TamTam Books News

Friday, June 18, 2004:

I just got back from Tokyo and I am geared up to work on TamTam projects, but I also want to share some subjects that I am either fascinated with or more likely obsessed about. One is modern Japanese literature. Meaning 20th Century Japanese literature. I know very little about current literary trends in Japan. A really good paper that is in English is the Japan Times. The following two articles are about Mishima and the subject (besides Mishima) is the biography by Henry Scott Stokes called (surprise surprise) "The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima."

The following two articles are about Mishima and Stokes' book on the fame author and perhaps performance artist. The first is an interview with Stokes, and the second is a review of the biography. Later I will discuss more Japanese literature as well as French literature. I believe that there is a close relationship between the aesthetics of Japan and France. But more later - here's the articles on Mishima and the biography.

You can check out these articles at http://www.japantimes.co.jp/

Writer behind the writer
As a reporter in Tokyo in the late '60s, what was your professional interest in Yukio Mishima?

He was easily the biggest story in sight. There were major student demonstrations in the capital, some of them turning very violent, but the news desks of the world very quickly got bored with these stories. As a personality, as a commentator, and as it turned out a friend, Mishima was in a minority of one.

Can you tell us about the genesis of your Mishima biography?

After his death I immediately knew that I had to do something. I had original material, I knew a lot of details. I believed all of that was going to be lost unless I stirred myself. There were also letters from him. They were short but extremely pregnant, in which he alluded to suicide. I knew it was historic material, and that it was inconceivable I would not do a biography.

Having already experienced the works of two older literary giants, Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki, the West seems to have perceived Mishima as completing a trio of Japanese figures: the ascetic, the eroticist and, finally, the samurai. Would you agree?

It's an interesting idea. I think he actually did fulfill that role for the West. He cut through sensitive topics that took real courage. When the early translators came forward -- Donald Keene, Ivan Morris and Edward Seidensticker, another very impressive trio -- they grabbed the best titles. There was the samurai element; there was also the gay side, of course, his rapierlike wit, and the enormous range of forms he used, all of which put him in a very special category.

You talk in your book about Mishima's "titanic energy," his immense creative output. Was that palpable in his presence?

Yes it was. After his suicide there was a very real gap in the air. He had this enormous ebullience. It was best seen in his appointments book, which I glimpsed at from time to time. The last one was burned by the family after he died. It was absolutely jam-packed with appointments in the afternoon and early evening. As he was pursuing this arduous schedule day by day, he somehow sustained each appearance. He would stop drinking alcohol at about 9:45. He would then start drinking tea. He used to read magazines and fish through materials he had before starting to write at midnight.

How premeditated was Mishima's work and death?

I believe his premeditation started very early in his teens when he saw his contemporaries being drafted, vanishing into the armed forces while he was left alone on the beach, so to speak. The very conscious premeditation of his death seems to have occupied him for the last four to five years of his life. You can see him committing himself stage by stage as he completed each of the four books of the tetralogy, "The Sea of Fertility." When he completed the first book, "Spring Snow," he decided to train with the Self Defense Forces. This was in '67. When he completed the second book, he formed the Tatenokai [a rightwing private army]. The chronology is fairly close. When he completed the third book, "The Temple of Dawn," he formed a group within the Tatenokai which was the "suicide squad." The day he handed over the manuscript for the fourth book was the day of the suicide. I believe that, step by step, as he accomplished his literary objectives he moved forward to his death.

What was going on in your own mind on Mishima's last day, Nov. 25, 1970?

As I sat in the taxi going over to Ichigaya, I focused my thoughts on exactly where Mishima would be on this last day of his life. I was convinced he would commit seppuku [ritual suicide]. There was no way that he would end his life with a gun or a box of pills. And military combat, of course, was out of the question. I had this great desire that he should accomplish what he wanted. Some people might say that for a non-Japanese to have arrived at that stage of thinking, to have so thoroughly absorbed the mores, means that you have been in the country too long. But that is exactly where I stood on that day.

The Japan Times: Oct. 26, 2003
(C) All rights reserved

Revealing more to life and death
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF YUKIO MISHIMA, by Henry Scott Stokes. Tuttle Publishing, 2003, 271 pp., $16.95, (cloth).

One afternoon in the late 1960s, Henry Scott Stokes received a visit at the Tokyo office of the London Times from the writer Yukio Mishima, who declared to the startled young journalist, "You are the first person to take me seriously."

Henry Scott Stokes, author and financial journalist, remembers Yukio Mishima as telling him, "You are the first person to take me seriously."

