Part 1: The Extraordinary Yukio Mishima
by Ming Zhen Shakya
“Today I am not going to see skeletons beneath flesh. They are only a concept. I will see and remember things as they are. It will be my last pleasure, my last effort. My last good look. I must look. I must take in everything with an unoccupied heart.”
Honda’s unrealized promise to himself – from the final section of The Decay of the Angel, completed hours before the author’s death.
Late in November of 1970, Japan announced that Yukio Mishima, one of its finest authors, had committed suicide at a military base. Why he did this was a mystery. How he did this was shocking. The entire incident, somehow, someway, had something to do with theHagakure and The Way of the Samurai and, of course, Hara Kiri, the method he used to kill himself.
Since there were eye-witnesses to the event, we do know what he at least thought he was doing: he wrote a speech, stating his purpose. He had scripted a tragic drama, a theatrical experience that he intended would move a nation with its pathos. But despite the event’s meticulous planning, what he produced was a dark, surreal Three Stooges’ comedy.
Immediately, literary detectives began to rummage through Mishima’s life, looking for a clue, a dot they could connect to another dot, a discernible trail that led from cause to effect. Some thought they found the cause in his childhood The usual suspects were rounded up: a cold and disagreeable father, a domineering, smothering grandmother, et al. Some hazarded a guess that the cause might be depression induced by his having failed to win the Nobel Prize in literature – which he surely deserved. Some focused on homosexuality. All the investigations came to nothing. To this day nobody knows why he did what he did. And nobody bothered to do an autopsy – as if a man’s suicide is sufficient to understand the cause of his death.
We did learn that Yukio Mishima, the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka,(1926 – 1970), had had a troublesome childhood, but so had 99.9% of the people on the planet.
Childhood is troublesome not because adults make it so, but because, for the child, himself, the period is a long confusing struggle to make order out of chaos, using a brain that is not fully formed and is therefore incapable of doing the job well.
His physical condition, however, could reasonably be described as “fragile.” He suffered from a condition known in those days as “autointoxication,” a nebulous malady which arose from the quack notion that the contents of the large bowel were toxic and therefore dangerous to human health. Both prophylactically and as treatment for this condition, “colonic cleansings,” i.e., enemas, were prescribed. Whether his fragility was caused by symptoms that suggested autointoxication or was merely the effect of its debilitating treatment, we do not know. It is safe to guess that if, in fact, he was subjected to frequent enemas – the universally accepted nostrum for this curious diagnosis, his doting grandmother administered or supervised them. Nobody, in those days, escaped this “all-purpose home remedy” which lingers, even now, in many alternative-medicine regimens.
However good or bad his childhood was, he emerged from it as an articulate, educated, well-mannered, presentable, self-disciplined, and talented young man. He began to write, and because he wrote well, he got noticed.
His literary output was prodigious. Right up to the last day of his 45 years on earth he produced 40 novels, a few of which were turned into successful films, numerous plays, short stories, and essays. In accordance with the “new literary freedom” of the time, he was properly scandalous in his subject matter: homosexuality, obsession; sadism…. themes popular throughout the world in post-war years.
At twenty-six, using money he had earned from his published works, mainly from his sensational Confessions Of A Mask , he traveled to Brazil, the U.S., Greece. He so admired Greek sculpture’s celebration of the human form that he resolved to develop his own frail body. He returned to Japan and learned how to swim. After this, he took lessons in boxing, a sport which he abandoned, and weight lifting, to which he was devoted for the rest of his life.
It is in 1955, when he was twenty-nine, that the distress that would pursue him to his early death makes its unambiguous appearance. In John Nathan’s uncompromising biography, we learn that Mishima is becoming seriously worried about his own mental health, that as he reads a text on schizophrenia he recognizes his own symptoms of a “stiff as leather” psychological encapsulation, a numbness to the external world’s stimuli.
