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Mr. Japan

Sun and Steel

by Yukio Mishima
Kodansha, 150 pp., $6.95

A white silky beach just south of Madras. Blue sea full of sharks, blue sky full of clouds like egret plumes. Nearby, half in the water, half on the beach, the gray-violet pyramid of a Hindu temple gradually dissolving as the sea with each century rises. In the foreground, the body of a man, headless, armless, with only one leg whose flesh stops at the knee. Below the knee, a bright beautiful white bone around which a rope has been knotted. The angle of the bone indicates that the man’s legs and arms had been tied together behind him. Coolly, I become coroner. Speculate sagely on the length of time the man has been dead. Draw my companions’ attention to the fact that there is not a drop of blood left in the body: at first glance we thought it a scarecrow, a bundle of white and gray rags—then saw real muscles laid bare, ropy integuments, the shin bone, and knew someone had been murdered, thrown into the sea alive. But who? And why? Definitely not Chinese, I decide (not only am I at heart a coroner—redundancy—but I am also a geographer of Strabo’s school).

I am interrupted by the arrival of a small Tamil girl resembling the late Fanny Brice. She glares at the corpse. “Not nice, not nice at all!” She shakes her head disapprovingly, hopes we won’t get a wrong impression of India. As we do our best to reassure her, we are joined by a friend with a newspaper: Yukio Mishima has committed seppuku (the proper word for harakiri) in the office of Japan’s commanding general; his head was then hacked from his body by an aide…. We read the bloody details with wonder. Such is the power of writing (to those addicted to reading) that the actual corpse at our feet became less real than the vivid idea of the bodyless head of Mishima, a man my exact contemporary whose career in so many ways resembled my own, though not to the degree that certain writers of book-chat in the Fifties thought.

Tokyo, Unbeautiful but alive and monstrously, cancerously growing, just as New York City—quite as unbeautiful—is visibly dying, its rot a way of life. That will be Tokyo’s future, too, but for the moment the mood is one of boom. Official and mercantile circles are euphoric. Elsewhere, unease.

I meet with a leader of the Left currently giving aid to those GIs who find immoral their country’s murder of Asiatics. He is not sanguine about Japan. “We don’t know who we are since the war. The break with the old culture has left us adrift. Yet we are still a family.”

The first thing the traveler in Japan notices is that the people resemble each other, with obvious variations, much the way members of a family do, and this sense of a common identity was the source of their power in the past, all children of an emperor who was child of the sun. But the sun no longer rises for Japan—earth turns, in fact—and the head of the family putters about collecting marine specimens while his children are bored with their new prosperity, their ugly cities, their half-Western half-Japanese culture, their small polluted islands.

I ask the usual question: what do the Japanese think of the Americans? The answer is brisk. “Very little. Not like before. I was just reading an old Osaka newspaper. Fifty years ago a girl writes that her life ambition is to meet a Caucasian, an American, and become his mistress. All very respectable. But now there is a certain…disdain for the Americans. Of course Vietnam is part of it.” One is soon made aware in Tokyo of the Japanese contempt not only for the American imperium but for its cultural artifacts. Though not a zealous defender of my country, I find prodding its Tokyo detractors irresistible, at least in literary matters. After all, for some decades now, Japan’s most popular (and deeply admired) writer has been W. Somerset Maugham.

We spoke of Mishima’s death and the possibility of a return to militarism: two things which were regarded as one by the world press. But my informant saw no political motive in Mishima’s death. “It was a personal gesture. A dramatic gesture. The sort of thing he would do. You know he had a private army. Always marching around in uniform. Quite mad. Certainly he had no serious political connections with the right wing.”

Mishima’s suicide had a shattering effect on the entire Japanese family. For one thing, he was a famous writer. This meant he was taken a good deal more seriously by the nation (family) than any American writer is ever taken by those warring ethnic clans whose mutual detestation is the essential fact of the American way of life. Imagine Paul Goodman’s suicide in General Westmoreland’s office as reported by The New York Times on page 22. “Paul Goodman, writer, aged 59, shot himself in General Westmoreland’s office as a protest to American foreign policy. At first, General Westmoreland could not be reached for comment. Later in the day, an aide said that the General, naturally, regretted Mr. Goodman’s action, which was based upon a ‘patent misunderstanding of America’s role in Asia.’ Mr. Goodman was the author of a number of books and articles. One of his books was called Growing Up Absurd. He is survived by….” An indifferent polity.

But Mishima at forty-five was Japan’s apparent master of all letters, superb jack of none. Or in the prose of a Knopf blurb writer,

He began his brilliantly successful career in 1944 by winning a citation from the Emperor as the highest-ranking honor student at graduation from the Peers’ School. In 1947 he was graduated from Tokyo Imperial University School of Jurisprudence. Since his first novel was published, in 1948, he has produced a baker’s dozen of novels, translations of which have by now appeared in fifteen countries; seventy-four short stories; a travel book; and many articles, including two in English (appearing in Life and Holiday).

