“Perfect purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.” – Yukio Mishima, Runaway Horses
This review—or my interest in the new Yukio Mishima biography Persona coming out from Stone Bridge Press and in Mishima himself—began as these things often do, in a coffee shop with a like-minded friend discussing the rather awesome notion that Japan has a forest devoted almost entirely to suicide. The Aokigahara has associations both with Japanese demonology, and suicide primarily as it’s the second-most popular place on earth to end it all; falling behind in rank to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. I believe the conversation started out discussing the Foxconn suicides and sort of snowballed from there, until mention of Akira Kurosawa’s attempt after the commercial failure of his Dodes’ka-den by me led to my friend’s mention of Yukio Mishima. Unlike Kurosawa, Mishima actually finished the job, committing the ritual act of Seppuku after a failed coup when he was only 45.
I’ve always been attracted to stories like this, as many people—I think–are. Suicide, homicide, sudden outbursts of lunacy by the likes of Jackson Pollock or Norman Mailer have always had a nostalgic twinge for me and I decided then to pursue Mishima’s fiction. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, probably my favorite of Mishima’s books, holds a similar allure to Kurosawa’s cinema, being as it is a contemporary art form describing events long ago made history. His sense of minimalism and terse descriptions of landscapes, conversations, friendships, and the mythological air of Japan in 1400 is like nothing I’ve ever read, and when word of Persona came round, I was certain I had to review it.
I’ve come to expect biographies to fall into two categories if they are in the first place good, or well-written. The first would be relegated to public figures who did not in their lifetime write a great deal or put out some form of art or conversation and hence the biographies tend to concern themselves with familial goings-on, schooling and at-length descriptions of important/pivotal events, and attempted portraits of physical moments in the biographee’s life to create something that’s readable, and fits into the mandates of a narrative the public can enjoy/become informed from. The second is for everyone else; the artists, writers, conversationalists and politicians who made no quarrel with sharing their views with the world and were gleefully recorded by an adoring, or deploring, public.
Persona, as it is a portrait of an actor, an artist, a poet, a playwright, a film director, and any number of other things in the political arena who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature not once, but three times, falls somewhere between these two templates for an enjoyable, and effective portrait of the man.
Those pursuing this epic text, will be those primarily interested in Japanese culture (largely the arts, and political movements) from the 19th century up until the year 1970 when Mishima took his own life (in a grisly ordeal beginning with self-disembowelment and ending in the man losing his head); which is how I came to the book. Furthermore, however, this text comes together much in the way Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States,’ does, combining Mishima’s writing, historical data relating to Mishima’s life and the lives of his family members, and writings done by people in response to his death.
These are perhaps the most moving, or striking portions of the book for a reader living outside of Japan. Those interested in world literature have likely heard of at least several Mishima or Mishima-related endeavors (the films Mishima directed or acted in like Afraid to Die (1960), Black Lizard (1968) or Tenchu! (1969), and his even better-known novels The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy (1969-1971), Madame de Sade (1965), The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956), and The Sound of Waves (1954)) however it’s the descriptions by the people of Japan mourning one of their favorite magnates in the arts that make this narrative something truly universal, and moving.
Mishima’s politics aside, he was understood and oft misunderstood by his countrymen and those around the world time and again both during his life, and after his death. Entire sections of this biography devote themselves to Mishima’s sexuality and his leanings toward strong and almost overly-passionate love affairs with women, and men to a lesser (or more quieted) extent. One gets the impression that this has more to do with the sheer magnitude of his oeuvre and the wide spectrum of characters he devoted his energies to than any actual evidence beyond rumors; and yet, with true biographical/journalistic devotion, even the rumors relating to one of 20th Century Japan’s most talked about figures are treated as worth considering, and are evaluated with sincerity and endless curiosity in the hands of the biographer.
Concerned as I am with Mishima’s literary output almost exclusively (as well as his strange death and unconventional philosophy regarding sex, etc.) I tended to gloss over the more political moments and ‘war years,’ of the author’s life, but I’d like to say with high esteem for his biographer Naoki Inose and Persona’s English translator Hiroaki Sato that there is almost nothing I can find about Mishima that isn’t included in this text. Think, for instance, of those voluminous editions on Abraham Lincoln and the tendency one’s likely to have while reading them to focus more severely on moments that interest them (slavery, say, or the Civil War). Everything Mishima is accounted for in this edition, and any possible interest one might have in the man is covered in as much detail as you couple possibly ask for.
Another interesting point noted here—one that I don’t think has changed much from my understanding of, say, Haruki Murakami’s output and Japanese literary platforms—is the rather old-fashioned way in which much of Mishima’s novels were published. Typically, or at least for several of them, his publisher would approach him regarding a certain subject, and he’d go about writing it much in the way an American or European author would the writing of a piece of nonfiction for a magazine. They were typically serialized first, and then collected into editions which—for almost every book he wrote—sold quite well and made him a literary celebrity from the beginning with his famous novel, Confessions of a Mask.
Opening the section “Boyfriends, Girlfriends,” a quote from Gore Vidal is used: “All human beings are bisexual,” and it’s probably Vidal with whom I’d draw the most obvious connection to Mishima and his body of work. With novels almost unanimously influenced by historical events and a political voice that never faltered, and was never standoffish, it’s interesting that of all English-speaking authors mentioned, it’s Vidal who seemed to have strong views of Mishima’s work. This quote is not mentioned in the book, but one gets the impression Mishima might’ve said the same of Vidal if given the opportunity, “Whatever Mishima’s virtues in his native language and relative importance among the writers of his own country, he is a third rate novelist in English.” And although it’s obviously Vidal being provocative, I can understand his feelings to a degree. There really is nothing like the original Japanese when it comes to reading Yukio Mishima, or any author, however even in translation Mishima’s work smacks of brilliance and a sort of mythological savvy that puts to rest any naysayers, and makes the portions of Persona giving forth his actual literature something akin to those infrequent breaths of true humanity one experiences when talking at length with a close friend.
One thing I can say with the utmost confidence upon completion of this book: any already existing fans of Mishima could do well to have it on your shelf. His entire life, and then some, lies between these covers and you’ll undoubtedly learn something profound while reading. Anyone considering a work of his fiction might be better of purchasing that first and seeing whether Mishima’s a writer who they’ll truly come to care about. Anyone curious about Japanese literature in general over the past hundred years would also enjoy the book immensely and could do just as well to have it on their shelf, but it’s with the true worshipers of the work of Mishima that I feel most comfortable saying: “Buy this book. Don’t think twice. Everything happens within it you could hope for, and you’ll enjoy yourself completely.”
I suppose I fall into this latter category, and upon finishing I felt safe giving it directly to that friend I mentioned at the beginning of this “review” because of his odd fascination with seppuku and its still-existent roots in Japanese culture. I think I’d still greatly prefer a “suicide forest” to the American Golden Gate Bridge, but I guess that’s completely irrelevant looking back. Mishima didn’t commit seppuku in the forest, and yet his fangs are buried deeply in the collective Japanese consciousness in much the same way. He’s eerie, he’s brilliant, he’s impossible to pin down even with a 700+ page biography and his legacy doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.