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Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Short Fiction of Yukio Mishima

Mishima is a writer associated with scale and grand gestures. Apart from his colorful life and the obviously theatrical nature of his public suicide, his novels are full of, to put it bluntly, action - in a 'literary fiction' genre often filled with tepid introspection and obsessive minimalism, that Mishima's books are full of swordfighting, arson, suicide, and desperate tragedy is definitely part of his appeal. Although his writing is capable of great subtlety, restraint, and delicate beauty, these qualities usually form one half of a chiaroscuric contrast, shadowing the dense psychological monologues and eruptions of violence.

So, the very concept of a Mishima short story might seem like a misnomer. Forced to work on a vastly reduced canvas, questions arise like: will his restrained side dominate completely; will he conform to the Chekhovian story-template and produce quiet, highlighted moments and inconclusive endings? Or will he attempt to jam all the violence and horror, beauty and pathos of his novels into compact story-bursts, producing short pieces of constrained intensity? Judging from the two collections Acts of Worship and Death in Midsummer and Other Stories, the answer is something like "both, and neither."

Compiled from all over Mishima's career and with various translators, these collections are intended to give an overview of what Mishima was capable of. The problem is that, while there are some great pieces, neither collection quite feels right. Mishima can pull off the controlled intensity I mentioned, but he undeniably works better in larger formats: the best stories in both these collections are roughly novella-length, and the shorter a piece is, the more likely it is to be a trifle or bit of amusing artifice. You can also forgive him more in a novel - if his style sometimes slips, if the characters don't always connect, if his authorial presence gets a bit much, it's no big deal because there's sure to be tons of great material just a few pages on. But short stories are less forgiving: in a smaller space, flaws become more apparent.

Acts of Worship starts off strong, with the opening to 'Fountains in the Rain.' Here's the first paragraph:

The boy was tired of walking in the rain dragging the girl, heavy as a sandbag and weeping continually, around with him. A short while ago, in a tea shop in the Marunouchi Building, he had told her he was leaving her.
The first time in his life that he'd broken with a woman!
It was something he had long dreamed of; it had at last become a reality. It was for this alone that he had loved her, or pretended to love her; for this alone he had assiduously undermined her defenses; for this alone he'd furiously sought the chance to sleep with her, slept with her - till lo, the preparations were complete and it only remained to pronounce the phrase he had longed to pronounce just once with his own lips, with due authority, like the edict of a king:
"It's time to break it off!"
Those words, the mere enunciation of which would be enough to rend the sky asunder...those words that he had cherished so passionately even while half-resigned to the impossibility of the fact...that phrase, more heroic, more glorious than any other in the world, which would fly in a straight line through the heavens like an arrow released from its bow...that spell which only the most human of humans, the most manly of men, might utter...in short:
"It's time to break it off!"

This is great writing, pathetic and accurate in its teenage grandiosity. Unfortunately, the rest of the story, with its overplayed fountain symbolism and a faintly unbelievable ending revelation of a character's true feelings, doesn't really live up to the first paragraph. 'Raisin Bread', the next story, is probably worse: the characters are Japanese beatniks, or something, complete with English names and stylish ennui. But 'Raisin Bread' feels strangely unlike Mishima: there's little of his characteristic florid writing or themes, and the characters - although given existential crises and a sense of emptiness that was probably fashionable at the time - feel like strangers, not anyone he really cares about. Toss in a total absence of plot and some inexplicable quotations, and the story makes you think "What the hell?"

