I read most of the major novels and the then-only collection of short stories in English translation (Death in Midsummer) by Mishima Yukio (1925-1970) long ago. I recently read Gogo No Eikô (translated as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea), which I found irremediably repellant — participating in, not just portraying cruelty, delusional belief systems, and evil. It was published in Japanese in 1963, as were three of the seven stories (two of novella length) in Acts of Worship, a 1989 collection of Mishima stories that had not previously been rendered in English.
I disliked the ending of the 1963 novella “Sword” (Ken), which has some of the same youthful puritanical obsessions so that there are some adults with some control over the enthusiasm of the boys). I was amused by the ending of “Fountains in the Rain” (Ame no nake no funsui). I think it is ironic even beyond the titular spectacle of water shooting up from a fountain as water pours down from the heavens. Some of those who knew him have reported that the man Mishima had a sense of humor, but one is little evident in his work about obsessives often possessed of considerable arrogance. The boy who has forged a relationship with a girl for the pleasure of breaking up (and making her cry, also in the rain) is cruel and narcissistic, as many Mishima characters are. (He was acutely narcissistic, but seemingly not cruel himself.)
There is fairly prominent evidence that the macho bodybuilder recalled the sickly youth which he had been before he willed himself muscular (a path from sensitive ugly duckling to muscular swan of many a gay male in recent decades). Mishima claimed that Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no Kokuhaku, 1948) was fiction and rarely let the mask slip thereafter. The collection translated by John Bester also includes the 1946 story “Cigarette” (Tabakao) that launched Mishima’s career as a writer, attracting the attention and sponsorship of Kawabata Yasunari (who would become the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature). It shows a frail youth desperate for acceptance from the young machos, and the worship of masculine strength that is central to the stuttering youth who will burn down the national treasure, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
The homoeroticism of a bond between a rough youth and a sensitive one is front and center in “Martyrdom” (Junkyo) from 1948. It is very “poetic,” in the not altogether positive sense (common in Japanese art) of making what happens mysterious. Like Sailor, the world of boys’ school dormitory dominance and submission/sadomasochism (complete with a “Demon King”) resonates with the proto-fascist world of Musil’s Young Tôrless.
“Sea and Sunset” (Umi to yuyake, 1955) is set in medieval Japan, but its protagonist had been a shepherd in the Cévenne (in France) before joining the Children’s Crusade (the Fifth, ca. AD 1212), and, like many of the young would-be crusaders, being sold into slavery. Though not lacking in sadness, this is another story with ironies suggesting some sense of humor on the author’s part.
S&S is devoid of eroticism. The other 1963 story, the murky (or opaque) “Raisin Bread” (Budopan) drips eroticism with no evidence of any sense of humor. Its protagonist seeks to renounce the world and to influence a group of fellow young people (not unlike Mishima forging a private army while expressing despair about Japan in his last years).
The negative side of my ambivalence toward Mishima was flowering by the time I reached the start of the novella that closes the book and gave it its title, “Act of Worship” (Mikumane mode, 1965). It did not immediately hook me, but I was slowly forced to recognize that it is a masterpiece made with the unpromising materials of a plain woman and would-be poet who has served as housekeeper for a scholar-poet with a clique of followers. He takes her on a pilgrimage to three Shinto shrines in the vicinity of where he grew up (and has been avoiding for decades). While making perfect sense, the ending surprised me, in contrast to the schematic inevitability of Sailor, or the more forced unpleasant ending of “Sword.”
There are some interesting female characters in Mishima’s writings, for all his devotion to a cult (or cults) of masculism and suicide. In addition to the self-effacing subordinate in “Acts of Worship,” these include “Madame de Sade” (in the 1965 play named for her), and the vivacious proprietress of the restaurant in After the Banquet. For sure, Mishima did not dote on women as objects of worship in the manner of his predecessors Tanizaki and Kawabata, but he sometimes portrayed subjectivity and agency of women rather than just the arbitrariness of female actions or heterosexual female masochists. I’ll have to say that all three writers were obsessed with youths, though only Mishima refused to grow old himself…
©2017, Stephen O. Murray