Of course this blog is biased to my preferences, and my commentary is rife with my opinions on the films. However, the next two subjects will take subjectivity to a level that will be difficult to duplicate because of the focus of both films. The love I bear Yukio Mishima is intensely strong.
It is a fairly recent development. He wasn’t someone I studied while I was an English major. I came across him, quite by accident, when I was in Japan in 2007. I was in a multi-level gift shop that was the midpoint part of a package tour of Kyoto I was on. I was in the book section, which had a small English-language area, and the cover of The Sound of the Waves caught my eye. I hadn’t packed enough reading material (I was backpacking, so space was a prime commodity), and the novel was slim, so I bought it. The story was a romance. A boy, Shinji, who is taking care of his mother and brother because his father died as a result of American bombings in WWII, falls in love with a girl, Hatsue, who is the adopted daughter of a wealthy ship owner. Their love runs into complications, as Hatsue’s suitor will also be adopted by her father and inherit his shipping business, so every bachelor on the island is after Hatsue. Through proof of Shinji’s bravery and loyalty, he wins Hatsue. The story was quite sweet and innocent. In a word, it was nice. I liked how Mishima’s diction created atmosphere and tone through detail, though I full well know the pitfalls associated with translations. I had the book read before I left Japan. When I got back, I began to seek out more.
I had no idea that the first book I chose to read by Mishima was the most uncharacteristic of his works, almost all of which deal with sex and love and betrayal and beauty and death. The one I got next was because I had actually visited The Golden Pavilion when I was in Kyoto, so I was happy to see he had a book on it. This was more like the actual Mishima that I would grow to know. It was full of flawed characters and dubious situations. I couldn’t figure out how someone could create two totally dissonant works. More would follow: Forbidden Colors, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, Spring Snow, Thirst for Love. I now have all of his translated works, including his plays like My Friend Hitler.
To try to engage how amazing and un-Japanese like Mishima was, yet marry that with his reverence of the traditions that the Japanese hold so dear, would take at least a book. And indeed, Jonathan Nathan’s biography does an excellent job. When trying to relate Mishima to my students, I made an on-the-fly comparison to Lego blocks. They all have their own distinct features. Yet each part, being separate, comes together to form Mishima. I had that metaphor shot to hell when Kim noted, “but Legos can make a lot of different things. They don’t have to assemble one thing.” That’s very true, but I will continue, as Mishima did, futilely forward with my own concept.
One block must represent his childhood, which was twisted and lonely. Snatched away from his mother when he was fifty days old, his grandmother dominated his young life until he was 12. His mother was powerless to get him back, essentially a maid in a large house ruled by the matriarch, and a father that would never challenge his own mother. His grandmother, Natsu, not allowing him to play outside, to only play inside with female cousins, not allowed to make a sound, feeble and weak, prone to illness, his growth stunted. The only positive trait imbued in him was the love of literature and theater, Noh and Kabuki, which the aristocratic Natsu would take him to when her sciatic body would permit.
Another block, his father Azusa Hiraoka, for how he would not intervene in his own household, allowing his son to be dominated by his mother, until the age of 12 when they reclaimed him. His assertion was what a man is, and how Mishima was far from that. How literature was “for girls.” Mishima needed to be tough, rugged. Where would he get this guidance from, with 12 years of his grandmother’s tyranny? His father would try to wipe all traces of love of the arts from him, barging into his room and tearing to shreds any writing Mishima created, the boy looking on, crying.
A block for his young student days, bullied, frail, sickly, yet in love with literature. He started to write. Teachers were impressed. But he was terrified his father would find out. So his teachers helped him by giving him the pen name Yukio Mishima, so he could hide his passion from his father.
I don’t know how many blocks you give to history, from the Jomon era to Taishō. No one had ever bested Japan. No one. Mongols had been driven back by typhoons. European traders were relegated to appointed islands. Commodore Perry’s Black Ships “forced” trade open with the world in the late 1800s, but no one invaded. Japan westernized at a rapid rate post-1860. Then came the Sino-Japanese Wars, the Russo-Japanese War, WWI. They were always on the winning side (they beat the Russians, for crying out loud).
