Utage no Ato/After the Banquet (1960, published in English, translated by Donald Keene, in 1963) is with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (the basis for Enjô/Conflagration), the most acclaimed novel by Mishima Yukio. Most of the bookis about the relationship between a retired diplomat, Soguchi Tuken, and Kazu, the owner of Setsugoan (After Snow Retreat), a chic restaurant with an impressive garden where a group of retired diplomats has a reunion. One, a former ambassador to Nazi Germany, has a stroke in the lavatory of the restaurant. The only single (widower) guest stays a while to help. Is struck by his once-elegant (in the English fashion), now shabby clothes and wants to take care of him. She has foresworn love after a career in which at least some of her advancement came from work she did on her back. It seem to me that there is much that is maternal in her attraction to Soguchi, though he does not seem to be seeking a new mother, and resists her spending money on him.
He has agreed to let his energetic younger wife (a young 50-somthing in contrast to his old 60-something) continue to operate her successful business and sleep on the grounds there weeknights. When Soguchi decides he is going to run for office, Kazu (unbeknownst to him) throws her energy and resources into the campaign, starting before it is legal to do so (before the election is formally called). Soguchi is stiff and proper, but Kazu connects with lower-class voters, à la Eva Peron, eclipsing her prosaic husband devoid of the popular touch:
“The phrases from Kazu’s lips – ‘reform of the prefectural administration,’ ‘positive policies to combat unemployment,’ and the like – plummeted to the ground like swarms of winged ants which have lost the strength of their wings, but the words visible on the lips of the crowd dripped like red meat in the sunshine.”
(On the first page of the novel, Mishima wrote: “Some curious blessing of heaven had joined in one body a mans resolution with a woman’s reckless enthusiasm.” Neither the society nor her husband are prepared to accept such a dynamo unleashed in the political sphere.)
For a time Soguchi leads in polls, but the Conservative Party publishes a scurrilous book about Kazu’s sexual history and otherwise considerably outspends the Radical Party’s campaign for Soguchi. After he loses, he retires, but his wife is not ready for a quiet life. She is, as I mentioned, more than a decade younger, and accustomed to being among men (her customer base having been Conservative Party politicians), followed by a very active role campaigning (not just financing her husband’s campaign). She cares nothing about ideology, and has a much firmer understanding of how politics resembles (or is a form of) prostitution than her idealistic husband does.
There is no depth psychology (not just Mishima, but most Japanese literature prefigured the noveau roman in chronicling objects—especially clothing, but also including menus—rather than exploring motivations). In particular, while Kazu’s feelings are detailed, the motivations of Soguchi, beyond seeking to be a public model of rectitude are not limned, and his expectations of a subservient wife seem foolish from the get-go as she more or less conquers him and is obviously a more than competent business owner. Also, she is more in love, eager to advance her husband (by any means, not just the patrician ones of which he approves). In contrast, he is not particularly in love and is totally indifferent to what his wife wants (for him or for herself), indeed is clueless about what that might be.
A third major character is Yamazaki, Kazu’s political mentor, a Radical Party operative accustomed to defeat by the money the Conservative Party uses (“Corruption in an election or the victory of moneyed power did not in the least surprise him; they seemed as natural as stones and horse dung along a road”). He advises both Soguchi and Kazu and appreciates her more than her husband does.
Still, the protagonist of the novel is Kazu and it focuses on her difficulties, not at all colluding the male privilege or taking a male perspective on female aspirations. (Also see the entirely female world Mishima created in “Madame de Sade” and Asako in “Rokumeikan.”) Given Mishima’s horror about the ravages to the body of age that led to his suicide in 1970, the book is remarkably sympathetic to characters older than he would allow himself to become,
The real-life model for Soguchi was Arita Hachirô, who had been Japanese Ambassador to Austria and Belgim, Minister for Foreign Affairs. Like Soguchi , he won a seat in the House of Rpresentative in 1953, ran and lost a campaign to be Governor of Tokyo in 1955. The married Arita had a notorious affair with a Ginza hostess. Arita won a suit for invasion of privacy by the novel, though it seems to me that there were major differences” Arita rose much higher in the government, his wife was dead when he took up with a hostess, and his attempt to become Governor of Tokyo was not a comeback and was not waged as a radical against his former partymates. And rather than retiring after defeat, he ran (and lost) again four years later. I don’t know how close to the real-life model Kazu was, but his political career did not end with the 1955 defeat.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray