seppuku

DEATH IN MIDSUMMER & OTHER STORIES BY YUKIO MISHIMA

Throughout my life I have written hundreds of short stories; some stretching to thousands of words, and some only a paragraph or two. It’s strange that someone who admits to avoiding short fiction, for the most part, would be so drawn to writing it himself. Although I guess it sums up my personality. In any case, it isn’t that I don’t like short stories but, rather, that I think most of them are poor [including my own, most likely]. The masters of the form – Carver, Chekhov et al – show that at its best it is capable of capturing something of the true, and often banal, profundity of human existence in a way that nothing else can. In my writing, I’m somewhat obsessed with the idea of snapshots or moments, of dropping in on someone’s life for only a few minutes or hours, because when I think about my own life that is how I see it: in moments, not as some detailed, linear narrative.

To the list of ‘masters of the form’ I now want to add Yukio Mishima. I’ve long been an admirer of his writing, but had, until now, never sampled his short fiction. It seems impossible to discuss Mishima without referencing his strange personal life and beliefs [I have done so in all my previous reviews of his work]. I do not want to go over all that again in detail, except to say that on the basis of the title, Death in Midsummer, some other reviews I have come across, and the author’s biography, I found myself surprised by how normal, how free of perversity, and shock value these stories are. They are, in the main, domestic, focusing on relationships, specifically marriage, and children. It is a reminder that no matter how odd certain aspects of someone’s life is or was, it does not account for the whole person; Mishima may have been a fanatic, a fascist, a crazy man, but there was clearly a tender and empathetic side to him, involving a deep understanding of ordinary people, otherwise he would never have been able to write these stories.

Having said all that, the most well-known story in the collection, Patriotism, is as unnerving as anything I have ever read. It features a couple, a lieutenant in the army and his wife, who commit ritual suicide, one by disembowelling himself, and the other by stabbing herself in the throat. For the husband his death is about honour. He does not want to attack a group of rebels, whose cause he believes in, and yet he has been asked to do just that. And so instead of following orders he takes his own life. There is something, for me, attractive about this kind of action, this utter, fatal commitment to one’s principles. When I look around me, I get the impression that honour and integrity are in short supply, that most people these days are only really concerned with themselves and what benefits them, and so while I do not want anyone to meet a gruesome death, I admire Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama nevertheless.

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[From Patriotism, a short film directed by Mishima, which is based on the story of the same name]

For any sensitive readers, it is necessary to point out that Mishima does not flinch. In the story, the man’s wife is asked to watch, to bear witness, to the event, and we, as the reader, are put in the same position. So we stay with the lieutenant as he slowly slices open his stomach, as his insides fall out, as he breathes his last breath. It is brilliantly written, but is, still, incredibly unpleasant. Knowing what we know about Mishima [he too committed seppuku], it would be tempting to view Patriotism [especially considering that title] as a form of propaganda, as a kind of love letter to nationalism and ritual suicide. It is undeniably the case that he writes about seppuku in glowing terms. For example, according to Mishima, Shinji “contemplated death with severe brows and firmly closed lips” and “revealed what was perhaps masculine beauty at its most superb.”

However, it is interesting that, while as a standalone story it might be viewed in that way, and considered distasteful, as part of the Death in Midsummer collection it struck me as being primarily about marriage and intimacy, rather than suicide. The two characters have a strong and loving relationship, this is seen not only in the wife agreeing to follow her husband into death [she dies for her husband, not for a cause or principle], but in the way that he asks her to witness his own [which is unusual]. Furthermore, in doing so he trusts that she will follow him, and that she will not attempt to save him once he has commenced the act. In fact, the decision to die provokes even greater intimacy and love between them, and they actually have sex before performing the ritual. If you forget about seppuku for a moment, one can understand the story as an investigation into the idea that mortality gives fresh impetus to life; that they are about to die makes the couple love and cherish and appreciate each other even more.

