New York in History and Anecdote
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The Way of the Perfect Samurai

He wrote near the end that his life was divided into four rivers: writing, theater, body, and action. He memorialized all of it through photographs. Some were conventional. When Yukio Mishima came to New York with his wife for a belated honeymoon in 1960, they were photographed on the Staten Island ferry and before the Manhattan skyline, like any tourist couple.

A bodybuilder for the last two decades of his life, his love of self-display crossed into exhibitionism. Thus, the beautiful, homoerotic photographs: Mishima in a fundoshi, a loincloth, kneeling in new-fallen snow with a dai katana, the great sword of a samurai, or posing as Guido Reni’s St. Sebastian (complete with arrows). He even posed for Barakei (roughly, “Death by Roses”), a magnificently produced luxury book of extraordinary nude photographs, and somehow was disturbed by the consequent letters received from various admirers requesting still bolder portraits—after all, he was a family man with a wife and two children.

Perhaps the four rivers joined in his most famous photograph: Mishima stripped to the waist, his chest bulging with muscle and gleaming with sweat, his brows knotted and eyes glaring, wielding a massive, two-handed, three-foot-long dai katana. It was an elegant weapon, made by the legendary 17th-century swordsmith Seki no Magoroku, and kept razor-sharp. About his head is a hachimaki, a white headband bearing the Rising Sun and a medieval samurai slogan, “Serve the Nation for Seven Lives.”

Yukio Mishima first came to New York in 1951 at twenty-five. Within the previous two years, he had published two outstanding novels, Confessions of a Mask and Forbidden Colors. The critics hailed him as a genius. He spent ten days in the city, going to the top of the Empire State Building, seeing Radio City Music Hall and the Museum of Modern Art, catching Call Me Madam and South Pacific. New York did not appeal to him: he found it, according to biographer John Nathan, “like Tokyo five hundred years from now.”

Mishima was born Kimitake Hiraoka, the eldest son of a middle-class family. Before he was two months old, his paternal grandmother took him from his parents and kept him until he was twelve. Her ancestors had been samurai, related by marriage to the Tokugawa, who were shoguns. She was chronically ill and unstable, yet she loved theater and took him to the great classics, such as The 47 Ronin, a magnificent celebration of feudal allegiance, of loyalty and honor even unto death, and perhaps the most stirring Kabuki play.

Through her family connections, Mishima entered the elite Peers’ School, and by fifteen he was publishing in serious literary magazines. He took the pen name Yukio Mishima to escape his father’s persecution (his father, a Confucian, considered fiction mendacity and destroyed his son’s manuscripts whenever possible). In 1944 he graduated as valedictorian and received a silver watch from the Emperor. His luck held: he failed an army induction physical and thus survived the Second World War.

From the beginning, Mishima’s productivity was stunning: in 1948, he published thirteen stories, a first novel, a collection of novellas, two short plays and two critical essays. On November 25, 1948, after retiring from a nine-month career at the Finance Ministry, he began his first major novel, Confessions of a Mask. Mishima brilliantly evokes his closeted protagonist’s awareness of being different and sense of unique shame. Within two years, Mishima revisited this theme in Forbidden Colors, now noting homosexuality’s ubiquity. Spending all that time in gay bars, taking notes, can do that to you. Besides, homosexuality occupies a different place in Japanese culture than it does in ours. During the two centuries before Japan reopened to the West, some of its most flamboyant heroes were bisexual picaros whose panache and courage on the battlefield were equaled by delicacy and endurance in a diversity of intimate situations.

In July 1957, after Alfred A. Knopf published his Five Modern Noh Plays, Mishima returned to New York. (He told his biographer John Nathan that Knopf dressed “like the King in an operetta, or a whiskey trademark.”) Mishima was interviewed by The New York Times, met Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams, and their friends, saw eight Broadway shows, and went several times to the New York City Ballet.

He returned to Japan to find a wife, which was not as easy as one might think. Although marriages were still often arranged, and he was one of Japan’s most distinguished men of letters, Mishima’s affect was apparently not particularly attractive. (A weekly magazine had polled Japan’s young women on the question, “If the Crown Prince and Yukio Mishima were the only men remaining on earth, which would you prefer to marry?” More than half the respondents preferred suicide.) Nevertheless, his marriage to Yoko Sugiyama proved successful. They stopped in New York on their belated honeymoon, where he saw two of his plays performed in English at the cutting-edge Theatre de Lys. They had two children and he was an attentive, devoted father.

The family lived in a house Mishima had ordered built in the Western manner. It has been described as Victorian colonial, perhaps because the language lacks words to better describe it. “For Mishima,” Nathan explains, “the essence of the West was late baroque, clashing colors, garishness…” He describes him assuring “his horrified architect,” that ‘I want to sit on rococo furniture wearing Levi’s and an aloha shirt; that’s my ideal of a lifestyle.'”

From 1965 to 1970, he worked on his four-volume epic, The Sea of Fertility (Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel). “The title,” he said, “is intended to suggest the arid sea of the moon that belies its name.” It is his masterpiece, as he knew it would be.

