Mishima: A Man Torn Between Two Worlds

By PHILIP SHABECOFF (The New York Times, November 26, 1970)

Washington, Nov. 25--The morning before he killed himself, Yukio Mishima reportedly handed to his publishers in Tokyo the final chapter of the fourth volume of a tetralogy titled "The Sea of Fertility." Perhaps the title helps explain why this 45-year-old writer, who enjoyed fame, wealth and critical acclaim, took his own life. The title refers to the moon's Sea of Fertility--a dry, cold, sterile place. That "sea" was Mr. Mishima's metaphor for the world and perhaps for Japan, which was for him the world.

"Mishima was torn apart by the Japanese transition to modernism," Harold Strauss, his long-time editor at Alfred Knopf, said during a telephone interview today. "He had one foot in the past and one in the future. He was able to articulate this change as no other Japanese novelist was able to do. Older writers such as Yasuhari Kawabata can write only of the past and younger writers such as Kobo Abe can write only of the present."

Mr. Mishima was split between East and West as well as--or because of--being torn between past and present. By his writings and by example, he constantly urged his country to return to what he saw as the purer values of traditional Japan.

Although his private army--the Tate no Kai--or Shield Society--led many Westerners to believe that he sought to revive Japanese militarism, he actually loathed the militarism represented by the Japanese Army of pre-World War II years. He regarded that militarism as a foreign import alien to the Japanese spirit.

What he really was seeking was a return to the samurai tradition, which he saw as an ethical and esthetic system truer to the spirit of Japan than a modern army.

He deplored most of the signs of Westernization in Japan. Western influence, he felt, was corrupting Japan and robbing her of her essential spirit.

The title of the final volume of his tetralogy, called "Tennin Gosui," which can be translated literally as "Heavenly Being--Five Marks of Decay," may have been a projection of this revulsion with Western influence in Japan.

Had Western Elements

And yet, Mr. Mishima's own life style had many distinctive Western elements. He lived in an Italianate villa in Tokyo crammed with baroque and rococo art objects. He sent his wife to a Western cooking school. He could communicate with Westerners as well as anyone in Japan today and seemed to take pleasure in doing so.

Death and blood and suicide play important roles in many of Mr. Mishima's writings. In his first novel, the autobiographical "Confessions of a Mask," the protagonist is enveloped by a morbid fascination for the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. It was written when he was 19 years old.

Death and suicide often are associated with sexual ecstasy of both homosexual and heterosexual variety in Mishima's books. One of his most famous short stories, entitled "Patriotism," is about a young army officer and his wife who commit ritual hara-kiri, described in explicit detail, after a night of violent love-making. The story was later made into a film in which Mishima himself played the lieutenant.

'Glorified the Act'

"Mishima glorified the act, as opposed to the thought, in many of his books," according to Prof. Edward Seidensticker, a frequent translator of Japanese works who teaches at the University of Michigan.

"Many of his novels contain a kind of specious intellectualism," Professor Seidensticker said in an interview here. "But Mishima hated this modern intellectualizing. He was best writing of action. And, of course, suicide is the ultimate act."

Mishima's emphasis on action was carried through in his life as well as in his art. A sickly, scholarly schoolboy, he transformed himself into a muscular man, expert at Japanese fencing and swordsmanship and a proficient student of karate.

In the course of a long conversation with this reporter last spring, Mr. Mishima said that he worked so hard on body building because he intended to die before he was 50 and wanted to have a good looking corpse. He laughed, but then added, "I am half-serious, you know."

Prof. Donald Keene of Columbia University, one of Mishima's translators, saw a large part of Mishima's genius lying in his command of the Japanese language.

Dr. Keene contended that the manifest motive for Mishima's death -- "his charging into the military headquarters" -- was trivial.

"But the manner of his death associates Mishima with the deepest Japanese ideals, as expressed in his own fiction," he said.

Mishima was born in Tokyo in 1925, the son of a high civil servant. He did not seem destined for a dramatic end at the height of a brilliant literary career. Although he was an outstanding student, he seemed certain to follow his father into the civil service and actually did join the Japanese Finance Ministry after the war.

But his literary talent soon was discovered and his literary career began with the stunning autobiographical novel, "Confessions of a Mask."

Writing was easy for Mishima, who could not understand why it took his translators so long to render his works into English. He wrote every night from midnight to dawn. The number of his works is over 100 and includes short stories, essays, kabuki plays, noh plays, modern plays and screen plays as well as novels.

Until the publication in Japan of the first two volumes of "The Sea of Fertility"--"Spring Snow" and "The Running Horse"--many critics considered "Temple of the Golden Pavilion" to be his masterpiece. This was a novel of a young Buddhist acolyte who is so obsessed with the beauty of his temple that he destroys it by fire.

Although Mishima engaged in a bewildering variety of outside activities, including running his little army, acting in movies, directing plays and drinking with foreigners, writing remained the center of his life. His wife probably ordered Mishima's physical life as much as she did the lives of their two children.

His suicide perhaps will raise anew the question of Japan's relationship to the Western world.

"We always have been an inward-looking people," a Japanese newspaperman said here during a conversation about Mishima today. "I thought recently that, at last, we were starting to be international in outlook, that we would be open to the world once and for all.

"But now Mishima has done this and I think Japan will always be turning back into itself."

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