The episode is not mentioned in the new edition of Stokes' 1974 biography, "The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima," but it is a telling moment. Mishima appears at some indeterminate time to have elected Stokes as one of the persons best suited to oversee the reported facts of his life and, as fate would have it, his death. Stokes would have the triple distinction of being the sole foreign reporter at the press conference held 15 minutes after Mishima's suicide at the Self-Defense Forces headquarters in Ichigaya, the only non-Japanese at the writer's home the following day and the only foreigner to attend the subsequent funeral.

As a biographer, what is one to make of a figure variously portrayed as a narcissist, rightwing imperialist, homosexual, keen observer of human nature, leading writer of his day and a man who staged what must rank as the most dramatic death of any Japanese in living memory? At the very least, Mishima's life and execrable death make a compelling story, one that almost upstages his own fiction.

Before completing his last work, "The Decay of the Angel," the coda to "The Sea of Fertility," Mishima organized an exhibition at the Tobu department store in Ikebukuro, a retrospective of his life that was divided into four contiguous sections: "The River of Writing," "Theater," "Body," and finally "The River of Action."

To the astonishment of visitors, the hall was draped in black curtains similar to maku, the hanging textiles used in Japanese funerals to delineate boundaries. In pride of place, impossible to ignore, was the sword that Mishima's companion in death, Waseda student Masakatsu Morita, would use to decapitate the writer the following month.

As a novelist, playwright and essayist, Mishima was aware of the limits of even his prolific output, something that may have tempted him back to the once complementary traditions in Japan, of literature and the martial arts. In Mishima the two disciplines would combine, achieve critical mass and then self-destruct.

In a scheme of symmetry that Mishima would surely have approved, Stokes has organized the final sections of his book into a sinuous channel called "The Four Rivers," which deals with the last two decades of Mishima's life. What makes Stokes' retelling of the story different from other biographies is that, while adhering to the facts as they stand, he is not afraid to dispense at times with the detachment that characterizes most Mishima biographies, rich critical works that are somehow wanting as human studies.

Stokes' book, by contrast, is an intensely personal work. "I dreamt," he writes in the final chapter, having described the gory death scenes at Ichigaya, "that Mishima came to my home in Glastonbury and knocked on the door. When I saw him standing there, I struck him down with a mattock. I was in fact for a long time revolted by his suicide, his self-murder; I could see nothing beautiful in it." While Stokes was clearly fond of his friend, the relationship was professional enough to avoid lapses in critical judgment. When considering the voyeuristic seppuku in Mishima's short story "Patriotism," for example, he does not hesitate to describe it as the "work of an abnormal man."

Stokes, who uses narrative to great effect, engages the reader with a mixture of superbly literate prose and critical analysis, yoking a novelistic sensitivity for observed conditions with a historian's perception. With the veracity and pace of live transmission and the attention to detail like that given to carefully edited court records, Stokes reconstructs the details of Mishima's last day as if he were a silent, nonjudgmental witness to those events.

Extracts from Stokes' diaries are used judiciously to reanimate exchanges that might otherwise have been lost. Invited to Stokes' home for dinner just two months before his death, the usually voluble Mishima is noted as having turned solemn: "I made the steaks for us and underdid them. Put off by something in Yukio. Steaks had to go into the pan again, bloody red. After dinner he struck his pessimistic note again . . . used an odd image: said that Japan was under the curse of a 'green snake.' "

With far fewer resources than would be available to a biographer today, Stokes' book reads almost like a collaboration with the deceased.

Mishima, a militarist in the imperialist mode, stood for everything that Japan was trying to forget. Afflicted with the craving to be a tragic hero, it was as if -- the Emperor, the Jewel Voice, having declared himself human -- Mishima needed to make himself superhuman. He ended up instead, an acute embarrassment to the Japanese public, a people who saw itself engaged in a different kind of heroic endeavor: trying to transform a discredited nation into an industrial giant and pacifist model.

Where the majority of Japanese viewed the postwar period as an opportunity for moral cleansing and regeneration, the writer saw only torpor and decay, a poisoning of the very ground water that had nourished the national spirit. He believed, perhaps, that only an act of calculated violence could forestall the corruption, divert the river of inaction.

It may, however, already have been too late. Mishima, whose punishing training schedules had driven his body to the desired physical peak, had no intention of growing old gracefully. His ritual disembowelment, besides all its nationalist undercurrents, was the destruction of Narcissus, the sword crashing into the mirror of beauty before it could transmit back an image of decay. As time passes and the circle of people who knew the writer shrinks, Stokes' work may be the closest we will ever get to glancing into the mirror ourselves.

Tosh // 2:34 AM

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