“Reiko had not kept a diary and was now denied the pleasure of assiduously rereading her record of the happiness of the past few months and consigning each page to the fire as she did so.”

While Patriotism may be the most [in]famous story in this collection – and I did enjoy it, as much as that is possible – it is certainly not the best. That accolade I would give to the title story, which also happens to be the longest. Death in Midsummer begins at the beach, one that is “still unspoiled for sea bathing” and where the sand is “rich and white.” Three children are present with their aunt, while their mother takes a nap back at the hotel. Initially, all seems idyllic, but there is something ominous in the air. First of all, the mother is described as ‘girl-like,” almost suggesting that she ought not to have children yet, a suggestion that is given extra weight by the fact that she is not with them, that she has let them go off with someone else. Even more worrying is the line “it was height of summer and there was anger in the rays of the sun.” Where or at what or who is this anger directed?

You may never get a straightforward answer to that question, but before too long the significance of the title becomes apparent. The aunt and two of the three children die. From this point onwards, Death in Midsummer becomes an investigation into the nature of grief, one that is as honest, as moving, and as beautiful as Tolstoy’s masterpiece The Death of Ivan Ilych. As one would expect, the mother blames herself somewhat, especially as the aunt is not alive to shoulder the burden of blame herself; indeed, she likens telling her husband [who did not go on holiday with the rest of the family] about the accident to having to stand before a judge. I found this entirely believable, regardless of whether anyone is actually to blame [and one could argue that they are not in this instance] it is not unusual to feel as though you are guilty of something when a terrible thing happens near you or around you. There is guilt in living, in avoiding trouble or death. Mishima also touches upon the guilt felt by those who survive a tragedy when they notice that they are moving on, as though such a thing ought to not be possible if you really care. Again, the mother thinks in terms of criminals, and compares herself, in getting on with her life, to someone getting away with a crime.

There are almost too many psychological insights and highlights; every paragraph, every sentence almost, contains some touching observation. Such as when the husband receives the news, and he likens it to having been dismissed from his job. Or when he asks for the news to be repeated, even though he knows it will not change the second time around. Or when the wife admits to feeling as though sorrow ought to come with special privileges. Or when Mishima notes that death is an administrative affair, involving certain expected responses and a lot of organising and planning. Or, finally, when he highlights the poverty of human emotions, whereby one’s response is the same, regardless of whether one person dies or ten. I could indulge myself and write a paragraph about each of these things, but I won’t. What I will say is that, as with Patriotism, in less capable and sensitive hands Death in Midsummer could have been melodramatic, even exploitative. It is to the author’s credit that the heart of the tale is not dead children, but that of a grieving couple surviving, staying together.

There are, of course, other stories, but I will not linger over those. I do, however, want to briefly touch upon Mishima’s subtlety as a writer. At the very beginning of this review I mentioned Raymond Carver. His collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is one of my favourites, and what I most like about it, and the author, is how light his touch was. I sometimes get so tired of reading things where everything is spelled out for you, where the how’s and why’s and what’s are raked over in great detail. Carver didn’t do that, and nor did Mishima here. Indeed, there are two stories that perplexed me until I had put the book down and given them some thought, where what had actually happened wasn’t immediately clear, was ambiguous. I loved having to work a little bit, to engage my mind, to interpret gestures and responses for myself. For example, in Thermos Bottles, Mishima does not outright tell you that the wife had been unfaithful, and yet one thinks that she was because of the way the ‘other man’ talks about the couple’s child, with authority, as though he knows it in a way that he ought not to. I thought that was handled brilliantly, and the same could be said of Three Million Yen. The only one that did not grab my attention was Onnagata, but that perhaps says more about the company it finds itself in than the quality of  the story itself.

