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Monday, May 01, 2006

Blood and Flowers: Purity of Action in The Sea of Fertility

Posting this for Justin.

Blood and Flowers: Purity of Action in The Sea of Fertility

by Justin

Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
And our desires.
-Wallace Stevens, 'Sunday Morning'

This hot Japanese chick, cosplaying as Kasumi from Dead Or Alive, would have loved Yukio Mishima's Sea of Fertility tetralogyOn November 25, 1970, Hiraoka Kimitake, or the (three times nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature) novelist Yukio Mishima, as he was known to the public, seized control of the military base of the Japanese Self Defense Force in Ichigaya. Mishima, aided by the Shield Society, his private army, wished to read a speech he had prepared to those assembled, in which he would enjoin them to return Japan to its purest form. When they refused to listen, Mishima disemboweled himself.

Mishima's last work - rumored to be completed and handed in to his publisher on the very morning of his death - was a novel called The Decay of the Angel. This novel was not a standalone effort, but the final volume of a tetralogy known as The Sea of Fertility. Coming in at around 1400 pages in English translation, The Sea of Fertility is about - among other things - Japan in the 20th century. It covers a span of sixty years, taking in both World Wars, the American Occupation, and the beginning period of Japan's rapid economic growth. To give a (very) brief summation, the novels are concerned with the reincarnation of a spirit, a kind of angel, and the lawyer who acts as the spirit's friend, advocate, stalker, and finally father in the various stages of its existence, from a young man all the way to a Thai princess.

I will consider each novel in turn before giving some observations on the tetralogy as a whole.

Spring Snow

"His own heart seemed to him to be much like an arrow stripped of the flashing white feathers that gave it direction."

Spring Snow takes place in 1912, the dawn of the Taisho era. The Meiji age of heroism is over, and a new era - marked by increased Western influence and the decline of the power of the old aristocratic families - is beginning.
Spring Snow's protagonist, Kiyoaki Matsugae, was raised by the Ayakuras, one of the families of the old nobility. Kiyoaki is a bishounen before anyone had even imagined the term: an effete, listless, melancholy young man. Before long, he falls in love with Satoko Ayakura, and embarks on "a love affair that is as doomed as it was inevitable." (quoting the back cover here)

Also present is Kiyoaki's friend Shigekuni Honda, who is the real protagonist of The Sea of Fertility. Honda and Kiyoaki are foils, with Kiyoaki representing Dionysian abandon and Honda inhibited Apollonian reason. Throughout Spring Snow, Honda is forced to watch and sometimes intervene as Kiyoaki and Satoko's affair becomes increasingly dangerous when Satoko becomes engaged to an Imperial prince.

On the surface, Spring Snow would seem to be an almost painfully traditional study in star-crossed romance. Certainly there is the yearning, the clandestine meetings, even a Friar Laurence-like figure in Satoko's attendant Tadeshina.
But this is too simplistic. The key to understanding Spring Snow is that Kiyoaki is impelled to act only after the Imperial sanction for Satoko's marriage has been granted. He could have claimed her publicly before then, but refused out of stubbornness after Satoko angered him by accusing him of immaturity. Even before that, his initial interest in Satoko is spurred by his need to have a girl to show off to his friends, visiting Thai princes. Earlier on in the novel, having known her for his entire life, he regards her as unworthy of notice. But, after the weight of the Imperial sanction falls down, he realizes his love for her. He's more attracted to the concept of impossibility than he is to Satoko herself.

"...as long as conscious desire is at work, it will permit distinctions to exist. But if one can suppress it, these distinctions dissolve and one can be as content with a skull as with anything else."

Early in the book, Honda relates a Buddhist parable about a monk who falls asleep in a cemetery, awakens in the middle of a night, and reaches out for a drink. He decides that the water he has found is the coolest he has ever tasted. Then, in the morning, he discovers that his drinking vessel was a human skull. He immediately becomes sick, but realizes that his sickness is an illusion, as was his impression of freshness - both are distinctions created by the subjectivity of desire. Later on, almost at the very end of Spring Snow, Honda hears a Buddhist Abbess speak of the laws of cause and effect, and how time arises from "beings in existence annihilated from moment to moment." Both the story of the skull and the Abbess's lecture are oblique explanations of Kiyoaki's life: its burning passion, self-deception, and emphasis on youth and the moment.

Tifa cosplayer is pretty, no?"...don't you think that would be marvelous? To take your own ideal and bend the world to it like that. Wouldn't that be a remarkable force? It would be like holding the secret key to life right there in your hand, wouldn't it?"

Kiyoaki's passion is real, then, because he makes it real for himself. There's a kind of grave ambivalence present throughout the whole novel at this prospect. By the end, more beautiful than ever as he lays dying, Kiyoaki has become a kind of Buddhist magician: he consciously revolves his life around the fulcrum of Satoko, flowering ever more intensely the more distant she becomes. The only problem is when they are actually together. Kiyoaki's form of beauty is not well-suited to contented happiness.

"He thought that if the two of them were suddenly charred to ashes by a bolt of lightning, well and good. But what was he to do if no dreadful punishment fell from the skies and things remained as they were? It made him uneasy. "If that were the case," he wondered, "would I be able to go on loving Satoko just as passionately as I do now?"
"It seems that you don't much enjoy walking with me like this," she said in her usual clear and untroubled tones. "I am drinking in every passing moment of happiness, but...you seem to have had enough of it."
"It's just that I've come to love you too much. And happiness is something I've left far behind me," he answered gravely. Even as he uttered this rationalization, he realized that he need no longer worry about any trace of childishness in the way he spoke.

