Destructive Beauty in Mishima’s Life
by Diana Svaikovskaja Views: 1869
Japanese life in the 20th century has never been written more darkly and skilfully than by Yukio Mishima, one of the most memorable writers of Japan.
Mishima was born into wartime society, a society divided by political dichotomy. The Empire of Japan had collapsed before the eyes of Mishima’s generation as the Japanese lost the Pacific war and the ultra-nationalistic ideology had reached its end point. The democratic state began evolving to become Japan as we know it today. However, this did not settle well with the generation to which Mishima belonged. Yukio Mishima is a representative of this wartime generation obsessed with the physical self.
This obsession replaced the utopian romanticism of the previous generations with despair and the dull pain of nihilism. The body is skilfully torn to pieces word by word: representations of terse violence and sexual force became the central themes for his generation of writers. That’s why, despite the obvious beauty and detailed craftsmanship with words for which Yukio Mishima was known, his depictions of wartime Japan were filled with sensuous violence and death motives.
Yukio Mishima began writing at the age of twelve and had become fascinated by death at a young age. Young Mishima was taken away from his mother only three weeks after he was born by his grandmother Natsuko Hiraoka, who raised him. She did not allow Mishima to venture into the sunlight, to engage in any kind of sport or to play with other boys. He spent much of his time alone or with female cousins and their dolls. Unfortunately, his grandmother was also prone to violence and morbid outbursts. Some biographers attribute Mishima’s fascination with death to those days overshadowed by his grandmother.
At the age of six, Mishima returned to live with his mother after Natsuko’s health deteriorated. Mishima enrolled at an elite school for boys in Tokyo. He was a keen reader, and spent his time reading a mixture of works by such writers as Thomas Mann, Raymond Radiguet and Oscar Wilde, as well as numerous Japanese classics.
Mishima was initially a dull student, but later he became the youngest member of the editorial board of the Gakushūin literary society. He graduated first in his class and was presented with a golden watch by the Emperor himself. Mishima’s appreciation for classical Japanese writers and traditions was expressed by one of his first published works, which was waka poetry. He successfully published short stories, among which was “Hanazakari no Mori” (“Forest in Full Bloom”), in which he used the narrator to describe a feeling that his ancestors still lived within him.
His second story “Tabako” (“The Cigarette”) and “Shi o Kaku Shōnen” (“The Boy Who Wrote Poetry”) were both autobiographical accounts of his early childhood and the bullying he’d faced at school. Although Mishima’s authoritarian father, who favoured a civil career for his son, had forbidden his writing, Mishima’s need to write prose only grew stronger. When Mishima went on to study at the University of Tokyo, he devoted his days to attending university and his nights to writing.
After graduation Mishima began his career in the Japanese Finance Ministry, but during his first year there, he put himself into a state of fatigue. Seeing this, his father decided to let him quit his job to become a writer.
Yukio Mishima was determined to become a successful writer and he devoted himself entirely to his dream. Mishima wrote novels, serial novellas, short stories and literary essays, as well as highly acclaimed plays for the Kabuki theatre and modern versions of traditional Noh drama.
He wrote an incredible collection of works: he produced 34 novels, about 50 plays, about 25 books of short stories, at least 35 books of essays, one libretto, as well as one film. . . all in the 33 years of his career.
He published Kamen no Kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask), during this period—a novel which pushed the boundaries of Japanese society and brought Mishima celebrity status at the age of 24.
His account of identity and how it can be manipulated according to the surrounding environment achieved recognition and great success in challenging the post-war society in Japan, as well as in Europe and the United States of America. One could argue that a lot of autobiographical information was transferred into his writing. His novels included characters who spoke of Mishima’s ideals and who were accurate depictions of him physically. He broke social codes and traditions with his written work. Mishima found solace in words: writing was the ultimate form of expression for him. He once said in an interview:
“I still have no way to survive but to keep writing one line, one more line, one more line…”
Thus, Mishima chose words as a form of aesthetics, and he mastered this art. He was incredibly skilled and renowned for his choice of wording. His books were masterpieces created with attention to detail and the Japanese rigour for perfection.
