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?

Take an exemplary modan Japanese of 1985 – this being the Japanese adjective for ‘modern’ – who would consider it below his dignity to walk on the firm earth, unless it were a golf course, and would rather sit in an air-conditioned, doilied car, stuck in a mammoth traffic jam; work on the 39th floor of an anti-seismic skyscraper; eat and shop in gigantic underground arcades; live in a block of flats built on land reclaimed from the sea or made accessible by excavating mountains once covered with noble, serene trees; and take a package tour of seven European cities in ten days now and again. You’ll probably find him buying three dozen cashmere pullovers in the Burlington Arcade. Ask him what he thinks of Mishima and you’ll most likely get an embarrassed polite giggle before he quickly turns back to his heap of cashmere. A modan Japanese, yes, but he still keeps to the age-old Confucian dictum: when there’s a bad odour, put a lid on it.

Mishima embarrassed and still embarrasses his compatriots because his life and death contained so much of the quintessentially Japanese vigour and spirit that they know they have bartered for prosperity in this fleeting material world; and precisely for this reason they vilified him as a fanatical right-winger. Mishima himself was categoric that he was not: ‘Nothing I write is fed on fanaticism. Only my metaphors tend to be fanatic as I am in such a hurry and over-eager to put my views across and also since childhood I have been fed on the bombastic and florid language of Kabuki.’ When he gave up the pen and plunged a sword into his belly, the Japanese were positively ashamed and hostile: what would others think of us? ‘Others’ meaning the advanced Occidental nations whom Japan has so slavishly copied for so long.

From the way I have described a modan successful Japanese you rightly guess that I am not one. My dear father exiled me to New York University when I was becoming an incoherent left-wing activist, following the old proverb: if you love your child, throw him out of home. I have since lived all my adult years in America and Europe. As I wilted in homesickness, whether in New York, London or elsewhere, I devoured all available Japanese classic literature. Each year I became more retrogressive, and have now ended up being an archaic Japanese in love with her motherland of centuries ago. When I go home, my modan family and friends find me rather embarrassing, for I am a Rip van Winkle who keeps bumping into ubiquitous automatic doors as he gropes for door-knobs that no longer exist. A tiresome Rip who loves his country too passionately to remain polite or silent. Whenever an Occidental friend assures me, ‘Japan is rich and stable and in many ways enviable,’ I cannot help gasping: ‘But at what cost!’ Present-day prosperity looms potentially as a bigger danger than the 13th-century Mongol invasion fleet, which the so-called Divine Wind, in fact a vicious typhoon, fortunately for Japan wiped out of sight and history. But our belief in the protective might of the Divine Wind evaporated after defeat in the last war, and what have we left to withstand the onslaught of distortionist prosperity? For Japan seems to me to have become, for the great part, a smug, fat, ugly, natureless place inhabited by people struck by materialistic and xenophilic bulimia.

The tone of my voice strikes you as too shrill and heated? But, being committedly Japanese and sentient, neither a coward nor an ingrate, how could I remain cool, calm and collected about Mishima? The Nobel Prize-winning writer, Kawabata, whom Mishima had worshipped as his master could not long remain untouched by Mishima’s choice of death: he quietly gassed himself less than two years after his disciple’s spectacularly stage-managed death. And today, my sympathy keener than ever, I recall Mishima’s lamentation, expressed in language of impeccable classic beauty which my translation, I fear, can only demean: ‘Alas, whoever would have thought that I should be still alive in a world where the mere mention of “passion” could so readily arouse discomfort?’

My late husband, Ivan Morris, had translated Mishima’s masterpiece, Golden Paviliont and had long been his friend. On Ivan’s sabbatical leave from Columbia University in the winter of 1969-70 we went to Tokyo, and I got to know both Mishima and his wife, Yoko. Yoko is the kind of Japanese woman I become devoted to: gallant, strong, fiercely loyal, generous, and tact incarnate. How heavily Mishima depended on her was evident at once. Without her he could never have led to the hilt the rich, hectic life he so loved, nor died the death he ultimately sought. I can well believe the story told to me by one close to her that on the morning of Mishima’s failed coup d’état, she had left the house early to drive her two children to school and on her way back heard of her husband’s seppuku on the car radio. She drove home, parked the car properly, went straight to her husband’s study, found his written instructions, dutifully carried them out before the inevitable search by the police, then fainted.

When I went back to Japan alone later in 1970, the Mishimas invited me out for the evening and he insisted on going to Dracula coffee house, which had just opened. He had a habit of systematically trying out every new noteworthy restaurant or bar or place of entertainment. Dracula boasted a dozen or so hideously made-up monsters whose sole duty was to lurk unsuspected inside the dark, ornately decorated dungeon of a place and do everything possible to frighten the customers. I was frightened; Yoko thought it childish; Mishima liked the place and swore he would bring his lily-livered intellectual friends there.

In the car going elsewhere for a quiet dinner afterwards, the husband and the wife teased each other hilariously, Mishima making fun of her riding and Spanish dance lessons and Yoko about his private army. I know countless Japanese couples who have been brought into matrimony by arranged marriage, as was the case with the Mishimas, and whilst many such marriages succeed, producing a gently resigned harmony, a few, like the Mishimas, enjoy a shared sense of fun and the ridiculous. As Yoko smartly overtook one notoriously fast Tokyo taxi after another, with peals of laughter and occasional Japanese slapping, all three of us were lighthearted. Yoko and I told him that the Shield Society uniform he had himself designed was in incorrigible bad taste, better suited for the bell boy of a second-class hotel. Then I heard myself blurt out: ‘The initials, SS. What a weird coincidence!’

