THE LIFE AND DEATH OF YUKIO MISHIMA, by Henry Scott Stokes. Tuttle Publishing, 2003, 271 pp., $16.95, (cloth).

One afternoon in the late 1960s, Henry Scott Stokes received a visit at the Tokyo office of the London Times from the writer Yukio Mishima, who declared to the startled young journalist, “You are the first person to take me seriously.”

The episode is not mentioned in the new edition of Stokes’ 1974 biography, “The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima,” but it is a telling moment. Mishima appears at some indeterminate time to have elected Stokes as one of the persons best suited to oversee the reported facts of his life and, as fate would have it, his death. Stokes would have the triple distinction of being the sole foreign reporter at the press conference held 15 minutes after Mishima’s suicide at the Self-Defense Forces headquarters in Ichigaya, the only non-Japanese at the writer’s home the following day and the only foreigner to attend the subsequent funeral.

As a biographer, what is one to make of a figure variously portrayed as a narcissist, rightwing imperialist, homosexual, keen observer of human nature, leading writer of his day and a man who staged what must rank as the most dramatic death of any Japanese in living memory? At the very least, Mishima’s life and execrable death make a compelling story, one that almost upstages his own fiction.

Before completing his last work, “The Decay of the Angel,” the coda to “The Sea of Fertility,” Mishima organized an exhibition at the Tobu department store in Ikebukuro, a retrospective of his life that was divided into four contiguous sections: “The River of Writing,” “Theater,” “Body,” and finally “The River of Action.”

To the astonishment of visitors, the hall was draped in black curtains similar to maku, the hanging textiles used in Japanese funerals to delineate boundaries. In pride of place, impossible to ignore, was the sword that Mishima’s companion in death, Waseda student Masakatsu Morita, would use to decapitate the writer the following month.

As a novelist, playwright and essayist, Mishima was aware of the limits of even his prolific output, something that may have tempted him back to the once complementary traditions in Japan, of literature and the martial arts. In Mishima the two disciplines would combine, achieve critical mass and then self-destruct.

In a scheme of symmetry that Mishima would surely have approved, Stokes has organized the final sections of his book into a sinuous channel called “The Four Rivers,” which deals with the last two decades of Mishima’s life. What makes Stokes’ retelling of the story different from other biographies is that, while adhering to the facts as they stand, he is not afraid to dispense at times with the detachment that characterizes most Mishima biographies, rich critical works that are somehow wanting as human studies.

Stokes’ book, by contrast, is an intensely personal work. “I dreamt,” he writes in the final chapter, having described the gory death scenes at Ichigaya, “that Mishima came to my home in Glastonbury and knocked on the door. When I saw him standing there, I struck him down with a mattock. I was in fact for a long time revolted by his suicide, his self-murder; I could see nothing beautiful in it.” While Stokes was clearly fond of his friend, the relationship was professional enough to avoid lapses in critical judgment. When considering the voyeuristic seppuku in Mishima’s short story “Patriotism,” for example, he does not hesitate to describe it as the “work of an abnormal man.”

Stokes, who uses narrative to great effect, engages the reader with a mixture of superbly literate prose and critical analysis, yoking a novelistic sensitivity for observed conditions with a historian’s perception. With the veracity and pace of live transmission and the attention to detail like that given to carefully edited court records, Stokes reconstructs the details of Mishima’s last day as if he were a silent, nonjudgmental witness to those events.

Extracts from Stokes’ diaries are used judiciously to reanimate exchanges that might otherwise have been lost. Invited to Stokes’ home for dinner just two months before his death, the usually voluble Mishima is noted as having turned solemn: “I made the steaks for us and underdid them. Put off by something in Yukio. Steaks had to go into the pan again, bloody red. After dinner he struck his pessimistic note again . . . used an odd image: said that Japan was under the curse of a ‘green snake.’ “

With far fewer resources than would be available to a biographer today, Stokes’ book reads almost like a collaboration with the deceased.

Mishima, a militarist in the imperialist mode, stood for everything that Japan was trying to forget. Afflicted with the craving to be a tragic hero, it was as if — the Emperor, the Jewel Voice, having declared himself human — Mishima needed to make himself superhuman. He ended up instead, an acute embarrassment to the Japanese public, a people who saw itself engaged in a different kind of heroic endeavor: trying to transform a discredited nation into an industrial giant and pacifist model.

Where the majority of Japanese viewed the postwar period as an opportunity for moral cleansing and regeneration, the writer saw only torpor and decay, a poisoning of the very ground water that had nourished the national spirit. He believed, perhaps, that only an act of calculated violence could forestall the corruption, divert the river of inaction.

It may, however, already have been too late. Mishima, whose punishing training schedules had driven his body to the desired physical peak, had no intention of growing old gracefully. His ritual disembowelment, besides all its nationalist undercurrents, was the destruction of Narcissus, the sword crashing into the mirror of beauty before it could transmit back an image of decay. As time passes and the circle of people who knew the writer shrinks, Stokes’ work may be the closest we will ever get to glancing into the mirror ourselves.

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