Mishima: A Biography
by John Nathan
Little, Brown, 300 pp., $8.95
The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima
by Henry Scott Stokes
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 344 pp., $10.00
Yukio Mishima died in November 1970 at the age of forty-five by carrying out a carefully staged seppuku, or suicide by disembowelment. He was one of the more talented writers in postwar Japan and had written a few brilliant novels and plays and many more works that were merely clever and competent. His death shocked the Japanese public. Some thought he had gone mad, others that this was the last in a series of exhibitionistic acts, one more expression of the desire to shock for which he had become notorious. A few people on the political right saw his death as a patriotic gesture of protest against present-day Japan. Others believed that it was a despairing, gruesome farce contrived by a talented man who had been an enfant terrible and who could not bear to live on into middle age and mediocrity. Still others saw it as a public act of homosexual love for Morita, the young student who, by agreement, gave Mishima the final blow and who died after him. In feudal Japan, Shinju, or double suicide, was a way in which lovers sometimes ended their lives when their emotions had reached their peak.
Just before he died, Mishima harangued the soldiers of the Japanese Self-Defense Force, asking them to rise against the Japanese constitution, which by renouncing armaments had consigned them to limbo. The soldiers jeered at him, telling him to cool down and stop playing the hero. Reading about this incident, most critics abroad interpreted Mishima’s suicide as the futile political act of a frustrated, right-wing fanatic. (A notably intelligent exception was Gore Vidal’s essay in this review. ) Foreign correspondents in Japan filed reports describing what he had done as “typically Japanese.”
The Japanese themselves were utterly bewildered. There had been no ritual seppuku since the end of the war, when several officers killed themselves in apology to the emperor and nation. Mishima’s death seemed less connected with such traditional motives for suicide as honor and despair than with the idiosyncratic thoughts and needs of a peculiarly tormented man. One would no more call his death Japanese than one could call Christian the photograph Mishima had taken of himself some years before in the pose of Guido Reni’s St. Sebastian—pierced by arrows, hands bound above the head, and naked.
Five years after his suicide we have two biographies of Mishima in English (the kind of recognition that more important Japanese novelists have never received) by two writers who knew him, the American academic John Nathan and Henry Scott Stokes, the Tokyo correspondent of The Times of London. Neither succeeds in conveying much about the literary quality of Mishima’s work. Though openly partisan, as in his obvious antipathy to Mishima’s father, and sometimes simplistic, Nathan succeeds better than Stokes in describing both Mishima and the intellectuals around him. Stokes’s book is more journalistic and episodic, at its best when it simply reports, for example when it simply reports, for example …
Mishima and Militarism February 19, 1976