Who was Yukio Mishima? Persona, the lengthy new tome by Naoki Inose (the current Governor of Tokyo) and Hiroaki Sato, seeks to answer that question with the use of a comprehensive set of primary resources such as interviews, unpublished writings and personal records. Kimitake Hiraoka was on track to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps as a career bureaucrat at the Ministry of Finance.
In addition to his favorable lineage, he had an impressive education and just the analytical mind such a career would have required. However, he decided to turn his back on the path he had paved for himself and instead try his hand at writing a novel. And so, Yukio Mishima was born and Confessions of a Mask would become the first literary gift he conferred on Japan and eventually the world.
One of Japan’s most famous authors and infamous icons is widely remembered for his dramatic public suicide by disembowelment in downtown Tokyo, though the authors of Persona make all attempts to explore every possible aspect of Mishima’s identity without letting his sensational death overshadow his life. Starting with an almost psychoanalytic exploration of his childhood and on to the evolution of his sexuality, political beliefs and varied artistic influences, Persona tries as much as possible to demystify the man himself and his personal contradictions; he was a stickler for convention with a penchant for taboo, fiercely Japanese with an affinity for western cultures, a man both highly disciplined and simmering with unchecked passion.
Persona constructs a narrative of Mishima’s life through analyses of his texts as well his interactions with his contemporaries including other literary greats of postwar Japan including Yasunari Kawabata. As his life story unfolds, we see not only his aesthetic sense evolve but a marked change in his political views and radical personal philosophy. Whereas the Japanese might have called him patriotic, a foreign reader would most likely call him jingoistic. In a time when pacifism was the fashion, Mishima went against the grain with his militaristic sensibility which would be on full dramatic display in his death.
The book also includes some hitherto unknown and rather lurid details of his personal life. One particular anecdote involves a bizarre night with a female date at an all-male disco club in Ginza in which Mishima taunts and humiliates the woman presumably for the sole purpose of his own kicks.
However complex Mishima’s life and expansive body of work was, it is still his dramatic death that continues to fascinate even those unfamiliar with his oeuvre. His suicide by seppuku was meticulously planned and rehearsed, every last detail accounted for, right down to the headband he wore with a red sun in the center and the words shichisho hokoku written on it, which translates as “to be born seven times to serve the country.” Mishima even made sure his beheader knew exactly where his carotid artery was, lest he miss and embarrass himself with sloppy technique and unnecessary gore.
In the moments before his death, Mishima turned toward the Imperial Palace from a balcony and shouted “Long Live the Emperor” three times before proceeding to disembowel himself in what the book describes as “a magnificent seppuku” in which “twenty inches of his intestines came out.” The glorification of suicide as almost an act of poetry hints strongly at the modern Japanese consciousness as well, where taking one’s own life is still considered by many an act of final dignity in the face of shame or defeat.
Mishima’s biography is probably not for the faint of heart or those with even the slightest aversion to the risqué, although the brilliance of his literary work has stood the test of time and continues to speak for itself (albeit arguably—Haruki Murakami is famously not a fan).
So who was Yukio Mishima? I’m not sure even the man himself could have answered that question.
For more JQ magazine book reviews, click here.