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Yukio Mishima’s dark fantasies of imperial Japan

Before Mishima committed ritual suicide on 25 November 1970, he delivered a speech from a balcony in the garrison in central Tokyo, railing against Japan’s semi-pacifist postwar constitution.

Before Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide on 25 November 1970 he delivered a speech from a balcony in the garrison in central Tokyo, which he had occupied along with four members of his private militia, calling for a military coup and the restoration of imperial power. Mishima had timed his suicide to coincide with the official opening of the Japanese Diet (legislature), which would be attended by the prime minister and the emperor himself, with the aim of challenging Japan’s semi-pacifist postwar constitution. Following his speech Mishima returned to the commandant’s office and carried out seppuku, the suicide by disembowelment that had been practised by samurai in former times. When the stomach had been sliced open with a short sword, the rite would be finished by an aide who would behead the warrior. After three unsuccessful attempts, Mishima’s head was severed by a member of his militia. His long-planned exit from the modern world was complete.

His suicide at the age of 45 became the most widely known episode in Mishima’s life. Often forgotten is the fact that the soldiers who assembled below the balcony to hear his final speech responded by laughing and jeering at him. The prolific author of around 40 novels, dozens of plays and many volumes of short stories, books of essays, film scripts and a libretto, may not have been surprised by this reaction. In all his work, he projected an image of himself as standing in opposition to the age in which he lived. He looked back with nostalgia to a Japan shaped by heroic and chivalric values. His dramatic suicide was interpreted – as he meant it to be – as an act of defiance directed against the modern country that Japan had become.

Yet Mishima’s view of the world, and of himself, was quintessentially modern. The writers that most influenced him as a young man were late Romantics and fin-de-siècle decadents, such as Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, from whom he adopted the belief that one should fashion one’s life as a work of art. From Nietzsche he absorbed the idea of the Übermensch – a superior individual who creates himself through acts of will. Mishima’s complex sexuality, combining a fetish of masculinity with elements of sadomasochism, gives the impression of being as much an aesthetic construction as the expression of an erotic impulse. More significant than its precedents in samurai tradition is the fact that his death was choreographed as a performance.

Mishima embodied some of the most distinctive pathologies of modern culture. Radical individualism and a tendency to nihilism, a cult of self-creation and an attempt at leaving some kind of mark on the world in the form of a spectacular act of self-destruction defined him as a human being. There was little in Mishima’s world-view or lifestyle that echoed pre-modern Japan. Aesthetic values were highly prized then, but they served the imperatives of a feudal social order. Suicide was not condemned and anathematised as it came to be in the West after the triumph of Christianity, but it was honoured as a duty – not practised as a mode of self-expression. The idea that one should author one’s life was unheard of. In pre-modern Japan Mishima’s cult of personality would have been dismissed with contempt.

Similarly, the nihilism that Nietzsche had identified in the West following the “death of God” was unknown. In cultures shaped by monotheism, a transcendent God serves as the ultimate guarantor of meaning and value in human life. Unless a surrogate for the dead God is found – faith in humanity, science, cosmic evolution, whatever – a loss of meaning follows. There was no such danger in pre-modern Japan. As the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar argued in a pioneering study of his work, Mishima: A Vision of the Void (1980), Japanese culture was infused by a sense that emptiness is divine. In the Buddhist tradition that shaped much of Japanese religion, a universal void is not an abyss but full of ineffable meaning. For Mishima, by contrast, emptiness stands for a state of mind in which meaning has been lost. His Nietzschean attempt at overcoming nihilism through a cult of the individual will was shaped by Western ideas more than by the Japanese traditions he believed he was reviving.

A sense of meaninglessness is the central theme in his newly translated Life For Sale, where the absurdity of life is conveyed through the tropes of pulp fiction and manga comics. Little known in the West to date, the novel inspired a popular television series in Japan. Throughout the book, the tone is unheroic and self-mocking. “Now that Hanio had failed to commit suicide, a wonderfully free and empty world opened up before him.” Why the anti-hero wanted to kill himself is never clear to him.

A hard-working employee of a company called Tokyo Ad, Hanio was paid well and in no particular difficulty or distress. Reading the evening paper, “he had hit on the idea of suicide, as if he were planning a picnic. If he were forced to come up with a reason, he could only conclude that he had attempted to end it all on a complete whim.” Flipping through the pages, he drops the paper on the floor. When he stretches out to pick it up, he finds a cockroach perched on the page. The insect scurries off, but when he looks at the paper again all the letters on the page turn into cockroaches and he thinks: ‘‘‘So the world boils down to nothing more than this.’ It was a sudden revelation. And it was this insight that led to an overwhelming desire to die.”

On thinking it over, however, Hanio is not sure that any revelation triggered his decision. “We just have to soldier on, even if every word in the newspaper is reduced to a string of cockroaches.” But rather than turning him away from suicide, this thought actually hardens his resolve to kill himself.