The irony in this passage is almost beyond comment. Through a kind of alchemy, Kiyoaki is able to transmute his life into beauty by dying for the Satoko he has made unattainable through his own actions and inaction.

"The symptoms of a man afflicted by true beauty are much like those of leprosy."

Mishima is doing something complex here. You could look at Kiyoaki as being a dilettante, whose exaggerated emotions are completely removed from reality, someone who persists in all decisions seemingly just to be contrary. Certainly at times he seems more like a Romantic archetype than an individual. You could also see him as embodying the idleness, indecision, and self-absorption of the Taisho-era "I-novels," contemporaneous with the setting of Spring Snow. But wait - there's the scene where Kiyoaki's grandmother, a remnant from Japan's proud military past, exhorts his affair with Satoko as a kind of throwback to the actions of the heroes of old, rather than as a symptom of entrenched spiritual decay.

Even a character like Count Ayakura, elegantly dissipated to the point of complete inaction in any situation, is described at an Imperial Poetry reading as discharging his obligation to the Emperor with supreme fidelity. Clearly, Mishima doesn't provide any one-sided portrayals.

"He could not help thinking that these words, like inscriptions cut into stone exposed to the weather, would fall from his mind, flake by flake."

The formation of the young Honda's character is, at times, unbearably painful. Unlike Kiyoaki, Honda is incapable of living passionately. His entire sensibility is shaped by clear, reasoned responses to events. All too aware that he has been excluded from this aspect of life, there is nothing for him to do but help Kiyoaki move towards his (self) fated end. In the meantime, he studies for his exams. Attending a court case to gain experience for a legal career, Honda empathizes with the defendant, a murderess, for her ability to open herself so completely in her confession.

"She imagined that the chill must be like the surface of the moon, directly exposed to the vastness of the universe."

As for Satoko, who eventually becomes a nun and is declared insane after an abortion and withdrawal from the imperial marriage, she pays the price of her unmediated love for Kiyoaki. Dying is the easy way out: Satoko must continue to live in austerity. In the final pages of the book, all that is left of her is a muffled cry, barely heard behind the wall. This is the real tragedy: understated, accepting, silent.

But Honda and Kiyoaki will meet again. Death is not the end...

"Just now I had a dream. I'll see you again. I know it. Beneath the falls."

Runaway Horses

"'Well and good. But let me ask you this: what do you wish for more than anything else?'
This time Isao was silent. When he spoke, though his voice stammered slightly, his words were bold: 'Before the sun...at the top of a cliff at sunrise, while paying reverence to the sun...while looking down upon the sparkling sea, beneath a tall, noble pine...to kill myself.'
'Hmm,' said the Lieutenant."

While Spring Snow addressed politics only obliquely, mostly through its setting and some mild caricatures, Runaway Horses absolutely plunges into the world of political fanaticism, replete with rhetoric, references to historical events, and incredibly in-depth terminology. Now we're getting to the heart of the matter.

It's 1932. Honda is older now, an established judge, and a man comfortably set in a rut. He is troubled only occasionally by memories of Kiyoaki, whose dream journal he keeps hidden under his desk. He's married to a quiet woman, Rie, who essentially acts as his housekeeper. The trajectory of the rest of his life seems set.

But then while presiding over a kendo meet, he happens to encounter Isao, the son of Kiyoaki's old tutor, Iinuma. A youth fiercely loyal to his personal notions of honor and purity, Isao is also a nascent fanatic.

Then something irrational happens, something that undermines the foundations of Honda's meticulously dispassionate world of reason. While purifying himself beneath a waterfall after the kendo meet, he happens to observe a group of three moles on Isao's body. The same moles, Honda remembers, were also present on Kiyoaki. And Honda remembers Kiyoaki's dying words: "I'll see you again. Beneath the falls..."

"And one clouded stream that never ran dry was that choked with the scum of humanism, the poison spewed out by the factory at its headwaters. There it was: its lights burning brilliantly as it worked even through the night - the factory of Western European ideals. The pollution from that factory degraded the exalted fervor to kill; it withered the green of the sakaki's leaves."

Inspired by a patriotic novel of Meiji-era heroism, "The League of the Divine Wind," Isao has begun to gather his friends together in order to do something about the poverty and corruption besetting Japan in the inter-war years. Isao is determined that the plan will end with both his enemies and himself dead...

"The League of the Divine Wind", Mishima's novel-within-a-novel, is a work of nationalistic fervor. It's significant that Mishima devotes nearly 100 pages of Runaway Horses to reproducing the full text of The League, which is a work full of suitably noble and incendiary actions, just the kind of thing that would stir the heart of a young man like Isao. It details the disastrous uprising and attempted coup against the military by a group of Meiji-era men devoted above all things to the Japan of old. Determining their actions through the Shinto rite of Ukei, said to reveal the will of the gods, the group initially meets with success in seizing military bases, but are eventually overcome and dispersed. Hunted by the police and the military, the members of the League decide upon mass suicide. In a virtuosic, sustained sequence lasting over ten pages, Mishima, writing as "Tsunanori Yamao", depicts the individual circumstances of each member's seppuku. The members range from middle-aged men slicing open their stomachs on mountain-tops at dawn to teenagers evading their parents, retreating to their rooms to slash their throats. One of the League's surviving members speculates that the gods gave their approval, knowing the venture would fail, in order to give the League the chance to conclude their lives with purity and fidelity. This notion that suicide is the only conceivable response when expressing one's loyalty comes to be the core of Isao's beliefs.