There is no such thing as World War II in Japan. They call it the Great Pacific War. Before the Great Pacific War, they were colonizing, much the same way European powers were chopping up Africa. Japan is a very mountainous country, and they wanted to expand like so many other countries in the west in order to get resources. That seemed to work for the politics of WWI, but in WWII, Japan had overstepped its boundaries. Germany could relate to the need for Lebensraum. But Britain and other nations occupying Eastern countries were uncomfortable.
I will acknowledge insomuch as Japanese expansion and need for oil and raw materials and whatever politics is involved in how Japan became involved against the United States in WWII. I will acknowledge it, but not go further here.
But this is when Mishima came into adolescence. He was born in 1925. He was 17 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but soldiers were already being drafted previously (the Great Pacific War started much earlier than 1941). However, he faked being tubercular. He was returned to the factory he worked at, and like everyone else in the country, heard his God, the Emperor Hirohito, the Emperor Shōwa, broadcast the surrender of Japan over the radio on August 15, 1945. For those of us in the west, we cannot even begin to imagine what that was like. If you want to read a GREAT book on this, please read Embracing Defeat by John Dower, which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and is a mind-blowing work.
It is this climate that produces Mishima. An overbearing grandmother that fed him on the proud samurai history of her family and Noh and Kabuki theater, the hard father trying to make a boy he knew was being raised unnaturally into a man, the cloud of the Great Pacific War, and the demise of the role of emperor as a god and the influx of American occupation from 1945 to 1954. He was a sort of perfect tsunami of history, and because of his amazing personality, he managed to supersede all of this and create his own incredibly unique identity in a land where groupthink is the norm.
And his identity is a host of other blocks. Author, actor, screenwriter, director, bodybuilder, student advocate, militarist. There is really no legitimate way to unpack this here. What saddens me most about Mishima is that people today do not pay attention to his literature. They are so engulfed in what is fantastical (and there is plenty) about Mishima that they miss what is truly great about him. To try to elaborate: there are over 10,000 kanji in the Japanese language. There are three main methods of communication in Japan: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. In the first two, they are akin to our alphabet, meaning symbols / characters create sounds. Sounds create words. However, in kanji, symbols create words. Know how you hear the Eskimo have so many words for snow? Kanji’s like that. In schools today, kids only have to learn 2,000 kanji. But again, there are over 10,000. Mishima was so well-educated that he knew these. So that when he wrote something, not only every day regular people but critics were forced to seek out the meanings of these antiquated kanji. Because Mishima cared, above all (I believe), that the precision of language was vital. Language is a horrible stand-in for being able to express what we really feel and think, but unfortunately, that is what we must rely on. Mishima understood this more, I think, than ANY author in the modernist era. And do NOT mistake me – I love William Faulkner. But I love Mishima more.
Mishima’s literature was very conventional in the beginning. His first novel, Confessions of a Mask, was in keeping with normal practice of Japanese literature in that most authors spoke from personal experience and not constructions. His first novel was wildly popular. It discussed his childhood but also got into his homosexuality, which for him was sort of bold. His first sexual experience was happening upon a picture of St. Sebastian, impaled with arrows (search Google). Confessions is not to be taken lightly. There was so much in him in this piece, but that was true of most Japanese authors and their works (especially their first works). He wasn’t really breaking with tradition.
What was different was his second work, Thirst for Love. It centered on an older, female protagonist. Her husband has died, and she is sent to live with her in-laws who live in the country. This was very much outside of Mishima’s experience. I’m not going to spoil it, but there’s a murder involved. But it was so uncharacteristic of other Japanese authors that it really showed Mishima as something quite different.
Mishima maintains that Patriotism is any reader’s way in to Mishima. Having read most of his works, I disagree. I know that’s brazen of me, but permit me. Mishima’s best work is The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which is the second work I had the honor of meeting him. It’s monumental not only for displaying Mishima’s style (precision of language) but his value system as well.
