by ALEX CARNEVALE
When Yukio Mishima graduated from high school, honored as the class valedictorian, given a silver watch by the Emperor, his mind was occupied by one prevailing thought: "Now I am ready to die."
The next year he received his draft notice. Perhaps out of panic, or because he had been susceptible to illness ever since he discovered he was gay, Mishima came down with a cough, a cold and a fever. He was excused from service. By the time the war ended, all the people who had read his writing or cared about it (except his mother) were dead, either by their own hand or purged by the new leftist government.
Mishima's native city of Tokyo was in ruins. The most common sight on the streets was the viewing of a metal safe; all that was left of what used to be a home. Very little of this touched Mishima, who had learned to ignore the vagaries of reality in favor of his own world. He wrote,
Japan's defeat was not a matter of particular regret for me. A far more sorrowful incident was my sister Mitsuko's death a few months later. I loved my sister. I loved her to an inexplicable degree.
His father forced him into law school, where he tried to think of the dull preparation for a bureaucratic career in as literary a terms as possible. Pushed into a job at the prestigious Ministry of Finance, he stayed up until all hours of the morning writing, so much so that his superiors chastised him for his sleepy look. But this was government, the only chance of him "failing" at it was to appear out-of-the-ordinary. (His colleagues even knew his literary work: they had him write a speech for a minister, before rejecting it as too flowery.)
Nine months into his new job, he fell off a train platform out of tiredness. His father relented and allowed him to tender his resignation shortly thereafter. He told Yukio, "Then quit the job and become a novelist, but make sure you become the very best in the land."
Mishima's new novel was autobiographical, a subject he would never completely abandon again. He wrote to his editor, "I will turn upon myself the scalpel of psychological analysis I have sharpened on fictive characters. I will attempt to dissect myself alive." That book was Confessions of a Mask, and the revelations within would change his life forever.
Today Confessions of a Mask seems dated and juvenile with respect to Mishima's other work. It is essentially his memoir of becoming, and since it is easier to think of Mishima's unraveling than his coming together, parts of the novel are easy to misread. The veiled discussion of his own homosexuality undoubtedly helped Confessions of a Mask become a sensation in Japan. The book was talked about everywhere, turning Mishima into the household name he desired.
The violence in his work was also divisive. He had been confusing pain with pleasure from his early days confined in his tyrant of a grandmother's basement, and the range of it in his stories matches any in the literature of Japan. Once, in order to write about it convincingly, he watched a medical student vivisect a cat.
The homosexual culture that emerged in Japan after the war, with the first gay bars and meeting places in Tokyo, could have had its central star. Amazingly, Mishima was able to suggest his immersion in these places was a cover that allowed him to research his next creation. The world which had rejected his early ambitions now embraced them to a startling degree. Even his father had to approve of Mishima's financial success in his chosen field. The family moved into a new house.
Fame gave Mishima the gratification he needed, the man barely ever drank or smoked. His intense focus on his writing meant that he met every deadline; his penmanship was flawless and his work rarely needed anything but the most cursory of edits. Explaining his behavior was easy: "Most writers are perfectly normal in the head and just carry on like wild men; I behave normally but I'm sick inside."
His first view of the west came in 1951. He sailed into San Francisco, and spent ten days in New York, which he described as Tokyo "five hundred years from now." He found it overwhelming and spent most of his time at the Museum of Modern Art.
In Brazil he was able to exercise his sexual needs whenever he liked, meeting teenage boys in the park and bringing them back to his hotel room. He hated his week in Paris, and spent most of his time in London sitting in dark theaters. (He would produce a play a year for the rest of his life.) He looked forward to Greece and found it more to his liking; it was as old as he felt.
When he returned to his country, he immediately sought a relationship with a woman that he could use as a cover. He began dating a coed whose chief virtue was her willingness to participate in what he described as "his masquerade." His mother chaperoned every date.
The Sound of Waves was the novel Mishima wrote after his trip. It has been described as his most normal work, and it certainly it appealed to more people than anything else he had produced to that point. Something had changed in Yukio during his journey around the world. His American biographer John Nathan suggests the travel freed him from feeling that the only environment in which he could survive was his native one. The Sound of Waves would also be Mishima's debut in English, as Knopf was reluctant to publish the "homosexual novel" Confessions as a debut.
More popular than ever, Mishima's freedom was unencumbered. He became consumed with bodybuilding. For the next fifteen years of his life, he worked out three times a week, slowly increasing the girth of his upper body. At his peak he looked something like this:
Mishima's commercial and critical success returned him to New York, where the astonishing news of his fame had not travelled so far. He asked a friend what to do to become famous in this country. His friend responded, "Faulkner and Hemingway could walk arm in arm down this street and nobody would pay any attention." A New York production of his play meant that, until he could not afford the $16 a day it cost, he lived on Park Avenue. His new hotel, in Greenwich Village, was $4 a day. He even learned how to ride the subways.
Mishima's off-Broadway debut was doomed from the start, but the experience was valuable. He had to again learn what disappointment felt like. When he returned to Tokyo (via Athens), his parents were determined to quiet rumors of their son's homosexuality by finding him the right woman. His mother almost certainly knew her son's true feelings, but felt a bride would solve a lot of Yukio's problems in general.