Also, in that same year, of perhaps even greater significance, Nathan quotes a friend who had stayed in a hotel room that adjoined Mishima’s. During the night, awakened by loud groans coming from the adjoining room, he went in and found his friend writhing on the floor. “Mishima pointed to a hypodermic needle on the table and when Mayuzumi [the friend] handed it to him, he gave himself an injection. The pain quickly subsided.” Mishima then explained that these “cramps” had plagued him all his life and, holding his friend to secrecy, promised that he would cure the problem on his own – by which it was assumed he meant by the physical training of weight-lifting. He also confessed that the pains had been getting worse and, since they were now occurring at night, had begun to interfere with his nocturnal writing routine.
The pains, whatever their origin, must have been both recurrent and severe for him to travel about with his own syringe and a ready supply of what was undoubtedly an opiate. We can only wonder that if the pains continued to worsen and if, as is likely, he had been unable to cure the problem with weight lifting, drug use of some kind may have contributed to his worsening grasp of reality.
In 1955, despite the sober post-war reassessment of the Hagakure that led the Japanese to regard the book with disgust, Mishima writes an article about it; and, in glowing terms, lauds it as a “book of peerless morality.” It is apparent that although he senses that the book contains eternal truths, his spiritual lexicon does not yet contain the necessary words for him to comprehend those truths. He repeats the line that had become an anathema to his countrymen following the Kamikaze desperation of the War’s end, “A samurai must take great pride in his military valor; he must have the supreme resolution to die a fanatic’s death.” And he comments, “There is no such thing as correctness or propriety in fanaticism.” Thousands of young men, spouting such “Holy War” bravado, had seduced themselves into believing that a man was heroic when he boasted, “I am unafraid of death,” and then proved his ego’s strength by throwing his life away.
Mishima applies mundane definitions even to the term “death” When the Zen monk Jocho, the Hagakure’s author, says, “I found that the Way of the Samurai is death,” Mishima comments, “…he is expressing his Utopianism, his principles of freedom and happiness. That is why we are able to read Hagakure today as the tale of an ideal country… But what actually existed is merely Jocho’s dream.”
He continues to write successful plays and novels, to develop his upper body strength, and to travel, his literary successes having gained him an international following.
By the tine he reaches thirty-two, his masterpiece, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, appears, guaranteeing his place in world literature. The book is based upon the true story of a young Buddhist monk who deliberately burned down an ancient temple of unrivaled beauty, Kyoto’s Golden Temple. The story’s Zen background requires Mishima to examine in greater detail aspects of Buddhist theology which previously he had not understood.
Yet, by this same year, 1958, no one can doubt that despite his continuing ability to write with a clear, insightful vision, he was regressing into a murky childhood world of comic book superheroes. Perhaps, as a kid, like most Japanese kids, he had fantasized about becoming a chivalrous samurai warrior, the unattached Ronin, the hero of countless action movies made in Japan throughout the 1930s and 40s, the counterparts of U.S. cowboy westerns.
Most kids outgrow childhood fantasies. Mishima never did. His actions leave little doubt that as a samurai warrior he would preserve and defend the one great love of his life: Japan – and, of course, the Emperor – which to him were one in the same thing. But he would not be an itinerant Ronin. His daimyo lord would be none other than the Emperor Hirohito.
A samurai had a “house” – a family and a home-base. He builds himself a house and negotiates for a wife. He has two children and is a good, attentive husband and father.
A samurai could also handle a sword; and his weight-lifting regimen, assimilated to this purpose, gives him the necessary upper body strength to wield the weapon. He begins rigorously to train in Kendo, the samurai art of the sword, practiced as a dramatically costumed, medieval form of fencing with staves.
By the time he turns forty, in 1965, he is, in his mind, a samurai warrior. It is in these last five years of his life that his mind oscillates between cogency and irrationality. Professionally, he writes with penetrating realism. Privately, he is living out a fantasy. He begins his master work, a tetralogy he calls The Sea of Fertility.
We don’t know why Mishima chose to use as his title the name of an arid and lifeless expanse of the moon ironically called The Sea of Fertility. It lies adjacent to what is to an American, at least, the more appropriately named Sea of Tranquility. Given his love for Japan, it is reasonable to suspect that he felt enormous regret that there would be no Japanese footprints in mankind’s “giant leap” onto the lunar surface. Japan had been excluded from the greatest adventure of the age.