At first glance, in taking the theme of the transformation of Japanese society over the past century, Mishima is revisiting the tired, even trite conflict between traditional values and the spiritual sterility of modern life. One might better define this work as a lyric expression of longing, which he apparently believed the central force in life: that longing led one to beauty, whose essence is ecstasy, which results in death. His fascination with death is erotic: he was drawn to it as most of us are drawn to the company and the touch of the beloved.

In his essay “Sun and Steel,” he wrote of “a single, healthy apple…at the heart of the apple, shut up within the flesh of the fruit, lurks the core in its wan darkness, tremblingly anxious to find some way to reassure itself that it is a perfect apple. The apple certainly exists, but to the core this existence as yet seems inadequate… Indeed, for the core, the only sure mode of existence is to exist and to see at the same time. There is only one method of solving this contradiction. It is for a knife to be plunged deep into the apple so that it is split open and the core is exposed to the light… Yet then the existence of the cut apple falls to pieces; the core of the apple sacrifices existence for the sake of seeing.”

Mishima stood about five feet, two inches. He glowed with charisma and an undeniable, disturbing sexuality. Every memoir testifies to his extraordinary energy. He was brilliant and witty, even playful. He had self-knowledge and a keen irony, and his own absurdities were often its target. He became politically active on the extreme right and in 1968 organized the Shield Society, which became his elegantly uniformed private army.

Both Japanese and Westerners testified to his extraordinary empathy—his ability to understand and respond to others. Thus his genius for conversation: the man who loved discussing the Japanese classics, Oscar Wilde, or the dozen shades of red differentiated in the Chinese spectrum could also discuss weightlifting or kendo or a thousand other subjects, each gauged to his listener. He could make his companion feel that he or she was the most important person in the world to him, which was a useful gift for a man who understood that he lived behind masks, or in a series of compartments, and that no one knew him whole.

In November of 1970, Yukio Mishima was forty-five. He’d published thirty novels, eighteen plays, twenty volumes of verse, and twenty volumes of essays; he was an actor and director, a swordsman and bodybuilder, a husband and father. He spoke three languages fluently; he had gone around the world seven times, modeled in the nude, flown in a fighter jet, and conducted a symphony orchestra. During the previous evening, he had told his mother that he had done nothing in his life that he had wanted to do.

On November 25, twenty-two years to the day from beginning Confessions of a Mask, he led a party of four members of the Shield Society to a meeting with the commanding general of the Eastern Army of the Japanese Self-Defense Force. He had finished revising the manuscript of The Decay of the Angel only that day; it was on a table in the front hall of his house, ready for his publisher’s messenger.

At army headquarters, with only swords and daggers, Mishima and his men took the commanding general hostage. They demanded that the troops be assembled outside the building to hear Mishima speak. A little before noon, with 800 soldiers milling about, Mishima leaped to the parapet of the building, dressed in the Shield Society’s uniform. About his head was the hachimaki. He began speaking, but the police and television helicopters drowned out many of his words. He spoke of the national honor; and demanded the army join him in restoring the nation’s spiritual foundations by returning the Emperor to supreme power.

He had once said, “I come out on stage determined to make the audience weep and instead they burst out laughing.” It held true now: the soldiers shouted that he was a bakayaro, an asshole. After a few minutes, he gave up. He cried out three times, “Heiko Tenno Banzai” (“Long Live the Emperor”), and stepped back.

He loved Jocho Yamamoto’s classic Hagakure, an 18th-century instruction manual for the warrior. Jocho states, “The way of the samurai is death…the perfect samurai will, in a fifty-fifty life or death crisis, simply settle it by choosing immediate death.”

Mishima had fantasized about kirigini—to go down fighting against overwhelming odds, sword in hand. Now he kicked off his boots and removed his uniform until he wore only a fundoshi. He sat down on the carpet and took a dagger, a yorodoishi, in his right hand. He inhaled deeply. Then his shoulders hunched as he drove the blade into his abdomen with great force. As his body attempted to force out the weapon, he grasped his right hand with his left and continued cutting. The blood soaked the fundoshi. The agony must have been unimaginable. Yet, he completed the cut. His head collapsed to the carpet as his entrails spilled from his body.

He had instructed Morita, his most trusted follower, “Do not leave me in agony too long.” Now, Morita struck down with Mishima’s dai katana. He was inept: the beheading required three strokes. Then Morita took his own life.

Mishima’s motives remain the subject of speculation: madness, burnout, or fatal illness. Some whispered that he might have enjoyed the pain. Others suggested he and Morita had committed shinju, a double love-suicide. Some argued esthetics. A reading of Sun and Steel suggests that suicide was the logical completion of his search for beauty. Others take him seriously. Perhaps it was a matter of honor, and his death the most sincere protest he could muster against modern life.

To this day, thousands of Japanese observe the anniversary of his suicide.

New York Press, May 9, 2000

February 15, 2009   Comments Off on The Way of the Perfect Samurai