Fifty Years Ago, Yukio Mishima First Staged Death as Spectacle

I wrote this piece last year, but I think its message is still relevant.

            During a 1961 session with photographer Eikoh Hosoe, the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima shared his special gift: He could keep his eyes open, without blinking, for up to two minutes. This ability came in handy when modeling and could serve as a metaphor for his novels. In particular, his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, completed nine years later, fixates on the violence of watching. It seems almost inevitable, in hindsight, that on the day he finished it, Mishima would force the world to watch him die. We’ve been speaking of the male gaze for decades, but Mishima pioneered the forced gaze.

I specialized in modern Japanese literature during graduate school, and when I lived in Japan, people would query me about my favorite writers. I learned quickly never to mention Mishima. He’s the country’s disowned child. He drew attention to Japan for all the wrong reasons, and even today, his name is a billboard for national shame.

This might have been the case even if he hadn’t died the way he did. Mishima was always a provocateur, and because he was a staggeringly prolific one, his public didn’t have a chance to forget it. He produced over one hundred volumes of novels, essays, short stories, and plays; collaborated with the leaders of the theatrical avant-garde; devoted himself to body building and the samurai code; and built up a private militia of eager young men. His first major novel, Confessions of a Mask, shocked readers with its frank discussions of homosexuality and sadomasochistic fantasies.

But none of this prepared the world for what happened on November 25, 1970, when the forty-five-year-old celebrity author took over the Tokyo headquarters of the Japan Self-Defense forces—essentially, the army of a country whose national military had been abolished by fiat—and, after speechifying to jeering soldiers, cut his stomach open and suffered through a botched beheading by sword before finally dying. On the surface, Mishima’s intent was to demand the restoration of the full powers, stripped by the postwar constitution, of the Emperor and military. He was accompanied by four acolytes, one of whom perished the same way beside him and all of whom had been prohibited from harming anyone but themselves.

2020 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Mishima’s meticulously staged suicide. Amidst the current epidemic of mass shootings, I can’t help but compare his actions to those by today’s young, male, ideology-driven murderers. Are they chasing the beautiful death like Mishima was? And can his work and life help us to read and disarm these shooters who conflate politics and spectacles of violence?

Recently, I finished rereading The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. It had been years since I’d read Mishima’s masterpiece. The long story is told from the point of view of Shigekuni Honda, a lawyer who lives through the first seven decades of the twentieth century, convinced that he keeps meeting reincarnations of Kiyoaki Matsugae, the best friend of his youth who died of a broken heart at age 20. Early in Spring Snow, the first novel, Kiyoaki has a premonition of his end: “A graceful death—as a richly patterned kimono, thrown carelessly across a polished table, slides unobtrusively down into the darkness of the floor beneath. A death marked by elegance.” In books two and three, Kiyoaki’s reincarnations also die young, and all of his iterations embody the beauties and follies of their respective eras: the exquisite delusions of the Taisho years (1912-1926) represented by the original Kiyoaki; the ill-conceived fascism of the interwar period shown through Isao, a radicalized nationalist; the devastated sensuality, kept alive through sheer instinct, of the immediate postwar period in the form of Thai princess Ying Chan; the fierce narcissism and unpitying gaze of late Shōwa (1926-1989) captured in Tōru.

Each novel also nests at least one story-within-the-story: an abbess’ sermon in Spring Snow; The League of the Divine Wind narrative in the second novel, Runaway Horses, which features a fusillade of deaths by seppuku, the ritual suicide that Mishima later enacted; discourses on reincarnation and a Bataille-like fantasy of sex and death in The Temple of Dawn, the third book; and a diary in the final installment, The Decay of the Angel. These mise-en-abyme narratives serve not just to reinforce the novels’ themes but to call attention to their artifice and theatricality. No one could say that Mishima didn’t have a flair for the dramatic.

While the books are thus framed by metaphorical theater curtains, Mishima was also obsessed with the idea of peeking through them. He wasn’t alone. Voyeurism has been a major theme of Japanese literature for over a thousand years, but in The Sea of Fertility, the act dramatizes the conduit between public and private bodies. For instance, in a scene in a bookstore from The Temple of Dawn, Honda happens upon a young man masturbating over a photograph of a bound woman in a magazine and speculates that the boy “had wanted to project himself into the role of a man tied by the ropes of people’s eyes and to face the woman bound in danger and humiliation.” (If only I could have been so philosophical on the two occasions I caught men publicly masturbating in Japan.) In another scene in that novel, Makiko, a poet who perjured herself both to save and destroy Isao 20 years before, forces her devoted female protégée to have sex with a man for her pleasure. When he discovers Makiko’s surveillance, Honda, who has installed peepholes to spy on the Thai princess, realizes she is “his exact counterpart.” In The Decay of the Angel, which takes its title from a Noh play that Yeats reinterpreted, the controlling, destructive nature of voyeurism becomes starker: “Seeing went beyond being, to take wings like a bird. It transported Tōru to a realm visible to no one. Even beauty there was a rotted, tattered skirt.”

