It is a gauzy autumn morning when he stands aloft and declaims.
On a balcony above a square where soldiers stand in haphazard arrangement, he poses in martial livery—brass buttons agleam down the green felt fetch of his coat—and calls for many things. To a soldier or two, they seem atavistic adjurations, though for now they keep these thoughts to themselves. The current constitution, imposed by foreign powers, should be annulled, the man says, and the emperor, long deposed, should be restored to his former glory.
Beneath the man’s uniform, his body is solid and imposing, evidently cultivated along the lines of a foreign aesthetic. His words are forceful, belted, believed, but the message they carry is too much, and so, of course, the soldiers below, having overcome their kneejerk obeisance to barked speeches, begin to laugh in waxing waves, which give way to jeering, to open ridicule.
Unfazed, the man on the balcony finishes his speech like a dutiful prophet (now we see that he has been reading from a script, no wonder his delivery had been so plumb), turns surely about, and walks with practiced elegance (elegance in spite of strength) back into the commandant’s office of the Eastern Command of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, where members of his private militia are waiting to assist his ritual suicide.
Published in 1968, just two years before the famed and much awarded Japanese author Yukio Mishima (a pen name adopted by Kimitake Hiraoka) committed seppuku after a failed coup attempt on November 25, 1970, Sun and Steel (which, depending on the printing, bears or bears not the subtitular extension Art, Action, and Ritual Death), his memoir-cum-manifesto, would be expected by modern readers to offer an inimitable window into the maelstrom of passion and theory that produced Mishima’s spectacular end. But the text—vatic, dogmatic, lousy with logical abysses that one imagines Mishima leaping over, buoyed aloft by his fanaticism—provides no such insight, offering only a refinement of his particular madness. It reinforces the view that his call for a coup and military extremism were merely condign veils for the intensity of his real purpose, which sought to fructify an aesthetic-nihilistic worldview in an exhibitionistic end: Regardless of the outcome of his speech—and indeed, in the absurdity of its demands it nearly begged to be flouted—Mishima intended to commit suicide that day. The martial ornaments of the staging were merely the outward forms beneath which his madness could coalesce.
Above all, Sun and Steel’s coiling argumentation and sense of obsession darkly-fed bolster a point that, though evasive and hardly satisfying as a characterological precis, has nevertheless been long accepted: Mishima is a winking void, beyond interpretation—or, we should add, satisfactory interpretation, because in the years after his highly stylized and orchestrated death, a veritable industry of interpretation sprang up, a self-generating mechanism that chewed and spurted and coughed thick clouds of smoke and ended up describing his downfall as, variously, a purely political act, a grandstanding display of narcissistic romanticism, the final discharge of repressed psychosis, even a spectacular admission of his closeted though oft-rumored homosexuality. (A twenty-four year old follower of Mishima’s, long supposed to be his lover, was the only other individual in the commandant’s office to commit suicide that day.)
Because the center is missing, little sticks, and everything is permissible, although we should point out that these were the hypotheses of Western commentators, and while that cadre of exoticizing pens was happy to flitter and fumble and fling their wanton analyses at the enigmatic obelisk of Mishima’s reputation, critical voices within Japan tended to avoid the subject—and the man, and the work—entirely. For many years after his suicide, Mishima’s final works, by latterday consensus among his best, went undiscussed by the Japanese critical establishment, although this lacuna, like Mishima’s final act, is difficult to account for. Was it an unwillingness to prod too maliciously at the image of an insane man? A desire not to honor his fringe fanaticism by admitting even tacitly that its output could bear aesthetic merit? Was Mishima’s ideological recidivism too much of a national embarrassment, with Japan poised to become a global power? Or, almost paradoxically, considering his final demands, was it the fact that in one of his last works he had criticized the emperor, and that institution was still too valued, the respect for it inculcated so deeply that besmirching it would warrant ostracism?
Probably a little of that all.
Mishima was a weak child. Slender, asthenic, sensitive, his own youthful habitus provided the model for those of his protagonists, themselves effete, long-lashed, porcelain-skinned delicates in which the twinned concepts of elegance and corruption are intractably twined. While inly Mishima cultivated his thoughts and allowed the world to filter into the dark chamber of his mind, his outer form, subject to preternatural phthisis, diminished, and utterly escaped his own notice.
Perhaps it’s only an instance of colorful ex post facto attribution, but, regardless, Mishima’s explanation for this withering in Sun and Steel is deeply felt, fully believed by the writer. “In the average person, I imagine, the body precedes language,” Mishima writes. “In my case, words came first of all; then—belatedly, with every appearance of extreme reluctance, and already clothed in concepts—came the flesh. It was already, as goes without saying, sadly wasted by words.” Wasted because words, for Mishima, are inherently corrosive; they eat away at reality, and in so doing, like the etchant on glass, are weakened themselves. Thus, as he attests, were he to successfully pursue his desire to write, it would be necessary to counteract this undesired function of language, “to encounter reality in some field where words should play no part at all.”