'Sword', dealing with a college kendo club and the betrayals and conflicts circling around its captain, a paragon of virtue, is described in the introduction by John Bester as "with its muscles, its sweat, and its amber flesh, might seem at a casual glance to be the most self-indulgent of all the stories here. In fact, it is the reverse, and a close study only increases one's respect for Mishima's powers of detached observation." But Bester is wrong, the story is self-indulgent - not that that's necessarily a demerit, although the flaws he tries to disclaim are present in force. Even though it'd be simplistic to identify protagonist Jiro Kokubu as "someone Mishima would have liked to fuck", his character is a near total embodiment of the kind of youthful male purity Mishima became increasingly obsessed with - descriptions of him like "Approaching ultimate perfection, bound fast by glory and honor, knowing that his prowess had become next to second nature, he nevertheless gave the impression of being sunk in a kind of torpor" reveal a fixation on this character type which the story's plot barely justifies. The scene in which Jiro is splashed by the blood of a dying bird only to have it wiped off his cheek by a lily feels unbelievably contrived, and when, immediately after, Mishima goes out of the way to comment in the narration on Jiro 'avoiding the traps of poetry', the suspension of disbelief is completely destroyed. To be fair, the hanger-on characters are well-described, but anyone who's read much Mishima will see the ending coming almost from the start: there's clearly no other option for Jiro but to die in order to preserve his purity. Although the exact nature of his death isn't made clear, it somehow doesn't seem as moving as it was intended to be, perhaps because of that element of predictability. The story, though, makes sense in the larger context of Mishima's writings and personal mythology. Jiro is a clear precursor to Isao in Runaway Horses, virtually the same character in fact - even his conflict of subconscious preoccupation with his father is carried over in the later novel. The difference is that, given a full-length novel to work with, Mishima is able to explore Isao's contradictions and flaws in greater detail, rounding him into a three-dimensional character. In contrast, 'Sword' just feels like a demo or dry run.

The remaining stories are a mixed bag: 'Sea and Sunset' is a lovely vignette, set in medieval times with a sympathetically portrayed Western protagonist, an old French man who took part in the Children's Crusade as a boy and, through complicated circumstances, wound up in Japan. This story's simplicity works in its favor, giving it a real atmosphere of beauty and loss. 'Cigarette', one of the first stories that brought Mishima attention from the literary world, deals with a youthful realization of homosexuality, similar in a sense to the novel Confessions of a Mask. The story is certainly quite good for a very young writer, but it'd be a stretch to call it very good or even great - it and stories from the same period would certainly have been forgotten if not for Mishima's later writing. This is true of the next story, 'Martyrdom', also set in school. In it, an alpha male type and a sickly, effeminate boy become locked in conflict, eventually becoming lovers, with their relationship ending in (of course) death. Even given familiarity with Mishima's character and the entire range of his writings, though, the story still feels hermetic, impenetrable. With the ending, Mishima seemingly pulls the rug out from under the surface reality of the story, but the gesture feels pointless, a cheap way to get out of a story without much real plot. The element of contrivance here is quite strong.

The final, eponymous story 'Act of Worship' is novella-length. The primary characters are an aging professor of literature, deeply immersed in classical Japanese poetry, and Tsuneko, his middle-aged housekeeper. Both characters are old, ugly, and pitiable in their own ways, but the key fact is...Mishima has sympathy for them! Even in his masterpiece, The Sea of Fertility, characters like these would probably have been objects of contempt or disgust, but here both of them come away with great dignity, their relationship and depth of understanding portrayed subtly. The plot, in which both characters take a trip to rural Japan so the Professor can fulfill his obligation to a woman from his past, reveals the ways in which he and Tsuneko are linked. It can't quite be called a romantic relationship, or strictly one of master and disciple, but contains elements of both. The ending is complex but believable. In fact, 'Act of Worship' is so much better than everything else here that it makes the entire collection seem a little bereft. This novella simply towers over the other stories, feeling throughout like the work of a completely different, vastly more mature writer. The central characters are both distinct, believable, complex individuals, and Mishima's refusal to caricature or condescend to them makes the story genuinely moving in a way something like 'Sword' falls short of. The story is also immediately accessible: no knowledge of Mishima or familiarity with his work is necessary to appreciate it, something that can't really be said for much of the rest of the collection. 'Act of Worship' would demolish most contemporary fiction if published today; its sensitivity of description confirms Mishima's greatness, making it the one story here worthy of true comparison with his novels.

