Mishima's Last Words: The Sea of Fertility Part I

by Kenneth Champeon, Aug 22, 2004 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

"Telling Bobby Kennedy to go fuck himself at the White House," wrote Gore Vidal in 1971, "is trivial indeed when compared to the high drama of cutting oneself open with a dagger and then submitting to decapitation before the army's chief of staff." He was referring to author Yukio Mishima, who had recently stunned the world - or, as Vidal would say, that small portion of the world that reads books "voluntarily" - with his grisly suicide.

The world scarcely needed to be stunned. The past decade had witnessed the assassinations of the affronted Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., not to mention Bobby's brother Jack and MLK's "brother" Malcolm X. The world seemed to conspire against greatness everywhere, as if Michelangelo's hand of God were reaping those men that had grown too tall, too quickly. "The world does not approve of flying," wrote Mishima. "Wings are dangerous weapons. They invite self-destruction before they can be used."

Mishima's countryman Kawabata would follow in his self-destructive footsteps a few years later. This despite Kawabata's 1968 Nobel Lecture in which he said, "I neither admire nor am in sympathy with suicide." But the word "suicide" appears in the lecture like a mantra. It was obviously much on his mind.

The sheer horror of suicide often confers upon the deceased a glory that his life alone could not produce. Neither Kurt Cobain nor Cato would be so well remembered if they had died of cirrhosis or the plague. A suicide declares that he thinks us lame or foolish for continuing to live. No note is needed: the message is implicit in the act. But he, lucky man, is brave and wise; for he has not only realized that life is nothing but vanity and corruption. He has also done something about it.

Surrounding me is Mishima's long suicide note, the tetralogy The Sea of Fertility: Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel. The critics have blessed Mishima with the usual comparisons to putative geniuses - Hugo, Proust, Stendhal, Dostoevsky - and stamped his works with the usual marketing slogans - "a Japanese garden", "chilling", "major", "masterpiece." But these are as nothing compared to this:

"There was no other sound. The garden was empty. He had come, thought Honda, to a place that had no memories, nothing. "The noontide sun of summer flowed over the still garden. "THE END "November 25, 1970 The Sea of Fertility."

On the very day that Mishima penned these words he consummated what is devoutly to be wished. And we read the words with the same guilty alacrity and curiosity we would apply to a suicide note. A rendezvous with oblivion in a garden (Eden?), an ominous THE END, followed by date of death and reason for living. The rest is silence.

Spring Snow begins innocently enough. Two friends discuss the Russo-Japanese War, which finally convinced the Caucasian world that Asia was more than an inert conglomeration of teeming multitudes. The two friends are Kiyoaki Matsugae and Shigekuni Honda. The year is 1912. It is the era of Taisho. The former Emperor Meiji is dead, mourned. More often than not, the course of true love runs aground, or runs to apothecaries to deal in quick poisons. Kiyoaki is in love with a woman named Satoko and she with him. But their love is as strong as their denial. They are terrified by their own emotions, terrified to give in and be the first to do so. She is older and an aristocrat, he from a samurai family. Each lover hides behind an affected superiority.

Matters come to a head when Satoko accepts a marriage proposal from a prince. The scales of pride fall from Kiyoaki's eyes and he sets out to make Satoko his. They prosecute a clandestine love affair until Satoko becomes pregnant with his child. Cue the family cover-up, the desperate and elaborate Asian machinery of saving face. Face is saved but at the expense of truth, life. By the novel's end Satoko is a nun, Kiyoaki is dead of pneumonia, and truth dangles from the gallows. Some scholar somewhere has no doubt already sifted Spring Snow for indications of a suicidal tendency in its author. The task is neither very challenging nor very illuminating. Show me a Japanese novelist without a suicidal tendency and I will show you an American novelist without a garrulous tendency. Mishima openly declared that he would probably die when The Sea of Fertility was completed. What we find in Mishima instead are meditations upon how best to die. Kiyoaki wonders whether he would "be able to die young - and if possible free from all pain? A graceful death.... A death marked by elegance."

These are not necessarily the author's thoughts. Aristocratic elegance is contrasted unfavorably in Spring Snow with the resolution of the samurai, which had enjoyed centuries of "immunity to the virus of elegance" and "the virus of introspection." And Mishima died with pain and with all the grace and elegance of a meat cleaver and a chopping block. Vidal recalls the reaction of a Japanese 'classicist': "'Seppuku must be performed according to a precise and elegant ritual, in private, not' (a shudder) 'in a general's office with a dozen witnesses. But then Mishima was entirely Westernized.'" Vidal agrees.