So Mishima, as a young man, set out to “cultivate” his physical form, taking as his primary implements in this endeavor the titular sun and steel—the sun being the sun in the sky, the steel being the heavy metal tools of weightlifting: dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells. The ideal body, as Mishima saw it, was defined by two traits: “taciturnity” and “beauty of form.” The “form” he pursued was the classical, sculptural ideal, of Greek statues and Renaissance paintings; the desire for “taciturnity” sprang from his setting “the wordless body, full of physical beauty, in opposition to beautiful words that imitated physical beauty.” And from the very first, his pursuit of the ideal body was ineluctably tied up with death.
“I cherished a romantic impulse towards death,” Mishima writes, “yet at the same time I required a strictly classical body as its vehicle.” Were death to come upon a flabby body, an ill-cultivated body, the death itself would become ignoble, shameful, a grand embarrassment. There was no honor to be found in a flabby decease.
All of this is readily comprehensible, easily digestible; in death, we are reduced to bodies, and hence a beautiful death requires a beautiful body. The commingling of aesthetics and nihilism is nothing too radical. But within Sun and Steel Mishima quickly loses himself in a wild arborescence of themes and motifs. As a corollary of his desire for the ideal body, he longs to possess the the “pure sense of strength,” a discarnate sensation which requires no object on which to discharge itself. Whereas words can only exist relationally, by interacting with what we perceive as reality, this ideal of strength would allow Mishima to grasp ultimate reality. But what, in Mishima’s tilted cosmology, is ultimate reality?
An ardent practitioner of kendo and karate, Mishima longed to experience “that which lay at the end of the flashing fist, and beyond the bow of the bamboo sword…just a hairsbreadth beyond the reach of the senses,” for “there, above all, lay the essence of action and power.” Antagonistically minded, Mishima dubbed this higher sense of reality the “opponent.” Though arrived at by curlicues of argumentation, the “opponent” is not an “idea,” but a “thing,” an apparent entity that ever stares back at one. “Ultimately,” Mishima concludes, “the opponent—‘the reality that stares back at one’—is death.”
Mishima, not surprisingly, liked to pose. A prominent novelist from a very young age, he parlayed this early success into chary careers in modelling, acting, and singing. His work in film was simple, vulgar, unrefined, and, along with his singing, served only to gain him popular exposure; his starring role as a gangster in 1960’s Tough Guy was received by the Japanese press as unimpressive. By and large, this role objectifies a blunting of Mishima’s novelistic concerns: His character, clad in a leather jacket, moves about like a brute; there is fawning, camera-conscious chest-bearing; and, in the end, Mishima’s character dies in a hail of bullets. Intending to make the film a complete spectacle, Mishima insisted on singing its theme song.
His modelling, by nature static and “taciturn,” is more sensitive, more sincere. The early photos—traditional images, largely commercial, designed to capture pedestrian scenes of beauty—are for the most part uninteresting. But as the years advanced and Mishima slowly crept, knowingly or not, to his death, the images became more artistic, more private, more beautiful. They centered more and more around Mishima’s body, which was edging up against that terminal asymptote of perfection which would make his eventual suicide—at least in his eyes—noble.
With a dark line of trimmed conifers in the background, Mishima, clad only in a sparing white loincloth, kneels in a pristine blanket of February snow. Facing the camera, he gazes off to his right, where a katana extends from his right arm; it is difficult to say just where the focus of his eyes lies, whether he is staring at the minatory tip of the steel, or far beyond it, at a carnate enemy somewhere hedged black against the white, out of frame, or whether still his eyes fumble for some nebulous zone just beyond the edge of the blade: a pocket of air, a worming distortion. In a different image, captured by the same photographer, Mishima, in the same garb, stands in casual contrapposto before a shōji, his torso bedight with gems of sweat, a sheathed katana resting against his right hip. Ears akimbo, hair trimmed tight, he looks into the camera without an expression—there is only an impression of great force, of a terrible energy seething forth from the eyes.
These later photos edged constantly towards the violent, the martial, the morbid. In September of 1970, only a month before his suicide, Mishima arranged for a modelling session with the young photographer Kishin Shinoyama. Mishima had planned the images, the shots, the scenes—he intended to call the final series of photos “Death of a Man.” In the pictures, Mishima faces various grim demises: He wallows, expiring, in mud; a hatchet cleaves his skull and tickles his brain; he is crushed beneath the wheels of an industrial truck. Most interestingly, though least surprisingly, he poses as Saint Sebastian, hips girdled by a white cloth, wrists gambreled up by a thin rope, strung against a tree, his torso oiled and agleam, his gaze upflung and ruminative, divested of any expression of pain. Three arrows pierce his skin, at the hip, beneath the ribcage, and directly in the armpit.
