In March 1937, an official in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Azusa Hiraoka, traveled to Europe on government business and acquired some guides to Italian museums.
Prudishly fearing, however, that his 12-year-old son might be exposed to the depictions of female nudes contained within, he hid the books in a closet in the family home in Tokyo. One day, his son Kimitake — a bright, fragile boy — was off school sick and discovered the books.
A decade later, Kimitake — following in his father’s footsteps — was himself working as a bureaucrat. Since the age of 16 he had also been prolifically publishing stories and novels, but at the age of 23 decided to risk everything by resigning from his job and penning a single autobiographical novel.
It was the moment at the beginning of that novel when Kimitake described his childish self leafing through the pages of those art books that would create an electrifying, unforgettable scene of Japanese literature.
For it was not the female nudes but a painting by Guido Reni from the Palazzo Rosso in Genoa of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian — an almost naked man, tied to a tree, his flesh impaled with arrows from the soldiers executing him — that had an overwhelming impact.
Kimitake — writing “Confessions of a Mask” under his pseudonym Yukio Mishima — described the painting as stirring his deepest sexual imagination. Shaped by years of near imprisonment as a young child in his grandmother’s room — Mishima had until the age of 12 lived with his controlling grandmother and only just returned to his parents’ home — and already stimulated by sado-masochistic images of seppuku and death, he described how this image caused him to suddenly masturbate and experience his first “ejaculatio.”
Mishima’s account of his explosive seminal interaction with Western painting stood as an embodiment of the stimulation received from the visual arts on modern Japanese literature, tout court. But there was something quintessentially Mishima-esque about the nature of this encounter. This was literature not as with Soseki, Kawabata and others — as explained in the previous parts of this series — in quest of objective reflections of an external reality to provide new ways of seeing, but as a volcanic descent into deep-seated, taboo desire.
The execution of Saint Sebastian became a defining image that would haunt and inspire Mishima’s imagination, but it was not the only one. In early adolescence Mishima had also discovered Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome,” showing erotic, stylized images of Salome holding the severed head of John the Baptist.
For the rest of his life, Mishima constantly returned to these two visual images. When in late 1951 Mishima departed on his first round-the-world trip, he made it his business to see both a performance of Richard Strauss’ “Salome” in New York and to view paintings by Guido Reni of Saint Sebastian in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.
In 1960, in what he declared was the culmination of a lifetime ambition, he managed to put a production of “Salome” on the Tokyo stage and in 1965-66 he spent an entire year taking French lessons so he could read and help translate Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” into Japanese.
In 1968, he even famously posed — showing off his bulked-up bodybuilder’s physique — as Saint Sebastian in a loincloth, impaled with arrows in a series of photographs by Kishin Shinoyama.
In 1956, Mishima published his famous novel “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” based on a real-life event, in which he depicted a Buddhist acolyte so obsessed with the powerful visual image formed in his imagination of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto that he eventually sets it on fire to liberate himself. Yet the visual images that haunted Mishima’s imagination were not that of the Golden Pavilion, but of Saint Sebastian, seppuku and Salome.
Crucially, Saint Sebastian was a powerful fable of eternal life. Mishima relates how Sebastian was a beautiful youth who mysteriously appeared from the sea, became captain of the Praetorian Guard, was persecuted for his religious beliefs, but when seemingly killed by his executioners, had been brought back to life. To observe Mishima in the final years of his life is to witness him transforming himself into a Saint Sebastian figure: He formed his own private army and made himself captain of it and spouted political beliefs that aroused huge hostility from mainstream commentators. He devoted himself to the composition of his “life work,” “The Sea of Fertility” — a four-volume novel describing the apparent repeated reincarnation of its young protagonist, which opens the final volume with an extraordinary, lengthy description of human-less seascapes.
The day in 1970 Mishima chose for his death — Nov. 25 — was the same date that he commenced writing “Confessions of a Mask.” On that morning, Mishima left behind on his desk a final note: “Human life is short, but I wish to live forever.” After he and four of his army cadets took a general hostage at an army base in Ichigaya, Mishima strutted out onto a balcony to address the 1,000 men of the base. The bored, bewildered servicemen hailed Mishima with a barrage of abuse, calling him an idiot and worse. This was Mishima’s true Saint Sebastian moment: standing in his captain’s uniform, bombarded with arrows of abuse. Then Mishima returned inside and commenced his seppuku, before being beheaded by one of his attendants. The morning finished, Salome-like, with Mishima’s severed head on the carpet.
Most commentaries on Mishima only see the Japanese side of his spectacular death. But the seppuku was also the segue between the realization of the two visual arts images that had dominated Mishima’s imagination all his life.
The power of the visual arts on the Japanese literary imagination — one of the most important but largely unknown stories in modern literature — had produced its own spectacular visual event, the defining counter-cultural image of postwar Japanese history.
This is the final part of a series titled “How the Visual Arts Have Shaped Japan’s Literature.” To see parts 1 to 3 visit www.japantimes.co.jp.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.