"The law is an accumulation of tireless attempts to block a man's desire to change life into an instant of poetry."

Honda - abandoning his judge position to defend Isao in court - himself analogizes the 'purity of motive' present in Isao and the men of the League with the purity of love that motivated Kiyoaki: he mentions how "just at the moment of death, I saw his face become the very face of one who had been born to die for love. All incongruity was wiped away at that moment." This fatal incongruity, the sense of not wholly being who one aspires to be, of lacking a fixed self, is what comes to the fore at their most paralyzing moments of introspection. For Isao and Kiyoaki, death is the only way to purify the complexities of their lives, the compromising circumstances and self-doubts which imperil their senses of love and honor.

"Since men are the offspring of the gods, however, if they preserve themselves from all polluting transgression and, upright, just, and pure of heart, worship in the ancient manner, they can put off the death and corruption of this world and ascend to heaven to become one with the gods."

The suggestions of reincarnation imply that Isao's life is another form of Kiyoaki's: whether or not Isao is literally Kiyoaki's spirit in another vessel or not seems to be beside the point, which is that their dilemma is, when rotated slightly, the same: how to act. For Kiyoaki, the question was how to transact, or rather, create a love affair with the most adverse possible conditions, perhaps subconsciously with a tragic end already envisioned and planned for. For Isao, it is how to preserve the purity of his motivation in the face of the complexities of the adult world.

"If men were pure of heart, if they revered the Emperor above all else, the Divine Wind would rise at once, just as in the time of the Mongol Invasion, and the barbarians would be swept away."

To this end, Isao and his comrades determine to seize power stations and assassinate the major heads of finance in Japan, a plan involving members of the military sympathetic to their cause. After the nation has been placed under martial law, Isao and his friends - the "Showa League of the Divine Wind" - will kill themselves. Remember that "Divine Wind," after all, translates to "kamikaze."

From a practical standpoint the League's plan is ludicrous: murdering individual businessmen won't stem the progress of capitalism in Japan, nor will it halt foreign influence. Isao and his friends make themselves into terrorists rather than samurai.

But for Isao, raising his sword against the evils of capitalism and foreign incursion is just a pretext for him to turn it on himself. In the same way that the "League of the Divine Wind" text devotes over ten pages to the self-slaughter of all its members, focusing minutely on the time, place, and conditions of each samurai's suicide, so the central action, for Isao, is not the assassination itself but what follows.

Isao's purity is inextricably linked to his immaturity, short-sightedness, and ignorance of the complexity present in both political conflict and human nature. If Runaway Horses is to be criticized for glorifying ultranationalism and murder, let it never be said that Mishima doesn't depict Isao realistically, shortcomings alongside strengths. That the final ten pages or so seem to be an embrace of the kind of violent course of action that Mishima himself would choose upon the last day of his life should be understood in the context of Iinuma's preceding monologue.

Imprisoned for a year after he and his comrades are arrested, Isao concludes that the notion of brotherhood inevitably implies betrayal, as the concentrated purity of the League's union will inevitably produce its antithesis: the "perfect black crystal" of betrayal. His resolve beset on all sides, there is seemingly no one Isao can rely on: not his hypocritical, treacherous father; weak, defeated mother; or his older lover Makiko: wounded, selfish, and all too willing to compromise Isao's ideals in order to keep him. Returning to his house after his internment, Isao is subjected to a long rebuke from his father, who, he discovers, was the one who turned him into the police. Although Iinuma shares his son's ideals, he resents the thought that his son would have accomplished something he never did. And Iinuma's 'Academy of Patriotism' is funded by Busuke Kurahara, the capitalist Isao has sworn to kill.

In his long speech, Iinuma tells Isao that he turned him in because the time wasn't right for action: that it was best for him to be arrested because the publicity will ensure the success of better-planned future attempts. Iinuma's words, while undercut with hypocrisy, have a certain logic.

But then Isao heads to Kurahara's house alone.

"Then, with a powerful thrust of his arm, he plunged the knife into his stomach. The instant that the blade tore open his flesh, the bright disk of the sun soared up and exploded behind his eyelids."

"An adult? I'd rather...yes! Maybe I ought to be reborn a woman. If I were a woman, I could live without chasing after illusions. Couldn't I, Mother?"

The Temple of Dawn

"I inherited only my body from Queen Sunantha. My heart came from Japan, so really I should leave my body here and only my heart should go back. But to do that I should have to die. So I'll just have to take my body along, like a child with her favorite doll. Do you understand, Mr. Honda? The pretty me you see is really only the doll I carry with me."

The Temple of Dawn, the penultimate volume of The Sea of Fertility, portrays the flow of time in greater depth than its predecessors. Set in 1940, 1945, and 1952, the novel picks up Honda's story on the cusp of World War II, the verge of Japan's defeat, and the ensuing Occupation period.

In the first section, Honda - who feels that his intervention in Isao's life "had led to naught, and he had experienced only a shattering failure that had born home to him the total futility of altruism." - visits Thailand on business, and is eager to reacquaint himself with the Thai princes he first met, nearly thirty years before, in Spring Snow. Although this doesn't happen, Honda is granted an audience with one of the princes' daughters, Ying-Chan, the insane "Princess Moonlight," who, at their first meeting, confesses she is the reincarnation of Isao, and begs Honda to take her back to Japan. This jarring opening sets the tone for a novel of surprise and confounded expectations.

