One of Japan’s greatest, and strangest, writers, Yukio Mishima had a meteoric career as a novelist, playwright, poet, actor, and film maker, producing some three dozen novels and fifty plays before his spectacular ritual suicide in 1970 at age 45. A right-wing nationalist, he’d built up a private militia, and wanted to inspire his countrymen to return the Japanese emperor to true political power, as a counterweight to Japan’s growing Westernization. Despairing of changing the direction of his culture, and obsessed with distaste for growing old, he made an appointment with the commandant of the Tokyo headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense forces. Barricading the door, he and a group of four followers tied the commandant to his chair, and then Mishima delivered a speech to soldiers in the courtyard below, urging them to join him in staging a coup d’état.
When - as he’d expected - this speech failed to inspire his outraged audience, he went back inside and disemboweled himself, having instructed his followers to complete the task by beheading him.
Earlier that day, he’d written the final sentence of his magnum opus, the tetralogy of Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel, collectively given the ironic title The Sea of Fertility, after a region on the moon. Spanning the years from 1912 to 1975, the tetralogy follows the career of Kiyoaki Matsugae, who dies at the end of the first volume and then is reborn three times, including as a Thai princess, Ying Chan, a reincarnation that gave Mishima scope to explore his own complex sexuality as well as a broader Asian context.
The Sea of Fertility is almost an encyclopedia of strategies for interweaving a premodern Asian past and a global modernity. While working on the series, Mishima travelled to India as well as Thailand, and he discussed problems of rural development with Indira Gandhi in addition to visiting temples and burning-ghats. Equally, he drew extensively on fictional models, both Japanese and Western. Here, we can look at two of his key intertexts: the works of Murasaki Shikibu and Marcel Proust.
In Spring Snow, Mishima satirizes both the old and the new orders of Japanese life through a pointed rewriting of The Tale of Genji. The literary and social heritage of the Heian period is embodied in the passive, decaying aristocracy of the Ayakura family of the book’s heroine, Satoko, while the progressive, Westernizing post-Meiji era is satirized in the figure of Kiyoaki’s father, the crass Marquis Matsugae. Mishima was fatally invested in the fantasy of reviving some version of a glorious pre-Meiji past, but his portrayal of the Ayakuras indicates that no direct recourse to past tradition is really possible. Instead, Mishima conducts a complex triangulation between ancient Asia and modern European culture.
Mishima’s anti-hero Kiyoaki is a Prince Genji with no purpose in life, and he actually first makes love with Satoko behind a Genji screen - most likely an old six-panel screen adorned with images from Murasaki’s novel.
Yet Kiyoaki can’t bring himself to feel anything for Satoko, until he has an elaborate moment of recollection. He keeps putting off proposing marriage, but then learns that she has become engaged to a son of the Emperor. Instead of being crushed by this news, Kiyoaki is filled with an obscure satisfaction. He picks up a scroll that he and Satoko had used as children for writing poetry exercises, and he has a sudden recollection of the chrysanthemum cookies that he’d be given as a prize for winning when they’d play a Heian board game:
Each piece of the Empress’s confection, the prize for winning at sugoroku, had been molded in the form of the imperial crest. Whenever his small teeth had bitten into a crimson chrysanthemum, the color of its petals had intensified before melting away, and at the touch of his tongue, the delicately etched lines of a cool white chrysanthemum had blurred and dissolved into a sweet liquid. Everything came back to him - the dark rooms of the Ayakura mansion, the court screens brought from Kyoto with their pattern of autumn flowers, the solemn stillness of the nights, Satoko's mouth opening in a slight yawn half-hidden behind her sweep of black hair: everything came back just as he had experienced it then, in all its lonely elegance. But he realized that he was now slowly admitting an idea that he had never dared entertain before. Something sounded within Kiyoaki like a trumpet call: I love Satoko.
