Wine, dance, frenzied rapture and theatrical performance. These are just some of the characteristics of the god Dionysus, who, in Euripides’ masterpiece play of ancient Greece, “The Bacchae,” arrives in the city of Thebes, determined to exact a terrible vengeance on Pentheus — the ruler of the city and representative of stern rationality and order — for having refused to recognize his ancient divinity.
Partly inspired by the play, the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche crafted his first major work, “The Birth of Tragedy From the Spirit of Music,” arguing that the beauty of art rises not out of mere rationality, but out of the balance between Appoline and Dionysian elements.
After a working life spent producing works that overturned traditional Christian morality and challenging the haughty sense of imperial order of the 19th century, Nietzsche succumbed to mental illness in 1889 after producing his supreme masterpiece, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” In his subsequent letters, he frequently signed himself simply as “Dionysus.”
Japan at the turn of the 20th century was like a modern-day Thebes: a state which, 32 years earlier, had, with the Meiji Restoration, embarked on a wholesale program of modernization and rationalization and a casting aside of ancient ways and beliefs. The new Japanese rulers paraded themselves in tailcoats and stiff collars to claim the nation’s place among the great imperial powers.
It was into this unsuspecting world that, like a barefoot Dionysus arriving to wreak unsparing retribution, the radical ideas of Nietzsche made landfall and began ripping to shreds the aspiration for enlightened, “civilized” modernity.
The first ripples of dissent came with the “On An Aesthetic Lifestyle” debate, triggered by literary provocateur Takayama Chogyu, which raged among literary circles in Japan for two years from 1901.
Soon, the entire Japanese literary world began engaging with Nietzsche’s ideas, attracted to his powerful critique of Western culture, his aestheticism and his call to break into the irrational side of the human mind. “This is Oriental,” the greatest literary figure of the day, Natsume Soseki, wrote in English in the margin of his heavily-thumbed copy of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” at the time he penned “I Am a Cat” in 1905-06.
Soseki attempted in his central novel, “The Gate” (a title taken directly from “Zarathustra”), to link Nietzsche’s embrace of the irrational with Japan’s native traditions of Zen and koan riddles. The potential to reconnect through Nietzsche with many of Japan’s buried age-old customs and mythologies was not lost on a new generation of young writers in Japan for whom Nietzsche represented a vindication of Eastern ways and a door into a world of suppressed sensuality and desire.
Ryunosuke Akutagawa wrote stories like “The Smile of the Gods,” in which the Japanese gods are placed, Dionysus-like, in stark opposition to the Christian God, and in his collection of blackly humorous aphorisms, “Words of a Dwarf,” Akutagawa put to good use his deep love of “Zarathustra.”
When a student, Akutagawa’s great contemporary Junichiro Tanizaki had edited a journal with Tetsuro Watsuji, later to become a leading philosopher and Nietzsche scholar. Tanizaki’s fearless probing into the taboo world of obsessive desire, in works such as “Naomi,” and his overturning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) “enlightened” thinking with his classic work of 1933, “In Praise of Shadows,” are impossible to comprehend without grasping the intense influence of Nietzsche on Japanese culture in the Taisho (1912-26) and early Showa (1926-89) eras.
By the 1930s, 12 volumes of Nietzsche’s complete works had been translated into Japanese and the lofty rational ideals of the Meiji Era had been replaced with the lure of the macabre, perverse and erotic.
In the mind of a shy, precocious 20-year-old, seething with inner turmoil and frustrations, the discovery in 1945 of “The Birth of Tragedy” was to become a never-to-be-forgotten moment of epiphany and liberation. Yukio Mishima’s bond with Nietzsche was described by Mishima’s father after his son’s death as of an intensity beyond imagination.
Mishima’s probings of the darkest recesses of the human psyche and sexuality in “Confessions of a Mask” (1949) would have been quite impossible without Nietzsche, and just about all the directions that Mishima subsequently took connected to Nietzsche in some form or other. The “Greek fever” that assailed Mishima in the early 1950s, drawing Mishima to visit the ruins of ancient Greece and to explode into voluminous play-writing productivity, was intimately connected with Mishima’s reading of Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy.”
Mishima’s quest for the beautiful and transcendent and his rejection of traditional morality in works such as “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” (1956) connected him to the Nietzsche-inspired “On An Aesthetic Lifestyle” adherents of the early 20th century. Mishima indeed transferred Nietzsche’s ideas about the “death of God” and applied them to Japan, arguing that Japan itself had suffered the same when the Emperor renounced his divinity in 1946, triggering an existential crisis, which he describes at length in works such as “Kyoko’s House” (1959).
Mishima didn’t just explore the dark irrationality of humanity, he also wished to effect a revival in the Japanese spirit like that produced by “The Birth of Tragedy.” But the curse of Nietzsche — madness — a curse that afflicted Soseki and Akutagawa, began to gently settle over Mishima.
Nietzsche-as-Dionysus had claimed a chilling retribution on the modernizing, enlightening tendencies of modern Japan. Yet to truly understand some of the century’s most iconic works — often thought of as being quintessentially “Japanese” — you have to see them in the context of a long-running “Dionysian” revolution in Japanese literary thought.