"Honda knew immediately what the child was looking at: she was seeing simultaneously time and space. That is to say, the area beneath the squall belonged to some future or past undetectable by the human eye. To be beneath a clear blue sky and to perceive so clearly a world of rain meant that different time periods and different spaces coexisted. The rain cloud permitted a glimpse of the gap between separate times, and the vast distance involved testified to the hiatus between the two spaces. The Princess was staring into the deep chasm of the universe."

The Temple of Dawn is the point when Honda is revealed more clearly as the tetralogy's protagonist alongside the reincarnated spirit of Kiyoaki. While Kiyoaki and Isao were developed as three dimensional characters in their own right, it's significant that Ying Chan, the new reincarnation, is not given any interior monologues or even scenes by herself; the narration remains firmly lodged within Honda's consciousness for the entire novel. Honda, who has been accomplice and confessor, witness and advocate, is confronted with, in Ying-Chan, a reminder of his advancing age. And yet Honda, who has never known any form of passion, is to find himself on the verge of love.

"All ideas, all gods were jointly turning the handle of the gigantic wheel of samsara. The great disk like a spiral nebula was slowly turning, carrying masses of people who, unaware of the effects of samsara, were simply happy, angry, sad, or joyful, quite like those who lived their daily lives totally unaware of the rotation of the earth. It was like a ferris wheel at night all decorated with lights in the amusement park of the gods."

Departing Thailand for India, Honda undertakes a pilgrimage. Confronted with the filth and holiness of Benares, he realizes the inherent joy of the process of rebirth.

While passing through a series of holy caves, Honda senses a presence that seems to have just departed, and then finds himself facing a waterfall again, in an echo of the scene from Runaway Horses where Honda meets Isao for the first time. Beneath this final waterfall, Honda remembers Kiyoaki's dying words, and for a moment, past and present are bridged; all time is manifested in a single instant.

Honda's research into esoteric Buddhism is taken up again during the war years. Here, in a didactic section lasting some thirty pages, Honda eventually realizes the meaning of the Yuishiki doctrine that the Abbess of Gesshu began to unfold to him before Kiyoaki's death - the understanding that the world is destroyed and recreated each moment, slivers of eternity strung together with the seeds of karma, the consciousness creating existence. It's certainly interesting to read Mishima's thoughts on, among other things, Hindu deities, Greek Mystery religions, and Giambattista Vico; but this section seems to be trying too hard to rationalize Kiyoaki's transmigration. While Honda is adept at applying his legal mind to abstruse theology, piecing together an epiphany from poems, texts, and doctrines, his final revelation has a curiously hollow ring. Even the poignant scene in which Honda visits the ruins of the Matsugae mansion and encounters Tadeshina (the aged, duplicitous matron who arranged the clandestine meetings between Kiyoaki and Satoko) cannot erase the feeling of a man clutching at straws.

It should be remembered that, at the same time Honda is poring over his texts, Japan is in the process of losing the Second World War. Honda's reductio ad absurdum cry of "But the world must exist!" is the sound of a man desperate to hold onto something, anything. That the entire edifice is unconvincing is no surprise; for immediately after establishing this vision of cosmic certitude, Mishima eagerly undercuts it, as if mocking Honda's desire to be at peace with the world.

"He was forty-six, Honda mused. Nothing of youth, power, or pure passion remained in either his physical or spiritual being. He would have to prepare for death, perhaps in another ten years. More than likely he would not die in the war."

The second half of The Temple of Dawn picks the narrative up ten years later, in 1952. Honda is, by this time, a rich man, with his own villa near Mt. Fuji, and even a swimming pool. Now retired, his life consists of poring over his books in solitude, and attending high-class society parties. It is through this milieu that Ying-Chan - now a beautiful young woman - enters Honda's life again.

But Honda has changed, has become a voyeur. When facing Ying-Chan again, for the first time in his life, Honda feels something of love, something of passion. Sitting on piles of useless money, his social status gone, Honda, once a prominent judge, is reduced to a pathetic peeping tom crouching in park bushes and straining at a crack in the wall for a glimpse of the nude Thai princess.

"'I wish I could die soon.' said Imanishi sentimentally as they sat drinking sake together.
'So do I,' agreed Mrs. Tsubakihara."

This Chi cosplayer probably loves Mishima tooHonda's new neighbor is the the imposing Keiko Hisamatsu, who fraternizes with American soldiers and is only too willing to take part in Honda's plans, offering her nephew Katsumi as a pawn to deflower Ying Chan. But are Keiko's intentions as transparent as they seem? Then there's Imanishi, the dissolute leftist intellectual and would-be novelist, whose "Millennium of Sex" proposes a hypothetical future society, a riff on Brave New World, where civilization has bifurcated through incest into the deformed and the beautiful. The former are "those who remember," worshippers of the latter, the beautiful, who are trained only to improve the condition of their bodies. At least, that is, until the point of their greatest beauty, when they are ritually murdered and eaten by those who remember, the deformed inhabitants who spend the rest of their time strolling through a graveyard filled with beautiful statues of their victims. "A factory for making gods," Imanishi calls this 'Garden of Loved Ones'. Similarly, in The Temple of Dawn, the cast of middle-aged voyeurs and self-styled artists exploits the purity and beauty of their youthful charges, in the very fulfilment of Imanishi's 'Land of the Pomegranate' where young people are literally cannibalized by deformed, sentimental monsters.

