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Yukio Mishima: Through the Kabuki Kaleidoscope

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

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Yukio Mishima, 1964. (Photo by Carlo Bavagnoli/The LIFE Images Collection).

Today marks exactly fifty years since the death of Yukio Mishima, Japan’s first internationally renown literary superstar who wrote an astonishing 34 novels, 50 plays, 25 short stories and at least 35 books of essays, as well as one libretto and one film. His crowning achievement, The Sea of Fertility, is a masterpiece novel comprised of four parts (Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel) which he completed on the morning of his dramatic death, aged 45. ‘When one comes to write of Yukio Mishima’, Damian Flanagan begins in his biography of the writer, ‘nearly always one starts with death. With any other subject, birth would be as good a point as any, but with Mishima, it is though time is reversed and refluxed, and the final dramatic day is not just the summation of life, but also the day the Mishima story achieves apotheosis and, in an orgy of blood, becomes eternally reborn.’ Mishima’s failed coup attempt and ritual suicide is one of the most outlandish and spectacularly shocking events in post-war Japanese history. A considerable amount has been written about the day of Mishima’s death and so I will not elaborate on this subject much, here is however an extract from Flanagan’s Yukio Mishima biography to summarise what happened:

At on the cold, bright Wednesday morning of 25 November 1970, Mishima led four members of his private Army, the Shield Society, into the Eastern Headquarters of the Self-defence Forces in Ichigaya, Tokyo for a pre-arranged meeting with General Kanetoshi Mashita. Mishima began innocently enough by showing the general his prized Seki no Magoroku sword, but then, without warning, Mishima’s men suddenly took the general hostage and gagged and tied him up in his office. Fierce scuffles broke out as officers repeatedly forced entry into the office, but Mishima narrowly managed to drive them out again by slashing their arms with the sword. Mishima then demanded that the entire army assemble beneath the office balcony to hear him speak, threatening to kill the general and commit suicide if the demand was not acceded to. By noon, around a thousand men had quickly assembled beneath the balcony. One of the world’s greatest living writers, dressed bizarrely in what could easily be mistaken for a bell boy’s uniform, wearing white gloves and a headband with the rising sun and the words Shichisho Hokoku (Seven Lives for the Nation!), was pacing back and forth on the balcony and, gesticulating wildly, began hectoring the soldiers with his prepared speech. Banners proclaiming Mishima’s intentions were draped over the balcony and leaflets containing Mishima’s ‘Declaration of Protest’ were scattered as media helicopters circled overhead… Mishima, however, was not addressing a remotely sympathetic crowd. Irritated with having to interrupt their lunch breaks, bored with hanging around and bewildered by Mishima’s latest antic, when he asked dramatically: ‘Is there not one amongst you who will stand up with me?’, the soldiers heckled him with abuse and slander.

Mishima soon realised that his rally for support was in vein and cut his speech almost fifteen minutes short. Not deviating from his purpose however, Mishima quit the balcony and returned indoors to the general’s office where he then committed hari-kiri (ritual suicide). His act was followed by one of his young acolytes and lover, Masakatsu Morita, and by 12.20 p.m. it was all over. When the soldiers rushed in the heads of Mishima and Morita were lying side by side on the carpet. The other three acolytes were brought out under arrest.

- Damian Flanagan, Yukio Mishima, Reaktion Books, 2014.

Yukio Mishima speaking before the SDF forces on 25 November, 1970. (Copyright JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images).

The waves of controversy that surrounded Mishima’s ‘Day of Death’ continue to throw up speculation and theories about the intentions behind his attempted coup both embellish and obscure how he is portrayed today. It is bewildering to think that a man at his physical and intellectual peak, with immense fortune and fame, would desire to kill himself in the most anachronistic, public and painful manner possible. Some critics believe the event was his radical response to losing the 1968 Nobel Prize to fellow countryman and mentor Yasunari Kawabata, whilst others say it was a flagrant publicity stunt for his final novel. 'According to the polemic, which Mishima distributed on the morning and requested to be printed in full in the newspapers after his death, the Shield Society, while feeling profound kinship with their brothers in the self-defence Forces (SDF), had been forced into today’s extreme act because they could no longer tolerate the deceit that the SDF represented. Article 9 of the American-imposed constitution of 1947 proclaimed that Japan renounced aggression forever and the right to have its own military, but according to Mishima such foolish idealism had soured into hypocrisy with the creation of the SDF, which was the Japanese Army in all but name... Only by overthrowing the Peace Constitution could a new Japan, at one with itself and in tune with its noble history and traditions be reborn.' [1]

Barakei: Ordeal by Roses #41, Gelatin silver print, 1961, Eikoh Hosoe.

