Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Everything about Mishima

My new book Yukio Mishima came out this week so I thought I might give my blog readers an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of where the book came from and what it's all about.

For anyone not familiar with the name today, Yukio Mishima was arguably the most internationally famous Japanese celebrity of the last century. A dazzlingly prolific author who wrote over 30 novels, 70 plays and seemingly countless volumes of short stories, memoirs and essays, he also found time to be a movie actor, martial arts devotee, body builder, political campaigner and world traveller. He also conducted an orchestra, flew a F104 jet and formed his own private army. He was described by Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, as the kind of genius who comes along every 300 years. In Japan his tentacles of personal association spanned from the prime minister to business leaders to film directors and taxi drivers. On his world travels, he hung out with Christopher Isherwood, Greta Garbo, Margot Fonteyn and Jean Cocteau amongst many others. When he died in Tokyo at the age of 45 in the most spectacular death imaginable on November 25 1970, the entire Japanese nation came to a standstill. In that never-to-be-forgotten JFK moment, every Japanese over the age of 10 at the time still remembers exactly where they were when they heard the astonishing news that Mishima with a handful of cadres had taken hostage a general at the Eastern Headquarters of the Japanese Self Defence Forces, appeared on a balcony to give a frenzied speech to the army, been shouted down and subsequently committed ritual suicide. No man ever lived out a life in more dramatic fashion.

Mishima was also the first Japanese writer I ever read. At the age of 16, I was passed by a schoolteacher his novella The Sailor Who Fell From Grace From The Sea (translated by John Nathan, of whom more below). Later at the age of 19 I was reading his Confessions of a Mask, a copy of which rested on my university desk with a cover depicting Mishima in a typically sado-masochistic pose (prompting a startled visitor to note my 'esoteric tastes'). By the time I was 20 and hitchhiking around the island of Shikoku in 1990, I was asked at a youth hostel who were the most famous Japanese people in Britain. 'Yukio Mishima', I instantly responded. I might have added that, at the time, this was pretty much the only Japanese person anyone in Britain had heard of thanks to his positioning as an unlikely counter cultural college room poster boy.

From the above, you might imagine that I have long been a Mishima devotee, but actually I was ambivalent about Mishima. There was no denying his literary talent, but the bulging muscles, the triumphing of Japanese traditions, the whole samurai shtick combined with the right wing politics were simply not for me. At his worst, Mishima seemed to embody just about every cliche of Japan. So I placed him at a respectful distance and quietly shook my head at those, like the great Japanologist Donald Keene, who seemed to think that he was the best modern writer Japan had to offer.

But then I was asked if I wouldn' t like to pen a new take on Mishima? Yes, yes, would love to write the book, but did it have to be on Mishima...couldn't we do someone else? No, it had to be Mishima.

Once, at a dinner in Cambridge back in 1999, my old college mucker Andrew Rankin informed me that he was writing a biography of Mishima and ever afterwards I always kept an eye out for the appearance of his mighty tome on Mishima. Though Andrew has gone to produce books on a variety of other subjects, such as his book on seppuku (ritual suicide) with Mishimaesque connections, his definitive word on Mishima has not yet appeared.

But gradually, semi-reluctantly I was drawn into research on the subject. The first task was to read as much of the Mishima canon as possible (his complete works comprise some 42 volumes each of which are around 7-800 pages long). Where to start? For me, what transformed my understanding of Mishima was reading his final tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, his self-declared 'life work' which took over five years to write and quite literally killed him. (Mishima committed suicide on the same day as the final installment was handed to his editor, having declared that he could not imagine any life after this book was finished). Reading this book changed my entire view of Mishima and made me convinced that he had been largely misunderstood.
So baffling has The Sea of Fertility been to critics that they either tend to mostly ignore it and claim that early works such as Confessions of a Mask were Mishima's finest achievement, or else they tend to force analogies between the contents of The Sea of Fertility and the playing out of Mishima's own life. Specifically, the suicide of a young nationalist at the end of volume two is nearly always dovetailed (as at the end of Paul Schrader's otherwise superb film Mishima: A life in Four Chapters, pictured right) with Mishima's own demise. But if this was really the meaning of his 'life work', why did he write another two volumes?

