Is it possible for the work of an author to stand in for the author himself and be a sort of doppelganger, and vice versa? In my encounters with the work of Japanese author, Yukio Mishima, I have turned this idea over and over in my head, trying to figure out why such a wonderful artist would cut himself down in the prime of his life and art for the sake of nationalistic fervor and antiquated traditions. I spent the better part of last weekend Googling and watching documentaries about Mishima, trying to get some insight as to why he would act out the ritual suicide of a character in his final story.
I have read most of his work, my favorite being his tetralogy of novels, The Sea of Fertility, 1964 to 1971, which includes, Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel — beautiful prose fiction with an incredible story that travels from one book to the other, in the main character’s life and search for the meaning of existence.
The tetralogy deals with the decline of the old Japan and the coming of the modern. The main character in the first novel, a young man named Shigekuni Honda, has a friend, Kiyoaki Matsugae, who is seemingly reincarnated in the next and the next and finally, the last novel, in which Shigekuni is an old man.
Mishima was born in 1925 into the middle class in Tokyo. Raised by his grandmother apart from his siblings, he began writing around the age of 12. His grandmother was related to members of the Japanese aristocracy and was obsessed with death, clinging to old traditions. She kept Mishima secluded from his family and the world until her death.
In Runaway Horses, the reincarnated Kiyoaki commits ritual suicide by disembowelment after an unsuccessful attempt at overthrowing the government in order to restore the former Samurai order.
Mishima himself raised his own private army in Japan based on the Samurai, and in 1970, when he and his followers actually tried to do as his character Kiyoaki did, barricading themselves in the headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Force in Tokyo, he was scoffed at by the military, as well as the public. He subsequently disemboweled himself in the tradition of the Samurai and was beheaded by a follower.
He had been planning this last tragic event in his life for quite some time — his last book in the tetralogy seems hurried and rushed to some critics, as if he had a sense of urgency in fulfilling his destiny. He dropped off his final draft of The Decay of the Angel to his publisher on the day of his death. Friends talked of his obsession with ritual suicide, and of death in general. One colleague described him after his death as the “last samurai”.
Mishima was the antithesis of Shigekuni in the Sea of Fertility, who grew old, and discovered at the end of his long life that existence was meaningless.
He once said that there was nothing so ugly as an old person. Being a small man with a slight build, he began bodybuilding and immersing himself in traditional Samurai beliefs and practice. He seemed to be pushing the limits of physical beauty and youth as a blossom blooms brightest, before falling and declining into decay. His body was perfected, his art was of a high nature and he seemed to have found meaning in an ancient form of order and existence that no longer fit into the age in which he lived — a spirit trapped in a body at the wrong time.
So perhaps he knew that he could no longer return Japan to its former state, but I think his rejection became an excuse and a reason to exit a world in which he could only become fully engaged with through his novels. His novels were perhaps his true reality and Kiyoaki Matsugae his true identity.
If he believed this to be the case, then his suicide was an event that, to him, would transcend time and space, giving him order and identity in a universe without meaning.
I think that the most likely reason though, would be that Mishima thought of himself as an embodiment of Japan itself, maybe a transmigrated Samurai soul, and rather than seeing its traditions and culture decay and decline in the way that Shigekuni did, he opted for Kiyoaki’s solution, ending the life of Japan in what he thought would be the proper way, leaving The Sea of Fertility as his death poem and committing seppuku, hence giving what he would consider traditional closure for his nation.
It may be that, like the Sakura of Japan, we will see Mishima again in some form, perhaps he was the rising sun — but as the sun rises and peaks in the sky and the blossom heralds the new fruit, the sun must also set, and the petals must fall from the tree naturally. To me, that is order — and I wish he could have seen it.
The Sea of Fertility by Yukio Mishima
Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima by Naoke Inose & Hiroake Sato
Films and documentaries:
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, 1985, a film by Paul Shrader
The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima, 1985, BBC