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.1 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 took at least some of his poses seriously and, as Yourcenar rightly says, “the elements of his own culture and those of the West, which he had absorbed avidly, elements both banal and strange to us, are mixed in all his works.” It is a task that has to be done nonetheless, for otherwise one is forced to take the man’s myths at their face value. And this, one is forced to conclude, is precisely what the schraders (Paul wrote the script with his brother, Leonard) and Yourcenar have done.

The film shows Mishima as he presented himself. The myths are not debunked, analyzed, or explained, but dramatized. The narration is drawn from Mishima’s works. Scenes from three of his novels are staged in highly stylized settings to explain his actions in real life, which is presented as a series of his more spectacular poses. Mishima compulsively posed for pictures, as if he hoped to become immortal by freezing time often enough. He even requested that a picture be taken of his corpse, dressed up in his private army uniform, so people could see that he died as a warrior. The sequences about his own life in Mishima, shot in black and white, unlike the scenes from the novels, are almost all based on famous photographs: Mishima in black T-shirt speaking to radical students; Mishima in loincloth photographed as Saint Sebastian, hands tied, arrows sticking in his flesh; Mishima in combat gear at boot camp; Mishima in shorts at the body-building gym; Mishima in shades on holiday in Greece. In the final scene, life and art come together: Mishima in dress uniform, white gloves, and headband, moments before his death, screaming at Self-Defense Forces soldiers to rise and save the glorious Japanese spirit from Western materialism. Mishima’s “real life,” as shown in the film, is his carefully stage-managed public life. And the film makers further oblige the great poseur by adding a heavy-breathing score by Philip Glass to make his actions seem even more portentous.


Mishima’s myth seems to invite extreme pretentiousness. Hosoe Eikoh’s photographs of the author in Ordeal by Roses, mostly in loincloth or tied up with a garden hose, are accompanied by quotes from the Upanishads. Schrader, too, cannot take his subject lightly, presenting us with a Mishima utterly without charm, a pompous bore, unbending once in a while to crack some embarrassingly dumb joke. From the film it is entirely unclear why so many people were captivated by him to the point that even today certain old hands in Tokyo claim a kind of hallowed status because “I knew Mishima.”

Unfortunately, those aspects that might explain his poses, such as his sexual life, his family, his politics, are hinted at in the film but not shown. This may not be entirely the fault of the film makers. I am told that Mishima’s widow will not allow anything to sully her image of Mishima, the Great Healthy Heterosexual Artist, and since she holds the right to most of his novels she can pull a string or two. But if one cannot seriously address the sexuality of a man who was so obviously obsessed and driven by sex, then why bother making a film of his life at all?

Both of Mishima’s biographers consider sex to have been the main motive for his suicide. Scott Stokes believes that Mishima “was having an affair with Masakatsu Morita [Mishima’s favorite protégé in his private army] and that the two committed a lovers’ suicide.” And both Scott Stokes and John Nathan see the seppuku as a culmination or a climax, literally, of Mishima’s erotic fantasies. There is also a more banal explanation, which an old friend of Mishima’s recently gave me: “He was simply terrified of getting old and dressed his suicide up in such a way to make his motives seem grander than they were.” This certainly seems in keeping with Mishima’s dandyism, about which more later.

Schrader’s main interest is not lovers’ suicide, the fear of old age, or homosexual fantasy. He has the old Romantic fascination for the artist who goes too far. The idea of actually acting out one’s fantasies instead of putting them on paper or on the screen appeals to bookish intellectuals, burdened with inhibitions. Schrader tends to wear the inhibitions of his Calvinist upbringing on his sleeve—he certainly discusses them a lot with the press—and seems to have projected his condition on Mishima. He has, as it were, painted a portrait of the artist as an existential Rambo. It is a slightly outdated idea, harking back to the days of Byron and D’Annunzio, both much admired by Mishima. It is hard to imagine a modern American director making a completely serious film about Hemingway as the great white hunter, Philip Glass music pounding away in the background: Perhaps the only way for the modern Western Romantic to escape ridicule is to seek heroes in more exotic places.

