Like most novelists, Mishima writes principally about himself. In each volume of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, which shines ever more obviously as one of the great works of the last century, the protagonist appears to have been reincarnated into a different body. First he is Kiyoaki, a sensitively self-destructive young dreamer who falls in love with the one woman he has been expressly prohibited from loving, and from that love he catches his death at age twenty. Next we see him as a kendo athlete with “a face like new-fallen snow, unaware of what lies ahead,” who matures into a right-wing terrorist. In the third novel, he is reborn as a Thai princess who also dies young, of a snake bite; in the last, he’s a handsome, cruel young lighthouse keeper. The reincarnated person can always be identified by a certain birthmark, and the identification gets accomplished by the other protagonist, whose name is Shigekuni Honda and who is a judge—perfect profession for a soul whose task it is to decide what might or might not be true and what existence means. In the first novel, he muses about Kiyoaki: “Up until now I thought it best as his friend to pretend not to notice even if he were in his death agonies, out of respect for that elegance of his.” In fact, Honda never succeeds in preventing anybody’s death agonies. Scrupulous, empathetic, intelligent, aching to understand, and ultimately impotent, Honda might as well be—a novelist. In effect, then, there are two main characters in this long work, the observer and the observed. Is the observed really one soul who comes to life four times, or has Honda deluded himself because he longs for supernatural coherence?
Mishima was both Honda and Kiyoaki, the one and the myriad. As an artist, he could create, but creation can never substitute for action. Action, on the other hand, may be powerful but cannot transcend ephemerality. Action dies, as does Kiyoaki, and as did, ultimately, Mishima himself, whose carefully politicized, aestheticized suicide was not only rabidly observed, but a failure on its own terms; the troops refused to rally to his cause. At least Isao, the kendo athlete of the second book, succeeds in assassinating somebody before he cuts his belly open. Mishima was ultimately more like Honda than like Isao, which is not a terrible thing: while he may be sterile, in the sense that he will not bring about any “great event,” his empathy will endure. Honda’s seeking, his sincerity, his fidelity to that not necessarily well-founded belief in the reincarnations, these are the strands of perception, conceptualization, and devotion which sustain the patterns of reccurrence into something permanent and precious. Without Honda, the young man and the young woman who share nothing but a certain birthmark and a predilection to certain secret self-absorptions would not have added up to any collective thing. Thanks to him, they embody a sacred mystery. That is why Honda can be likened to the immense display case in the Mishima Yukio Literary Museum, where our author’s books shine as colorfully frozen as any collection of immaculate butterflies.
So Honda is Mishima, and the butterflies, the various versions of Kiyoaki, are also Mishima, whose strangely plastic features—and this is a quality more often pertaining to women—seem capable of forming themselves into any number of vastly dissimilar faces. Sometimes in the photographs his very head appears elongated, as though he were Cambodian or Vietnamese; at other times it’s rounder, like the clay head of some Assyrian idol; that frequently very sensitive and delicate face, that Kiyoaki-face, can on occasion appear bleached and bleak, like an aging prisoner’s, or harden into that stereotyped clay vulgarity that I have seen in the attitudes of tattooed Yakuza gangsters who pose for my press camera. (This is, perhaps, an attempt on Mishima’s part to embody himself as his Isao, the suicide-terrorist.) We have Mishima the suit-and-tie man, Mishima the flashy dancer, caught from above and grainily, à la Weegee, Mishima the artful poser in the dark kimono polka-dotted with light. And they are all his expressions of self, his legitimate incarnations. But only the Mishima called Honda sits down to the desk on which the bronze or brass letter opener surmounted with the medallion of a Caucasian’s head (a certain Emperor Napoleon, I believe) lies beside a miniature sword; two very Japanese-looking metal fishes and a metal lizard bask eternally by a golden Parker pen. It is Honda who writes in the end of Runaway Horses: “The instant that the blade tore open his flesh, the bright disk of the sun soared up and exploded behind his eyelids.” This defines Mishima’s agony. As he writes in that eerie confession Sun and Steel,
In the average person, I imagine, the body precedes language. In my case, words came first of all; then . . . came the flesh. It was already . . . sadly wasted by words. First comes the pillar of white wood, then the white ants that feed on it. But for me, the white ants were there from the start, and the pillar of plain wood emerged tardily, already half eaten away.
