Through Western Eyes
Some years ago I interviewed Haruki Murakami, for another PEN event, and inevitably asked him a question about Mishima. His response was a brush-off, as I recall. He said that he wasn’t really familiar with Mishima—he’d read him in school, and not at all since. And he made it clear that he didn’t really like Mishima. He was annoyed by the question. This is more or less the response that I had been expecting. At least at that time, for many contemporary Japanese, Mishima was an embarrassment. And I suspect he still is. I remember when I first arrived in Japan as a teacher in 1979, partly inspired by my enthusiasm for Mishima, with a copy of Sun and Steel in my suitcase, my questions about him were greeted with impatience and even irritation by my students. “Why do you gaijin always talk about Mishima?” one of them asked me.
Mishima was a very strange Japanese. His ritual suicide, his final call to cast off Western influences and return to traditional Japanese values, including veneration of the emperor, has made him, for a long time, something of a bad joke in his homeland. There is also a touch of parricide in Murakami’s response, which calls to mind the critical dismantling of Hemingway in the ’60s and ’70s in this country. Mishima was the looming figure in postwar Japanese letters, and nobody likes to be loomed over. Writers such as Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto are from another world, really, a post-Mishima Japan, probably the first generation of Japanese writers since Soseki Natsume for whom Japan’s uniqueness in its relation to the West is not necessarily an explicit theme, is not necessarily the theme. Their characters listen to Brahms and the Beatles unself-consciously, as indeed do most of their contemporaries; they eat miso soup for breakfast and hamburgers for lunch; they wear kimonos to a wedding and Prada to a club. Consciously or not, this newer fiction represents a rejection of Mishima and Tanizaki’s generation.
Mishima, a cosmopolitan figure whose literary influences included Aeschylus and Dostoevsky and de Sade, was one of those rare Japanese of his generation who profoundly understood the West. However, his seppuku seems to have made him seem more remote to us, and to the contemporary Japanese, who have turned him into just the kind of oriental hothouse literary exotic that he despised. At the moment, he seems stranded somewhere in the middle of the Pacific. For Americans, he’s often a beautiful icon of Japanese exoticism and inscrutability, while for the Japanese, he is sometimes the talented nutcase beloved of the gaijin. I remember being indignant when the Kris Kristofferson version of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea came out, in 1976. You will remember that this is the story of a sailor who gives up the sea in order to marry a widow, and the gang of teenage nihilists who, having admired him as a sailor, decide to murder him once he betrays his lonely destiny and comes ashore. As a fledgling Orientalist back then, I told myself that the story didn’t make sense removed from its Japanese context. I haven’t seen the movie since it first appeared, but rereading the novel recently, I came to suspect that I was wrong about the cultural specificity of that story. I have to wonder if some young Japanese fan of Lord of the Flies would object as strenuously to a Japanese film version of that novel. Which is to say that I think some of Mishima’s Western admirers are too content to exoticize him, and to insist upon his citizenship in what he himself contemptuously called the “flower-arranging nation.”
No artist embodied the tortured contradictions of postwar Japan as thoroughly as Mishima, the homosexual who worried about Japan’s effeminate image, the intellectual who championed the realm of the senses and the physical over the claims of words and ideas, the sickly aesthete who turned himself into a modern-day samurai. At the same time, though, his paradoxes and contradictions—between Apollo and Dionysus, word and world, thought and action—were thoroughly transcended. Or, to put it in the context of the time that I first came under his spell, it was as if he was both William Gass and John Gardner at the same time. For me, in the mid-’70s, he seemed far more vital than any American literary figure.
One of the tasks of reassessing Mishima is to go back to the novels themselves, which are astonishingly diverse, and to stop seeing him as a representative figure. At the risk of robbing Mishima’s life of the perfect shape which he apparently wanted to impose on it, I’m not sure that it would hurt to try to imagine what we would make of his oeuvre if he had, say, died in a car crash, in ’68 or ’69, or of an aneurysm on his way out the door on that final day in 1970, moments after completing the first installment of The Sea of Fertility. It wouldn’t hurt to recall the Mishima that the world knew before he killed himself: an international literary figure, the most successful Japanese literary export of the twentieth century, a writer who has as much in common with Hemingway as he does with Lady Murasaki. We might do well to celebrate Mishima’s contradictions rather than seeing them as solved by his death. We need to rescue him from the mists that obscure him; we need to see him in relation to his contemporaries, like his sometimes-mentor Yasunari Kawabata, who called Mishima the kind of talent who comes along only once every two or three hundred years. Kawabata was the writer most admired by the gaijin in Kyoto in the late ’70s—the one who seemed to represent a pure Japanese spirit untainted by Western influence: all those geishas, tea masters, and Go-masters.
Mishima was a great admirer of Kawabata—although he seems to have written a somewhat unflattering portrait of the master in his novel Forbidden Colors—and he also saw himself in opposition to Kawabata. Mishima used to rail against the insular aestheticism of much of Japanese literature and culture. Kawabata’s aristocratic aesthetes are the epitome of the flower-arranging nation. To Western eyes, some of his books are less novels than series of beautiful tableaux, in the tradition of The Tale of Genji. Lady Murasaki’s narrative, written some six hundred years before Don Quixote, is a weirdly fascinating story of erotic and court intrigue, and represents what Mishima saw as the feminine aesthetic in Japanese literature, the rarefied world of the Heian Court. Mishima eventually seems to have seen himself as resurrecting a more vigorous tradition of martial epic and the samurai ideal, represented by such post-Genji works as the Heike monogatari, written two hundred years later. But it’s important to remember that he also, especially early in his career, acknowledged his debt to Western literary traditions. When asked by an interviewer about the negativity of his protagonists, he put the blame squarely on Western literary models. “We have learned mental disease and shame from the West,” he said.
This is actually a very Japanese statement. His first novel, Confessions of a Mask, is a coming-of-age story of a young man discovering his own difference from his peers in the world into which he was born. It fits squarely into the so-called I-novel tradition of Japanese autobiography. But it also records his encounters with Western culture and literature, from the famous picture of Saint Sebastian pierced with arrows, to Greek drama. The epigraph comes from The Brothers Karamazov: “Beauty is a terrible and awful thing,” it begins, and one wonders what Kawabata would say to that. It continues: “It is terrible because it never has and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but riddles. Within beauty both shores meet and all contradictions exist side by side.” This theme reaches its culmination in the great masterpiece of Mishima’s middle period, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, in which a young Buddhist priest feels enthralled and enslaved and finally negated by the beauty of the gold-plated temple in Kyoto where he studies and burns it to the ground in order to free himself. Although the story is based on a real incident in Japanese history, it seems to me a direct descendent of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.
I don’t mean to suggest that Mishima is best understood as a Western writer or that we can, or even should, wish away the Japanese context of his work. I’m not sure I want to go back and see the Kristofferson version of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea; nor do I think we can really pretend that Mishima died in a car wreck. On the other hand, I don’t think we should overly privilege the strange nationalistic rhetoric and political obsessions of his final years, as many have done in order to dismiss him. It’s reductive to view Mishima’s entire oeuvre as a suicide note. The novels and stories are stunningly diverse, from the lyrical heterosexual love story of The Sound of Waves, through the homoerotic Confessions of a Mask and Forbidden Colors, to the vast epic of The Sea of Fertility, which I believe to be one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century fiction. The next time I see Haruki Murakami, I’m going to urge him to reread them.