I will be doing primers on various Japanese authors, spanning from Meiji era to the end of the 20th century. Today’s author is Yukio Mishima.
Modern Japanese literature is largely defined as the period between 1865, which is the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, to probably mid 1940s. If you aren’t too familiar with the history of Japanese literature, just know that pre-1865 literature for maybe half a century or so was utter garbo, and people hated the shit out of it.
Post-war literature runs from the end of World War II to the end of the 1970s, where more contemporary literature takes hold. This date, admittedly, is rather arbitrary and set by me, but I define the end of post-war era in November of 1970 when Yukio Mishima committed suicide. I think Mishima most aptly captured the spirit of post-war literature and his death marked the end of the era.
Mishima was a rather fascinating figure due to his background and political activism, and I find it regrettable that his most outspoken achievement is his suicide and not his literary career. Mishima was extremely prolific, writing dozens of novels, plays, essays, spanning subjects from tackling the capitalist zeitgeist of post-war Japan to exploring the thought process of the wife of one Marquis de Sade. He was the dominant prose stylist of his time, extremely well read in literature, and possessed a deep understanding of ancient Japanese literary practices.
His writings are heavily concerned on a number of different issues, but perhaps most pressing were his themes of old and new, youth and the elder, pre and post-war Japan. Mishima saw the desolation and the diminishing of Japanese cultural values, and his right wing nationalistic ideals were fueled by a deep and fanatical concern with the loss of something intrinsically special about the Japanese experience. I leave it to you to find out what Mishima thought that was.
If anyone is interested in a full frontal biography of Mishima (presumably if one enjoys his novels), then Persona by Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato should be more than enough to satiate one’s hunger.
What follows is a list of recommended novels in, largely, the order that I would approach them. There is no strict order to reading Mishima, specifically since his repertoire is so vast, but I think if one wants a wider understanding of his late novel, The Sea of Fertility, it would be wise to save it for later in your readings.
Confessions of a Mask – If you start with any Mishima novel, I suspect one should start with this. This is vintage Mishima, be it the prose, his themes, and the eroticism that encompasses the work. Semi-autobiographical, scandalous, and detailed with prose, it is one of his earliest works and therefore it’s a great starting ground for any burgeoning Mishima fan.
Sound of Waves – This is the most accessible of Mishima’s writings, especially if you watch anime. It reads like an anime, but the writing is perfect for someone wanting to get to know Mishima’s style a bit more. He writes lucidly, with great attention to detail. As a story, the plot is really a love story that has a ton of anime tropes embedded. There’s even a beach scene with bouncing breasts! Personally, I am not particularly sold on Sound of Waves, but it deserves a reread at some point to see if there is more that meets the eye. Still, a good introduction.
Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea – This novel is a deeper exploration of some of Mishima’s themes, specifically themes on the perverted youth, the tepidity of old age, and a thirst for a sort of highly masculine cultural spirit. It is a great starting point because, much like the other preliminary books, it captures Mishima’s fascination with youth and how it can be simultaneously innocent and corrupted.
Temple of the Golden Pavilion – For those who found Mishima’s exploration of disturbed characters a bit lacking, this would be the next step. Mishima takes a real historical incident (the burning of the Golden Pavilion), and shapes the main character in the form of a neurotic and mentally unstable individual. No other Mishima novel I have encountered really captures the feverish persona of Mishima’s buddhist acolyte, and its a rather interesting shift from the milder mental tones we find in some of the other works by Mishima.
Sun and Steel – I have not read this, but it is a very manly book. One thing to note about Mishima was he was rather self-conscious about his figure at some point in his life. Thus he decided to go full body builder mode. This is an autobiographical by Mishima which explores his relationship with martial arts and bodybuilding.
Patriotism (play/movie) – A very short movie (less than 30 minutes), and a pretty short play. This tells the story of one man and his wife’s ritual suicide. The movie itself is quite gruesome for a black and white film, and the slow pacing leading up to their deaths highly centers on the eroticism that Mishima loves as well as the nationalistic fury that comes with a beautifully performed seppuku. This helps to contextualize Mishima’s certain thoughts on death.
The Sea of Fertility – This is what you read Mishima for. This is a tetralogy that was packaged and sent to the editor on the day of Mishima’s death. I would recommend the Vintage set as that is what I read and Edward Seiddensticker, basically the most based translator of Japanese fiction, graced us with the final volume in the series (if only Seiddensticker had chosen to translate the other three!).
The Sea of Fertility tells a story of constant death and rebirth, of a youth who is presumably reincarnated, and the best friend of said youth who desperately tries to save him. It is a magnificent novel, the highlight of Mishima’s career, and what, I believe, would have indisputably won him the Nobel Prize had he not committed suicide. Barring Kawabata’s brilliant novels and Tanizaki novels I have not read, this is, I believe, the greatest work in Japanese literature. It is that good.
For more info, I wrote a review of it on my dead blog, so if anyone is interested in it, go check it out.
Five Modern Noh Plays – Mishima wrote a shit ton of plays. This is a compilation of some of his best ones. I have not read it, I cannot comment too much on it, but Mishima’s grasp of ancient traditions was rivaled by few. It will be interesting to read how Mishima takes the ancient Noh form and writes stories for them are that are inexplicably modern.
Madame de Sade – Another play by Mishima, detailing the thought process of the wife of Marquis de Sade to leave him once he has finally left prison. It is a rather interesting read. The play itself is okay, I think Mishima’s dialogue is not bad. It is not the best thing I have read from him, but it makes me a bit more interested to read the rest of his plays.
Death in Midsummer and other Short Stories – Like the others in accessory readings, I have not read it, but nobody is really spazzing out about Mishima’s prowess as a short story writer, so there’s no particular reason to have a heavy emphasis on them.
Mishima wrote way more than the novels listed here (hard to believe). There are a number I have not included, but reading some of these should give you enough information to tell if Mishima is the right author for you.
Check him out.