As for Honda, he is, simply, searching for meaning. His entire life has been marked by the conflict between his innate rationalism and the mystery of his friend's transmigration. The research into Buddhism, the pilgrimage to India, and the obsession with Ying Chan are all attempts to apprehend or invent some new perspective, one which will allow him to accept the reality of things beyond sensory, empirical understanding.

But at what point does the ever-aging Honda's obsession with Kiyoaki's youth, beauty, and purity degenerate into fetishism, particularly when Kiyoaki, as here, is recast as a beautiful young woman? The Temple of Dawn contains expressions of supreme perversity, and it's a reflection of Mishima's skill that the narration, seemingly so stately and objective throughout the entire Tetralogy, is able to pose questions such as this, questions that would have seemed out of place in Spring Snow. Mishima shows and tells equally, but, as the tetralogy progresses, he reveals more and more the contents of his mind, drawing the reader deeper and deeper into less and less accessible caverns of fear and sadness, nostalgia and need.

It's not just Honda who feels the brunt of time. Mishima tightens the screws on all his characters, weighing them down with accumulated desires and resentments. Rie, Honda's bored, hypochondriac wife, sees his infatuation with Ying-Chan not as a singular outrage, but as the culmination of a marriage of lovelessness and neglect. Prince Toin, the former military leader and Imperial Prince who was engaged to Satoko, has been forced to open an antique shop to survive the postwar years, selling the trappings of his past. And Isao's lover Makiko, whose possessive selfishness was only hinted at in Runaway Horses, stands revealed here as an amoral puppet-master. Now a famous poetess, Makiko hasn't been shy about profiting from her connection to Isao's infamous death. Forcing her protege, Mrs. Tsubakihara, into sex with Imanishi, Makiko is another foil for Honda: while they are both manipulative voyeurs, Makiko, even in middle-age, is still cold, cruel, and beautiful: at least half the goddess Mrs. Tsubakihara thinks her to be. Honda, on the other hand, is comical even to himself.

Taken on its own, The Temple of Dawn's excessive exposition, unusual structure, jarring time jumps and acid portrayals of its defeated characters would seem to make for an inaccessible novel, but within the greater framework of The Sea of Fertility, its developments make sense. This is a novel in which the beauty and nobility of Spring Snow seem caught in a funhouse mirror, distorted into ugliness and selfishness. Honda, who early on pronounced himself a secondary character in his own life, finally has the spotlight cast on his innermost needs, fears, and desires, and who is to say the results aren't more interesting than the occasionally bland Kiyoaki?

There is no heroism (when, at one point, an important building burns down, no one rushes in to look for those still inside), no overtly sympathetic characters (even Ying-Chan isn't so much innocent as oblivious), and much lust, resentment, and disappointment.

In short, The Temple of Dawn is, as Mishima would have it, the novel of those who lived past the age of twenty.

"Only through this time-consuming process is the presence of the god really proved, is beauty attained for the first time, and is sexual desire distilled into love that is independent of possession. Hence, gods and humans are not separated in space, but there is a time lag between them. Here lies the essence of temporal polytheism. Do you understand?"

The Decay of the Angel

"We are too accustomed to the absurdity of existence. The loss of a universe is not worth taking seriously."

The final part of the tetralogy, The Decay of the Angel, is a gelid, poisonous novel. There's a funereal air to Mishima's prose, with countless suggestions of exhaustion and disintegration. Moreso even than The Temple of Dawn, this is a novel of old age and death. And its conclusions about human nature are yet more cynical.

"The ugliest of machines, very youthful, very exaggerated, romantic, self-advertising."

Ah, this Kasumi cosplayer is so adorable, yeah?Toru Yasunaga is young, brilliant, beatiful, and heartless, a sixteen year old "who was quite certain that he did not belong to this world." Toru is an orphan who, at 16, works as a signalman, watching ships enter a harbor. Living in a small room, Toru opens the novel with no needs or desires, only an unshakeable sense of his own difference, a sense that he is not, in fact, human, only "a hydrogen bomb equipped with consciousness." His only intimation of destiny comes when he is visited by an old man who seems, just at a glance, to understand him completely.

"Honda was much too old to have solemn thoughts about the nature of human life. He was at an age when he could justify malicious games. Whatever the malice, death was near, to make amends. He was at an age when youth was a plaything, humanity a collection of clay dolls, an age when, putting ceremony to his own uses, he could turn honesty and sincerity into the play of the evening sky."

Honda begins the novel aged 76, "old and stained with sin." His wife is dead, his sole companion is Keiko. Chancing upon Toru on a trip, he is struck by the three moles under the youth's arm - moles in the same place as those belonging to Ying-Chan, and Isao and Kiyoaki before her. Certain he has found the next reincarnation, Honda adopts Toru as his heir, determined to educate him in a way that will prevent him from having to die at age twenty, like his predecessors. But even at their first meeting, Honda recognizes in Toru his own form of evil: self-awareness. Can Toru really dispel Honda's belief that angels, to be beautiful, must also be unknowing?

Honda's program of educating Toru, his attempts to inculcate conformity and awareness, ends up empowering Toru beyond Honda's ability to control. Before long Toru is hitting Honda on the head with a poker and forcing his maids into sex. His first thought when he sees a picture of Momoko, a possible marriage candidate, is "The wait has been worth it. Here is someone worth injuring." The struggle for control escalates as Toru approaches his twentieth birthday, and Honda enters his eighties. The narrative here is honed to a knife-point, with no subplots and few secondary characters. It consists of little more than a mental duel between Honda and Toru.