The artist who goes too far is a fantasy shared by many bookish Japanese. A minor cult is developing right now around a Japanese student called Sagawa Issei who several years ago claimed he shot his Dutch girlfriend in Paris and ate her, after cooking her flesh in a sukiyaki pot. Sagawa, too, is a literary type. He wrote a book about the murder, entitled In the Fog, a rather pretentious work describing the author’s erotic obsessions, mostly to do with cannibalism. A prize-winning book and play have already been written about him. A well-known magazine editor has hailed him as a great literary taboo breaker.

It is also true that many Japanese writers (the young Tanizaki, for example) have been drawn, as Mishima was, to the Romantic Agony of a nineteenth-century Europe precisely because it fits in with a Japanese tradition of grotesque and morbid beauty. Mishima was not the only one of his generation to see parallels between Kabuki and the Elizabethan thirst for theatrical blood, between Wagnerism and Japanese spiritualism, between Baudelaire and teahouse decadence, or between Byron and Japanese artists of action. Japanese writers created modern literature from Western models, but they chose the models most congenial to their own tradition. Among Mishima’s closest friends in the 1960s were such people as Shibusawa Tatsuhiko, translator of De Sade, and Hijikata Tatsumi, father of buto dance, now increasingly popular in the West. Buto, like Mishima’s works and poses, is full of superficial Western images—freely borrowed from Christianity, Nietzsche, Wagner, even Hitlerism—to express Japanese emotions. Mishima once explained his attraction to seppuku and honorable death on the battlefield as the result of “my reading of Nietzsche during the war, and my fellow feeling for the philosopher Georges Bataille, the ‘Nietzsche of eroticism.’ ” Although much of this is name-dropping kitsch, it is also a genuine search for synthesis between Japanese aesthetics and Western modernism.


So Schrader may not be entirely off track in identifying his Calvinist hangups with Mishima’s neuroses (although the only Calvinist thing about Mishima was his deeply held conviction that if it hurts it must be good for you). Schrader sees both himself and Mishima as artists trapped in the plastic cages of modern ennui and spiritual emptiness; men who must act ever more violently, in fantasy and/or real life, to feel real. There is one big difference, though: while the Calvinist may desperately try to jettison his religion, or at least those taboos and superstitions deemed no longer valid in modern life, Mishima did the opposite: he tried to find his way back to religion. He wanted to believe in a mythical Japanese past when spirits were pure and values unsullied. The emperor in this religion, often called “Japanism,” is not a fascist dictator, as some think, but both pope and the God on our side. This religion, perhaps like Oscar Wilde’s Catholicism, was not just Mishima’s answer to modern materialism, but also a part of his erotic fantasies. He blew up his personal problems into something of at least national scale. And Schrader took them seriously enough to blow them up to international proportions: the twentieth-century artist—a lofty concept indeed.

To find out why Mishima chose the Japanist religion to die for, so out of step with most of his countrymen, one must know the psychology of the man and the relatively short history of this religion. Marguerite Yourcenar gives up on the first, wishing to avoid what she calls “drugstore psychology,” and, I think, misunderstands the second. If Schrader interprets Mishima from the perspective of an American artist fighting to be free from the suffocating grip of old-world taboos, Yourcenar speaks as an old-world intellectual applauding an Asian struggling for traditional values against American cultural “imperialism.” She sees Mishima as “the witness and in the etymological sense of the word, the martyr of a heroic Japan, which he had rejoined, as it were, against the stream.”

Yourcenar does at least try to disentangle and classify some of the myths. She points out parallels with European literature, seeing shades of Bernanos here, of Huysmans there. However, she carries this both too far, in her dubious comparison of Buddhist and Christian symbolism in a discussion of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and not far enough. Mishima borrowed so much from European Romanticism that it would have been interesting if Yourcenar could have gone more deeply into the differences between Mishima and his models.