Yet throughout the tetralogy, Mishima’s baroque metaphors are far more violent than any stolen glance. In the wake of his suicide, the novel that flags one down like an ambulance’s screaming lights is the second in the tetralogy, Runaway Horses, which chronicles the failed insurrection of Isao, Honda’s attempts to defend him in court, and Isao’s seppuku. Even its metaphors are soaked in blood: “The law is an accumulation of tireless attempts to block a man’s desire to change life into an instant of poetry. Certainly it would not be right to let everybody exchange his life for a line of poetry written in a splash of blood.” Early in the book, brutal imagery slashes through an otherwise picturesque scene of dancing shrine maidens: “The girls’ lilies became bamboo staves and then, in another moment, flashing sword blades. As the miko circled about with easy grace in the sunlight, the shadows of their long eyelashes on their white-powdered cheeks became for Honda the shadows cast by the glittering bars of the kendo mask.” Mishima’s metaphors are so fetishistic that they are almost not metaphors, but rather concrete representations of his desires, viscera strewn across the signifiers of other words.

Theatricality, voyeurism, extreme nationalism, and violent imagery are all elements woven into systems of fascism, but the most fascistic aspect of The Sea of Fertility—and indeed, much of Mishima’s work—is its celebration of the beautiful young death. As Susan Sontag wrote, fascism delights in physical perfection and choreographed bodies, but ultimately, “it glamorizes death.” Isao and his reincarnations repeatedly dying young and perfect, at the same age, encapsulate these various principles. The pattern becomes most problematic in the final novel. In The Decay of the Angel, Honda adopts a destitute, gifted teenager named Tōru on the suspicion that he is Kiyoaki’s reincarnation. The telltale signs of this soul are three moles on the left side of the torso and dying before age 21. Thus, Honda spends much of the novel anticipating his adopted son’s demise, and the reader, as the book nears its climax, is put in the uncomfortable position of hoping for Tōru’s death, which will prove he is not a counterfeit of Kiyoaki’s soul. In fact, he is a fake, and evil besides, but in leading readers into a longing for the beautiful death of a youth, Mishima makes us complicit in his fascist aesthetic.

After it becomes clear that Tōru is not the reincarnation, only a few dozen pages remain. The reading experience then grows deeply disturbing for anyone who knows that Mishima’s agonizing death coincided with the end of the book. Suddenly, time seems finite—not based on the number of pages in the narrative so much as on the hours Mishima had left as he wrote them. This march toward death is drawn out in the final chapter, which is paced by the poetry of approach—of the abbess Satoko, who will bring the narrative full circle, but of the author’s death too. It reminds me a bit of The Monster at the End of This Book, one of my childhood favorites, except that instead of adorable Grover, a split-open stomach is waiting on the last page. The Decay of the Angel may be the closest any book has come to replicating the experience of a snuff film.

While a few people have suggested that Mishima honestly thought his actions might result in a military coup and only resorted to suicide when he was ridiculed by the soldiers, the evidence doesn’t support this interpretation. By “evidence” I mean both his life and his writings. As for the former, he prepared his will before the incident and even wrote death poems. In terms of the latter, I normally don’t have much patience for biographical interpretations of texts, but in his case, I can’t separate literary narrative from the writer’s life.

Many scholars have fallen into the same trap. In a slightly peevish essay penned shortly after Mishima’s death, venerable Japanese scholar Edward Seidensticker labeled The Sea of Fertility novels the author’s “most apposite rehearsal” for suicide and admitted how hard it is not to confuse Mishima and his character Isao, who dies by seppuku to achieve ideological purity. Yet he also suspected, given the narcissism manifest in Mishima’s photographs of himself and his horror of old age, that his suicide was not sacrifice but self-gratification. Simply put, the author wanted to die while he still looked good.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of visual images to Mishima, proven by the cavalcade of self-conscious but gorgeous metaphors in his writings; his preference for the older, more ornate versions of many kanji, or Japanese characters; his involvement with butoh, the most visually striking dance form; his cultivation of the body beautiful; and the many photographs he posed for. The pageantry of seppuku called to him more than any ideological purity he might have seen in it. He and his militants rehearsed the scene of his eventual death, again and again, just like Mishima did in his fiction. A few months later, the dance between real life and art passed hands again, when a production of “Salomé” that Mishima had been preparing to stage in Tokyo—he had a lifelong fascination with Oscar Wilde’s play—went forth as planned. The stage prop of the severed head of John the Baptist resurrected Mishima’s severed head, a photograph of which had appeared in Japanese newspapers following his death.