Although he was most famous for his posturing dandyism, nationalism and kinky homosexuality (though he was also married with kids), I began to realise there was an entirely different Mishima with profound ideas on the nature of existence. This was the man I wanted to explore.

When turning to existing biographies of Mishima, we really are spoilt for choice. In 1974, four years after Mishimas death, two comprehensive biographies of Mishima appeared in English and both have fascinating backstories. The first of them was by Mishima's erstwhile translator John Nathan. Well over 6 foot tall and standing nearly a foot taller than Mishima himself, Nathan was not just any translator, but a brilliantly talented and fresh-faced American - in fact the first American graduate of Tokyo University - whose translation of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace From The Sea won such high praise from its American publishers Knopf that Mishima believed that in this young man he had found the means by which he would capture Japan's first Nobel Prize. He pumped weights with Nathan, invited him to his house parties and hearing of Knopf's high praise for him, invited him out to the Ginza so they could chink sake cups together and raise toasts to the great task of winning the Nobel Prize.

If Shakespeare was alive today he would undoubtedly pen a play called Mishima and this scene with Nathan would be a crucial moment in Act 2. (In Julius Caesar fashion, I fantasise that Mishima would die not in Act 5, but in Act 3 and the rest of the play would be taken up with Mishima's legacy and ghost). Shortly after the toasts to the Nobel Prize, Nathan had to awkwardly declare that he did not want to translate Mishima's next novel, which he thought untranslatable, and wished rather to switch his services to Mishima's great rival Kenzaburo Oe instead. Mishima never spoke to him again. It was this moment which set Mishima on an inexorable path to death five years later: it also set Oe on the path to the Nobel Prize which he claimed in 1994 with Nathan at his side.

Nathan's subsequent biography of Mishima, complete with interview material with Mishima's own parents, is an extraordinary piece of research which was translated into Japanese before being suppressed by Mishima's widow and only finally released after her death.

An equally fascinating biography was also provided in 1974 by Henry Scott Stokes, a journalist at the Japan Bureau of the London Times. Mishima had befriended Scott Stokes in the last years of his life, had stayed with Mishima at his holiday retreat during Mishima's final summer and actually rushed to the base on the day of Mishima's death.

Biographies and memoirs of Mishima in Japanese are of course legion, but special mention might be made to the biography published by the recent governor of Tokyo, Naoki Inose, which delved in particular into Mishima's intriguing family history (Mishima's grandfather was governor of the Japanese province of Karafuto (modern day Sakhalin) and was tipped for a cabinet post before scandal engulfed him). Two years ago a much expanded version of this book prepared in cooperation with Hiroaki Sato, a notable Mishima scholar and translator based in New York, appeared in English. Persona runs to some 850 pages and is exhaustively comprehensive. After reading Inose's Japanese original, I read the English version of Persona twice: it is a quite terrific work of scholarship.

In the illustrious company of men who personally knew Mishima and ate and drank with him, or in the face of colossal biographies by authors who have devoted half a lifetime in scholarship on the subject, what can my book hope to achieve? I'm hoping it might serve firstly as an up-to-date introduction to one of the most extraordinary lives of the twentieth century, but I'm also hoping it will reveal Mishima's obsessive, incisive ideas about the nature of the world itself. I have paid particular attention to Mishima's masterwork, The Sea of Fertility, and hope my dose of literary criticism will encourage a re-evaluation of this tremendous tome, Mishima deserves to be remembered and appreciated for his writing, and not just for his spectacular death.

For me personally, having arrived at Mishima a little late and sceptical, I must declare that this book is but the first of a trilogy of interconnected books on Mishima. How the other books will take up the theme is a subject to which I shall return. Watch this space.

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