But the main problem is her sometimes shaky grasp of Japanese cultural history. She presents the tension between Japanese tradition and Western modernity as mostly a postwar phenomenon, as if 1945 was the end of traditional Japan:

One could almost say that this man, who was hardly touched by the war—that, at any rate, is what he thought—accomplished in himself the evolution of his entire country: the swift transition from battleground heroism to a passive acceptance of the occupation, and the subsequent channeling of energies into that other form of imperialism, namely extreme Westernization and ruthless economic development. Those photographs of Mishima in tuxedo or morning coat, cutting the first slice of his wedding cake at the International House in Tokyo, sanctuary of an Americanized Japan, or of Mishima making speeches in impeccable businessman’s suits, convinced that an intellectual should be like a banker, are characteristic of his times.

Well, they were perhaps particularly characteristic of Mishima. Few Japanese writers go around in tuxedos hobnobbing with foreigners the way Mishima did. The more famous ones tend to stay aloof from Westerners, affecting a kind of shy arrogance. Even fewer Japanese writers—in fact none that I can think of—become body-building samurai and end up as martyrs of a heroic Japan. Mishima was in almost every respect an oddity and it is dangerous to see him as typical of anything.

Yourcenar’s sketch of postwar Japan is simplistic, though not entirely inaccurate. It is also, I think, beside the point. Like Schrader, though in a different way, she takes Mishima’s mythology at face value. She describes Mishima’s conversion to Japanism as follows: the shocks of war were not perceived or “were refused by the mind and the conscious sensibility of a young man of twenty.” But, later, “the voices of young kamikaze pilots, after twenty years, became what Montherlant called ‘voices from another world’ to a writer revolted by the flabbiness of his times.” Let us leave aside, for a moment, the fact that Mishima was probably at least as much concerned with the inevitable flabbiness of his own body in old age. Mishima, then, lured by the kamikaze voices, followed Byron and D’Annunzio, became a man of action, and formed his private army, the Shield Society.

The army, according to Yourcenar, may have seemed to people at the time

insignificant, if not anodyne, a ridiculous nonsense, but it is by no means certain that we can still judge it that way. We have seen too often how countries which are roughly Westernized,…and apparently happy to be so, have surprises in store for us, and how in every case the consequent upheavals begin with small groups, at first disdained or treated with irony. If ever a nationalist revolution succeeds, however temporarily, in Japan, as it has in certain Islamic countries, the Shield Society will have been a harbinger.

She fails to mention that this is precisely what happened before the war. Mishima was not a harbinger, but an anachronism. His “heroic Japan” of kamikaze, emperor worship, and pure spirit was based on nineteenth-century nationalist fantasies that had served to give Japan an identity in the maelstrom of industrialism and imperialism. Just as there are still neo-Nazis in Germany, there are some Japanese who still cling to the old nationalist symbols. How seriously would Yourcenar take a modern German artist, if he were to resurrect Aryan supremacy, the German soul, swastikas, and all the rest of the prewar mumbo jumbo to combat the flabbiness of his Americanized times? If Fassbinder, say, an artist who had much in common with Mishima, would suddenly have taken to measuring people’s skulls, would he have been “a harbinger”? No, it would have been taken, quite rightly, as another one of his pranks—a disquieting prank, certainly, just as Mishima’s were, but a prank nonetheless.

Yourcenar, I find, has little understanding of Mishima’s deliberate dandyism. She calls the theatricality of his grand gestures and his absurd uniforms the inevitable consequence of his being a man of the theater, “just as a professor brings a professorial style to his political actions.” I wonder whether it was not more than that, whether theater was not the main point of the exercise.

