Yukio Mishima was born on January 14 1925. He emerged as the enfant terrible of Japanese literature in the late forties with Confessions of a Mask. Mishima’s early semi-autobiographical work dealt honestly with his homosexuality. However, he maintained respectability through a strategy of plausible deniability. In 1970, Yukio Mishima shocked the world when he attempted a coup with a small right-wing militia and committed seppuku.
Confessions of a Mask
In Yukio Mishima’s first major novel Confessions of a Mask, he told of discovering masturbation while looking at an image of St Sebastian.
“A remarkably handsome youth was bound naked to the trunk of the tree. Crossed hands raised high, and the thongs binding his wrists tied to the tree. No other bonds visible, and the only covering for the youth’s nakedness a coarse white cloth knotted loosely about his loins.”
Mishima noted that saints in religious paintings usually suffered from the decrepitude of age. But not the youthful and ripped St Sebastian. The author takes pleasure in even the arrows piercing the unblemished martyr’s body.
Trembled with pagan joy
“My entire being trembled with some pagan joy – my blood soared up; my loins swelled as though in wrath… my hands, completely unconsciously, began a motion they had never been taught. I felt a secret, radiant something rise swiftly to the attack from inside me. Suddenly, it burst forth, bringing with it a blinding intoxication.”
The work combines his great obsessions. Masculinity, the juxtaposition of pleasure and pain, and martyrdom.
Mishima was sickly as a child, kept away from the rough and tumble of other boys by a dictatorial grandmother and devoted to reading. He learned early to hide his true self if he wanted to fit in.
“Everybody says that life is a stage. But most people do not seem to become obsessed with the idea, at any rate, not as early as I did. By the end of childhood, I was already firmly convinced that it was so and that I was to play my part on the stage without once ever revealing my true self.”
Following discomfort in his family over the revelations in Confessions of a Mask, Mishima married. Friends said his thirst for respectability undoubtedly prompted the marriage. And it worked. His wife and children strenuously denied his homosexuality after his death. He, and they, portrayed his literary discussion of sexuality as observational rather than personal experience.
Yukio Mishima: buff male model
Yukio also overcame his embarrassment at his own perceived effeminacy through bodybuilding. The once scrawny lad transformed into a buff male model, rippling with muscle. He despised what he perceived as feminine weakness in himself and his country.
“Since World War II, the feminine tradition has been emphasized to the exclusion of the masculine. We wanted to cover our consciences. So we gave great publicity to the fact that we are peace-loving people who love flower-arranging and gardens and that sort of thing… The Government wanted to cover our masculine tradition from the eyes of foreigners as a kind of protection.”
As an author, Mishima blended Japanese traditional and Western literary styles. He wore western-style clothing and lived in a western-style home. He spoke English and German fluently. But he nevertheless obsessively opposed the post-war ‘pollution’ of Japanese culture by outside influences. He was also increasingly concerned by his own aging.
“The beautiful should die young, and everyone else should live as long as possible. Unfortunately, 95% of people get it backwards, with gorgeous people lingering into their eighties and hideous fools dropping dead at 21.”
He formed his own militia. Horrified by the enforced abdication of the Emperor, he wanted to restore Hirohito’s status as a divine being.
On 25 November 1970, Mishima and four of his militia took the commandant of a Tokyo military base hostage. He harangued an assembly of about 2000 soldiers but after failing to enlist them to his cause, committed seppuku. Mishima shouted ‘Long live the Emperor’ and sliced his stomach open with a sword. One of his young followers then decapitated the literary giant. The death of the brilliant author whose writing frequently documented his enthrallment with the martyrdom of St Sebastian did not inspire iconolatry but pity. But, despite the circumstances of his death, his wonderful words live on.
Read more: January 13 <— On this day —> January 15
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