In September 1966, I wrote a profile for Life that ran under the headline “Japan’s Dynamo of Letters.” My subject was Yukio Mishima, forty-one at the time, a best-selling novelist, playwright, literary critic, and flamboyant man-about-town. Readers learned that he had graduated at the head of his class from the Peers’ School in Tokyo, receiving a silver watch from the emperor; that he was a bodybuilder and a kendō swordsman; had starred in a gangster movie; dressed in $400 suits or fashionably faded blue jeans; and had designed a coffee-table book of photographs, Punishment by Roses, in which he posed in the snow wearing a loincloth and brandishing a sword, and as Saint Sebastian, his wrists bound above his head with a rope suspended from a tree and arrows piercing his sides. It was rumored, I added, that he was likely to win the Nobel Prize.
Mishima was avid for the prize and did what he could to extend his celebrity across the Pacific and promote his cause in Stockholm. Unlike other important writers in Japan, who remained aloof, he was known to all the major papers and magazines as a “friend of the bureau,” hosting evenings with Japanese intellectuals and introducing foreign editors to the solid-gold baths in the seaside town of Atami. The feature in Life, published when Americans knew next to nothing about postwar Japan, was proof that his efforts had paid off. If Sony’s Akio Morita was the most famous Japanese abroad, Mishima ran a close second. As it turned out, his campaigning was in vain: in 1968 Yasunari Kawabata became Japan’s first Nobel laureate. Mishima put on a good face—Kawabata was his mentor and champion—but being passed over may have helped propel him on his fatal course.
Yukio Mishima, whose real name was Kimitake Hiraoka, grew up in a family dominated by his bureaucrat father’s mother, Natsu. When he was fifty days old, she insisted that living on the second floor was hazardous and took him away from his mother, moving him downstairs into her sickroom, where she kept watch over him until he was twelve. According to Mishima’s self-portrait in Confessions of a Mask (1949), the novel of homosexual awakening that made him famous, by the time he was five years old he had retreated into a private world of “Night and Blood and Death,” of beautiful princes being slain or lovingly executed, of the “most sophisticated of cruelties and the most exquisite of crimes” (a line he quotes from Huysmans).
Mishima was unable to free himself from a fascination with death. In “My Literary Peregrinations,” an essay he serialized from January to May 1963, he acknowledged as much:
I have already begun to feel that youth and the flowering of youth are foolishness, of little value…. What remains then is…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.