However, we are not here to talk of that. We are here to talk of Yūkoku. The story is of a lieutenant that has been kept from a conspiracy by his fellows because he has fallen in love (very unmilitaristic). He had made a pact with his fellow brothers in arms that he swore allegiance to none but the Emperor, which means forsaking all others (women in particular). But, he broke that pact and got married. His comrades act without him, and he is caught in the onerous position of either siding with the Emperor (and punishing his friends) or with his friends (and disobeying the Emperor).
This story starts with something called the 2-2-6 Incident. It started February 26, 1936 (hence 2-2-6). The 2-2-6 Incident has to do with a number of officers that banded together because they did not like what was happening with the corruption of politicians and senior officers (attributed to the influence of the west and the dreaded capitalism inherent). They wanted to present to the Emperor their list of demands (who needed to be arrested, who needed to have power, etc.). There was an overall distrust by this group that the country understood the role of the divine power of the Emperor and the responsibility of his subjects to his will.
No one, of course, would know and understand this better than a military man, who had given his life, every bone of his body, to the Emperor. Mishima was not a military man. But you don’t understand how this hounded him. However, since an awakening of his martial self (look up Tatenokai), he came to think that the position of the intellectual in society had been wrong. He harkened, of all things, to Greek and Roman ideals of men who had both been strong mentally and physically. He did not understand why it was that those given up of mental activity were so meek of body and why those so athletic were often painted as mentally inferior. The Greeks and Romans didn’t have this issue. They were amazing, mind and body. Perhaps he should do so of himself. In his later years, 30s on, he devoted himself to working out and bodybuilding. Quite frankly, he did a pretty decent job. So much so that he flaunted his body and had it photographed in the mid to late 1960s (sometimes nude). He wanted to join this notion of physical and mental superiority, and (in my estimation) he did so.
I really don’t know what to do here. I know all about the production of this movie, and if you look at the Criterion extras and Jonathan Nathan’s book, as well as the production notes included in the Criterion disk, you’ll know what I do. But will you appreciate, understand?
Completely unrelated, there was a speaker at UMCP on Mishima and scripting death, lecturing the same night we were to start our third unit on authors’ involvement in adaptations and biopics (which I use Mishima for, as I cannot conceive of anyone who fits the unit better). I offered for my whole class to go and listen. Admittedly, I dangled a pretty carrot, but almost all of the class showed. After we came back from Thanksgiving, we did Yūkoku. What was unfortunate was the class’s introduction to Mishima was all death, death, death. I was so worried about this that I posted somewhat of an apology on Canvas, explaining Mishima was not just about death. There was much more to him.
I don’t know if either they are incredibly indulgent people or really cared, but they seemed to care. Josh noted “we don’t have authors anymore like this.” He’s so right. This is only fifty years ago. But he’s right. How often are popular authors regarded for their insights or comments? And even if so, who hears them?
William, sitting outside of class, saw me walking up, with Nathan’s book in my hand, and incredulously asked “So you really like this Mishima, huh?”
“I think he was crazy.”
And that’s not an uncommon statement from people when they look at Mishima. Lots of contradiction, incongruity and pain. But above all of that, I see beauty, not only in his work, but in his vision. Ultimately, while I think his adaptation was ambitious, I do not feel it captured the same emotionality of the short story. The film is gruesome, even more so since what he does in the film he does to himself roughly four years later. The love and death scenes are treated so warmly, passionately with his words that I don’t feel it comes through with his various shots of body parts and the blade drawing across his belly. My class mostly disagrees, saying the images made the concepts more vivid. But as the movie is silent, with scrolls acting as title cards, the piety of the will of the soldier and his wife, solid and steadfast in their roles, makes the same impact.
I’ve been working on this post and the Mishima content for my class for over a month. My fear is that I will not do him justice. I have this fear every time I teach this class (and as the class is now being offered in the spring and fall starting next year, I guess I’ll be spending a lot of time fearful). I need to shake hands with the fact that nothing I can post here can accomplish what I want it to and post, so I can get on to the second film, Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).