The central character of The Sea of Fertility is Honda, a man who squanders his intelligence on absurd superstition and erroneous hunches. Although he enjoys the social status that attends both his accumulation of wealth and his respected position as a judge, he is an impotent voyeur, a gullible fool who is obsessed with his own “discovery of a proof of reincarnation.” He has recognized three moles located in the armpit of four successive characters born throughout his long lifetime. These characters determine his pointless destiny as he struggles, staking reputation and fortune, to fulfill the terms of his ludicrous “proof.”
When in 1967 Mishima writes again about the Hagakure in his book, The Way Of The Samurai , he shows that his spiritual vocabulary has increased but is still inadequate to explain important Zen concepts, particularly the differences between the death of the ego in the material world of illusion and the death of the body in the same world. (By the last day of his life, he will have grasped what had so long eluded him.)
He is openly determined to serve Japan with the same valor and integrity any other samurai would show his daimyo . There were samurai nobles on his grandmother’s side of the family so the claim to such lineage, while tenuous, did have a basis in fact.
But now that he has become the Emperor’s retainer, he needs an army to lead and a war to fight. He decides that he’ll lead a crusade to restore Japan’s rightful heritage, the samurai tradition. The spirit of the samurai haunts him. It begs to be allowed to inhabit the flesh and bones of the near moribund Japanese military; and it promises that this revival will inspire the entire nation to greatness. The plans are all laid out in the Hagakure – a book that teaches the philosophy of all forms of conduct: love, ethics; action – even the honor in death.
According to his understanding of the book, his course is clear: if he fails in his mission, he will commit seppuka. His messianic fervor was not so outrageous then as it seems now; for this was the age of religious and political cults, an age in which charismatic individuals (of which he was surely one) could initiate a movement that would influence events. We have, as examples, The John Birch Society; Reverend Moon’s Unification Church; Hari Krishna; SDS (Students for a Democratic Society); Jim Jones’ People’s Temple; among many others.
He grows more reckless, posing for photographs – bizarre shots of him, naked with roses, in an album entitled, Torture by Roses. He also poses as the arrow-pierced martyr Saint Sebastian, who happened also to be an erotic interest of the narrator of Mishima’s Confessions Of A Mask. (We do not know if the saint’s life held any interest for him beyond his initial inspection of Guido Reni’s fortuitously sensual depiction.)
Personally paying for all of its expenses, Mishima creates a new military unit, The Shield Society, even engaging one of Charles deGaulle’s tailors to design its uniform. He lectures at universities to recruit members, enlisting as many as a hundred young men who possess the requisite samurai “purity of character” – though infighting and boredom quickly thin the Society’s ranks. He obtains permission from the Japanese Self-Defense Force authorities to participate in basic training programs, to bivouac with “other” soldiers and experience the hardships and routines of boot camp, and to use certain facilities to drill the Shield Society warriors who would become his army of morally unimpeachable retainers. The authorities accommodate him, expecting that they can exploit his literary abilities for favorable public relations’ articles. He has training sessions on his beloved Mount Fuji and administers blood oaths, vowing to die for the man-god who sits on the Chrysanthemum Throne.
As October 1969 approaches, he agitates against the ratification of Japan’s “no-military” treaty with the U.S., joining his voice with the increasingly violent Left who also do not want the treaty ratified. Renewable every ten years, the treaty requires that the Japanese not create any military units beyond those needed for self-defense. The Leftist opposition comes from wanting Japan to join Asia’s immense communist block. Mishima’s opposition comes from his belief that the treaty already has converted samurai warriors into meter maids.
The Left is not so interested in creating a new Japanese military as it is in getting rid of an old American one. But the prosperous Right that holds elective power has no intention of surrendering its burgeoning industry to communist control, or of invoking Bushido or the Samurai ethic or in listening to anything the Hagakure has to say.
