The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima
By HAROLD CLURMAN
Before I met Yukio Mishima I had read four of his novels: "Confessions of a Monk," "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion," "After the Banquet," "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea." I had also read his "Five Modern No Plays" and the sensational short story "Patriotism." The novels and the short story fascinated me. When as a tourist I went to Tokyo for the first time, Mishima was the person with whom I was most eager to become acquainted. We had a brief conversation at the old Imperial Hotel. On my return to Tokyo in 1965 to direct "Long Day's Journey Into Night" Mishima greeted me as a friend, invited me to dinner and to see one of his No plays given by a theatrical company of which, I was informed, he was the guiding spirit. On another occasion he accompanied me to a performance of the Osaka puppeteers and to a nightclub.
When I returned two years later to direct "The Iceman Cometh" we met once more just before he planned to leave for India to prepare for the completion of his four-part novel "The Sea of Fertility." Reading of Mishima's suicide in 1970 I tried on the evidence of the books and plays mentioned and of my encounters with him to fathom the possible source for his terrible act.
At present there is less reason for conjecture. Two biographies have now appeared: we have facts. The first of these books, "The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima," is the work of a former London Times bureau chief in Tokyo, Henry Scott-Stokes, a friend of Mishima since 1968. The second book entitled simply enough "Mishima: A Biography" is by John Nathan, Princeton University professor of Japanese literature, who translated "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea" in 1964 and came to see quite a lot of the novelist. Both biographies are good books--well worth reading even for those not particularly interested in Japanese literature. For Mishima the man suggests a psychological paradigm which has its counterpart in other cultures.
Besides his 40 novels, 18 plays, 20 volumes of short stories and as many literary essays, Mishima was also an actor, an expert swordsman, a world traveler and a would-be "prophet." How explain that this man who was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize carefully planned his own death at the age of 45? His career, as we gather from both the Scott-Strokes and the Nathan biographies may be traced in a continuous line from weakness to strength and then back from strength to weakness.
Brought up by a grandfather jealous of all outside influences on the boy (including that of his parents), which led to his being sickly, he later trained to build powerful muscles in his arms, chest and shoulders. An ardent patriot, frightened by the prospect of combat as a soldier, he steeled himself to assume the demeanor of heroic bravery. An impassioned writer, he declared, "There was something inside me that cannot be satisfied with art alone." Homosexual, he married a very pretty woman who bore him two children and with whom he conducted himself as a model husband. Apolitical, he organized a para- military group--the Shield Society--which might easily, though mistakenly, be identified as fascist.
He was above all a romantic esthete. Elegance, refinement of manners, courtliness of behavior held him spellbound. He compensated for his shyness by becoming something of a poseur, a show-off. He disguised his inner frailty by bravado; he aimed to shock. The chivalric prowess and grandeur of the samurai (lordly warrior) tradition fired his imagination like some epic spectacle which was not only to be admired but emulated. A fascination with blood was not so much a trait bespeaking cruelty as the visible symbol for him of human vitality. He could fancy nothing more marvelous than death on behalf of a great cause. Quintessentially Japanese, he ascribed this configuration of attitudes to the persona of a god-like emperor. But it was not, it must be stressed, the real emperor (Hirohito) he idealized but the emperor of ancestral memory.
A Freudian might deduce from this complexity symptoms of a homosexual disposition unconsciously prompted to punish itself. Both Nathan and Scott-Stokes alternate between finding the key to Mishama's personality in its erotic core or in his esthetic nature. What for me is most significant is a matter which extends beyond the individual case of Mishima himself.
"All I desire is beauty," Mishima wrote in his diary. He wanted to make himself beautiful as well as strong. Beauty for him was purity, a purity which might realize itself in noble action. He did not want to grow old for then he would not die beautiful. But his love of beauty was not simply personal. Partly on its account he hated postwar Japan. "We watched Japan become drunk on prosperity," he said, "and fall into an emptiness of the spirit." The absence of a high ideal or grace in the contemporary world was what led Mishima to forming his Shield Society (consisting of no more than 100 men) which would exemplify the aristocratic or Člitist posture of a bygone age. Its activity was largely ceremonial. As politics his call to fight for the Emperor was absurd.
As Nathan points out, "Having established the crucial necessity of defending the person of the emperor, Mishima defined His Majesty's principal enemy as 'any totalitarian system on the left or right.'" What Mishima invoked was "a cultural emperor"--a figment of a poet's mind. Like many artists, Mishima arrived at what he supposed to be a political position through his esthetic sensibility. "The whole of Japan," Scott-Strokes repeats Mishima as having told him, "was under a curse. Everyone ran after money. The old spiritual tradition had vanished: materialism was the order of the day. Modern Japan is ugly."
The unquenchable thirst for beauty in him developed into a destructive force. The thirst turned against itself. For just as a drive turned against itself. For just as a drive toward absolute purity may lead to a self-imposed martyrdom so extreme estheticism may prove self-depleting, a humiliation. The same is true of a mythmaking romanticism. In "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion" Mishima has his stuttering "hero" destroy that exquisite historic edifice because it shamed his own deformity; in "The Sailor Who Falls From Grace With the Sea," a band of adolescents murder a seaman because he is about to abandon his (to them) romantic and noble calling by marriage with mediocrity as the husband of a fashionable modiste.
Mishima was forever seeking a faith, a religion, a God he could not find. Man cannot live by beauty alone: the esthetic and the romantic idea, when divorced from the whole context of existence, contains the seeds of extinction. They are death bearers, and the Mishima formula, as John Nathan makes clear, was one "in which Beauty, Ecstasy and Death were equivalent and together stood for his personal holy grail." The equation is suicidal. Mishima's life was the enactment of a fiction. Every aspect of his final solution: the frenzied harangue from the high point of a public monument to the assemblage below, the preconceived order to have his head struck off by a sword in the hand of his closest friend in the company of his other companions, were, all part of an elaborate ritual.
Scott-Stokes's book begins with that last day; Nathan's ends with it. Scott-Stokes is a highly intelligent journalist, and his account in its first chapter at least resembles a film script. Nathan, whose knowledge of the Japanese language and literature is much broader, is on the whole more consistently thoughtful. Scott-Stokes emphasizes the erotic roots of Mishima's character though he does not neglect other influences. Nathan rightly, I believe, makes the esthete in Mishima the crux of his interpretation. In both instances, however, their sights are directed toward Mishima the person rather than the artist. Both would agree, that, as a professor at Kyoto University said to me, Mishima was a man of a "frightening talent."
Harold Clurman is a critic and stage director; his most recent book is "All People Are Famous."