Death in Midsummer is overall a more consistent collection in terms of quality. There's still a lot of filler, but the prose is stronger, more confident, and the stories seem closer to Mishima's heart. Still, it's mixed, with the average stories outnumbering the great ones by maybe 60/40. The title story opens at a beach resort, where a woman, Tomoko, and her sister are vacationing with Tomoko's three children. Before long tragedy hits: the sister has a heart attack on the beach, and two of the children drown. Here's some description of their corpses:

The two bodies were found the next day. The constabulary, driving all up and down the beach, finally found them under the headland. Sea bugs had nibbled at them, and there were two or three bugs up each little nostril.

This is the kind of detail Mishima is famous for, and the gross excessiveness of the tragedy seems characteristic as well. Most writers would be content with a single death as a spur for the story, but here we get a dead sister and two drowned children right off the bat, with the whole thing somehow seeming more believable than it would have with a more conventional setup. The rest of the plot follows Tomoko and her husband as they adjust to the tragedy and eventually conceive another child, finally returning to the beach for some kind of....closure or reconciliation or some shit...I don't know, is it even important? The story ends with the ultimate cliche of someone staring out to sea and pondering deeply. The whole thing is tastefully written and the emotions feel real, but on finishing it, you still think 'why?'. It's a measure of the quality of Mishima's best writing that while a story like this would have been a highlight for most writers, here at thirty pages it feels like a slight disappointment. The same can be said of 'Three Million Yen', in which a parsimonious couple spend a day at an amusement park before sexually performing before a group of old women for money. The characteristic Mishima theme of the superiority of young beauty and morality to old age and ugliness comes up, but little in the descriptions compels, and the spendthrift young couple seem about as equally irritating as the old voyeurs.

'Thermos Bottles' is another example of Mishima working against his own strengths. A Japanese businessman in San Francisco meets an acquaintance and old love, a former geisha now employed full-time by a patron and travelling with her young daughter. The geisha has been remade into a Western woman, but traces of her past remain, and the two spend a night together before the businessman returns to Japan. Sounds easy enough, right? Yeah, but look at the title. I forgot to mention that both the businessman and the geisha's children are deathly afraid of thermos bottles, leading to scenes like the following, hilariously unforgivable even as a bad translation:

Emboldened by sake, Komiya was being somewhat forward. Kawase glanced at him. He was a very intelligent young man, one of the best in Kawase's section, and he had a distinctive face, thick eyebrows that came faintly together over the bridge of the nose. Catching the man's eye, Kawase felt something stab at the icy lump in his head: He knows. He knows the boy's afraid of thermos bottles.

Whaaat? What the hell kind of paragraph/symbolism is that?! The husband/wife tension is nicely sketched, but the unusual and faintly ridiculous theme of children afraid of thermos bottles deflates the moving and tasteful (but conventional) geisha romance and makes you think "what the hell?" again. The closing line, in which the husband contracts his children's fear of thermos bottles, is supposed to come across as poignant or ominous somehow, but only made me crack up. Just like in 'Death and Midsummer', no matter how hard he tries, Mishima can't conceal how fucked-up his imagination is, and the more he tries to characterize 'normal' human emotions and situations, the more the strange details and obsessions creep in at the edges of the stories. Radiguet (a heavy influence on Mishima, incidentally) wrote that 'originality is trying to be like everyone else and failing', but here the failures in some of the stories feel almost like self-sabotage. Anyone can write a story about losing a child or meeting an old flame, but only Mishima could write something like the descriptions of evisceration in 'Patriotism' or the movements and gestures of the kabuki actors in 'Onnagata' (also in this collection). The difference between stories that could have been written by someone else and stories that could only have been Mishima's is what makes up the disparity of writing quality in this collection. It's interesting to note that most of the weaker stories in Acts of Worship are too impenetrable for anyone unfamiliar with Mishima, while the weaker ones in Death in Midsummer risk the opposite extreme, i.e. being generic.