“From that moment, death hung over him, snugly, the way snow caps a red post-box after a particularly heavy snowfall.” He buys a sedative at a pharmacy, but instead of taking it immediately he goes to watch a triple feature at a cinema, then to a pick-up bar where he speaks of his decision to end his life to a girl who responds with yawning indifference. In the end he swallows a large dose of the sedative just before boarding the last train home.

His attempt at suicide is unsuccessful. Waking up in hospital, he quits his job and receives a generous severance payment that allows him to live as he pleases. He has no need of more money. Even so his next act is to place an advertisement in the Situations Wanted column of a tabloid newspaper: “Life For Sale. Use me as you wish. I am a twenty-seven-year-old male. Discretion guaranteed. Will cause no bother at all.” What follows is a succession of surreal incidents, including an encounter with a female vampire, entanglement with mafia mobsters, international espionage, drug use and bomb-making. Thinking of the bizarre situations into which he has stumbled, Hanio “was struck all over again by the huge amount of energy required to live a life filled with so much meaninglessness”.

The novel ends with the anti-hero heading for a police station, where he is told he has done nothing illegal. Leaving the station, he looks up at a glorious starry sky. “Night clung to Hanio’s heart. It smothered his face, as if about to suffocate him… He looked up into the heavens. The stars blurred, and a myriad of lights blurred into one.” Life for Sale is not a great work of fiction, but it succeeds in capturing vividly the bathos of the self-pitying modern nihilist.

Mishima’s work has often been linked to the circumstances of his early years. He spent his boyhood under the formative influence of his grandmother, a forceful would-be noblewoman who forbade him from engaging in sports and encouraged him to spend time playing with the female children of the extended family. Mishima’s father imposed a very different upbring-ing, favouring military-style discipline, disapproving of any signs of “unmanliness” and destroying his son’s early attempts at writing.

Confessions of a Mask (1949), the book that impelled Mishima to fame, is a fictional version of his own early years as a sickly child who grew up unable to express a masculine identity and forced to conceal his desire for sex with other men. It may have been in compensation for these difficulties that he practised Japanese martial arts and took up a body-building regime, which he maintained until the time of his suicide. Yet Mishima never threw off the conventions of his time. In 1958, he married Yoko Sugiyama and had two children with her. It is easy to conclude that Mishima’s struggle to create an identity for himself was a response to the contradictory demands of the identities that were imposed on him by others. But this is to miss out the larger significance of his work as an interrogation of what it means to be modern.

Mishima was not alone among Japanese writers in having a negative or highly ambivalent attitude to modern life. An earlier generation that included Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) and Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) wrestled with what becoming a modern country meant for Japan, and how much of value might be forfeited in the process. Mishima particularly admired the poet Michiko Tachihara (1914-1939), who in the course of his short life – he died of tuberculosis during a long journey through the country – struggled to devise a medium in which an older Japanese landscape could be recaptured for readers living in industrial and urban environments.

Mishima’s novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956), based on an incident in 1950 in which an exquisite Kyoto Zen temple was burned down by a deranged novice monk, features a recurrent contrast between the Japan that existed before it entered the Second World War and the desolate country that emerged afterwards.

Underlying this contrast is a question about the modernity Japan embraced when it embarked on industrialisation in the Meiji era (1868-1912). The country’s rapid modernisation was a reaction to the arrival of Commodore Perry’s American fleet in 1853, which many in Japan perceived as a prelude to colonisation of the kind that had subjugated China. In military terms modernisation was initially a success, enabling Japan to destroy the Russian Imperial Navy in the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 and become the first Asian country to defeat a European power – an event that Jawaharlal Nehru, along with many other Asian nationalist leaders, regarded as the pivotal one in his lifetime.

In civilisational terms the record of modernisation was more ambiguous. Japan became a nation state of the kind that had been constructed in Europe, and as in Europe this required a process of cultural homogenisation. Shinto, which had been a folk-religion, became a state cult. Even as Japan’s nationalists insisted on the uniqueness of their culture it was being subordinated to a project of state-building that simplified and eroded it.

Mishima’s work continues to be of interest because it deals with a dilemma that has not been resolved. His abiding preoccupation was with what being modern meant for Japan, but in pursuing it he opened up a question that resonates everywhere. Theories of modernisation have posited some kind of stable state as being the endpoint of all societies. Modernity has been equated with egalitarian democracy and science-based technocracy, liberal individualism and charismatic dictatorship. In practice no stable endstate has emerged; modern societies have been and continue to be all and none of these. Everyone wants to be modern, but being modern can mean anything or nothing.

Mishima’s life shows him looking for an exit from the world that he himself embodied. Raging against the society that Japan had become, he exemplified the individualism and nihilism he lamented and excoriated in it. The anti-hero of Life For Sale, vainly trying to palm off an existence for which he has no use, is an alter ego of the author orchestrating a death which he, and the audience that jeered his last speech, knew to be absurd. 

John Gray’s most recent book is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

Life For Sale
Yukio Mishima
Translated by Stephen Dodd
Penguin Classics, 192pp, £12.99

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special