"Perhaps I was dreaming of another world. I felt as if a moment containing death had brushed past the two of us, high-school students in pale sweaters on a bridge. The sexual fullness of love suicide crossed my heart. I am not one to call for help, but if help were to come, I thought, it would come only with the end of consciousness. There would be joy in the rotting of consciousness there in the evening light."

As Toru's courtship with Momoko progresses, he becomes obsessed with spiritually wounding her. As his plan - involving an older woman and a forged letter - progresses, Toru's diary comes to replace the narrative. In this section, Mishima has created a painfully accurate view of the kind of ubermensch self-delusion engaged in by solipsistic, intellectual teenagers, complete with unintentional hyperbole and pained calculation. Toru makes statements like "No rain has fallen to give me existence within the world" and "Probably at the end of unbearable pain I shall seek to become a god." while his cruelty to Momoko only increases. Despite this section's abundance of cliched sentiments, there are still passages of startling beauty that reveal Mishima's mastery of subtle description

"There were autumn cicadas in the evening groves, and the roar of the subway came through the calls of the birds. A yellow leaf dangled from a spiderweb on a branch far out over the swamp, catching a divine light each time it revolved. It was as if a tiny revolving door were floating in the heavens. We gazed at it in silence. I was asking what world would be opening beyond the dark gold each time it turned. Perhaps, as it revolved in the busy wind, it would give me a glimpse of the bustle in a miniature street beyond, shining through some tiny city in the air."

These moments come like oases in a desert of sadism. As in The Temple of Dawn, everyone here is at once a monster and only all too human. The only characters even close to innocence are portrayed as unsympathetic victims: Momoko's confidence in her family and her love is seen in the same light as Toru's psychotic friend Kinue's delusional sense of her own beauty. The betrayals and implacable cruelty are portrayed with complete detachment. Consider the sad and absurd scene in which the 80-year-old Honda manages to make it back to the same public park where he used to spy on young couples having sex. Honda encounters one of his old "peeping partners" and succeeds in finding a trysting couple, but here, as everywhere else in the tetralogy, little is as it seems: the man they watch turns out to be an old man himself, and springs a knife on the girl, stabbing her in the leg before running off. Honda, too slow and weak to escape, is first accused of the crime, then has his voyeurism turned into tabloid fodder. Written a certain way, this could be broad comedy, but Mishima keeps everything under precise control. Nor does the prose play up the absurdity of what happens: in Mishima's hands, the scene unfolds at a slow, resigned pace.

The depredations of the post-war period aren't overlooked either: the text is littered with numerous dismissive references to factory goods and Coca-Cola cans, often littering the beaches of Japan. As for the "real Japan," its "intensely native elements" have become caricatured even to the Japanese characters themselves, and Honda feels disgust as Keiko develops a superficial interest in traditional dress and visiting shrines.

And of course, the recurring theme of suicide is taken up: Honda rhapsodizes over those able to "cut the thread short" and kill themselves at the pinnacle of their youthful beauty, while Toru's language tutor Furusawa - whom the evil orphan later has dismissed - tells him a parable about a mouse that dreams of being a cat and commits suicide by jumping into a bowl of suds to make itself unappetizing to real cats, dying to "establish itself." The insane and delusional are seen as having the only real freedom: Honda is even pleased at the notion that Kinue and Toru's child - and, legally, Honda's grandchild - will likely inherit its mother's insanity, which is at least something other than the reason that choked Honda's life.

As for Toru, everything comes to a head when he is invited to dinner with Honda's old friend, Keiko. The earthy Keiko seems half angel herself, but if so, she is an angel of death: in The Temple of Dawn she destroyed any hope of Honda realizing his passion for Ying-Chan, and here, too she plays the destroyer, although, in her climactic scene with Toru, she speaks with a stern moral authority. This is one of the great scenes of the tetralogy, a vision of cynical old age destroying the conceits of youth. Mishima demonstrates - perhaps even better than Crime and Punishment - how a sociopathic personality can be undone not by fear and guilt, but by its own sense of self-importance. In a strange way, Keiko is Honda's conscience, reminding him of truths he can't bear to face, performing right actions he himself is incapable of.

"Probably he would make his visit as he was about to die. Satoko had been a person whom Kiyoaki must meet at the risk of his life; and a young and beautiful Kiyoaki calling out still to Honda forbade a meeting unless Honda, witness to the cruel impossibility, gambled his own life. He could meet her if he met death too."

And then, it's over. Honda sets out one last time to see Kiyoaki's love Satoko, still alive, now the Abbess of Gesshu. In this scene, which is the heart of the novel, and indeed, of the tetralogy itself, the reader seems to have stepped back into the pages of Spring Snow, back to the Temple of Gesshu, where we last saw Satoko. Now, Honda undertakes the same pilgrimage Kiyoaki did some sixty years before.

This is what readers of the tetralogy have been waiting for. Mishima feinted in this direction in The Temple of Dawn, where, during his meeting with Tadeshina, Honda considered a visit to the "still beautiful" Satoko. What will be the resolution to the mystery of Kiyoaki's transmigration?

In this final pages of this novel, Mishima does something completely unprecedented. It's not my place to say what, but it does nothing less than invert the preceding 1400 pages of the tetralogy. It's tempting to view such a move as a mere gimmick, and I have to confess that I felt a kind of anger as Mishima shattered everything I'd come to believe about these characters. Mishima's statements about "cosmic nihilism" could do nothing to prepare me for the ending of The Decay of the Angel, and it's possible to envision readers who fell in love with the characters of Spring Snow throwing this book across the room.