To understand Yukio Mishima is to grapple with the complex tensions and subtle peculiarities of pre and post-war Japanese history, as well as the man himself which I think Damian Flanagan achieves remarkably in his biography. Regarding the latter, I must admit I initially felt quite overwhelmed by the prospect of writing about someone who was in the purest sense of the term a Renaissance Man. There are a seemingly limitless number of avenues one could travel down when writing about a man who was not only a novelist and playwright but also a film director, actor, model, photographer, singer, poet, dandy, linguist, kendo black-belt, bodybuilder, political campaigner and world traveller. Through his writing Mishima traversed an immensely vast range of time periods and genres with precision and zeal, suffusing his descriptions of nature and colour (as in Spring Snow) with exquisite poetic beauty. Breaking all barriers that stood in his way, he amassed an unprecedented level of artistic and commercial success and became an icon for millions of people across the world, inspiring a generation of leading artists such as David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Maurice Béjart and David Sylvian. Through the Kabuki Kaleidoscope is the result of my ongoing research on the ‘early part’ of Yukio Mishima’s life, focusing on his extensive trips to the Kabuki theatre (between 1938-1950) which is where I believe the magnificent musicality, grace and clarity of Mishima’s writing was fertilised.

David Bowie sleeping in front of his painting of Yukio Mishima. © Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/Corbis.

Through the Kabuki Kaleidoscope

Yukio Mishima was born Kimitake Hiraoka in the Yotsuya district of Tokyo at 9 p.m. on January 14th 1925, just a year before the beginning of the Shōwa era. This transitional epoch was dominated first by a twenty-year period of intensive warfare, culminating in unprecedented financial collapse, followed by twenty-five years of rapid economic growth that lifted the country up from its burnt-out ruins but also, according to Mishima, “created a huge spiritual vacuum and unbearable boredom, particularly among intellectuals and the younger generation.” [2] It was amidst this precarious backdrop that Mishima grew up, living in a somewhat jumbled, overbearing house with both his parents and grandparents. In the first weeks of his life, he was taken away from his mother by his grandmother, Natsuko Natsu, a forceful personality who descended from a high-class samurai family. The majority of his childhood was then spent in her care and she insisted that the weak and sickly child should be kept out of the sunlight and prevented from playing sport of any kind or mixing with other boys. He consoled himself by reading his grandmother’s books, among them were the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde and Hans Christian Anderson. Mishima’s mother, Shizue Hiraoka, who constantly quarrelled with her mother-in-law over the lack of time she was able to spend with Mishima, (being permitted only to take him for walks to the park or the school) bitterly recalled her beautiful, angelic son being imprisoned like a caged animal at his grandmother’s bedside in a gloomy sickroom. If the men of the house seem starkly absent it is because his grandfather, Sadatoro Hiraoka, and father, Azusa Hiraoka, entrusted the child to the care of the women of the house. And although they assumed Mishima would follow in their footsteps by becoming a government official, restoring the family's depleted wealth and reputation, they both thought it hardly mattered what the boy did until it was time to act on the world's stage as an adult. By then of course it was already too late, Mishima had been too much infected by the infusion of a rich artistic imagination.

Yukio Mishima as a child in 1930. Credit unknown.

