John Nathan’s biography of Yukio Mishima

This is a book by John Nathan, a memorable book for me. were the very first Japanese literature I had ever read.
I had been rereading Colin Wilson’s sequel to “The Outsider” , entitled “The Misfits”, in which he writes about Yukio Mishima.
I had met Yukio Mishima with my parents, exactly about a month before he committed ritual suicide.
This was at a party in Tokyo.I was in Tokyo for about a month in 1970. This was the only time during my elementary school years that I went to Japan.

The day before we all flew back to New York, the photographer Kishin Shinoyama had a party and Mishima was sitting in the back room. He had many photographs taken of himself in various characters and poses, and he was asking my mother which photographs she liked. I still remember Yukio Mishima and his voice as he talked in that room that night.

He was the first Japanese writer I have ever read, although it was in a translation by John Nathan. Yukio Mishima’s main influences were Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, Jean Cocteau, George Bataille and many other Western writers from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. His influence from these Western writers is what makes reading his books easier than other books written in Japanese. At the very center of his influences are these writers, and he adopted many Japanese classics using his influences from these writers. He seems Japanese on the surface, and he understands its culture, but I often feel that he and Shuji Terayama were the best writers in adopting Western influences into the Japanese language. Shuji Terayama, who was also a film director and a playwright was once influenced by Mishima’s way of adopting Western literature. Both can make the sound of the Japanese language quite beautiful and musical.

Colin Wilson sees Mishima as someone who was a social misfit at the start, but had slowly began to put on an act.
He began posing as some kind of an extreme “patriot” that was quite different from the writer character within him.

The journalist, Ian Buruma wrote, “Mishima was in almost every respect an oddity, and it is dangerous to think to see him as typical of anything…Dandies are life’s practical jokers who must fool people into thinking they are something they know themselves they are not. They are like exhibitionists who feel alive only when they are watched.”

He was quite apolitical to begin with. As an observer, he always said that the leftists and the student activists in the 60s in Japan were saying things that are the same as the rightists. I believe this is very much the truth.

I remember the student protests in the States were more about making the country more democratic, whereas much of the leftists in Japan were protesting against the US as American imperialism. Many Japanese who went to the US or Europe and was unsuccessful especially at communicating with the people there, returned to Japan to become Anti-American political activists. Since becoming right-wing was not seen as ‘cool’, some hid their thoughts in the back of left-wing ideology. But when one sees that it was Stalinism, Maoiim of the Cultural Revolution, one sees that it was leaning towards totalitarianism, instead of something like “Woodstock” which was an expression of freedom and democracy.

The following is an excerpt from a short dialogue that I edited from the very end of “The Decay of Angels”,, the work he delivered to his publishers, just a few hours before his suicide.

————From “The Decay of Angels”—————–
“I came here sixty years ago.”
“Memory is like a phantom mirror. It sometimes shows things too distant to be seen, and sometimes it shows them as if they were here.”
“But if he didn’t exist, and she didn’t exist, who knows perhaps I too didn’t exist.”
“That too is as it is in each heart.”
“You have been kind enough to come all this way. I think you should see the south garden. I will take you there.”
“It was a bright, quiet garden, without striking features. Like a rosary rubbed between the hands, the shrilling of cicadas held sway.
There was no other sound. The garden was empty. He had come to a place that had no memories, nothing.
The noontide sun of summer flowed over the still garden.”

This quite reminds me of the following quote from Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth”.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
The end of “The Decay of Angels” was the last act that Yukio Mishima wrote for the character he was acting out.


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