Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Barakei: Ordeal by Roses
A strange article appeared last year in the Japanese edition of Penthouse magazine. In between photographs of half-undressed Japanese starlets and fully nude Western models (public hair carefully air-brushed away) was a story about Mishima Yukio. A housewife named Ota claimed to have been in close touch with Mishima’s spirit for the last seven years. He appears to have dictated all kinds of messages, manuscripts, and plans, one of which was to stage a musical of the Kojiki, an eighth-century chronicle of ancient myths. It is unlikely that even Mishima would have stooped to quite that level of bad taste. But the article and its presentation are rather typical of the way Mishima is regarded by many Japanese: a combination of ridicule and unease, of reverence and titillation.
Perhaps it is this feeling of ambivalence, of not quite knowing what to think about the man, that has made Mishima rather a nonsubject in Japan. Not much is written about him anymore. Few people talk about him. I was told the sales of his books are slow. It is hard to say whether the Japanese are truly uninterested or whether there is a kind of national conspiracy of silence, to blot out an embarrassing memory. The fuss caused by Paul Schrader’s film Mishima, which is yet to be screened in Japan, makes one suspect the latter, but one cannot be sure.
How different is Mishima’s legacy in the West. There are two biographies in English. He is the most translated Japanese author and certainly the best known. Marguerite Yourcenar has written a book about the man and his death, which she calls his “chef-d’oeuvre.” A new edition of the extraordinary collection of photographs of Mishima called Barakei: Ordeal by Roses has just been published in New York. And now there is the film. All this for a writer whom Gore Vidal, quite rightly I think, called “a minor artist”; minor in the sense that he had only one subject—himself.
Mishima himself would no doubt have been pleased. He was desperate for recognition in the West. Much of his grandstanding was aimed at Westerners, especially when it looked most “Japanese.” One of his most bizarre creations, a film called Patriotism, which he wrote, directed, and starred in, about a young army officer who commits ritual suicide with his wife, had its première in Paris. (Typically, this quintessentially “Japanese” piece, staged like a No play, was set to Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.) His “Western” dandyism—shades, aloha shirts, his claimed affinities with Thomas Mann and Elvis Presley—were more for home consumption, to shock the locals. Mishima was like those Japanese society ladies who dress in evening gowns in Tokyo, but in kimonos abroad.
Mishima was an extreme mythomaniac. Any assessment of his life would have to start with a close scrutiny of the myths, to sort out what was real and what mere posing. This is an almost impossible task as Mishima probably …