Things pick up with 'The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love' and 'Seven Bridges'. The first, a ye olde Japan story about a devout Buddhist priest falling in love with a concubine, makes both characters seem believable and likable in their shared concerns for this world and the next. Once again, details and digressions come to the fore: the psychedelic descriptions of the Buddhist Pure Land with its silver sands and trees of jewels are possibly more interesting than the actual story. 'Seven Bridges' is about a group of young geisha trying to cross seven bridges to fulfill their prayers for prosperity and love. All are neglectful of a young country girl following them, dismissing her for her manners and physical appearance. But the country girl ends up being the only one able to successfully cross all the bridges; all the others are detained somehow. When one of the geisha asks the girl what she wished for, she refuses to tell, only smiling. The story sounds faintly moralistic when described that way, but it really isn't; and the night-time descriptions of Tokyo contain some great writing. Another well done but slight story.

Then there's 'Patriotism'. Before I say anything more about this story, let me just excerpt the opening:

On the 28th of February, 1936 (on the third day, that is, of the February 26th Incident), Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama of the Konoe Transport Battalion - profoundly disturbed by the knowledge that his closest colleagues had been with the mutineers from the beginning, and indignant at the prospect of Imperial troops attacking Imperial troops - took his officer's sword and ceremonially disemboweled himself in the eight-mat room of his private residence in the sixth block of Aoba-cho, in Yotsuya Ward. His wife, Reiko, followed him, stabbing herself to death. The lieutenant's farewell note consisted of one sentence: "Long live the Imperial forces." His wife's, after apologies for unfilial conduct in thus preceding her parents to the grave, concluded: "The day which, for a soldier's wife, had to come, has come..." The last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such as to make the gods themselves weep.

Right away there's no fucking around; the premise is outlined and the story precedes to fill it in. Look at that last line: there's no irony or detachment, Mishima has become painfully (adverb intended in every sense of the word) sincere. 'Patriotism' marks a step up in writing quality, in the level of literary technique. The last day of the lieutenant and his wife is described ritualistically, in great detail, including their final lovemaking and the protracted scenes of evisceration:

The lieutenant was lying on his face in a sea of blood. The point protruding from his neck seemed to have grown even more prominent than before. Reiko walked heedlessly across the blood. Sitting beside the lieutenant's corpse, she stared intently at the face, which lay on one cheek on the mat. The eyes were opened wide, as if the lieutenant's attention had been attracted by something. She raised the head, folding it in her sleeve, wiped the blood from the lips, and bestowed a last kiss.

'Patriotism' is incredibly disturbing and affecting, so much so that it shows up most of the other stories in the collection as mere tatters. Despite ostensibly dealing with the spiritual purity of the love suicide and the nobility of the officer's completion of his duty, the narrative detail is deeply pornographic, lingering over the feel of the lieutenant's intestines in his hands and the details of the wife making up her face perfectly before stabbing herself in the throat. Mishima's unsettling psychosexual impulses drive the story like a powerful engine burning beneath the surface, never totally visible but thoroughly infusing and animating every line. You can understand how young readers - taking the story at face value, ignorant of its more personal meaning for the author - were convinced to join Mishima's private army solely on the basis of reading it. Whether the extreme-nationalist politics or intentions behind the story are 'correct' or not is beside the point, since the technique and literary artifice (and yes, the appearance of 'sincerity' in a work of literature is just another kind of artifice or craft) is impeccable, displaying some of the best prose Mishima ever achieved. The initial paragraph with its gods weeping over the dead couple might inspire laughter at first, but by the time Mishima reaches the detailed scene of evisceration, I doubt many readers will still be smiling ironically. Mishima again uses his characteristic 'no-denouement' ending technique (i.e. finishing sharply on a moment of climax, often violent) to great effect, making you sit up sharply and possibly feel a little ill. I first read this story in a different collection, in a library, coming upon it by chance, and looked up almost in shock at the sudden force of the ending.

