The Samurai Writer: The Absurdly Intense Life and Death of Yukio Mishima

MishimaYukio Mishima is an author so intense that he makes Dostoevsky look like a clown. Maybe that’s taking it too far, but not by much. And as powerful as Dostoevsky’s novels certainly are, there is something so visceral, so violent about Mishima’s style that all his works exude a muscular quality I have yet to find in another author.

As for Mishima’s life, well, considering he died in the process of trying to overthrow the Japanese government, you can see why most authors seem so tame in comparison.

Before going into his infamous death – which in Japan is known as the “Mishima Incident” – it’s important to appreciate just how talented and unique Mishima was. In contrast to the more serene, contemplative works of other Japanese authors like Natsume Soseki or Yasunari Kawabata, Mishima’s stories are bursting with physical details. You can practically smell the sweat and feel the coarse fleshof his characters, while the more introspective parts are less peaceful meditations than dark interrogations. Combined with the often violent thoughts and actions of his characters, the result is a body of work that is not only unique in Japanese literature, but world literature.

That body of work, incidentally, was comprised of far more than novels. Mishima was a poet, playwright (skilled in the Japanese Noh theatre tradition), and essayist. He also wrote a libretto  and screenplays and acted in films, even co-directing at least one. However, what I want to focus on is the most unusual part of his resume – commander of a private militia.

On November 25, 1970, when he was only 45 and had literally just completed his masterpiece, The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, Mishima and four members of the army he’d personally trained, Tatenokai (Shield Society), stormed the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Japan Self-Defense Forces at Ichigaya Camp. The commandant was tied up and Mishima went out onto the balcony to give a dramatic speech he thought would inspire the people to rise up to demand power be restored to the emperor (for context, Mishima hated Emperor Hirohito for renouncing his claim to divinity after the end of World War II). Unfortunately, the only thing Mishima inspired was laughter. People thought the whole thing was ridiculous, and Mishima went back inside and did the only logical thing he could – he committed seppuku and then his soldiers performed the “kaishakunin duty” In other words, Mishima gutted himself with a sword and then had his head cut off.

This grisly death was perfectly in keeping with the grisly tone of his work. In fact, his works are highly autobiographical, constantly drawing on his at-the-time extremely controversial homosexuality and his obsession with noble, unsurprisingly violent, deaths. Now, I could say a lot more about the sexual elements of his novels and how his seemingly violent philosophy is arguably more idealistic than sadistic, but 1) this blog post is already almost too long and 2) I’m in the process of writing an essay about those very topics, with a focus on love and relationships in his novels and short stories, that I hope will be my third publication on The Millions. So for now, I’ll close by saying that I hope this bizarre story encourages you to check out Mishima at the very least, because reading him is a jarring experience that can only be compared with reading Dostoevsky. And if you know how I feel about Dostoevsky, you know that’s about as high a compliment I can give an author.

So go read him (start with Confessions of a Mask). Now.

(By the way, The Sea of Fertility is a reference to the Mare Fecunditatis, an actual location on the Moon.)

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