It was in 1938, when Mishima was thirteen years of age, that his grandmother took him for the first time to the Kabuki-za to see the play, Kanadehon Chūshingura (The Treasury of Loyal Retainers). Up until then his family had forbidden him from attending Kabuki as they considered the theatre an obscene place “no good for a child’s education”. Western cinema was treated as the healthier alternative and so by the time he was a third-grader he had seen most of the Hollywood movies (which of course were far more sexually overt). A quiet curiosity for the art of Kabuki crept into the young Mishima as he enviously leafed through the programmes that his grandmother would return home from her regular trips to the theatre, often with his mother. Recalling how seduced he was by these older programmes that featured a colour woodblock print on the cover, he admitted during a speech given to a group of new Kabuki trainees at the Kokuritsu Gekijō (National Theatre) in 1970 that, “as I looked at such things, I began to have longings for Kabuki as something that might be fascinating, though antiquated, with odd things about it.” Mishima’s first trip to the Kabuki-za sparked the beginning of his life-long love affair with Kabuki, which from then on, he would devote his wild and abounding imagination to. Having successfully begged his mother to allow him to see Kabuki regularly, he spent the next twelve years (between 1938 and 1950) watching and studying the art form with absolute dedication and absorption.

“How absorbed was I? Those were the days when the war was becoming more and more terrible and good books stopped coming out, military control was severe and books became scarce. In this period, I often went to second-hand book dealers and read jōruri (narrative music). Jōruri are somewhat difficult to read, but in those days, in part because there wasn’t much else to read, I began to read them, and once I did, they were all very interesting. I read all Chikamatsu Monzaemon, then I read Takeda Izumo, and then I read Chikamatsu Hanji. Then though I did not read all the works, I read the major works of principal authors, such as Shinrei Yaguchi Watashi in the case of Hiraga Gennai, and this or that when it comes to Ki no Kaion, and so on. In the end I read most of jōruri. Once you read jōruri, you know the text when you see Kabuki, and so you begin to wonder how this or that scene is going to be done. Once I became a Kabuki-maniac, I took a notebook to the theatre, fascinated as I was to see how an actor made a move at this or that point. In those days Miyake Shūtaro used to write a great deal about such things, which I read, and began to understand that Kabuki is a matter of beauty in a flash, that a movement in the flash of a second determines all.”

- The Flower of Evil: Kabuki (from My Friend Hitler and Other Plays of Yukio Mishima, translated by Hiroaki Sato, Columbia University Press, 2002).

Yukio Mishima backstage with the famous onnagata Kabuki actor, Nakamura Utaemon VI. (Date and credit unknown).

It is clear that from an early age Mishima was a voracious reader who relished the piercing psychological insight that great works of poetry and prose provide. The Kabuki plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) for instance, a master of lyrical beauty regarded as ‘Japan’s Shakespeare’, often feature michiyuki (dream-like dance journey scenes) that would have strongly appealed to Mishima’s romantic sensibility. In the play, Sonezaki Shinjū, (Love Suicides at Sonezaki) the drama unfolds with two lovers making their way to commit suicide. As they wander along a dark valley recalling the memories of their past and lamenting their misfortunes, Chikamatsu imbues the scene with soft melancholy by reflecting the emotions of the two lovers through the desolate environment they find themselves in:

Farewell to this world, and to the night farewell.

We who walk the road to death, to what should we be likened?

To the frost by the road that leads to the graveyard,

Vanishing with each step we take ahead:

How sad is this dream within a dream!

- Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Sonezaki Shinjū (Love Suicides at Sonezaki), 1703.

The symbols of alienation, beauty, nature and death found in Chikamatsu’s plays were also the seeds of Romanticism which bloomed into an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement originating in Europe around 1770. The image of emblazoned, lonely lovers wandering through an almost supernatural landscape bedecked with winter frost reminds me of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, (Winter Journey) which like Yukio Mishima's Sea of Fertility, was also Schubert's final masterwork, completed just days before his death on 19th November 1828, aged 31. The song cycle for voice and piano is a setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller that begins with a farewell:

I arrived a stranger,

a stranger I depart.

May blessed me

with many a bouquet of flowers.

The girl spoke of love,

her mother even of marriage;

now the world is so desolate,

the path concealed beneath snow.

I cannot choose the time for my journey; I must find my own way in this darkness. A shadow thrown by the moon is my companion; and on the white meadows I seek the tracks of deer.