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RUNAWAY HORSES [THE SEA OF FERTILITY VOL.2] BY YUKIO MISHIMA

In the decadent West people often get together and have all kinds of pointless, speculative conversations. The current political climate being what it is, one subject that frequently comes up, at least amongst my friends, is whether you would be prepared to die for a cause, or an ideal. During these debates my position is unequivocal; my answer is a firm no. No. Never. Not under any circumstances. My vehemence can, in part, be explained by my cowardice. I am, I freely admit, a rum coward. I’m not dying before my time for anything, or anyone. Yet I do also have philosophical objections. The problem for me with any ideal – truth, honour, justice, whatever – is that they don’t concretely exist, or they don’t exist, as some kind of Platonic form, outside of man. Someone who dies for an ideal is, to me, just a dead idiot, because their ideal, which is necessarily subjective in character, dies with them. So, when a suicide bomber blows himself or herself up, or if a monk sets himself on fire, I’m not concerned with which side of the political fence that person sits, I’m more struck by their illogical, flawed thinking.

Ordinarily my stance does not cause me any problems. I speculate, I argue, then I go home and, I dunno, have a wank and watch TV [this is a joke, I don’t have a TV]. However, as I came to read Runaway Horses, the second volume of Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, I realised that my rationalist frame of mind prevented me from being able to fully engage with large parts of the book. Of course, it is not necessary to be able to identity with Iaso Iinuma, the young would-be militant-terrorist at the centre of the novel, and, in any case, even I am able to understand, even to some extent appreciate, the quixotic nature of living a life of purity and heroism, but a lot of Runaway Horses philosophically and spiritually left me cold. For example, the pamphlet The League of the Divine Wind, which deals with a samurai rebellion/insurrection, and which appears in its entirety [60 pages, ffs], was unfathomably dry [I didn’t think it possible to make reading about the samurai so boring, but Mishima managed it – perhaps this was intentional?], and alien in its glorification of violence and ritual suicide. This kind of thing isn’t limited to the pamphlet either; there’s a lot of stuff in the book, voiced mainly by Iaso and his followers of course, about the beauty of death, or ‘sublime death,’ which at times took on almost an erotic flavour. I just cannot, no matter how hard I try, get my head around all that, nor do I really want to, because if there’s one thing I don’t think is attractive, that I will never be able to accept, it is that.

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It is Honda’s presence that was crucial in terms of me being able to navigate the novel; without him I think I may not have persevered beyond the opening stages. If you have read Spring Snow you will know Honda as the studious and serious friend of Kiyoaki Matsugae. In that book I felt as though his role was somewhat confused; he was a rationalist, and yet unquestioningly helped his friend in his irrational endeavours. Yet even if you wanted to see him as the voice of reason – which is, I think, how Mishima saw him – he was too much of a peripheral figure. What I mean by this is that one could have cut his character entirely, and the book would have had largely the same impact. In Runaway Horses, he is a thirty eight year old judge. He is then more mature and confident, of course, and much is made, by the author, of his reserved and logical approach; therefore he is the perfect foil for Isao. Importantly, although he is largely absent from the middle section of the book, this time around he is much more central to the plot and actually raises objections when confronted with the boy’s fanaticism. For example, when Iaso loans Honda a copy of The League of the Divine Wind pamphlet the judge returns it with a letter explaining his concerns about the impact such a text could have on a young man.

“Every excitement that could send one pitching headlong is dangerous.” “The League of the Divine Wind is a drama of tragic perfection. This was a political event that was so remarkable throughout that it almost seems to be a work of art. it was a crucible in which a purity of resolve was put to the test in a manner rarely encountered in history. But one should by no means confuse this tale of dreamlike beauty of another time with the circumstances of present-day reality.”

Moreover, not only does Honda give voice to some of your own queries and bemusement [or my bemusement anyway], but he allows one to read the book as an investigation into extremism, rather than simply as propaganda. This is hugely important. I’ve written before about how I am not at all interested in judging the private lives of authors; and that holds true here too. However, that does not mean that if the author’s private life, or dubious politics, filtered through into the work that one cannot comment or criticise; it simply means that I would not reject a work solely on the basis of any controversy surrounding the author’s behaviour. Mishima, it is always worth reiterating, was a fanatic Nationalist himself, at least towards the end of his life; and these things as subjects are dealt with in Runaway Horses. So far, so what. It becomes an issue only because there are parts of this book where violent extremism is written about in glowing terms, where Iaso and his followers are glorified:

“Izutsu showed his lovely recklessness. He spoke out gallantly, his face flushed and glowing.”