After 'Patriotism' almost any story would feel like a comedown, but 'Dojoji', one of Mishima's 'modern Noh plays' (translated by Donald Keene, he of the obsession with classical literature) is one of the better pieces here, nearly holding its own. I was a bit dubious about how good this would be when just read on the page, but the Noh-play format actually heightens the tension, cutting away what could have been extraneous description and allowing for some nicely poetic lines:

Kiyoko: I have become reconciled. [she drops the bottle onto the floor. The Dealer hastens to kick it aside.] It's spring now, isn't it? I've realized it for the first time. The seasons have meant nothing to me for such a long, long time, ever since he disappeared into this wardrobe. [she sniffs the air around her] It's the height of spring. Even in this musty old shop I can smell it - where is it coming from? - a fragrance of spring earth, of plants and trees, of flowers. The cherry blossoms must be in full glory. Clouds of blossoms, and apart from them only the pines. The strong green of the branches amidst the smoky blossoms, the outlines sharp because they've never had any dreams. The birds are singing. [a twittering of birds is heard] A singing of birds passing like sunlight through the thickest walls. Even as we stand here the spring relentlessly presses in on us, with such a multitude of cherry blossoms, a multitude of singing birds. Every branch holds as many as it can and shuts it eyes in rapture under the delicious weight. And the wind - I can smell the fragrance of his living body in this wind. I had forgotten. It was spring!

Again, this could have been cliche, but look at that awesome line about the branches being beautiful because of never having dreamed. That's what I mean by 'poetic lines.' Here (and presumably in his other modern Noh plays) Mishima manages to replace the artificiality of the traditional Japanese dramas with a contemporary setting and characters, while retaining their poetry and emotional heft - nice work, in other words. 'Onnagata' is another great story, dealing with the sealed world of backstage kabuki and the onnagata, a male actor playing female roles. The strange beauty of the onnagata, neither wholly male nor female, invokes Mishima's descriptive powers well, and the story - a kind of love triangle - ends on an ominous note, with no real resolution. In fact, this story could work well as the first chapter of a novel (something reminiscent of Kawabata - one of Mishima's mentors - and his frequent use of such a technique). This is another 'Mishima only' story, i.e. one particularly suited to his interests and talents.

The collection concludes with 'The Pearl' and 'Swaddling Clothes', two shorter, less significant pieces that are still interesting and well-done. The first, about a pearl accidentally swallowed at a birthday party for a certain Mrs. Sasaki and the ensuing machinations, is a nicely sketched story. The convoluted rivalries of the middle-aged women characters are detailed with as much attention as if they were feuds between yakuza or samurai warlords, giving Mishima a chance to play around with his (significant) sense of humor. The last piece, about a woman's concern for an illegitimate child born in her apartment, ends with one of Mishima's 'fuck with the consensus reality' endings, giving it an interesting twist.

Overall, then, Death in Midsummer is quite successful, but can't really hold to the consistency of a Mishima novel.

The Verdict:
Mishima was capable of writing a great short story, but more often than not his forays into the form, as evidenced here, feel underwhelming compared to the wide-screen richness of his novels. They're the sort of stories that'd be great to read in a magazine, but they don't necessarily hold up under close scrutiny or successive reading. Both collections, especially Acts of Worship, feel un-cohesive and ill-assorted, with extremely early works jostling against later-life pieces with much variance in length and prose style. Although this can be put down to translation and editors, it's hard not to think that a single volume of the best stories from both collections, better sequenced, would make a more definitive sampling of Mishima's short fiction. Still, there's enough great material here to recommend both volumes, although the primary audience for this recommendation consists of readers already familiar with Confessions of a Mask, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, The Sea of Fertility, and Mishima's other great works. Those readers will be more likely to find things to enjoy here, not the least because of the number of career-long threads Mishima plays with that show up in the novels as well. Reading these stories, you see him toying with the ideas and concerns that lasted throughout his career, making many of the stories feel like hidden windows into or alternative-universe scenarios for his novels. Despite the best intentions of the editors, though, neither collection can really be called a good introduction to Mishima, since only a few of the stories - 'Patriotism', 'Act of Worship' and 'Onnagata', for example - manage to work up the characteristic intensity and passion found in the novels. So: neglected riches, but for Mishima fans only.

