want to check out Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a film by Paul Schrader (who wrote Taxi Driver). It blends the story of his untimely death with lusciously visual renderings of some of his short stories.


3 Replies to “Profile: Yukio Mishima”

  1. “Mishima was gay, yet paradoxically (considering the society he inhabited) became obsessed with martial arts and militaristic self-discipline.”

    This is not paradoxical at all. Mishima was always a very divided, bipolarized, individual which I believe his works also reflect. E.g. his awe of the West and at the same time contempt for having spoiled the beautiful culture of his native Japan. Mishima was very much fascinated with ancient Greece and Eros-belief. He worshipped the male body in an aesthetic way as well as a sexual. Strength and power are the foundation of this aspect. Thus correlating with his immanent love of tragic death and martyrism.

  2. Anonymous,

    Thanks for your perspective. It was not my intention to say that Mishima being gay was, in itself, paradoxical to his militaristic interests (which would only be a fallacy). Perhaps clumsily, I felt that someone as inward and sheltered as he was – whose work often focused on the damaged personalities of his characters – would “follow the sword” so to speak, which in my mind seems a strange and somewhat unconscious departure from the reality of his character.

    I will admit that it sounds as if you know more about Mishima than I do (and I don’t profess to know much), so your comment is certainly informative.

    Thanks again.

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