Lovely recklessness? Really? At times the language in the novel made me shift uncomfortably in my seat, although, if you were being as fair as possible, you could say it is, as with Spring Snow, merely a case of the style being in tune with the subject. Yet I don’t buy that, I’m afraid. So, Honda is vital, or was vital for me, because he shows that Mishima was prepared to question – at least in his work – Iaso’s beliefs. Without that questioning, even though Honda isn’t entirely out of sympathy with the extremists, one could have put Runaway Horses in the same category as The Birth of a Nation.

As you can tell, the book caused me quite some consternation, and my thoughts about it, as the structure of this review will no doubt attest, are far from clear. Would I recommend it? No, or certainly not to the casual reader, because it isn’t actually a very good novel. In certain circumstances, however, one might consider it worth reading. First of all, Mishima once said in an interview that Japanese culture or mentality is defined by both elegance and brutality; while I am not in a position to say whether that is entirely true I would say that certainly Mishima’s own personality was centred around that dichotomy; and so the rugged Runaway Horses, especially when paired with the graceful Spring Snow, is useful if one wants to know more about the man himself, and about how he saw the world.

Secondly, there are probably very few books that are as relevant, almost terrifyingly so, as this one is right now. Alien, baffling, and glorifying it might be, but this is a genuine glimpse into the workings of extremist/terrorist groups, and the mindset of the individuals involved, from someone who knew what he was talking about; this is not irony, it is not satire, it is the real deal. So, we see the young boy who is seduced by quixotic right-wing literature, a boy whose family-home life is a source of unhappiness or embarrassment [in what was the only time Mishima attempted to look for an excuse or explanation of Iaso’s frame of mind he mentions that he would have been aware and shamed by his mother’s less than chaste past – his interest in manly endeavours could, in this regard, be thrown into a new light]. We also see how levelling fanaticism can be; Iaso and his followers all lack personality, they are full of rhetoric and psychobabble but very few individual characteristics. If you have come across any true accounts of young men becoming enamoured with fanaticism this will be a familiar tale.

Finally, while Runaway Horses is at times fascinating, if you view the book dispassionately and adjust your expectations accordingly, it is only really enjoyable – in the conventional sense – in relation to the previous volume, Spring Snow. When one reads a multi-volume work half of the fun is in the development of certain characters as they age and have children, get married and so on. In Runaway Horses, Honda appears again, as previously mentioned, as does Iinuma, Prince Toin, and Marquis Matsugae, the father of the central character from Spring Snow, Kiyoaki. However, Iaso Iinuma is not only the son of Kiyoaki’s former tutor, he is, as far as Honda is concerned, the reincarnation of Kiyoaki himself. For a western reader, this seems like a bold, potentially ridiculous, move, and yet Mishima manages to pull it off. In fact, that Iaso was once Kiyoaki gives his character a depth he would otherwise lack, for one is able to see his passion in terms of Kiyoaki’s passion – one is for an ideal and the other was for a girl, but both are irrational, immature and destructive. Furthermore, the nature of reincarnation is that one is reborn because of mistakes, or sins, in a past life; Kiyoaki was effete and ineffectual, Iaso is the opposite; so it is almost as though the soul or essence of Kiyoaki has gone from one extreme to another. The two characters are, on the surface, completely different yet ultimately very similar; and I thought that was very clever and satisfying.