About ten films were made from his novels. The Sound of Waves (1956) was filmed twice, and one of Ishikawa’s masterpieces, Enjo, was based on The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1959). Also available in English are the novels After the Banquet (1963) and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1965), and Five Modern No Plays (1957).

He has acted the title role in a gangster film, and American television audiences have seen him on “The Twentieth Century” and on Edward R. Murrow’s “Small World.” Despite a relentless work schedule, Mr. Mishima has managed to travel widely in the United States and Europe. His home is in Tokyo, with his wife and two children.

The range, variety, and publicness of the career sound ominously familiar to me. Also each of us might be said by those innocent of literature to have been influenced (as a certain “news” magazine gaily wrote of Mishima) “by Proust and Gide.” The fact that Proust and Gide resembled one another not at all (or either of us) is irrelevant to the “news” magazine’s familiar purpose—the ever popular sexual smear job which has so long made atrocious the American scene.

The American press, by and large, played up two aspects of the suicide: Mishima’s homosexuality and his last confused harangue to the troops, demanding a return to militarism and ancient virtue. The Japanese reaction was more knowledgeable and various than the American. It was also occasionally dotty. Professor Yozo Horigome of Tokyo University found “a striking resemblance” between Mishima’s suicide and the death of Thomas à Beckett, as reported by T.S. Eliot! Apparently the good professor had been working up some notes on Eliot and so absorbed was he in his task that any self-willed death smacked of high jinks at Canterbury Cathedral. Taruho Inagaki thought that by extraverting his narcissism Mishima could not continue as writer or man. Inagaki also observed, somewhat mysteriously, that since Mishima lacked “nostalgia,” his later work tended to be artificial and unsatisfactory.

Professor Taku Yamada of Kanazawa University compared Mishima’s suicide to that of an early nineteenth-century rebel against the Shogunate—a virtuous youth who had been influenced (like Mishima) by the fifteenth-century Chinese scholar Wang Yang-ming who believed that “to know and to act are one and the same.” The Japanese, the professor noted, in adapting this philosophy to their own needs, simplified it into a sort of death cult with the caveat “one is not afraid of the death of body, but fears the death of mind.” Yamada seems to me to be closest to the mark, if one is to regard as a last will and testament Mishima’s curious apologia Sun and Steel, published a few months before his death.

The opening sentences set the tone:

Of late, I have come to sense within myself an accumulation of all kinds of things that cannot find adequate expression via an objective artistic form such as the novel. A lyric poet of twenty might manage it, but I am twenty no longer.

Right off, the obsession with age. In an odd way, writers often predict their own futures. I doubt if Mishima was entirely conscious when he wrote Forbidden Colors at the age of twenty-five that he was drawing a possible portrait of himself at sixty-five: the famous, arid man of letters Shunsuké (his first collected edition was published at forty-five) “who hated the naked truth. He held firmly to the belief that any part of one’s talent…which revealed itself spontaneously was a fraud.” The old writer amuses himself during his last days by deliberately corrupting a beautiful youth (unhappily, the aesthetic influence of Dorian Gray is stronger here than that of Les Liaisons Dangereuses) whose initials are—such is the division even at twenty-five in Yukio Mishima—Y.M. The author is both beautiful blank youth and ancient seducer of mind. At the end the youth is left in limbo, heir to Shunsuké who, discreetly, gratefully, kills himself having used Y.M. to cause considerable mischief to others.

Mishima’s novels are pervaded with death. In an early work, Thirst for Love (1950), a young widow reflects that “it was an occult thing, that sacrificial death she dreamed of, a suicide proffered not so much in mourning for her husband’s death as in envy of that death.” Later, in Forbidden Colors, “Suicide, whether a lofty thing or lowly, is rather a suicide of thought itself; in general, a suicide in which the subject does not think too much does not exist.” Not the most elegant of sentences. The translator A.H. Marks usually writes plain American English with only an occasional “trains shrilling” or women “feeling nauseous.” Yet from Mr. Marks’s prose it is hard to determine whether or not Mishima’s writing possesses much distinction in the original. I found Donald Keene’s rendering of the dialogue of Mishima’s No plays unusually eloquent and precise, the work of a different writer, one would say, or is it (heart sinking) simply the distinguished prose of a different translator who has got closer to the original? Unable to read Japanese, I shall never know. Luckily, United Statesmen have no great interest in language, preferring to wrestle with Moral Problems, and so one may entirely ignore the quality of the line (which is all that a writer has of his own) in order to deal with his Ideas which are of course the property of all, and the least interesting thing about him.

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