Henry Scott Stokes, Yukio Mishima’s first biographer, once told me that the thing he most remembered about the writer was his exquisite manners — one of those telling details that lend a touch of authenticity to the work of those who knew Mishima personally. Because biographies are such intensely personal works of interpretation, it is wise to read as many as possible on a single subject. In the case of Mishima, an entire field of scholarship has proliferated over the years.

Newer biographies must pit themselves against some formidable titles. Notable among these are “Mishima: A Biography,” by John Nathan, who knew the writer and translated several of his works, Marguerite Yourcenar’s brilliant psychological study, “Mishima: A Vision of the Void” and the recently published, and exhaustively researched, “Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima,” by Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato. Other works, like Christopher Ross’ “Mishima’s Sword,” explore themes tangential to his interests and obsessions rather than trying to lay bare the soul of the great writer.

Yukio Mishima, by Damian Flanagan
Reaktion Books, Nonfiction.

Part of the originality of Damian Flanagan’s latest work rests in its approach to time, the author contending that a unique approach to the temporal was a key factor in Mishima’s life and death. Flanagan points out that in Japan, the age of 20 — which Mishima reached in 1945, the year World War II ended — marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. After a further 20 years had transpired, Mishima felt a strong sense of “being cut off from the natural flow of historical time.”

Flanagan describes how the youthful Mishima was awarded the prize of a timepiece by the Emperor, the “ultimate symbol of time transcendence,” after being nominated top of his class at the Peers School in Tokyo. Before committing ritual suicide on Nov. 25, 1970, he took off his watch, signaling his departure from life — the extinction of earthly time.

Wishing to transcend the currents of history, he fixated on the figure of the Emperor and the need to restore him as the central, timeless symbol of national polity. The restoration of the Emperor as a divine presence would require a deposing, or inversion of time that could only be achieved by means of a military coup or revolution, an idea Mishima devoted more attention to in his final years.

Mishima was a prodigiously gifted, driven writer. Working from midnight in a room at the top of his Tokyo home, he would snatch a few short hours of sleep, spend the day managing his affairs and socializing, before withdrawing once again to the writing of his aerie. For a person who experienced a sickly, enfeebled childhood, Mishima the man seems to have been blessed with boundless energy.

Flanagan draws our attention to Mishima’s work as a playwright, director, essayist, lyricist, short story writer and actor, and skillfully relates the fictional content of Mishima’s novels to actual conditions prevailing in Japan at the time of their publication. In his 1950 novel “Thirst for Love,” for example, we are told how a character’s nihilism and resentment against the world mirrors the powerful traumas and desires of the immediate postwar generation.

The attention Mishima paid to the details of his imminent death — an act to forestall physical decay and mental decline — were as meticulous as his well-ordered life. When it was all over, the heads of Mishima and an assistant, placed on the bloodstained carpet of the Ichigaya Assembly Hall — the site chosen by Mishima to stage his theater of death — were featured on the front page of the Asahi Shinbun newspaper, an example of press realism unthinkable in our squeamish times. Flanagan concurs with other biographers in believing that Mishima’s last moments were the climax of an act of intentionally lethal masochistic-eroticism. There is nothing unusual, of course, in the linking of sex and death, but in Mishima’s case the symbiosis of the two, the surging and exterminating forces, were raised to abnormal levels.

Mishima may have achieved his aims, but the Japanese public has never quite forgiven him for the feast of death he arranged at Ichigaya, a fact that partly explains the distaste many Japanese feel, the stiffening one often senses, at the mention of his name. Despite the unsavory aspects of Mishima’s life, Flanagan’s immense admiration for his subject is clear when he notes that as a writer, he “displays the very rare ability possessed by only the greatest artists to describe seemingly nothing and through it represent everything.” What Mishima represented was everything the Japanese were trying to forget, to expunge from their recent past, but the man who rehearsed and staged his own death in such a calculated fashion had no intention of being eviscerated from public memory. Mishima joins other writers discredited for their extremist political leanings, such as Ezra Pound, whose work has, nonetheless, shown considerable durability.

In confessing his inability to provide the reader with the unassailable facts behind the reasoning of this most complex of man of letters, Flanagan’s stylishly written literary biography comes closer than most to understanding the enigma of Yukio Mishima.

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