The family reviewed applications as if it were a job opening. The major disqualifying characteristic for Mishima was interest in his work. He wanted his new partner to love him for his body, not his writing, for whatever reason. Mishima's figure was not exactly appealing for some women: he was more a sex object to men and admirers of his work. He addressed the possibility of his marriage in his public writing, telling potential suitors that "With regard to her behavior in the outside world, I will not be generous with her; the world will be watching."
The woman who would become Yukio Mishima's wife was a 19 year old college sophomore named Yoko Sugiyama. The day before he married her, he burned all of his diaries.
In time, Yoko would learn her husband's true proclivities, but she never discussed them openly, even after his death, and denied them to anyone who asked. John Nathan has speculated that it was the position of homosexuality in Japan that allowed the marriage to persist happily - there was nothing abhorrent, strictly speaking, about being gay in Japan during this period, and bisexuality was also recognized as a legitimate preference. Far more unacceptable than being gay was being unmarried.
The wedding reception was in May at Tokyo's International House; the families were still simmering over a difficult negotiation of terms. The press followed the couple on their honeymoon. Mishima wrote,
As we walked down the corridor on the second floor, a girl from the beauty parlor picked up the telephone in the corridor and began informing someone of our every step in a voice so loud we couldn't possibly have missed it. As the elevator doors closed we heard her report, "They've just stepped into the elevator." In our room whenever a girl came to clean up or bring us something she was always accompanied by two or three others who just tagged along for a good look at us on their way out. When a waitress from room service appeared and Yoko ordered a cream soda and I ordered one too, the girl said, "You drink the same drink! That's passion!" I was appalled.
In his marriage Mishima was often caught between his mother and his wife. The two never got along. Living in the same home did not help matters; both felt possessive of Yukio. Despite the not-so-passionate nature of the arrangement, the couple was suited to each other. Yoko was not terribly entertained by the friends her husband had made as a single dilettante, and disliked his focus on bodybuilding. Each led their own lives, but Mishima surely relied on his wife for advice and for the most part they abided by one another's wishes.
In 1959, Mishima built a new house for his entire family. It was a disturbing piece of architecture, embodying both his experience in the west and a judgmental view of his own culture. Each morning he would wake up, eat and sunbathe, and then turn to his exercise regimen. The afternoons were about meeting with agents and directors. All of his writing was done in the evening before the routine began again. That year Yoko gave him his first child, a daughter they named Noriko, who was followed by a son Ichiro three years later.
The year his daughter was born Mishima also finished his massive new novel Kyoko's House. It sold based on his reputation, but the massive tome has never been popular with critics or readers. He had never worked harder on any of his plays or novels, and the reaction saddened him deeply.
Violence on the Japanese political scene frightened the vulnerable author, and the family was protected by a bodyguard. Mishima penned perhaps his most brilliant short work, My Wandering Years, which described his first trip around the world. John Nathan focuses in on one particular passage from the period:
Today, I no longer believe in that ideal known as classicism, and I have already begun to feel that youth, and the flowering of youth, are foolishness. What remains is the concept of death, the only truly enticing, truly vivid, truly erotic concept. For all I know, that twenty-six-year-old, that classicist who felt about himself that he was as close as possible to life, was a dissembler, a fraud.
Mishima's popularity declined noticeably in the years that followed, and much of his work from these years has never been properly appreciated either at home or abroad. He continued to subsist on the revenues from what he considered his trivial work, largely read by the Japanese housewives who had propelled his novels to their first success.
John Nathan had been responsible for a successful translation of Mishima's 1963 novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. After reading Mishima's novel Silk and Insight he decided that translating it would be a losing battle, both because it lacked the intensity typical of the author's work, and because the political undertones could not possibly make sense to a Western audience. After Nathan informed him he would not embark on the project, Mishima never spoke to him again.
Mishima's view of Japan was changing. In order to restore the nation to its former glory, he enlisted himself in the Army Self Defense Force and entered basic training. (Some suspect that his love of masochism was his principal motivation in this.) This position allowed him to maintain an ongoing friendship with a variety of young men, allowing him space from his wife and family.
Mishima was 42 and yet burned to keep up with the younger soldiers. His fantasy of becoming a warrior would persist until his death, tied up in political views that encouraged Japan to regain its former greatness. When another Japanese writer won the Nobel Prize, it was enough to set him off the rails completely.
Mishima planned his own death elaborately. He said farewell, in his way, to everyone that he knew, ending conversations with an unusual sayonara rather than the more typical "see you again soon." He told no one specifically what he planned, although he did float the concept of showing his suicide live to a friend who worked in television. The idea that he would become more respected and famous in death than he was in life was only a part of his desire to die, expressed for the first time when he was a young man. It had never truly left him.
Along with his comrades-in-arms, Mishima abducted a Japanese general that day. He had already mailed journalists with his manifesto and a photograph, in order to ensure the reasons for doing what he intended would not be obscured. Mishima had assigned the ritual decapitation to a friend, Morita, but even after several attempts the man was unable to perform the task and another comrade, Koga, beheaded both of them. Yukio's insides splattered to the ground. His wife placed a pen and manuscript paper in his coffin.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about Bunheads. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.
"Orpheo" - Andrew Bird (mp3)
"When the Helicopter Comes" - Andrew Bird (mp3)