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An ominously familiar Japanese contemporary

by Hiroaki Sato

Things do sometimes go backward.

This truism hit me recently while I was checking the galleys of “Persona,” my biography, with Naoki Inose, of Yukio Mishima. I was deep in the proofreading when the publisher’s agent asked if I knew of two earlier books in English on the author who chose to die by disembowelment and decapitation. I didn’t.

Just about the same time, I needed to check the three old issues of Life magazine with direct bearings on Mishima I had bought from a California vendor. Let me talk about these three issues first.

The oldest is the Japan special timed with the Tokyo Olympic Games that included Mishima’s essay (Sept. 11, 1964). There, in the piece editors called “A Famous Japanese Judges the U.S. Giant,” Mishima teases, among other things, American intellectuals for their submission to psychoanalysis. To do this, he quotes Terentius, “I am a human being, so nothing human is strange to me,” and says, with an obvious nod to Oscar Wilde, “The ordinary man may become enraged to see Caliban’s face in a glass, but the intellectual isn’t the least bit afraid.”

The next one may be called a Mishima special (Sept. 2, 1966). It has a seven-page spread on the man, “Japan’s Dynamo of Letters.” It showcases Mishima in various activities in a way worthy of the foremost photo-journalistic periodical of the day: singing his own song in a sailor’s garb on the stage, arm-wrestling, doing kendo, going about town dressed like a punk.

The showcasing comes with a jarring note. With a quote from his subject for its title, “I am a garish man with garish tastes,” John Nathan, depicting Mishima in the latter half of the spread as vividly as only someone who knew him up close could, inserts a killer sting. But that’s another story.

The last back issue of Life I had bought came out four years later (Dec. 11, 1970); as you might have guessed, it reports his death. With the heading “The Samurai Who Committed Hara-kiri,” the two-page article with three photos could be easily dismissed, as I might have done, as a piece of scandalous reportage on a scandalous death. After all, the largest of the three photos, which takes up a whole page, shows Mishima in his proud pose: naked torso, arm muscles bulging, hands gripping a drawn sword poised to strike, white headband tight above his glaring eyes. The white cloth of the headband has the famous nationalist slogan written on it, with a red circle representing the Japanese flag at its center: a willingness to die, only to be reborn seven times, to serve the country.

One of the two photos on the facing page shows Mishima haranguing the troops on the balcony of the main building of the Eastern Headquarters of the Ground Self-Defense Forces in Ichigaya, Tokyo.

Still, the biggest shocker may be the large photo below it, a shot of the outcome of Mishima’s action: his severed head, side by side with that of the young man who went along with him, laid on the bloodied floor.

Yet the short article placed in the middle belies the impression you might get from these photos. It calmly recounts the few meetings and conversations that its writer, Jerrold Schecter, had with Mishima.

“We discussed death once while he was writing his major work, the four-volume ‘Sea of Fertility,’” Schecter recalls. That apparently happened while he was serving as Time-Life Tokyo Bureau chief. By the time he wrote this article, he was either stationed in Moscow or back in the U.S.

Mishima told him that his tetralogy would be based on the Buddhist concept of incarnation.

In Schecter’s view, however, Mishima was “most un-Buddhist.” That was because “he sought to exert his own will in action” by “fusing will and physical strength to become part of ‘a special nobility.’” Schecter was qualified to pass such a judgment. A few years earlier, he had written a book, “The New Face of Buddha: Buddhism and Political Power in Southeast Asia.”

As for the manner of death Mishima chose, on Nov. 25, 1970, “Some called it an act of madness,” Schecter notes. The prime minister at the time, Eisaku Sato, had done just that. But to Mishima, it was “a classic statement of style and sincerity and honor.”

Now, with Schecter’s dispassionate tone on hand, how backward, how atavistic even, I found the titles of the two books my publisher’s agent gave me. One, by Roy Starrs, a professor of Japanese literature, is “Deadly Dialectics: Sex, Violence, and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishima” (1994); the other is by psychologry professor Jerry Piven, “The Madness and Perversion of Yukio Mishima” (2004).

I know catchy titles are part of sales gimmicks, and these titles may not exactly reflect the analyses that the professors have provided or the cases that they have argued. Still, the two titles suggest books written on hackneyed, ill-digested thinking.

This is particularly true with Piven. Does the psychology professor seriously think, at this late date, that terms like “madness” and “perversion” apply to someone as rational, lucid and self-aware as Mishima?

Here I recall Gore Vidal, who died two months ago. Vidal wrote an assessment of Mishima just about a month after the latter’s death. Simply titled “The Death of Mishima,” it was, in large part, a literary analysis, though necessarily based on Mishima’s works available in English translation at the time.

I’m sure Vidal would have loved Mishima’s own open, work-by-work disclosures of the sources of his major writings had he known them.

Vidal marveled at Mishima — “a man my exact contemporary, whose career in so many ways resembled my own.”

Inasmuch as they were born in the same year, debuted as writers at about the same young ages, succeeded in theater and drama as in writing, loved so much to be in the limelight, etc., Vidal had to confess, “The range, variety and publicness of the career sound ominously familiar to me.”

Vidal, who insisted that “all human beings are bisexual,” would never have used a silly word like “perversion” the way that professor Piven did. Indeed, Vidal concluded his essay 40 years ago with a fond tribute to Mishima: “I only regret we never met, for friends found him a good companion, a fine drinking partner, and fun to cruise with.”

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York. His biography of Yukio Mishima with Naoki Inose, “Persona,” will appear this fall.