Mishima’s Works and Vision
His ultimate masterpiece was Hōjō no Umi (The Sea of Fertility), a tetralogy he laboured over for five years.
It opens with Haru no Yuki (Spring Snow) and brings the reader into a pre-revolution Japan with its fading aristocracy and rising Westernization. Two friends and their futures are juxtaposed: Kiyoaki is a dreamer and a baron’s son of distant Samurai descent, and Honda is his earnest sidekick with a planned career in law. Honda watches his friend Kiyoaki chasing his dreams to change the world, to bend it to his ideals and to seize moments of fineness as they vanish by the second.
Mishima was an anti-capitalist, and he skilfully transferred his personal ideologies into his writing, including his tetralogy. He was very political and was pro-emperor. However, he considered The Emperor not as a reigning figure, but more as an essence of Japan and Japanese spirit. Mishima wanted to die young for the emperor on the battlefield, but when presented with a call to enlist in the forces, he faked a tuberculosis attack. It was something that Mishima regretted to his death. His generation shared the belief that the most honourable and desirable death was death in a battle for the living God, The Emperor.
He was paranoid about dying from poisoning, because he considered it the worst way to die. This crippling fear affected his social life as he was reluctant to eat in restaurants. He wrote extensively on the body, the cult of the body, exercise and strict cleanliness of the body. He was a martyr in his mind and wrote a lot about taking great pleasure in suffering, violence and physical pain, but did not experienced any great pain until his death. Thus, Yukio Mishima was a complicated personality. He was torn by the duality of his existence. He dwelt in words, but craved action. His novels were filled with masochism and self- loathing, but he was a cunning social figure with a remarkable sense of humour.
To Mishima, the body and mind were two separate elements that could never unite because they would destroy each other. They must not be destroyed as this would ruin the balance in the world. Mishima’s earlier ideals were intellect and knowledge, which would change the world and transform the post-war society. Yet, being a man of controversy, later in his life, Mishima became a natural body builder, a model and an actor, exhibiting his body to a great extent. Mishima became incredibly skilled in self-promotion and conveying his self-centeredness to the crowds.
His career as a writer was undoubtedly a successful one, but nothing overshadows it more than his suicide after trying to restore the power of The Emperor by attempting a coup d’état. This was the last of his public appearances and it marked Mishima as a highly political persona. Mishima committed seppuku, a type of Japanese suicide by disembowelment, after a failed speech to the soldiers of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces. He ended up mocked and misunderstood by the soldiers gathered under the balcony of Tokyo headquarters of the East Command. Mishima was disappointed by the way soldiers received his speech and returned to the office, which he and his army of four had barricaded moments ago. Before his death he uttered:
“I don’t think they even heard me.”
Mishima was a highly acclaimed writer who became one of the six finalists for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963. He was awarded with the Shincho Prize from Shinchosha Publishing in 1954 for The Sound of Waves, the Kishida Prize for Drama, and the Yomiuri Prize from Yomiuri Newspaper Co. for the best novel in 1956. He also received the Art Festival Prize from Ministry of Education in 1965, for his work, Madame de Sade.
His was the life of a true artist torn by the ideals of aesthetics and a vision of destructive, carnal beauty. He dedicated his life to the creation of such beauty; beauty he knew he would set out to destroy. He transformed his body into that of a Grecian statue. He achieved the powerful and dangerous vision of perfected male body and destroyed it at will. Mishima’s life marks a journey with infinite possibilities, the struggle of a genius mind for expression and a personality ever-shifting in its nature.
Diana is a keen reader of classical literature and enjoys writing on the subject of literature and writing. She studied English Philology, before gaining a diploma in English Studies with Creative Writing. Diana is currently working on her first novel.