SPRING SNOW [THE SEA OF FERTILITY VOL.1] BY YUKIO MISHIMA

Has there ever been a stranger novelist than Yukio Mishima? On the one hand, he was a body-building Nationalist, who advocated bushido, the samurai code; he also, as many know, committed seppuku, which is a ritual form of suicide involving disembowelling and beheading. You don’t, it is fair to say, get that kind of thing with Julian Barnes and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

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Yet, on the other hand, Mishima was undeniably a cultured man, who spoke English and dressed in the English fashion; he was a bisexual who acted in films and wrote plays as well as novels and short stories. It is almost as though he embodied the conflict – that of the traditional and reserved vs. the modern and progressive – that until very recently so dominated most of the great Japanese literature, and about which his own work, especially Spring Snow, is also concerned.

In what is perhaps a nod to Murasaki Shikibu’s monumental Tale of Genji, Spring Snow is primarily focussed on a preternaturally beautiful young man. As with the shining prince, everyone who meets the central character, Kiyoaki Matsugae, is struck by his attractiveness; and the awareness of his good-looks and the effect it has on other people makes him somewhat spoiled and conceited. Furthermore, although he is the son of a nouveau riche couple, who dress in Western clothes, he was actually raised by a once-prosperous aristocratic family, in order to ensure that he is well versed in traditional Japanese ways and has an elegant bearing. This upbringing means that Kiyoaki is, in a sense, caught between two different eras; he isn’t fully a traditionalist [he doesn’t revere the Emperor, for example], nor is he entirely modern; he is elegant, as his parents desired, but his elegance, and decadence, means that he is unfit for the modern world [for instance, out of indolence he neglects his schooling].

I imagine that it is clear already that my opinion of Kiyoaki is not especially positive. He is not bad per se, but he is tremendously arrogant and self-obsessed. Of course, you could excuse some of his flaws on the basis of his age; Kiyoaki is a teenager and so arrogance and self-obsession are pretty much part of the deal, but even so the behaviour of most teenagers does not lead to the ruin of numerous people. I should point out, however, that I do not think that the reader is meant to like him; I believe that, as a product of two conflicting eras, or ways of life, the effete and ineffectual Kiyoaki is, for Mishima, a necessary failure as a human being. For me, it is telling that his servant Iinuma, the one character whose attitude would have, I think, most closely resembled Mishima’s own [in terms of his feelings about loyalty, duty, etc], is disappointed in him, and even, at times, disgusted by him.

“Iinuma looked down at his face, at the sensitive darting eyes with their long lashes – the eyes of an otter – and he knew that it was hopeless to expect him to swear the enthusiastic oaths of loyalty to the Emperor that a night like this would have invoked in any normal young Japanese boy.”

“Kiyoaki’s eyes were now wide open as he lay on his back staring at the ceiling, and they were filled with tears. And when this glistening gaze turned on him, Iinuma’s distaste deepened.”

As I read the novel for the second time, I was baffled by the popular opinion that it is a moving love story, or even the greatest of all love stories. Yes, it details a troubled relationship between two young people – the aforementioned Kiyoaki and the equally beautiful Satoko, the daughter of the noble family who raised the boy – but it is a strange kind of love that continually rejects someone and then suddenly wants that person at the point at which it has become impossible to have them. Perhaps Satoko does love Kiyoaki, but there is abundant evidence that the same is not true for the young man. For example, the first thing he says to his friend Honda, when an ill-looking Satoko is unresponsive towards him, is “I don’t think Satoko will sleep with me anymore”. Does that sound like love to you? No, it sounds like someone who is a bit of a dick. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not always been a nice guy where girls are concerned, so you could say I’m in no position to judge. But on the basis of the principle of it takes one to know one I’m calling Kiyoaki out.