[for more on Mishima and his work, check out my review of The Sea of Fertility]

(UPDATED: 4th of August, 2013)

EDMUND: Mishima directed a short film based on the aforementioned short story PATRIOTISM.

憂国 - Yûkoku - Patriotism - Rite of Love & Death (1966) from Yukio Mishima on Vimeo.
Playwright and novelist Yukio Mishima foreshadowed his own violent suicide with this ravishing short feature, his only foray into filmmaking, yet made with the expressiveness and confidence of a true cinema artist. All prints of Patriotism (Yžkoku), which depicts the seppuku of a army officer, were destroyed after Mishima's death in 1970, though the negative was saved, and the film resurfaced thirty-five years later. New viewers will be stunned at the depth and clarity of Mishima's vision, as well as his graphic depictions of sex and death.

There's another version floating around on Youtube where a guy named Aaron Embry took the time to redo the score for the short film. Watch it if you're curious.


  1. I think 'Death in Midsummer' was tghe second Mishima book I bought. [After 'Thirst for Love', with 'Spring Snow' being my third].

    I think Spring Snow might be a nice introductory novel for someone not familiar with Mishima ... probably because it's my favourite.

    Anyone reading 'Death in Midsummer' might think Mishima is obsessed with death ... um ... er ... lol

  2. Thanks, Coldbacon.

    Dabido: Spring Snow is definitely the best, I think, apart from Golden Temple. But given the choice, I'd probably choose Spring Snow. And we STILL have to see the movie (Haru no Yuki) for it, dammit! Not to mention 'Afraid to Die', the movie where Mishima played the main character.

  3. nice review. i have some similar ones, so check out mine sometime.

  4. Blah, blah, blah.... another up-and-comer tries to use such ever-so-insightful-and-poignant discussion of Mishima's works as a display of his own intellectual and artistic prowess, and maybe associate his name with those of a great artist. Give a guy a couple of cheap film prizes, let him rent an apartment in Tokyo, and suddenly he thinks that what doesn't please *him* can't be great. Note to Yeo-kun: You're not Japanese (nor on anything like the same creative level as Mishima); if your best shot at comprehension yields the response "what the hell kind of paragraph / symbolism is that" or you find a theme "faintly ridiculous", please revisit the story (and your own words about it) in a few years, after a bit more experience. Or maybe check with someone like Donald Keene, whose "obsession" (as you call it) has sustained him through a couple of Ph.D.'s and a productive life about as long as three of your lifetimes to date...he might be able to clear up those misunderstandings you have about Mishima's "forays into the form". For Mishiha, it wasn't about a "wide-screen richness" (as you praise what you prefer of his work)-- that's a telling metaphor from your aspirations. Mishima's aspirations, with stories like "Thermos Bottles" had to do with literary expression, including what you demean as its "form"(s). An astoundingly successful and revered author, Mishima might have even had a few nice things to say about your films...if they could somehow have attracted his attention, that is.

  5. Jeez, get a chill pill. What's with the hostile mudslinging? The two-year-old post above was written by Justin, not I. (the only Mishima work I've read so far was a short story named the The Fountain, and a quarter of Spring Snow)

    And Justin's as big a Mishima fan I know, I don't know why you have to lose your shit just because he liked Mishima's short stories a little less than you did.