It was 45 years ago this summer that Donald Keene, a leading critic and translator of Japanese literature, visited Yukio Mishima at his summer writing retreat on the Izu Peninsula.
This was the last time the two close friends would leisurely enjoy each other’s company. Unbeknown to Keene, Mishima — then aged 45 — had already planned his suicide to take place in November of that very year.
During the days he shared with Keene, Mishima related the progress he was making on his self-proclaimed “life’s work”: the monumental four-volume novel called “Hojo no Umi” (“The Sea of Fertility”), which he had been serializing over the last five years in the magazine Shincho (New Tide).
By the time they met, Mishima was hastening the writing of the final volume in order to meet his own secret, self-imposed “deadline.”
Much of that final volume still waited to be written, but Mishima had already honed its extraordinary conclusion and at one point picked up a sheaf of papers containing the final chapter and asked Keene if he would like to read it. Keene declined, saying that he could only make sense of it if he knew what came before.
The next time that final chapter passed into the hands of anyone else was 10:40 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 25, 1970, when a maid presented it to Mishima’s editor, Chikako Kojima. She had called as requested to the Mishima home, but was informed that Mishima had left minutes before. Taking it back to her office, Kojima was amazed to discover that the manuscript — unusually thickly sealed — was not just the latest but the last installment of “The Sea of Fertility.”
Within 90 minutes of that manuscript being handed over, Mishima and four members of his private army, The Shield Society, had arrived at the Eastern Headquarters of the Self-Defense Forces, in the Tokyo neighborhood of Ichigaya, for a pre-arranged meeting with Gen. Kanetoshi Mashita, taken him hostage and ordered 1,000 troops to assemble on pain of killing him.
Mishima was jeered from a balcony as he delivered a speech to the army about the need for constitutional reform. And then, Mishima and his probable lover Masakatsu Morita both committed seppuku and were beheaded by one of their accomplices.
“The Sea of Fertility,” the leviathan that Mishima left behind, is arguably both the most important Japanese literary work written in the last 100 years and, by far, the least understood.
Mishima intended to write a work of thousands of pages that would outshine the novels of Leo Tolstoy — an epic spanning the period 1912 to 1975. Yet he didn’t just wish to write a historical narrative which would ploddingly describe the unfolding of an era. Rather, the book was Mishima’s great showdown with the concept of time itself.
He wished to create a “world-defining novel” in which he could leap from one historical era to another while maintaining a common thread.
But how could this be achieved?
Incorporating ideas from noh theater and araya-shiki, the Buddhist concept of an all-encompassing fundamental consciousness, Mishima hit upon an eccentric concept: His protagonist would keep being reincarnated as soon as he or she reached the age of 20.
The five-year writing period of “The Sea of Fertility” coincided with extraordinary social upheavals in the late ’60s and the anti-Vietnam war movement. Submerged at night at his desk with his titanic literary endeavor, by day Mishima — who was previously a disinterested observer — became increasingly politicized. Fearing a communist takeover in Japan as a result of widespread anti-war student protests in Tokyo between 1968 and 1969, Mishima vowed to defend the nation to his last breath.
In the years since it was published and translated, the impact of “The Sea of Fertility” has been profound and diverse — whether being read by Francis Ford Coppola in Philippine jungles during the filming of “Apocalypse Now” or inspiring a change in direction in the writings of Shusaku Endo, who, like Mishima, also began to take inspiration from Buddhist thought.
The greatest conundrum, however, is whether “The Sea of Fertility” actually reflects Mishima’s supposed political beliefs or whether it stands in utter refutation and contradiction of them.
Was Mishima’s growing soldier persona in fact an attempt to give a tangible reality to a man who had always admitted to being overwhelmed by the sheer fecundity of his imagination?
The interpretation of the novel has always remained problematic. Inevitably, critics feel most comfortable with the first two volumes — “Spring Snow,” a love story set in early Taisho Era (1912-26) Japan and “Runaway Horses,” a portrait of right-wing activism in the ’30s — which can be easily linked to details of Mishima’s own life.
Many indeed proclaim the third and fourth volumes of “The Sea of Fertility” — “The Temple of Dawn” and “The Decay of the Angel” — which shift the scene to Thailand, India and a Japan of the near-future, as a relative failure.
It’s important to divorce the tetralogy from the extraordinary events of Mishima’s final years: Mishima was certainly not writing it to merely justify his political beliefs.
In “The Decay of the Angel,” he opens with a long section describing the sea as the place beyond time, and concludes the novel with a bravura sleight of hand that undermines the veracity of the entire work — indeed of historical time itself.
It is as if everything might just be a delusion in the consciousness of that book’s central character, who was debilitatingly old, a state of decay that Mishima was determined never to endure.
We should appreciate “The Sea of Fertility” as Mishima’s attempt at an eternal book of all times — written to obliterate the oppression of time itself.
Damian Flanagan is the author of “Yukio Mishima” published by Reaktion Books.