Beauty's kamikaze

Mishima's Sword: travels in search of a samurai legend

Christopher Ross <em>Fourth Estate, 262pp,

For most of 1998, I read nothing but the works of Yukio Mishima. The following year, having consumed everything available in English translation, I moved to Tokyo to learn Japanese, the better to read the rest: 40 novels, 20 volumes of short stories and almost that number of plays. I stayed in Japan for five years, as did Christopher Ross, the author of Mishima's Sword.

Mishima - real name Kimitake Hiraoka - called himself "beauty's kamikaze". My commonplace book contains dozens of Mishima entries, each as dazzling as sunrise on Mount Fuji's snowcap, and as chill and distant. Here are the musings of Kiyoaki, the young minor aristocrat in Spring Snow: "Would he be able to die young - and if possible free of all pain? A graceful death - as a richly patterned kimono, thrown carelessly across a polished table, slides unobtrusively down into the darkness of the floor beneath. A death marked by elegance."

Here is Mishima's death, as retold by Ross: "Four inches of metal enter his belly and he slowly forces the edge from left to right and then up at the end, to open a flap of skin. Blood floods the floor. A coil of greyish-pink protrudes from the wound. A lavatory stink pervades the room." Neither elegant nor graceful, Mishima's act of harakiri was not unobtrusive, either. The author had once suggested to a journalist that he film the disembowelment. They never did manage to arrange that, but a couple of hours before his death Mishima rang two reporters and tipped them off that "something is going to happen".

What happened was this: on 25 November 1970, Mishima and four members of his private militia, the Shield Society, drove to the regional headquarters of the Ground Self-Defence Force and took General Kanetoshi Mashita hostage. Around midday, Mishima went on to the balcony to deliver a "last appeal" to the troops in the courtyard below. He urged them to attack the Diet, Japan's parliament, where the emperor was in attendance, but as he spoke the soldiers shouted furiously. Mishima returned to the general's office and there committed ritual suicide. At the time of his death, he was Japan's most famous literary figure, thrice nominated for the Nobel Prize.

Ross stands in a long line of westerners who have tried to make sense of Mishima's extraordinary death. He approaches his subject through a passion, shared with his subject, for Japanese swords and the art of iaido - swordsmanship. Martial-arts enthusiasts are an occupational hazard of expatriate life in Japan. Every second western man you meet is a wage-slave English teacher by day but, by night, a cat-footed warrior disciple. They pepper their conversation with obscure Zen and martial terminology, and are convinced of the superiority of all things Japanese. At times, Ross sounds worryingly like them (he doesn't eat western fast food, he tells us, yet makes an exception for Japanese burgers). However, his keen observation and inquisitive mind soon draw you in.

Mishima's Sword resembles a bento, those beautiful lacquered lunch boxes in which delicacies nestle side by side in separate compartments, each a feast in miniature. Ross intersperses a history of bushido (the warrior code) with instructions on how to tie a loincloth or carve up a corpse, interviews with swordsmiths, and a hilarious account of a trip to an S&M club to meet one of Mishima's lovers.

Repeatedly rebuffed by the author's family, Ross instead pursues Mishima's sword, used to behead him after he slit his belly with an armour-piercing knife. The young cadet whose task this was swung and failed three times, first hacking Mishima's back, then the carpet, and finally dealing a blow that got stuck on Mishima's jawbone, the impact hard enough to chip the blade. A second cadet, more steady-handed, had to take the sword and strike the author's head from his shoulders.

After a series of dead ends in his search, Ross receives a phone call out of the blue - from a man who claims to have the sword. Swearing secrecy, Ross is driven to the man's house. There, he is shown a short, rusted, chipped blade. It is not the epiphany he had hoped for: he has no way of knowing if the sword is the real thing; he can take no photographs and ask no questions. He suspects it is a set-up to hasten his departure from Japan.

The western fascination with Mishima and our desire to "understand" his death baffle the Japanese. I used to hunt for first editions of his work in Jimbocho, Tokyo's second-hand book district. They were always labelled in English and priced astronomically, and my exasperated Japanese partner would tell me that Mishima was "ridiculous" and "not worth it". Ross describes how, as he sat reading in a coffee shop, a salaryman at an adjacent table spoke up: "Mishima is the past. Not now. Not today. Not tomorrow either." Ross wondered if the man was drunk. I doubt it.

My own quest to get closer to Mishima ended in failure. Eighteen months of full-time language study gave me nowhere near the fluency required to read his elegant archaisms. Ross finds that the author's sword is as elusive and ambiguous as the man himself. Maybe Mishima wanted his death to make a political statement; perhaps he viewed it as his final work of art. The books do both better, every time.

Victoria James works for ITN

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Shamed