‘You think I leave anything to coincidence?’ Mishima retorted. ‘Already many learned Japanese are convinced I am a fascist leader of a kamikaze death squad.’

‘You’ve cried wolf so often, so long that no one now believes you’ll do it in the end.’ To this sally he replied with his rocking, explosive laugh.

I remember the drive well: only eight months before his death. With hindsight my mind boggles that even those of us who had more or less subconsciously accepted that Mishima had no honourable alternative but to kill himself one day failed to realise the imminence of it, in spite of having read the published record of his conversation with Nagisa Oshima, the film director.

Oshima: When the first volume of The Sea of Fertility came out you wrote a newspaper article in which you said: If I go on wearing out my living carcass much longer, I’ll be denied a glorious death. It moved me immeasurably, as the thought of death had not yet even entered my own life programme.

Mishima: It has long been mine; but it’s only very recently that I have come to the conclusion that in the end it’ll have to be by disembowelment and with my blood flowing. No other way.

A few months before his death Mishima asked Ivan to translate a short message entitled ‘Four Rivers’. He knew Ivan wished no longer to translate, in order to concentrate on his own writing: but as it was meant to accompany an important photographic exhibition, a sort of Mishima retrospective, he particularly hoped that Ivan with his beautifully taut style would translate it. Ivan asked me to translate it first, saying that he would then ‘add style’.

And it was on reading this message that for the first time I felt my stomach contract with uneasiness, but not yet with a nameable foreboding. In this message Mishima had divided his 45-year life into four Rivers: Writing, Theatre, Body and Action. As soon as I finished reading it, I reread the pages dealing with the two later Rivers ‘that suddenly began flowing at the mid-point of my life’.

‘When at last I came to own a beautiful body I wanted to show it off like a child with a new toy. But the body is doomed to decay,’ he wrote. ‘I for one do not, will not accept such a doom.’ He then went on to admit that

the River of Body naturally flowed into the River of Action. It was inevitable. This River confronts the River of Writing. I have often heard the glib motto: the Pen and the Sword join in a single path; but in truth they can join only at the moment of death. This River of Action is the most destructive of all rivers, and I can well understand why not many people approach it. This River has no generosity, brings no wealth or peace and gives no rest. Only let me say this: I, born a man and alive as a man, cannot overcome the temptation to follow the course of this River.

I was moved, and at the same time felt embarrassed, almost guilty of voyeurism, as one does when slapped in the face by a confession too naked and true. I tried to argue with myself: maybe it is a clever piece of apologia for the increasingly notorious Shield Society activities we read about in the press. I then began translating.

It was not an apologia. Whilst Mishima’s photographic retrospective exhibition was still on, he invaded the HQ of the Self-Defence Army with his few trusted adjutants, harangued the stupefied soldiers from a balcony, but with police helicopters circling overhead his voice was drowned and the soldiers showed no sign of response. Mishima simply said, ‘Damn, I don’t think they could hear what I was saying,’ and sat down and disembowelled himself.

Newsweek, 17 June 1985, describes Mishima as ‘the homosexual, imperialistic Japanese writer who disembowelled himself in 1970 after trying to restore Emperor Hirohito to political power’. Such sweeping simplifications have irritated me for the last fifteen years and I am much too impetuous not to be tempted to ignore the Confucian advice and to lift the lid on a potentially dangerous stink.

When I was a child my father used to tell me stories about the famous warriors of the so-called Warring Era in the 16th century and one particular anecdote impressed me very much. Lord Oda, the great warlord about to seize the title of shogun, was cutting his toenails on his verandah. When he finished, one of his aides-de-camp said: ‘My Lord, you have left one toenail uncut.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I have counted only nine.’ The young samurai, Ranmaru Mori, showed Oda his cut-off toenails neatly lined up on the palm of his hand.

After this, said my father, Oda loved Ranmaru dearly and they died together not long afterwards when one of Oda’s generals revolted and set fire to the temple where Oda and his entourage were spending the night. ‘But why did Lord Oda love Ranmaru, why not a pretty lady?’ I must have asked, for I remember my father’s reply and he is a man of impeccable morality and character: ‘A woman would have asked him to stay at home and die on a sleeping mat and that would have been against his Way of Man.’

Given the ceaseless and gratuitous deaths, the violence and treachery of the era, Oda must have been so moved by the fierce interior tension he spied in Ranmaru, which could only spring from the youth’s savage devotion and loyalty to his lord. I can well understand why a ruthless tyrant like Oda came to love Ranmaru; and the male love here has nothing whatsoever to do with so-called ‘gay’, random homosexuality. Hagakure teaches that the ideal love is undeclared and that ‘true love attains its highest and noblest form when one carries its secret to the grave.’ On the extension of such love Mishima, for his part, situated worship of the emperor. Not of Hirohito or of Meiji. Mishima explained:

Everyone laughs at my emperor, but my emperor is a fantom, a vision and a means to rise above the all-devouring egoism and Western materialism. My loyalty for my emperor is an unrequited, suicidal, severe love, very much like a sort of terrorism. A big nuisance for the poor emperor, but then such is the noble, pure love.

All this may sound too much like esoteric mumbo-jumbo, sacred and erotic, grimly serious and yet a little ridiculous: but then such was the double-edged irony and beauty of Mishima.