Why should I tarry longer and be driven out? Let stray dogs howl before their master’s house. Love delights in wandering – God made it so – from one to another. Beloved, good night!

I will not disturb you as you dream, it would be a shame to spoil your rest. You shall not hear my footsteps; softly, softly the door is closed. As I pass I write ‘Good night’ on your gate, so that you might see that I thought of you.

- Franz Schubert, 1. Gute Nacht: Winterreise, English translation by Richard Wigmore.

As with Schubert's Winterreise, Mishima's ambition writing The Sea of Fertility was so vast that he quickly left many critics' understandings trailing in his wake. The narrative leaps forward by jumps of twenty-years into radically different time periods, each time discovering a protagonist who seems to be a reincarnation of the protagonist from the previous part. Each one is fabled to die at the peak of his youth. At the end of Spring Snow, the dying twenty-year-old Kiyoaki Matsugae embarks on his own 'winter journey'. For five consecutive days he desperately attempts to see his love Satoko Ayakura at the Gesshu Temple in Nara, a convent that Satoko has irrevocably sworn herself to having renounced the world forever:

'That's it then...I have no other choice but to risk my life to see her. To me she is the essence of beauty. And it's only that which has brought me this far.' He himself no longer knew whether his reasoning was ordered or wildly disturbed by fever. He told the rickshawman to stop at the gate. Then after getting out and telling him to wait there, he began to walk up the slope. The sun was coming through again, and the snowflakes danced in its pale rays. From the bamboo groves on either side of him he heard a chirping that sounded like a lark. Green moss grew on the trunks of the bare cherry trees that were scattered among the pines along the roadside. A single plum tree bloomed white in the midst of the bamboos...Surrounded by unbroken silence and utter clarity was a world untouched by blemish of any kind. And at its centre, so inexpressibly poignant, at its innermost heart, he knew, was Satoko herself, her figure as quiet and still as an exquisite gold statue. But could such a still and perfect world, which eschewed all intimacy, really bear any relation to the familiar world he knew?

- Yukio Mishima, Spring Snow, (from The Sea of Fertility, translated by Michael Gallagher, Penguin Classics, 1985).

In the end Kiyoaki's efforts to see Satoko prove futile as he is repeatedly denied entry by the Abbess and dies a couple of days later by the side of his best friend, Shigekuni Honda. Mishima's sumptuous composition of nature and tonal beauty makes one feel as though they are enveloped in a Utagawa Hiroshige woodblock print. He was meticulous about his research and like a painter gathered the detail for his works by visiting the locations before he set about crafting them. I first read Spring Snow while visiting Japan in the summer of 2018 which gave me the wonderful sensation of feeling as though I was enjoying my favourite cocktail inside my favourite cocktail bar. In the BBC documentary, The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima (1985), the great writer, translator and scholar of Japanese theatre and literature, Donald Keene, explains that "Mishima was far more sensitive to Japanese than most authors who used the Japanese language as a raw material for creating something. He delighted in the Japanese language, it offended him – it even gave him physical pain - when somebody used language badly. And so, one had to be careful and respectful of his language knowing that it was not just effective Japanese but beautiful Japanese."

Utagawa Hiroshige, View of Mount Fuji from Koshigaya, Province of Musashi, 4th Month, 1858.