Kiyoaki has the body, of course, and Honda the words. And the words despise themselves, knowing that their own fulfillment necessarily spoils the body with sedentariness. But without the words to define and cohere, the body lapses into its own separate incarnations; and even its most dramatic self-expressions, its mutilations and orgasms, cannot win the understanding which words make possible and which will keep the body’s consciousness whole. For all his athletic poses toward the end, the mere existence of the Mishima Yukio Literary Museum suffices to prove that the body was not enough for our novelist, that like Kiyoaki he was too restless to stay in one body, that he wanted to be the man of a thousand faces even if the close-cropped hair, the half-smoked cigarette, failed to remove him as much as he thought they did from kinship with a small boy who dresses up as a sailor. Yes, incarnation is restless, and so in some photographs, Mishima, who my own Japanese translator thinks was “definitely gifted, but somehow not really sure how to cope with the ‘gift,’” wears a radiant, if at times hysterically radiant, smile, the white teeth tight together; in other images he tries to look stern. In those body-builder portraits, Mishima is rounded and drawn in on himself, transformed into clay, a stolid corporeality that expresses itself more loudly than the inner spirit. But I suspect that the spirit, which accentuated that corporeality because it loathes itself, feels tormented by that loudness and dares not confess it. Could that be one reason that Mishima chose death?
About that death, or at least about its supposed inevitability, a little more should be said. In Sun and Steel he bitterly complains about the fact that men cannot objectify themselves, and from the context it’s evident that he means objectify their bodies as women can. “He can only be objectified through the supreme action—which is, I suppose, the moment of death, the moment when, even without being seen, the fiction of being seen and the beauty of the object are permitted. Of such is the beauty of the suicide squad.” Mishima wrote those words in that languorously white house of his, which might be considered a little peculiar for the abode of a Japanese nationalist given its urns, its Greekish statues, and its European horoscope mosaic, that house which serenely bides and forebodes behind its white wall. If anything, it makes me think of the residence of the minister Kuruhara in the second volume of the tetralogy, Runaway Horses, whom Isao stabs to death in punishment for the crime of sacrilege. Kuruhara is, among other things, another Honda. The body hates the words (so, at least, the self-hating words say). The body freely, guiltlessly kills and copulates, marches, overthrows, makes history. It can do everything. But what’s it made of? The white ants are already eating it. When Mishima, naked but for his loincloth, sits on the tatami mat for yet another photograph (if you knew him only by this image, you wouldn’t suspect that he lives amid French engravings of nineteenth-century experimental balloons), when Mishima leans on the staff of his sheathed sword, his face, which to others, including himself, may evince resolution, to me betrays resignation, even vacancy, as if it cannot escape its own clay.
And yet that house with its erotic luxury and its hallmarks of foreign possibilities, that cosmopolitan house which Isao would never live in, that house was a perfect womb for a creative mind. Mishima could have become soft and fat living in that house. In his study stand Japanese brushes in a lacquerware cylinder, an elegantly slender calligraphy box, a block of scarlet ink for what I think is a stamp or seal; with these objects, perhaps, he could have incarnated himself into a living exemplar of the Japanese tradition which he imagined that he had to die for. He could have chosen any number of fates. And it may be significant that the tense, gruesome Runaway Horses, whose hero kills himself more or less as Mishima did, is not the final novel of the tetralogy, but the second.
What if Mishima had outlived his own death? Honda is condemned to outlive Isao’s seppuku for two more volumes, in which nothing nearly as dramatic will occur. In the third novel, The Temple of Dawn, Honda witnesses what he thinks is Kiyoaki’s reincarnation in the person of that beautiful, mysterious Thai princess. Mishima’s mood becomes richly tropical here, and the discourses into Buddhist theology, which irritate some readers, to me evince a last flowering of intellectual excitement on Honda’s part as he continues to attempt to find, and Mishima attempts to convey, perhaps to feel, the meaning of existence. But halfway through this novel, the famous aridity has already set in. Lovesickness, ideological rapture, and divine mysteries are done. The final book, The Decay of the Angel, exudes a suffocatingly existential quality. It’s all about waiting for death—not the joyfully fanatical death of Runaway Horses, the death that Mishima tried unjoyfully to die, but the death of the white ants. Reading The Temple of Dawn always makes me feel that the tetralogy’s end, and Mishima’s corresponding finish, were not preordained. The enigmatic little Thai princess offers the prospect of something different, something not only as erotic as suicide, but perhaps more elusive, something worthwhile enough to warrant not killing oneself while one tries to uncover it. Very possibly, if The Temple of Dawn is any indication, this something could have been religion or philosophy. I wonder how feverishly Mishima hunted for it in his wood-clad study with its bookshelved walls. He didn’t find it, and that is why every year on November 25, the white-clad Shinto priests lay down prayer streamers on the altar, which resembles a tabletop model of round-towered castles, and the blood-red disc of the Hinomaru flag hangs above them in the darkness beside Mishima’s portrait.