In Confessions of a Mask, Mishima’s self-professedly autobiographical second novel published in 1949, the narrator admits to first masturbating to a reproduction of Guido Reni’s Saint Sebastian, the sublime “beauty of form” of the martyr, and the pure ecstasy apparent in his visage contributing to the first instant of sincere arousal. Perhaps the most famous passage in Mishima’s oeuvre, it achieves a startling conflation of the sacred and the profane, the sensual and the terminal, of pain and pleasure. But this highly idiosyncratic and almost ungraspable melding of sensations, once experienced from the side of the desirer, evidently captivated Mishima enough to assume the other role, to become the object of this dark and obscure desire.
Perhaps Reni’s original is an image of torture and pain, of execution, yet Mishima’s reproduction, consciously crafted in opposition, shifts the power. Luxuriating in death, it becomes his own.
“According to my definition of tragedy,” Mishima writes in Sun and Steel, “the tragic pathos is born when the perfectly average sensibility momentarily takes unto itself a privileged nobility that keeps others at a distance, and not when a special type of sensibility vaunts its own special claims.”
Mishima glorified the Greeks. In the early 1950s, as a reporter for the Asahi Shinbun, he spent several weeks in Greece, finding there exactly what he wanted to find—exactly what he expected to find, as John Nathan attests in Mishima: A Biography:
…the lesson he learned from what he beheld was the lesson he required, a liberating lesson; that “beauty and ethics were one and the same”; that “creating a beautiful work of art and becoming beautiful oneself were ethically identical.”
Mishima was well-acquainted with the entirety of Greek tragedy; he attempted to rewrite several of its sterling exemplars in his own plays. And yet no play strikes so much of a resonance with Mishima’s work as Hecuba, by Euripides.
In it, Troy has fallen, and Hecuba, erstwhile wife of King Priam, already savaged by sorrows, is informed that her daughter Polyxena will be sacrificed on the tomb of Achilles. Wailing is heard, pleas are made and then ignored, and eventually Polyxena bravely steps forward, avowing that she would rather die than live a slave. She is hauled away, hidden by a shroud, and in only a few minutes’ time we learn of her death from the chorus.
They had not wanted her to die, she was so beautiful, and, as she was placed upon the tomb of Achilles, she cried for her sentinels, her captors, to loose her; freely, of her own will, she tore off her cloak, baring her youthful breasts. She gave her neck to the sword, and, if it hesitated in that precarious pressured moment, the steel rung up against the impermeable guard of doubt, she worked some magic, some mysterious lure upon its bearer: she invited the steel, and welcomed its kiss with a meretricious fluttering of her lashes, and when she fell, incruent angel in the dust of her conquered home, it was a graceful fall, a sensuous decease, composed and conscious, crumpling finally like a lurid lily, grasping itself as it dries upon the grass.
Polyxena is destined to die—it is no longer her choice. And yet, somehow, she converts this death sentence, arrived at by supernatural decree, into a form of suicide, of willed death. Her instrument in this alchemical process is the aesthetic; the only way she has of controlling her life, of dictating the entirety of her existence, is by turning it into art.
In 1985, fifteen years after Mishima’s death, the BBC produced The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima for its documentary series, Arena. An hour in length, the documentary features clips of interviews with Mishima himself, along with interviews with prominent Japanese intellectuals, who most frequently turn down their noses at Mishima and his death, explain why, in their opinions, the self-created ending to his story was a failure, artistic or otherwise.
Nagisa Oshima, the lauded filmmaker whose movies, like Mishima’s fictions, scouted the precarious terrain between death and sensuality, considered his coeval’s death rash and tasteless melodrama. “He wanted to dramatise the end of his life in a beautiful way,” Oshima said. “But it was an over-elaborate gesture, which failed to satisfy our Japanese aesthetic."
Most of the posthumous evaluations end with some sort of societal catch-all commentary like the above, but the testimony of Nobuko Lady Albery, a writer, while striking the same thematic notes—of the overextension of the gesture—refrains, delicately, from condemnation: “As a clown, as an actor, as an impostor, as a gangster, as an aristocrat—in every little thing he tried to be, he over-existed.”
It almost seems a shame to point out that after Mishima rammed a short sword into his left side and tore it across his abdomen, his presumptive lover twice failed to decapitate him. Finally the sword was handed off to an assistant, who finished the job with a third stroke—which didn’t exactly rectify the botching.