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Revealing the many masks of Mishima

by Paul Mccarthy

This is a whale of a book — both unusually massive and extremely informative and stimulating. The title means “mask” in Latin and is probably an allusion to Yukio Mishima’s first full-length novel, “Confessions of a Mask,” published in Japan in 1949 and translated into English by Meredith Weatherby in the 1950s. It may also serve as a metaphor for the way Mishima lived his life, donning a variety of masks: novelist, playwright, essayist-critic, martial artist (karate, kendo and iaido), actor, singer, political commentator and sometimes activist, devoted family man, and skilled describer of same-sex fantasies, relationships and subcultures.

PERSONA: A Biography of Yukio Mishima, by Naoki Inose with Hiroaki Sato. Stone Bridge Press, 2012, 852 pp., $39.95 (hardcover)

Naoki Inose has written many books on 20th-century Japanese history and politics, and has also written biographies of Japanese writers such as Kan Kikuchi and Osamu Dazai, prior to the present volume. His other “mask” is as a critic of and actor in the politics of present-day Japan: He has held a number of public offices, serving as vice governor of Tokyo under Shintaro Ishihara, and is now the governor of Tokyo, having been elected by a landslide after Gov. Ishihara’s resignation last year.

Hiroaki Sato is a well-known, prolific and skilful translator of classical and modern Japanese poetry and prose who has previously translated Mishima’s novel “Silk and Insight” and his works for the stage “My Friend Hitler and Other Plays.” Japanese by birth, he has lived for decades in New York and, in addition to translating, writes a regular column for this newspaper.

The conjunction “with” joining the two names above calls attention to itself, and indicates that, though not originally a coauthor with Inose, Sato has served as much more than a translator in this case. He has edited and adapted the original text in a thoroughgoing way, cutting some historical/political matter and adding a great deal of literary material, especially dealing with Western influences on Mishima’s writings. The result is significantly different from Inose’s original study in Japanese, hence the justice of that unusual “with” on the title page.

This is not a work of “theory” of the sort that Western academics often produce at present, a fact that may disappoint some readers but that rejoices this reviewer’s heart. It is instead a chronological account of Mishima’s life, extending backward to his immediate ancestors, who included such varied persons as Tatsugoro, a commoner who was a kind of yakuza boss in the late Edo Period; Yoriyasu, an eccentric scion of the distinguished Matsudaira family, intimately linked to the Tokugawa shoguns, who was a high-ranking Shinto cleric and committed voluptuary; and Sadataro Hiraoka, a graduate of the elite Imperial University, though of peasant stock, and with a checkered record as both bureaucrat and businessman. It was from this line that the child Kimitake Hiraoka, known by his pen name “Yukio Mishima,” came, with a conservative bureaucrat for a father and a neurotic, extremely possessive grandmother who wrested control of the little boy from his long-suffering mother.

Kimitake was a solitary, book-loving youth and showed precocious talent as a writer of essays and short stories. Like his grandfather Sadataro and his father, Azusa, he graduated from the Imperial University of Tokyo; he then began what might have been a distinguished career as a bureaucrat before accepting commissions from a Japanese publisher that launched his career as a full-time author.

He was truly prolific, his best-known works including the above-mentioned “Confessions” (which Inose and Sato clearly regard as largely autobiographical, the narrator/protagonist bearing a close resemblance to the child and youth Kimitake); the lyrical and popular “The Sound of Waves,” later made into a film; “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” also made into a film, which deals with a troubled Zen seminarian who attempts to resolve his mental, social and sexual problems by setting fire to the National Treasure that lends its name to the novel. Other novels whose genesis is discussed at considerable length include “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea,” with its cast of sadistic and finally murderous children and their sailor-victim, and of course the great tetralogy “The Sea of Fertility” with which Mishima chose to end his literary career, and his life.

Though Mishima is best known in the West as a novelist, he was also a fine playwright and critical essayist. Donald Keene’s translations of “Five Modern Noh Plays” and “Madame de Sade” evidence Mishima’s brilliance as a dramatist, while John Bester’s translation of “Sun and Steel” may serve as a sample of Mishima’s non-fiction writing, blending memoir and intellectual exploration, lit by flashes of striking metaphor and paradoxical observation. The late Edward Seidensticker used to say that Mishima’s plays and criticism were even better than his justly famed novels.

The vexed question of the Nobel Prize is addressed at length. It becomes clear that Mishima was, throughout the 1960s, a strong candidate to become Japan’s first laureate in literature. Keene played a great part in this, not only as a sensitive translator but also as someone who could informally advise members of the prize committee.

According to Inose and Sato, the prize almost went to Mishima in 1968 but was given instead to Yasunari Kawabata due to the intervention of an unnamed Scandinavian writer who, though not really knowledgeable about the Japanese literary scene, had conceived a prejudice against Mishima because of his rightwing activities.

Mishima’s reaction must have been very mixed: He was indebted to Kawabata as a senior literary man and did not fail to congratulate him, warmly and publicly; but he must have sensed that Japan’s next “turn” would not come for some time, and not in his own lifetime.

The themes of physical suffering and death, often in dramatic, even sadomasochistic forms, were present in Mishima’s literature from first to last; and his final act, a semi-public formal suicide on Nov. 25, 1970, at the conclusion of a failed attempt to rouse the Self-Defense troops to launch a coup leading to a “Showa Restoration,” was, in a sense, consistent with the fantasies he had elaborated with such skill and power throughout his literary career. (Though what Mishima’s real motivations were for this act and whether he seriously believed in its possible success are subjects of much debate, touched on in the present work as well. The gesture may have been as much aesthetic and romantic as ideological.)

When one considers how much Mishima accomplished literarily in some 25 years as a writer, and the power evident in the novels that make up his final tetralogy, one can only mourn the loss to Japan’s literature that his self-chosen death at the age of 45 represented.

Though the emphasis in “Persona” is, rightly, on Mishima the writer, there are also detailed accounts of him as martial artist, actor and even singer, to say nothing of Mishima as the organizer of a private army (the Shield Society, whose name derives from the Manyoshu poetic anthology of the eighth century), Mishima as political-social-cultural analyst and debater and finally Mishima as coup-plotter, or possibly producer/director of what was to become his final drama.

Interested readers will find a wealth of information, copiously documented in footnotes, on these, and other, subjects. There are a few errors and misprints (some connected with personal names stand out for this reader), but that is probably inevitable in a work of this size and complexity — the first biography of Mishima to appear in English in many years, and by far the longest and most ample. Those who are interested in the brilliantly gifted writer of mid-20th century Japan who is its subject will learn much from this volume, and should be stimulated to go back and read, or re-read, what Yukio Mishima has left us.

Inose and Sato are to be complimented on the writing, adaptation and translation of this major work, now available to an English readership.

Paul McCarthy holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, has taught language and literature at universities in the U.S. and Japan, and is a literary translator and writer.