As the chrysanthemum cookie dissolves on Kiyoaki’s tongue, it becomes a Japanese version of Proust’s famous madeleine, which Proust had already described in Japanese terms, comparing it to origami that blossom when placed in a bowl of water, so that “the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”
The chrysanthemum cookie does more than evoke memories of Kiyoaki’s lost childhood: it gives him access to a new universe of Proustian desire. He realizes that precisely because Satoko has become unavailable, she has finally become truly desirable, much as we see in Swann’s tortured love affair with Odette, or Marcel’s with Albertine. As Kiyoaki realizes under the force of his cookieinduced recovery of time past, “ his sexual impulses, so diffident until now, had been lacking just such a powerful impulse. It had taken so much time and effort to find his role in life.” He now seeks out Satoko and manages to begin a clandestine and ultimately fatal love affair with her.
But the result isn’t any simple imitation of Proust; for Mishima, that wouldn’t be any better than the fatuous Westernization of Kiyoaki’s vulgar father. Instead, Proust serves as a conduit to bring the story back to Murasaki’s world, but in a new and modernist way. Throughout the novel, Kiyo has mysterious dreams, but these don’t provide a means of working through remembrances of things past, as they would be in Proust or in Freud. Instead of revealing a repressed past, Kiyo’s dreams foreshadow his future reincarnations, as depicted in the ensuing volumes of the series. What Kiyo’s dreams reveal, though he - and we - can’t yet know this, can be called remembrances of things future.
Throughout the tetralogy, Kiyoaki and his reincarnations are observed by his close friend Shigekuni Honda. It is Honda who finally discerns the pattern of rebirth, and also its ultimate meaninglessness, following the death of Kiyoaki’s final avatar in The Decay of the Angel. Honda then makes a pilgrimage to see Satoko, who is now eighty-three years old and a nun, only to find that she claims to have no memory whatever of her epochal early love affair with Kiyo. “Did you really know a person called Kiyoaki?” she asks Honda. “And can you say definitely that the two of us have met before?” This most Proustian of Japanese novels hasn’t brought Honda to a triumphant temps retrouvé, but instead to “a place that had no memories, nothing.” So Honda reflects in the final lines of the novel, as “the noontide sun of summer flowed over the still garden.” These are the words that Mishima wrote on November 25, 1970, the date given on the final page – the day he went out to commit his spectacular suicide.
Though Honda feels that he has come to a place of “no memories, nothing,” we could also say that this long Proustian detour has brought us to a quite specific literary locale, the novelistic equivalent of the “poetic places” that Bashō loved to visit and write about. Where the novel has brought us, in fact, is to the end of The Tale of Genji. Satoko’s proclaimed failure to recall her love affair with Kiyoaki closely mirrors the ending – or non-ending – of Murasaki’s great narrative, whose final heroine, Ukifune, flees entrapment by two unwelcome suitors, Genji’s grandson Niou and Genji’s supposed son Kaoru. Taking refuge in a Buddhist convent, she claims amnesia so as to conceal her identity, and she insists on shaving her hair and becoming a nun.
Murasaki’s unfinished narrative breaks off with Kaoru scheming to get Ukifune back, and we can’t know whether she’ll succeed in escaping from the world, but Mishima gives Satoko the success in renunciation that Ukifune may never achieve. “Memory is like a phantom mirror,” Satoko tells Honda. “It sometimes shows things too distant to be seen, and sometimes it shows them as if they were here.” Taken aback, Honda stammers,
“But if there was no Kiyoaki from the beginning . . . there was no Ying Chan, and who knows, perhaps there has been no I.”
For the first time there was strength in her eyes.
“That too is as it is in each heart.”
Taking Buddhism in an existentialist and even nihilistic direction, Mishima has used Proust to reincarnate the Heian world on new terms, and at the same time he uses Murasaki to deconstruct Proust in turn. This double process frees Mishima from imitative dependence on either tradition, even as he draws deeply upon both of them. It is the incommensurability of ancient and modern eras, Asian and European traditions, that fuels Mishima’s most ambitious contribution to world literature.