Andrew Starner on Yukio Mishima
Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend.
By Christopher Ross. Da Capo. 262 pp. $26
The declaration last year by Japan’s new prime minister that he intends to rewrite his country’s constitution, which renounces war, came too late for Yukio Mishima. The world-famous writer resented the pacifism imposed on his country after World War II and wanted Japan to turn aside from what he saw as its drift into Western decadence. In the end, he sacrificed his life for the cause. On November 25, 1970, after a botched attack on a Japanese defense base, he committed seppuku—ritual suicide with a sword.
In the eyes of many, Yukio Mishima (the pseudonym adopted by Kimitake Hiraoka, b. 1925) was a right-wing fanatic and a national embarrassment. But he was also a phenomenally talented and prolific writer, three times nominated for the Nobel Prize, whose novels and plays still fascinate Western audiences. The very day he committed suicide, Mishima mailed his publisher the final pages of the fourth book in his epic tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, a work of historical fiction that blends the brutal drive for self-destruction with the beauty of reincarnation.
The history that has intervened since Mishima’s death makes him ripe for a re-evaluation, but such is not the project of Christopher Ross, an adventurer whose previous book narrated his experience working as a London tube station assistant. Instead, he has written an entertaining mash-up of a biography that blends elements of travelogue, memoir, and martial arts manual, illuminating some of the mysteries of Yukio Mishima, Japan, and, of course, Christopher Ross.
Mishima admired the traditional values he saw embodied in the samurai, who disappeared along with Japan’s feudal system, and he strove to imitate these warriors. But if Mishima styled himself a samurai, he was a strange one: a sickly and effete child who eventually developed a well-muscled physique, a preening celebrity who courted the spotlight, a homosexual who lived with a wife and children. Above all, he desired to become famous and to die heroically.
His death—whether heroic or not—is what inspired Ross’s search for Mishima’s legacy. But though Ross comes across as clever and worldly, he lacks the requisite nihilism. And he can’t keep from inserting himself into Mishima’s story, as when he disrobes and descends into a torture chamber to meet someone whom he believes to have been one of Mishima’s lovers. (He discovers that the man had instead been conscripted to witness Mishima pretend to commit ritual suicide, a variety of role-playing Mishima found immensely arousing.)
Because Ross is such a charming rogue, we don’t mind that he never decides if the book is about Mishima or himself. Or that he can’t refrain from digressions into the comically obscure—metallurgical arcana, say, or the ways a human body can be dismembered. The book gains traction when Ross focuses on his search for the antique sword that Mishima used to kill himself.
At last, a mysterious phone call reveals its whereabouts. But succeeding in his quest leaves Ross cold. When he sees the sword, he writes, “I am no longer thinking of death.” And this is where he and Mishima part ways. For a short time, however, Ross grew very close to his protagonist. We know because he tells us that while he was writing this book, he was stricken with severe pains in his abdomen, pains he eventually realized were the pangs of a phantom seppuku.