Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Yukio Mishima's Death at Noon

November 25 last year marked the 45th anniversary of the so-called 'Mishima Incident' when famous Japanese author Yukio Mishima (1925-70) together with four of his cadres from his private army, The Shield Society, took hostage a general at the headquarters of Japan's 'Ground Self Defence Forces' (the euphemistic name for the Japanese army).

Mishima demanded that the GSDF soldiers at the base immediately assemble in front of the headquarters building from whose balcony he delivered a speech that was both a damning indictment of modern Japan and a call to arms, demanding constitutional reform. Greeted with a sea of jeers, Mishima returned to the general's room and together with his probable lover Masakatsu Morita, committed an excruciating ritual suicide.

Last year, to commemorate the 45th anniversary of his death - Mishima himself was 45 when he died - a new edition of Eikoh Hosoe's classic 1963 photo collection, 'Ordeal by Roses', depicting Mishima in a variety of stylised and artistic poses was released. Turning the pages, I came upon one particular photograph that made me freeze. It's a striking image of Mishima standing on a small stool (the type you might use to hang yourself), with a naked torso and holding a huge clock showing the time as exactly 12 o'clock. It's almost like looking at the Hindu god Shiva transformed into an Americanized gay icon holding in one hand a glowing sphere of life (actually a baseball) and in the other the hour at which life would be extinguished.

Throughout his life Mishima was obsessed with watches, clocks and time in general. When you read his friends' recollections of him, a constant feature is just how concerned Mishima was to never be late for an appointment. He hated being late. Despite him being an enormously prolific author, he was famous for never having missed a single publisher's deadline (virtually unheard of in the literary world of the day).

He was also utterly unforgiving when other people failed to treat exact time-keeping with a similar respect. For example he once arranged to write an opera with the composer Toshiro Mayuzumi (a long-time collaborator). As the deadline approached, Mayuzumi - who had never composed an opera before - fretted and begged Mishima for a little more time to get it finished. Mishima was furious and broke off all contact, abandoning the opera completely. Meanwhile the gift that Mishima bestowed on people he most admired was a watch.

The Mishima Incident was the subject of meticulous planning over several months by Mishima and his men. It was supposed to unfold according to a strict schedule. Mishima arrived at the base at exactly 11am and was shown with his Shield Society cadres into the general's room for a pre-arranged meeting. Shortly after exchanging pleasantries, they suddenly took him hostage, threatening to kill him if all the soldiers were not assembled to listen to Mishima's speech at precisely 11.30am. Mishima would then go out onto the balcony, speak for 30 minutes, then kill himself at 12 o'clock.

But the plan did not quite go to schedule. On two occasions, Self Defence Force officers, armed merely with wooden swords (somewhat comically the only weapons immediately available to them), burst into the room and fought Mishima and his men. But they were unable to compete with Mishima brandishing a real-life 17th century Seki no Magoroku sword and were forced out of the room again.

Because of the commotion and scuffles, it was not 11.30am when Mishima strutted out onto the balcony, but just before noon. There's no doubt that he was not just indignant at being delayed but also frustrated because the time was fast approaching that he had long earmarked for death.

In his speech from the balcony, Mishima ranted that he had waited, waited, but now he could wait no more. What had he been waiting for? His meaning was that he had been waiting for the anti-Vietnam War student riots to develop to such a point that the police would be overwhelmed by student numbers. In order to prevent civil war, the Self Defence Forces would have to be mobilized to restore order and at that point the entire nation would finally realize how essential it was for Japan to have a legitimate army. Then noone could deny that the hateful Peace Constitution must be changed. It was for this that he had waited and waited.

But the Self Defence Forces personnel, not knowing just how much Mishima hated to wait for anything, could hardly grasp how being kept 'waiting' could have driven Mishima to such an extremity of action. Competing with the noise of circling media helicopters and heckling from the crowd, Mishima abandoned his 30 minute speech after just 7 minutes. He knelt in the direction of the Imperial Palace, cried out in the name of the emperor three times, then returned to the general's room and commenced his ritual suicide (seppuku). His last action was to take off his expensive watch and hand it to one of his accomplices. He killed himself at around 12.15pm.

Mishima wanted to die at precisely noon. For Mishima it was important that he was dying when his sun was highest in the sky, at the peak of his powers. Mishima was very exact when it came to time. Looking again at this picture, taken by Eiko Hosoe nine years earlier in 1961, I can't help feeling how incredibly frustrating those final 15 minutes of life must have been to him.

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