Mishima probably would have forgiven that photo if it helped his legend and immortality. The curious thing, after all, is that Mishima never meant for his death imagery to die. The writer looked to his images—be they metaphors or his grotesque mise-en-scène of a suicide—to transform and transcend. There is movement within them. It should come as no surprise that Mishima worked with dancers throughout his life, particularly Tatsumi Hijikata, the co-founder of butoh. In an insightful essay, Mishima praised Hijikata’s dance for looking to the body’s own crises to inspire its drama rather than the manufactured crisis of pointe shoes in ballet; for example, he approved of the fact that even the stricken posture of a man urinating in the street could become part of butoh’s avant-garde lexicon. Just as Mishima applauded the erosion of the border between dance and pedestrian movements, he also embraced the melding of writing and dance. Or modeling and dance: Eikoh Hosoe—whom Mishima requested by name for a book jacket design after admiring his work with Hijikata—remarked that by posing for his camera, Mishima wanted “to become a dancer himself.”

For Mishima, death and nationalism were both dances that required strict choreography. This ethos is expressed in a key scene in Runaway Horses, in which Isao observes a group of soldiers, and the image of the sun and the Emperor unite in a great conflagration:

Only on this drill ground was the hand of the sun working with a mathematical clarity and precision. Only here! The will of the Emperor penetrated the sweat, the blood, the very flesh of these young men, piercing their bodies like X-rays. From high above the entranceway of regimental headquarters, the golden chrysanthemum of the imperial crest, brilliant in the sunshine, looked down upon this beautiful, sweaty, intricate choreography of death. And elsewhere? Elsewhere throughout Japan the rays of the sun were blocked.

I’m convinced that the reason he was drawn to the military and the Emperor is quite simple: he thought their regalia and rituals looked pretty.

Still, the current rash of young mass shooters who stage their public deaths bears little similarity to Mishima. Some of them have been indoctrinated into far-right ideology, yet unlike Mishima, they have no compunction about harming others. These mass murderers don’t really know what they’re trying to achieve beyond the spectacle of death. They just want their horrors to be seen, which is so different from Mishima. His compulsion to write about voyeurism is telling: he was terrified of being glimpsed unawares.

That’s the gift of a genius—their narcissism, unlike the rest of ours, is revelatory.

Today’s mass shooters rely on literal violence because they can’t appreciate the subset of violence that Mishima lived his life for, and in a way died for: that of radical art. His philosophy is summed up in The Temple of Dawn: “Art is a colossal evening glow . . .It’s the burnt offerings of all the best things of an era . . .The arts predict the greatest vision of the end; before anything else they prepare for and embody the end.” Meanwhile, Patrick Crusius, the suspect in the El Paso shooting, opined in the manifesto he allegedly posted just before he attacked, “This is just the beginning of the fight for America and Europe.” Crusius can’t envision the end, and no wonder. According to Mishima, such envisioning is an artistic act, and it’s hard to be challenged by art, let alone create it, within the echo chamber that the internet and the larger culture have become.

Mishima provoked not out of nihilism but to force dialogue—between readers, political parties, practitioners of different artistic media, and national literatures. However you feel about his final gesture—and I find it appalling—his commitment to dialogue is commendable, especially compared to our current moment, in which the two camps separated by the American political divide scream to the heavens yet stopper their ears. There have always been young people made dangerous by ideas they can’t reconcile. Even onslaughts of violent imagery that feel paradoxically blinding are nothing new. But the partisan deafness feels particular to this moment, and fatal.

The media have changed over the past fifty years, but the scent of the past is in the wind. Far-right ideology has returned to both Japan and the United States. If Mishima did act out of a hope of effecting change, perhaps he would be comforted if he knew of the shift. Yet my guess is that he would shudder at the thought of young men dying—and killing—not for art or the state or some clear end, but for absolutely nothing at all.