That said, the ending, when viewed carefully, is not a cop-out, not a gimmick. It is completely believable, which only makes it the more devestating. Readers expecting a sturm und drang ending, or else one filled with reconciliations and revelations, won't see this coming. Honda, who has spent so much of his life analyzing Buddhism through words, finally experiences it. There is "cosmic nihilism," to be sure, but - as Honda should know from his texts - the world is recreated in the same moment it is destroyed. That this ending, with its stark power and beauty, comes at the end of a novel of bitterness, cruelty and disappointment only makes it the more affecting.

And Satoko, who seemed on the verge of destruction in her last appearance, is given the last word.

"That too is as it is in each heart."


"Was there any way to live honestly with Japan other than by rejecting everything, than by rejecting present-day Japan and the Japanese people? Was there no other way of living than this most difficult one, in which ultimately one murdered and then committed suicide?"
-The Temple of Dawn

I'm not going to say anything as ridiculous as that reading The Sea of Fertility made me understand Mishima's motives for the last day of his life. However, I'll just say that I believe the motivation lies less with notions of 'traditional Japan' than it does with an eccentric, highly personal view of the nature of right action. These novels examine the basis for action in numerous forms, through romance, through political resistance, through Buddhist philosophy, and through social manipulation, and seem to conclude that purity of action is what you make it: physically ugly characters like Kinue in The Decay of the Angel make themselves into paragons of beauty through sheer effort of will; and the seeming incongruity between the effete sensualist, Kiyoaki, and the austere fanatic, Isao, is resolved when it is seen that both construct their own ideal, defend it from the pressures of reality, and eventually give their life for it.

Is it possible to kill yourself ironically? Does losing your life through decisive action confirm the purity of your motives, negating the troublesome fog of affectation that permeates most ideals? I believe Mishima would have liked to think so. The truth is this: he was getting old. Mishima was fanatically obsessed with youth, with the body, and physically trained himself to peak condition. The Sea of Fertility mirrors the obsession with the impossible, with the ever-retreating light of youth and beauty. Even Honda loves Ying-Chan not so much for herself as for what she represents to him.

But no matter how much you work your muscles, they will, over time, begin to sag. So why not "cut the thread short" before the encroaching degradations of old age? Everyone that cannot do this, that chooses to live, is either a voyeur - the path of "self-awareness" - or a fool. If you're still alive you're a liar. Anyone over 20 is shown to be an inhibited, depraved hypocrite, or else a pawn of the former. The only saints are the dead and the insane.

The theme of these novels is far from the simplistic "Through Western influence and occupation, Japan has lost its past greatness and idealistic strength." In fact, the political content of the novels is mostly a screen for Mishima's personal issues. To the extent that notions of an irretrievable past do figure in the tetralogy, it is only in romances like The League of the Divine Wind, and even there, the elements of traditional culture are heavily subordinated to a fantasy of beautiful mass suicide. Mishima is perceptive enough to realize that his romanticizations are just that. He recognizes that mourning the loss of the pure Japan is tending the flames of a fantasy, but neither can he live with the modern period's complete debasements. It would be simplistic and heavy-handed to conflate the spirit of Kiyoaki with the spirit of Japan itself, but it might be said that both seem, to Honda and Mishima alike, to be ever more beautiful in the light of memory, and ever more decayed in the present day. Commentators who fixate on kendo and seppuku are missing the point.

From a technical standpoint, The Sea of Fertility's writing is masterly. There are a few needless digressions - the Buddhist history and terminology is the one element which just doesn't work, and seems awkwardly grafted on rather than integrated in any real way (you can see what Mishima was driving at with the 'Laws of Manu', but it's far too heavy-handed and discursive), but everything else flows. All four novels are filled with memorable, striking images. Spring Snow, in particular, is absolutely bursting with poetry.

Mishima also has the ability to end novels in a fashion where the reader feels as if they've just been punched in the face. Although his style is frequently digressive and explanatory, when it comes to endings, he never lingers, never prattles, and often finishes squarely on a moment of sustained intensity - maximum climax, little denouement. His narrative strategy is usually to follow troubling developments with a "calm before the storm" period in which it seems the main line of action has been resolved, only to immediately explode with a sudden action or unpredicted revelation.

Think how unbelievably well Mishima's range is demonstrated in, for example, Honda's letter to Isao in Runaway Horses, in which, over the course of several pages, Honda details a mature, reasoned response to the fanaticism of The League of the Divine Wind. He points out that the League wasn't the only group at the time trying to bend Japan to its beliefs, making mention of the Christians and other fringe elements whose similar passion Isao seems unmoved by. Then, Mishima immediately switches the narrative viewpoint to that of Isao, who interprets the letter as the cowardice of an old man unacquainted with either action or life. Think how deftly Mishima is able to instantly shift to Isao's reception of the letter and make each party seem believable and persuasive. Superb control. That the same man who wrote this scene, who could understand both characters' mindsets so perfectly, eventually decided to follow his young protagonist into political revolt and suicide, says a lot about Mishima's capacity for "self-awareness" - the very quality Honda despises in himself.

Think about it: if you're serious enough to die for, ostensibly, the ideal of Japan - well, you're not kidding, are you? No one can accuse you of pretense (although there's always Kenzaburo Oe's remark that Mishima's suicide was "a means of entertaining foreign readers."). It's unlikely that Mishima felt his siege could really alter the course of the nation - even his speech mentions returning Japan to its ideal and "dying in the process." Clearly, this was a suicide mission from the start.
Thus, in the same way Spring Snow manages to be both a sweeping romance in the classical sense and an ingeniously subtle querying of the purity of such romances, so Mishima's suicide is an attempt to cut away distance and self-awareness, to merge with the immediate.