To the U.S., the protests are irrelevant. The Allies are not going to tolerate even the thought of another Rape of Nanking, Death March of Bataan, horrendous medical experimentation of Unit 731, or any of the atrocities committed in the cause of Japan’s bellicose ambitions; and many of the men who orchestrated those atrocities are still alive and influential. Mishima cannot understand this. Neither can he see that his countrymen are thriving in 1969’s peace and do not want to go back to 1944… or 1544. He has no constituency. Yet, though the treaty is extended, he remains obsessed with repudiating it.
The Hagakure requires a samurai to be a man of action. But how could he act? If the Shield Society were ever to develop into a samurai elite, into men who could guide the ordinary soldier, he would need the army’s moral support. The very soldiers that he considers inert would have to explode with enough force to produce Constitutional change.
While he ponders this problem, he begins a close and possibly homosexual relationship with a young, unsophisticated member of his Shield Society, a recruit named Morita. He takes pains to teach Morita western table manners as he grooms him for an honorable life as a samurai “man of action.” Within the Shield Society’s four dozen members, Morita and three others become his inner circle.
But when the Shield Society fails to attain the critical mass required to provoke the reaction he seeks and becomes, instead, a “toy soldiers” laughingstock, he despairingly forms a death pact with Morita. They would show the world true Japanese courage and honor. There was glory in failure, too. With cameras flashing, Mishima would commit hara kiri, Morita would decapitate him in a coup de grace, then Morita would commit hara kiri, and one of the other three would administer the coup to Morita.
So that was the plan. Mishima, Morita, and the three others would meet early. They’d first be formally photographed and then they’d proceed to the post where they would “visit” the commanding general, take him hostage, and demand that he summon the garrison to stand at the base of the balcony outside his second storey office. From the balcony Mishima would rally the garrison with a passionate speech. He’d plead with the men to mutiny… or to overthrow an elected government… or to follow him down the path of Death before Dishonor. All of the remaining Shield Society members, in their spiffy uniforms, would also be in attendance. (It is unclear whether he expected his junior samurai to participate in the event or merely to observe it.) Then, at the climax of this orgy of service to his Imperial Majesty, he’d commit hara kiri and be beheaded by Morita who would commit hara kiri, and be himself beheaded. Fin.
On the morning of November 25th, having already alerted the press to attend the finale at the army base, Mishima completes The Decay of the Angel, the final book of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. The last section is one of the most astonishing pieces of literature ever to have issued from his prolific pen. Whereas the other three books give garbled versions of Buddhist theology – seen mostly through the befuddled eyes of his central character, Honda, the fourth book, written in the extremity of Mishima’s scheduled suicide, closes with the elegant simplicity of Zen Truth. Honda, in his eighties, desiccated and spent by his own waste, trudges up a hill to a Buddhist monastery to keep an audience with an old friend who is now the abbess. He climbs with difficulty, bearing burdens of illness and ignorance. There, surrounded by the landscape’s beauty, he must often stop to rest. Mishima has always been eloquent in his descriptions of Japan’s natural beauty; but in these final poignant passages, the love he feels for Japan is painful to read.
We watch Honda climb, not knowing whether his steps are a “Stations of the Cross” journey to redemption or whether they are a “Dead man walking” stumbling trip to meaningless extinction.
When Honda at last sits with the Abbess, he is given one more opportunity to dispel samsara’s phantom images. Zen’s Inner Truth is revealed, but it is an epiphany that Honda is too blind to see. The Abbess, enlightened in her Real world, ends the interview, letting Honda remain in what she calls “that other world,” the ego’s world of illusion from which he will never escape.
“What Honda had missed,” Mishima had written, “had been the dark, narrow path through the flesh to holiness. To travel it was of course the privilege of few.”
He puts his manuscript into an envelope, dispatches it to his publisher, and prepares his costume for the final scene of his life. Under his Shield Society uniform he is naked except for a samurai loincloth. He carries an antique samurai sword of exceptional quality. The tragi-comedy begins.
