Nobuko Albery salutes the ghost of Mishima, novelist and suicide

Nobuko Albery

  • The Sea of Fertility by Yukio Mishima
    Secker/Penguin, 821 pp, £18.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 436 28160 0
  • Mishima on Hagakure by Yukio Mishima
    Penguin, 144 pp, £2.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 14 004923 1
  • The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima by Henry Scott Stokes
    Penguin, 271 pp, £3.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 14 007248 9

Fifteen years after his death Mishima is everywhere. Penguin has just brought out Hagakure, Mishima’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the 18th-century code of samurai ethics, and The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima by Henry Scott Stokes, and Secker and Warburg Mishima’s tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility, in one attractive volume. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival an American film, Mishima, by Paul Schrader caused considerable controversy; and in the spring I saw in Paris Jean-Louis Barrault’s company performing Mishima’s Modern Noh Plays, beautifully translated by Marguerite Yourcenar and directed with iconoclastic verve by Maurice Béjart. I could not be better pleased. What fun for Mishima, watching all this fuss from somewhere in his reincarnation. The last time I saw him, eight months before his death, he said: ‘The Japanese will never forgive me; I embarrass them. The Westerners won’t be able to understand me and as a consequence will make a fuss of me. What fun.’ Then came that raucous, jarring belly laugh of his, which never failed to startle new acquaintances. It was the exaggerated samurai guffaw that Mishima – born a sickly, puny infant, spoilt and terrorised by his overpowering grandmother – had adopted as a symbol of virility and, as with every other camouflage, red-herring or artifice he chose in later life, had stuck to with superhuman discipline.

I can think of many men who can legitimately claim: I have created my own fate. But only Mishima created his own body, the outer architecture of his being, in order to complete and perfect his fate. Can one build iron muscles out of a bean sprout? Mishima did just that, so that he could achieve what was to him a beautiful death.

‘Call that beautiful?’ you may well exclaim, shaking before my eyes the photograph of Mishima’s severed head standing in a pool of blood. It is gory, barbaric, revolting, I admit, but so are the images of slaughter paraded before our eyes almost daily from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Northern Ireland. At the time of his death I took one look at the newspaper photograph and had recurrent nightmares about it for a long time thereafter. But I confess I was moved by it, and am moved even more painfully now. Fifteen years later I can almost accept the adjective ‘beautiful’.

But then I am neither Christian nor of a country where for centuries the state-ordered ritual of killing, by guillotine or by hanging, was acceptable – but not the ritual of self-inflicted death by choice. I see Mishima’s exit as an act of faith and duty as a patriotic Japanese, and also as the inevitable fulfilment of his very, very personal artistic ideal. It has long been in our tradition that any self-respecting samurai should, as his duty, commit disembowelment to register his righteous protest when he judged his lord was committing a grave error but would not listen to his urgent advice. To be allowed to pay for one’s sin or mistake by seppuku was an honour reserved for the privileged class, the mercy of a samurai to another samurai. A scene of seppuku on a Kabuki stage, immaculately white everywhere and every detail as rigorously and sensitively controlled as in a tea ceremony, has never disgusted a Japanese audience: on the contrary, it washed them clean of the petty vulgarity of their daily existence and an emotion akin to catharsis sent them home glowing. You ask me: do they still go home glowing today?

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