He could have won the Nobel Prize if he hadn't done it. But which is really more worthwhile: fleeting recognition from a bunch of Swedish senecescents, or the achievement of complete unity between life and art, word and deed? Mishima was the Japanese Don Quixote, a man who stepped into his own illusion with eyes wide open.

But even if you've heard of him, the chances are The Sea of Fertility was mentioned only in passing - as the book Mishima was working on before he died, for example. Or else, only Spring Snow was mentioned in any depth. When the literary masters of the twentieth century and their respective masterworks are discussed, Mishima's name is usually absent. Although only reading the books will truly convey it, I hope this essay has helped express what I believe: that The Sea of Fertility is one of the most underrated, criminally underknown works of the twentieth century. This isn't just "Japanese Literature" (whatever that is), it's on par with any of the great Modernist works from anywhere else. The reviews mention the Sea's Proustian scale, but it isn't simply the length that evokes Proust, it's the depth of character insight, the concern with the passage of time and recaptured moments.

The Sea of Fertility is also a master key to Mishima's other work. From malevolent, almost Nietzschean children (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea) to forbidden young love (The Sound of Waves), oppressively beautiful temples and intensely introspective young men drawn towards evil (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion), a concern with homosexuality and bisexuality (Confessions of a Mask, Forbidden Colors) and, of course, ritual suicide as an act of supreme beauty and fidelity (Patriotism) - all of the motifs of Mishima's novels are reprised here and shot up in technicolour. It's no wonder he felt exhausted after finishing. With Mishima, unlike other writers who died young, there's no sense of "what could have been;" his ouevre was decisively finished.

And, after the ending of The Decay of the Angel, what really is there left to write?

But, I don't see it on anyone's list of the top 100 books of the 20th century, or even of all time. Why has Mishima been neglected? It's not for lack of interest - his life story and spectacular end completely eclipse the lives of even the most colorful of his European and American contemporaries (Hemingway seems quaint in comparison). Is it because the Buddhism turns people off? (I get the sense that a work with a basis in Christian symbolism would be embraced a lot more readily) In its concern with terrorism and religious fanaticism, it even takes on topical relevance. There's something here for everyone, and while it's tough going at times, that never turned anyone off trendier avant-garde works before. Perhaps it's the four-book structure: some readers might not realize that Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel are, in effect, a single novel (maybe a compendium edition would help).

Which leads to...

Should You Just Read Spring Snow?

As of October 2005, Spring Snow has been made into a movie. Not having seen it yet, I can't comment, but I feel that out of all the volumes, Spring Snow is by far the most accessible. In fact, many readers might not make it very far into Runaway Horses before giving up, finding it too different from what came before. I believe that The Sea of Fertility is far greater than just the sum of its parts, but it's up to the individual reader whether they'll go on or not.

While I have no doubt that Spring Snow will make a successful film, I very much doubt that the entire tetralogy will be filmed. Not that it's unfilmable by any any stretch of the imagination (although Mishima depends for much of his effect on dense internal monologues and moments of realization that can feel contrived when visualized with concrete images); indeed, there is much great scenery (the Japanese countrside, the cities), much sumptuously described clothing, the backdrops of both World Wars, murder, romance, satire, sex, suicide, and scandal. One word: epic. It's a shame David Lean (or Akira Kurosawa) never got his hands on this material. Now that film series are an established artform rather than just a minefield of cash-in sequels, it's conceivable that, given the right personnel, The Sea of Fertility could be made into some of the best films ever.

But it still probably won't happen.


Simply put, it's too dark. When going for the box office, there is a certain priority given to going for the widest possible appeal. And this tends to dictate against material that is too dark or troubling.

This babe is a cutie.The ending to The Sea of Fertility can't exactly be called unhappy, but it's not what most would think of as a conventional happy ending, either. The tone Mishima summons in the final pages is difficult to describe, much less bring to the screen, but those expecting Kiyoaki and Satoko to be somehow reunited would be in for a let down.

Also, something like Runaway Horses is, despite its emphasis on character, far too political. It's difficult to imagine many people lauding a film in which the Japanese ultranationalist protagonist triumphantly commits suicide after murdering a man he identifies with capitalism and the West.

If you continue reading The Sea of Fertility, Mishima will take you to darker places than are hinted at in Spring Snow. You will come to view the Spring Snow characters in a different light, but this is as Mishima intended, although it might seem frustrating. The final design is immensely more satisfying and awe-inspiring, but, simply put, Spring Snow can pass as a stand-alone novel even though the final page implicitly portends a sequel.

I'm not saying that a superficial reading of Spring Snow alone couldn't be an enjoyable reading experience, but when The Sea of Fertility is allowed to unfold, so many of that novel's details and minor characters come to to the fore in unexpected ways. Not reading the entire tetralogy means that moments like the startling shock of recognition in Runaway Horses when the reader realizes that Isao's pheasant hunt has come to exactly mirror one of Kiyoaki's dreams in Spring Snow would be lost. Spring Snow itself is smarter than a conventional romance novel, and there are hints and subtexts that suggest all is not what it seems, or at least there are deeper layers of deception and rationalization underlying the characters' motivations. But, again: it's more accessible than what follows.

It's your choice. Do you want a diversion through one of the greatest romances of the twentieth century...or all that, and one of the greatest examinations of the human dilemma in this or any century? Take your pick.