Books

'Life for Sale': Yukio Mishima's comically psychedelic take on the adventure novel

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

“Why are people so desperate to live? Isn’t it unnatural that people who have not even been exposed to the danger of death should feel a desire to live?”

Life for Sale, by Yukio Mishima, Translated by Stephen Dodd.
192 pages
PENGUIN CLASSICS, Fiction.

So muses 27-year-old former copywriter Hanio Yamada, who one evening imagines the print columns of a newspaper turn into cockroaches before his eyes and makes an attempt to kill himself by overdose, but later finds himself unexpectedly, frustratingly alive. Hanio is overwhelmed by the meaninglessness of existence and discovers himself dubiously blessed with an “after-life” he never expected. So he places an ad in a newspaper offering his own life for sale, happy to embark on any quest that might confidently result in his death.

Like a Sam Spade detective agency with a twist, Hanio soon finds he has plenty of takers for his offer of a kamikaze mission — a hissing old man determined to exact revenge on his beautiful but adulterous young wife; a library worker keen to test a suicide-inducing drug for an international criminal gang; a son looking for a willing blood-donating lover for his vampiric mother.

Wildly comedic and filled with picaresque flights of fancy, “Life for Sale” — first serialized in Weekly Playboy in 1968 — was, for many years, dismissed as mere “entertainment,” especially when placed beside the magnificent “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy Yukio Mishima was devoting much of his energy toward between 1965 and his death in 1970. Yet the book is a terrific example of Mishima’s fecund imagination at its most free-wheeling and unfettered best, teeming with complex ideas about the paradoxical nature of existence, delivered with trademark panache and a winking smile.

The late 1960s was a crucial time in the evolution of the modern world, witnessing a crumbling away of the postwar order under the weight of the Vietnam War, student riots, hippies, Woodstock and LSD. Mishima’s reaction to the sudden change in cultural zeitgeist is a fascinating process to observe.

He had entered 1968 having just published an introduction to his beloved “Hagakure,” the outlandish Edo Period (1603-1868) Bushido tract exhorting the samurai’s readiness to instantly die. Mishima was also deep into the serialization of “Runaway Horses,” his depiction of early Showa Era (1926-1989) right-wing political activism. Soon Mishima — who had started to train with the Self-Defense Forces and was calling for the formation of a National Guard to prevent communist revolution — would drink the intermingled blood from fingers cut deep in fellowship with right-wing student radicals, as they swore oaths of loyalty, joking that they all looked like vampires and hoping that they didn’t have a venereal disease.

Ideological blood pacts might have seemed a world away from the Summer of Love — doused in the lethargy of hippies — for the sharply intellectual, workaholic Mishima, but it is evident on every page of “Life for Sale” that he wasn’t just marking his own territory and stance, he was also — as he had done throughout his life — absorbing and transforming all the latest vogues. Not only is one of Hanio’s lovers, Reiko, regularly high on LSD, but the whole novel seems high on the drug — Mishima described it as his “psychedelic adventure novel.”

There’s more than a touch of James Bond about “Life for Sale,” too, for pop-culture loving Mishima; the film of “You Only Live Twice” — set in Japan — had had been released the year before.

Fleming opens the Bond book of the same title, his penultimate novel, with a faux haiku claiming that you only live twice: “once when you are born and once when you stare death in the face.” It’s a sentiment with which Mishima would have heartily concurred. Hanio, like Bond, now risking his life on suicide missions and tangling regularly with a network of nefarious forces, discovers himself living life more intensely than he ever has before, escaping death by inches and bedding beautiful women as he goes.

But this is Bond with a Kafkaesque edge. Hanio is a protagonist comically caught between his instincts for self-preservation and self-destruction, and with villains who shift back and forth between appearing to be the agents of an international crime network and prosaic figures engaged in personal fantasies.

The ultimate ticking time bomb at the climax of the novel is not a device of world destruction triggered by a Blofeld-like character, but a stopwatch in an empty box, set going by Hanio himself. If we can just hear the clock ticking, we are all sitting on the timebombs of our own ultimate destruction, Mishima is telling us: The only question is how intensely and richly we manage to live our lives until that clock explodes and sweeps us away.

“Life for Sale” became a surprise bestseller when re-released in Japanese in 2015 and was turned into a 10-part TV series in 2018. Here it debuts in English in a polished translation by Stephen Dodd. Following on from the recent publication of two other lesser-known Mishima novels, “Star” and “The Frolic of the Beasts,” this book continues the ongoing Mishima renaissance, just in time for the 50th anniversary of his death next year.

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