With Morita hiding a dagger under his jacket and Mishima boldly carrying the sword, the five men enter the General’s office, so congenially that a major thinks it is appropriate to serve them tea. The general comments on the sword and Mishima unsheathes if for him to inspect. On cue, one of the young men walks behind the general’s chair in order to gag him with a long thin towel. But the general suddenly stands up to get a better look at the sword, and the young man, not knowing what to do, hands the towel to Mishima, who uses it to polish the blade.
The young man, without a gag to use, again goes behind the now seated general and wraps his fingers around the startled officer’s neck, while another Shield member binds the general’s arms and legs to his chair. Morita, whose job it is to wrap wire around the door knob of each of the room’s two doors to prevent them from being opened, discovers that there is nothing to use to anchor the wire. He resorts to pushing the general’s desk against one door and some chairs against the other door. The major looks through an interoffice peephole and sees the young man standing behind the general – and for a moment thinks that he’s giving him a shoulder massage. When he realizes that the general is being attacked, he summons an assortment of officers; and they decide to storm the office.
The officers push back the flimsy barricades, enter the room, and engage the five invaders. Mishima knows how to use his sword and quickly wounds several of the officers. He demands that they follow his orders, swearing that if they don’t, he’ll kill the General. He wants to make a speech to the assembled garrison; and if they arrange this, there will be no further injury to any of them. They agree. He is slightly behind schedule and lunch time is approaching.
The loudspeakers summon the soldiers, and Mishima nervously waits for his audience to arrive. He does not realize that the officers have called the police who have sent cars and three helicopters to the scene.
All five Shield Society invaders put on headbands that pledge undying loyalty to the Emperor. The garrison assembles, and Mishima goes onto the balcony, leaps up onto a platform, and begins his impassioned call to arms or… something. Nobody is sure. The soldiers have seen their wounded officers being carried out, but they have no idea what is going on. The helicopters and the police car sirens have drowned out Mishima’s voice.
The few dozen Shield Society members who came to the parade grounds are told by an army officer that Mishima wants them to join the men’s ranks; but discretion being the better part of valor, they insist that without specific orders from him, they will not join the assembly. They stay in the background, unable to give him any support.
On the balcony, the Shield members unfurl “purpose” banners that are supposed to hang down for the garrison to read; but the helicopters churn the air and the banners wave unintelligibly. Pamphlets are released, but these too swirl about, and those that are caught and read, clarify nothing.
Mishima continues his inaudible harangue.
It is now past noon and the crowd is confused about everything except missing lunch. Angry, they shout obscenities at him. Mishima, seeing the uselessness of continuing, salutes the Emperor three times and returns to the general’s office.
Inside, he strips off his uniform, kneels, and with Morita standing over him ready to administer the coup de grace, plunges the dagger into his abdomen and draws it sideways. Morita raises the sword and with a mighty blow brings it down intending to behead his friend. But Morita is short and the blade is long and the point hits the rug on the other side of the figure bent in agony on the floor. The blade does manage to slice Mishima’s shoulder, increasing his agony. Morita’s comrades shout at him to strike again, and again with a mighty blow he strikes the carpet and cuts the writhing man’s body. The third time he tries to behead his friend he succeeds only in slashing his neck. Now one of the Shield members, who knows how to wield a blade, takes the sword and with one stroke beheads Mishima. As the men kneel in prayer, the dagger is taken from Mishima’s hand and given to Morita who kneels but can do no more than scribe a superficial line across his abdomen. He looks up helplessly at the man with the sword. Then he bends his head forward in the beheading position, and the sword finishes the job. The head rolls across the floor. The stench of Mishima’s of intestines fills the room. Blood is everywhere. The general is demanding that he be untied before the indignity of his capture can be seen by any other subordinates. And the remaining three members of the Shield Society sob like babies amidst the pandemonium. Life does not necessarily imitate art.
In Confessions of a Mask, the narrator recalls emerging from an air raid shelter one night during the war: “The winter of 1945 had been a persistent one. Although spring had already arrived, coming with the stealthy footsteps of a leopard, winter still stood like a cage about it, blocking its way with gray stubbornness. Ice still glittered under the starlight.”
For the world that had so long admired a man who could write like this, 1970’s winter would be another persistent one.