I don't. If he was Westernized, he was Westernized as a language is bowdlerized. Not many Westernized men would arrange to be beheaded. Certainly Mishima's writing is more Westernized than, say, Kawabata's. But Mishima's work is shot through with nostalgia for the old Japan. And if he was eager to see Japan become further Westernized, he sure chose an odd way of showing it. Informed of an indiscretion on the part of one of his servants, Kiyoaki's father says (sighs?), "In the old days it would have been a matter of having to cut him down with my own sword." But no more. Now, "there were no means left to dazzle the vulgar." Except, perhaps, one. (Hint: it also involves a sword.)

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Runaway Horses brings us up to 1932. Japan is in crisis. The Great Depression has revealed the feebleness of the Imperial government and the contradictions of Western capitalism. The Reds are swarming, as are militant rightists seeking the restoration of Japan's halcyon days. Coal-rich Manchuria is now Manchukuo. Honda, who was Horatio to Kiyoaki's Hamlet, is now a complacent criminal judge. (Mishima himself studied jurisprudence.)

One would think that the element common to the books of a cycle called The Sea of Fertility would be agriculture or orgiastic sex. And while Mishima does excel at writing about flesh and flora, he links his books together using the idea of rebirth, about which he says:

"A mere hint of the probability of reincarnation made even the keenest grief suddenly seem to lose its freshness and reality, and begin to scatter like dry leaves. Somehow that was related to man's unwillingness to tolerate any injury to the dignity that he achieved through sorrow. In a sense, such a loss was more fearful than death."

At the end of Spring Snow Kiyoaki tells Honda that he will meet Honda "beneath the falls." In the sequel, Honda meets a young man named Isao. Like Kiyoaki, Isao has three moles in a certain configuration. Isao and Honda stand beneath some falls. Other coincidences convince Honda that Isao is a reincarnation of Kiyoaki. All the more strange is that Isao heads up a militant rightist group whose purpose is to rid Japan of corruption and, that being done, implode.

Isao takes his inspiration from a pamphlet describing the exploits of a similar group called The League of the Divine Wind, a.k.a. the League of the Kamikaze, and his father is the headmaster of the baldly named "Academy of Patriotism." Isao is prone to revolutionary jargon: ringleaders, lackeys. And he sides with the idea that nonviolent Buddhism has broken Japan's will, much as Nietzsche claimed that Christianity had made mice of European men.

Mishima himself was often called a militant rightist because he kept a personal army of young men trained in Japanese martial arts. He was a kendo master; Isao excels at kendo. So it could be said that Isao is an avatar of Mishima's spirit as well, while a benign and bland Honda looks on in impotent horror. Kiyoaki and Isao represent two extremes of the author's nature - the static and dynamic. Honda recalls that Kiyoaki had passed through life like "a shining, forever unchanging, beautiful nonwilling particle." Isao wants to be a bomb.

Mishima's so-called right-wing militancy would seem to be inconsistent with his bisexuality. But Runaway Horses (even the title suggests a worship of masculinity) is as much a celebration of strapping men as it is a condemnation of heedless militarism. And until recent times, love between male soldiers was encouraged on the grounds that lovers would fight for each other more honorably than would strangers or even buddies. Mishima was a warrior of the Greek mould. "To know and not to act is not to know." Isao adduces this dictum in defense of his militancy. The statement is puzzling, and like many "wise sayings of the East" only its negation is logically true. I know what my name is - must I then shout my name to know it? But the translation seems to be that knowledge and action are useless without each other, an idea that apparently influenced Mishima himself. Of not many novelists can this be said. Unless, that is, one is willing to admit writing as a form of action, which it is and it isn't.

The difference between courage and temerity depends in large part upon the chances of success. The League of the Divine Wind seeks to return Japan to its pristine isolation prior to the influence of the "barbarians" of the West. But the cause is a lost one. The kamikazes' "very purpose was to challenge the Western arms hateful to the gods with swords alone. Western civilization would, as time went by, search out weapons still more terrible, and would direct them at Japan." This image of swords defending Japan against nuclear attack is too horrible to contemplate. It does not even merit the name of temerity. Tragedy seems more fitting.

One of Mishima's recurring themes is that the young can always be counted on to repeat the dumb mistakes of their elders. But in both Spring Snow and Runaway Horses he argues that the elders are accomplices because they resist the impetuosity of youth instead of letting it expend itself. For a rightist, this is very progressive educational theory. Isao kills himself because his father prevents him from carrying out his dastardly plan, which otherwise would have petered out for lack of organization.

As Isao nears his end he blathers, "Maybe I ought to be born a woman." In his sleep he mutters, "Far to the south. Very hot..." All aboard to Bangkok, then, and Mishima's next installment, The Temple of Dawn, where at last fertility comes into its own.

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