Given his reverence to the arts of ancient Japanese literature, poetry and theatre, it is perhaps unsurprising that Yukio Mishima made his name, quite literally, through the Japan Romantic School (Nihon Romanha). In 1938, the same year Mishima became immersed in Kabuki, 'an important mentor appeared in the form of Fumio Shimizu, a teacher of Japanese and Composition at the Peers' School. He started teaching Mishima from 1939 onwards but it was only after 1941 that the two became close. Shimizu was born in 1906 and was a scholar of the Heian period (794-1185) literature, editing an edition of the Izumi Shikibu Diary, a Heian classic. In July 1938, he and three other up-and-coming scholars of Japanese literature (Zenmei Hasuda, Riichi Kuriyama and Tsutsomu Ikeda), all graduates of Hiroshima University, had founded a magazine, Literary Culture, (Bungei Bunka), which bewailed that, 'although the loud voice of the Japanese spirit has been passed down... the literary classics have been turned into a tool of utilitarianism, entrusted to outrageous amputations' and that 'the authority of ancient texts is completely in ruin.' They believed that tradition itself speaks with authority, and they would confess their trust in that, and listen to the spirit of ancient texts. Literary Culture was itself an offshoot of the Japan Romantic School which represented in the mid 1930s the 'new wave' of contemporary Japanese literature under the weight of utilitarian objectives of total war. This was an age of increasing government censorship, with Marxist thinkers and writers rounded up and forced to convert to nationalistic ideologies, and any writings which were not conducive to the fascist government's war aims proscribed. The leader of the Romantic School, Yojuro Yasuda (1910-1981) had himself flirted with Marxism as a young man and another prominent figure, Fusao Hayashi (1903-1975), had been turned from belief in communism to a strident nationalism during imprisonment in 1930-32.' [3]

Yukio Mishima and cat, 1955. (Credit unknown).

It was under Shimizu's tutelage of 'learning from the past' that Mishima wrote his first mature work, A Forest in Full Bloom. The story was published (in four instalments between September and December 1941) in Literary Culture which officially launched Mishima's career as a professional writer. A little known anecdote has it that, 'Shimizu had brought the manuscript of Mishima's story to an editorial meeting at a ryokan (traditional guesthouse) in Shuzenji in the summer and proposed that they use a pen name in order to protect the sixteen-year old author from the public - and out of deference to the Hiraoka family, whose reaction to the son's celebrity was hard to gauge. On the way to Shuzenji, Shimizu had passed through the town of Mishima and looked up to see snow (yuki) on Mount Fuji and so instinctively came up with Yukio Mishima. When Mishima and the Japan Romantic School parted ways in August 1944 he professed that, "it was as if some pressure on my chest suddenly fell away". The problem he perceived was that, with its motto of 'art for art's sake', it was overwhelmed by a desire to imitate past works exactly, and became an empty, artificial literature.'[4] Mishima would until the end continue to express his profound love for the aesthetic purity and richness of classical Japanese art, literature and drama, but for him the greatness of these traditions was that they existed as a bridge, not a purpose. The inevitably inward-looking, static nature of a movement entangled with 'national learning' simply did not harmonise with a man who had his eyes firmly set on being the hero not just of Japan, but of the entire world.

A kaleidoscope is a tube-shaped instrument that makes patterns when mirrors reflect bits of coloured glass. As you turn the tube and look inside, you see new patterns emerge from the same shapes put together in new ways. Perhaps understanding Yukio Mishima is like peering into some magnificent kaleidoscope. Gazing at the spectrum of shapeshifting colours and patterns in his films, essays, books and plays, one can trace the vast web of inspirations and ideas that flowed through the mind of a genius. One moment I see a young boy in quiet wonderment as he studies the intricate movements of a Kabuki dance. The next I see a dandy dedicated to dressing with the upmost perfection. But at the very moment I try to fix my eyes on an image it disappears into yet another, until eventually I become lost in a mirage of Mishima's. Ultimately, I think he means many different things to many different people and therein lies his most vaunted skill. Yukio Mishima was an actor of the purest kind who in his short lifetime played out almost every role imaginable. His art was one of illusion and he maintained until the end an absolute belief in the beauty and breadth of the senses. It is poignant then that just months before he died, during his speech to the new Kabuki trainees at the National Theatre, he expressed the unequivocal importance of the senses in Kabuki: "Without appealing to that sensory charm, Kabuki won't be able to convey anything to us. You can't expect anyone to understand Kabuki without sensual fascination. Through the narrow path of sensory charm, Kabuki slides out in front of you. If you close that path, none of what of lies behind it will come out...Everything is done through the senses."

Thank you, Yukio Mishima.

Mishima as St. Sebastian,1968. Photo: Kishin Shinoyama.
St. Sebastian, Guido Reni (c.1625)


With special thanks to Damian Flanagan.

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