Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) was a Japanese novelist and playwright. He wrote in a multitude of styles, from ornate to plain, and dealt with a variety of subjects drawn from both literary sources and contemporary life.

Born and raised in Tokyo, Yukio Mishima attended the Peers School before enrolling in the Law Department of Tokyo University. Upon his graduation in 1947 he worked as an official in the government's Finance Ministry. He resigned his position within a year in order to devote his energies totally to writing. After a highly successful yet controversial career he committed suicide in 1970.

Exceedingly well read in both classical Japanese and Western literature, Mishima produced works of intellectual brilliance and stylistic diversity. Certain of his novels and stories directly portray contemporary life; other works—his modern Nō plays, for example—draw on various literary and philosophical writings for context. Some critics single out certain works by Mishima as thinly disguised autobiography. The author himself, however, usually denied these claims.

Mishima published several promising stories as a high school and university student. Before his career was really underway he had also won the patronage of Yasunari Kawabata, a leading novelist who would eventually receive the only Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to a Japanese writer to that time. Mishima's first full-length novel, Kamen no Kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask, 1949), appeared shortly after he left government service. A latent homosexual narrates the story. Though his sexual orientation is evident to the reader, the narrator himself, while describing his reactions with clarity, never draws any conclusion about his sexuality. Seldom erotic, the work is primarily an exact portrayal of an extremely self-enclosed personality.

During the 1950s Mishima extended his exploration into various types of love. Ai no Kawaki (Thirst for Love, 1950), dealt with a farm widow caught up in a turmoil of love and hate. The mistress of her own father-in-law, Etsuko the widow feels intensely attracted to a young farmer in the region. In the climactic scene of the novel, however, she brutally kills the farmer just as he becomes aware of her feelings and attempts to caress her. Mishima's ability to shift direction is strikingly demonstrated in his next notable work, Shiosai (The Sound of the Sea, 1954). In this instance a young couple in a Japanese fishing village overcome their shyness and eventually recognize their love for one another. The tale is conspicuous in the Mishima canon for its simplicity and optimism.

The 1960s might be termed the "political" phase of Mishima's life and career. After Utage no Ato (After the Banquet, 1960), a somewhat disguised account of certain aspects of an actual campaign, Mishima eventually organized a movement to restore the imperial authority and martial discipline that Japan had lost through defeat in World War II. He founded and led the Tate no Kai (The Shield Society), a group somewhat quixotically dedicated to the defense of the emperor. In the late 1960s he also wrote a controversial play entitled Waga Tomo Hittorā (My Friend Hitler, 1968), and a turgid treatise on the mystique of the body, Taiyō to Tetsu (Sun and Steel, 1968).

During the last five years of his life Mishima also immersed himself in the composition of a tetralogy of novels with the overall title Hōjō no Umi (The Sea of Fertility). This quartet of books is held together principally by the theme of reincarnation and by the continued presence of one character, a schoolboy in the initial novel, Haru no Yuki (Spring Snow, 1965-1967), and an aging lawyer in the final work, Tennin Gosui (The Decay of the Angel, 1970-1971). Honda, the character in question, is the epitome of rationality and empiricism. His sceptical nature is, however, severely tested by clear evidence that the reincarnation of his boyhood friend is actually taking place.

The second novel of the tetralogy, Homba (Runaway Horses, 1967-1968), is notable for its emphasis on martial discipline, especially the ritual suicide that occurs in the final scene. In conjunction with similar scenes, especially in the notorious short story "Yūkoku" ("Patriotism," 1960), this depiction of ritualistic suicide came to appear to be a harbinger of the author's own death. On November 25, 1970, after haranguing an assembly of self-defense personnel on imperial loyalty and military discipline, Mishima disemboweled himself with a sword, exactly as a samurai warrior in medieval Japan might have done.

Yukio Mishima was the first Japanese writer of the postwar generation to attain international fame. Before his sensational death he was generally considered the most likely Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Further Reading on Yukio Mishima

Three biographies of Mishima in English are: John Nathan, Mishima (1974); Henry Scott-Stokes, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima (1974); and Marguerite Yourcenar (translated from the French by Alberto Manguel), Mishima (1986). Criticism is available in a number of sources, such as Makoto Ueda, Modern Japanese Writers (1976); Masao Miyoshi, Accomplices of Silence (1974); and Donald Keene, Landscapes and Portraits (1971).