Four months before he died Mishima was asked by a magazine journalist whether he did not think his ideas were anachronistic. Mishima’s answer deserves to be quoted in full:

Anachronistic? Yes, perhaps. But, wearing one thing which is old, however modern one looks otherwise is dandyism—as a spiritual attitude. Chivalry is dandyism. It’s like wearing clothes in the latest fashion, but smoking a very old pipe. Likewise, sticking to an anachronism in one’s spiritual life is dandyism.

Nobody knew Mishima as well as he knew himself.

Mishima picked his way through the Japanese past as carefully and as selectively as he did with European literature, like a connoisseur of rare antiques. What he came up with perfectly fit his dandyism. Hagakure, for example, an eighteenth-century text on the Way of the Samurai, stressing the constant readiness to die—its author, a samurai called Yamamoto Jocho, died of old age. Mishima wrote a book about it and Yourcenar quotes from it with the same solemn tone that Schrader adopts in his film. Hagakure was already an anachronism when it was written, indeed an elaborate form of dandyism of a warrior class with no more wars to fight. Hardly anybody in Japan takes it seriously. Mishima pretended that he did.

To be sure, Mishima disliked the vulgarity of modern times. But, as Baudelaire said in a text that Mishima probably knew by heart, that is one of the marks of the dandy. Baudelaire’s definition of the dandy was pure Mishima:

It is a kind of cult of the ego…. It is the pleasure of causing surprise in others, and the proud satisfaction of never showing any oneself. A dandy may be blasé, he may even suffer pain, but in the latter case he will keep smiling, like the Spartan under the bite of the fox. [He refers to the Spartan who refused to cry out when a fox was gnawing at his vital parts, a Mishimanian image par excellence.] Clearly, then, dandyism in certain respects comes close to spirituality and to stoicism…. Dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent ages…. Dandyism is a setting sun; like the declining star, it is magnificent, without heat and full of melancholy. But alas! the rising tide of democracy, which spreads everywhere and reduces everything to the same level, is daily carrying away these last champions of human pride.

Need one go any further? It was Mishima’s misfortune that he took his kind of thing seriously. One wonders why somebody of Yourcenar’s stature could not regard it with more skepticism.

If she had, she would have been less surprised by the fact that Mishima taught his protégé Morita European table manners shortly before dying the samurai death. Mishima, like many nineteenth-century dandies, was raised with the kind of snobbery that comes with feeling one’s class privileges slipping. His grandmother came from an illustrious samurai family, and felt that she had married beneath her station. She greatly influenced the young Mishima—a point that both Schrader and Yourcenar make, quite rightly. The European manners that Mishima often affected were typical of the old upper class. His samurai fantasies were not necessarily in contradiction to this. He wanted to remain an aristocrat, a knight of a special brotherhood in a vulgar age. Being Japanese, the only tradition of knighthood he could fall back on was the Way of the Samurai, as expressed in such flamboyant works as Hagakure.

However, as Baudelaire pointed out, the select band of dandies has to keep on surprising its audience, in an unending round of costume changes. Dandies are life’s practical jokers who must fool people into thinking they are something they know themselves they are not. They are like exhibitionists who only feel alive when watched. Mishima knew very well he was not fooling many Japanese after decades of his antics. As he once remarked: “I come out on the stage determined to make the audience weep and instead they burst out laughing.” To really shake people up, he had to resort to something very extreme. Posed photographs of Mishima dying by the sword, choking in mud, being run over by a truck, having his skull sliced with an ax, were no longer enough. Only the real thing would do. And his countrymen, as well as people in the rest of the world, were duly shocked. One can almost hear him laughing up there, having pulled off the ultimate prank.

But let us not be conned into thinking that he stood for more than himself. It would be best to concentrate on his books, as works of art, not as props for grand statements about the author’s life and death. This does not mean that certain Japanese are justified in trying to prevent Schrader’s film from being shown in Japan. But I do think most Japanese are right in regarding Mishima’s seppuku as little more than the pathetic act of a very gifted buffoon.

This Issue

October 10, 1985