Moreover, although there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to their relationship, I don’t necessarily buy the star-crossed lovers interpretation of the story because the couple, Kiyoaki in particular, cause their own problems and create those obstacles themselves. Having said that, I guess you could argue that fate or destiny is also an obstacle to the couple’s love, and this is certainly not something that Kiyoaki and Satoko can control. As you may know, Spring Snow is part of a tetralogy called The Sea of Fertility. Each book in the series deals with reincarnation and predestination. In Spring Snow, the first volume, there are numerous hints and suggestions that what is happening, specifically to Kiyoaki, is, in a sense, meant to be. For example, he keeps a dream journal, and one of his dreams involves Satoko clinging to his coffin; there are repeated references to his demise, and a general sense of foreboding hangs over the novel.

“There’s no doubt that he’s heading straight for tragedy…I’ve got to use every ounce of my strength to stop him fulfilling his destiny.”

In this way, Satoko and Kiyoaki’s relationship is tragic, because they never had a chance. However, if you want to appeal to predestination then you can’t really talk about Kiyoaki at all, because without free will he becomes a non-entity. As a reviewer, in order for discussion to be possible, I want to take him on face value.

One may ask then, if Kiyoaki is so unpleasant, and Spring Snow is not the tragic or tear-jerking tale of adolescent love it is billed as, why should you read the book? Well, first of all, it is always engrossing; whether one sympathises with Satoko and Kiyoaki or not, one is, crucially, still interested in their fate. Furthermore, although the narrative isn’t exactly full of high-octane action, Mishima, unlike many of the other historically important Japanese novelists, does serve up a steady amount of excitement and surprise and tension. In contrast, something like Tanizaki’s acclaimed novel The Makioka Sisters may be wonderful, but it is at times interminably slow and uneventful; I can’t imagine that, when reading that book, there are people that have stayed up late into the night, desperate to reach the end of a chapter, so as to find out what happens next, but I can certainly see that being the case with Spring Snow.

I wrote at the beginning of this review that Mishima to some extent embodied the conflict that he wrote about, that of the traditional and the modern ways of life; what is most interesting about Spring Snow is that this conflict, this tension, is not only apparent thematically, it is in the style too. So, while the prose is undeniably graceful, as you would expect from a great Japanese novel, it lacks simplicity; indeed, Mishima’s style, with its extended metaphors, extreme emoting, and psychological depth, is, I would say, closer to Western writers, like Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky, than Kawabata or Tanizaki. I would also argue that Mishima’s characters are easier to understand and relate to for a Western audience; again, one may not like their behaviour, or admire their motivations, but they are more familiar to us; Kiyoaki is a brat, for example, but we all have known brats. Satoko is perhaps more a mystery, more like the enigmatic women you find in Kawabata, but even her actions can be viewed in terms of a young girl having the hots for a great-looking guy.

Yet for all that, the biggest selling point is just how beautiful Spring Snow is; it really is breathtaking at times. As with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the prose is actually so beautiful that it is, in a sense, diverting, so that, like when in the company of a beautiful woman one becomes incapable of judging her behaviour, readers tend not to pick up on how unsavoury the behaviour of the characters actually is. Also like Flaubert, Mishima’s prose is sensual, and highly detailed; in my review of Madame Bovary I called the Frenchman a hyperrealist, by which I mean he makes the real or ordinary seem extraordinary, and I would apply the same term to Mishima. There are numerous passages in the text that one could highlight as evidence, but one that particularly struck me was Kiyoaki holding the train of the princess’ dress:

“Beautiful, elegant, imposing, she was like a flower at the moment of its perfection…Princess Kasuga’s hair had the blackness and sheen of fine lacquer. Seen from behind her elaborate coiffure seemed to dissolve into the rich white skin-textures of the nape of her neck, leaving single strands against her bare shoulders whose faint sheen was set off by her décolleté…she held herself erect and walked ahead with a firm step, betraying no tremor to her trainbearers, but in Kiyoaki’s eyes that great fan of white fur seemed to glow and fade to the sound of music, like the snow covered peak first hidden, then exposed by a fluid pattern of clouds.”

I love that. It isn’t a one-off either, Mishima throws this kind of stuff out by the page. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know he may have been, but he was a wonderful, sensitive writer.