It has been more than four decades since Yukio Mishima — Japanese playwright, modern samurai, nationalist, bodybuilder, and all round enigma — sent a shock wave through Japan by committing seppuku, the ritual suicide of the samurai. Yet, today, he is back in public view. July saw the launch of Koji Wakamatsu’s movie 11.25 The Day Mishima Chose His Own Fate, and the first solo exhibition, in a public museum in Japan, of photographer and Mishima collaborator, Kishin Shinoyama, opened.
Shinoyama captured some of the most controversial images of the Japanese playwright, in a collection of photographs called Barakei (Ordeal (or Torture) by Roses). Mishima himself was intimately involved in conceptualizing the images, and, to a large extent, they are a meditation in which the phantasms of the mind emerge, half thought out, half felt. Shot in grainy black and white, the photographs juxtapose Mishima’s muscular body with sculptures and baroque paintings and drawings of the human body.
In one photograph, Mishima is wrapped in a rubber garden hose, as if oppressed by the mundane itself. In another he is bound to a tree, in imitation of St. Sebastian, with his body shot through with arrows. Part soft-porn, part self-worship, part contemplation of mortality, through Barakei, the Japanese author thrusts himself from the earthliest realm of eroticism, beyond the veil of death, to linger among the angels.
The spirit of Barakei might be regarded as Tantric — that Hindu and Buddhist practice of unio mystica through sexual union. But it seems, in all respects, to be a fusion of Western and Japanese aesthetics and ideas. As a young man, Mishima was frail and unathletic. But he resolved to forge himself a new, masculine body, and took up bodybuilding (which had been introduced to Japan by American GIs — the victors of World War II) and Kendo. Perhaps because of Mishima’s loathing of the frail body, Barakei has an undertone of militancy about it. Traditionally, in Tantra, in contrast, the devotee was sometimes required to engage in sexual union with a member of the opposite sex that they found ugly. Apparently this was meant to free the devotee from mistaking the appearance of things for their substance.
In classical Japanese culture, however, the relationship between the appearance and essence is stressed. The ink painter practices painting a single circle, with a single stroke, and a single exhalation. If he loses concentration even for a split second, it will show in the circle, which will turn out egg-shaped, or will have a lump in it. Appearance and spirit are, for the classical Japanese, intertwined.
Profound sensuality and spirituality are linked, not necessarily exclusively through enjoyment — as one finds in the Persian, Zoroastrian religion, where riches are seen to be a reflection of heaven — but through darker emotions, and even through death. Notably, the Japanese ukiyo was a Buddhist term, meaning weariness (uki) with life (yo). Yet its meaning transmogrified, becoming associated with the pleasure districts of Edo (Tokyo), and its scenes of drinking, courtesans, and so on. The floating world, in this sense, was the world of temporary pleasure — reflecting the temporal existence of man. As a genre, woodblock prints dealing with the pleasure districts became known as ukiyo-e, literally “pictures of the floating world.”
In Mishima: A Vision of the Void — a rather pompous work about the playwright — Marguerite Yourcenar links Mishima’s posing in Barakei to the Hagakure, an 18th century samurai manual that recommends the warrior meditate on his impending death, so that he will no longer fear death. The Hagakure tells him to imagine being “cut to pieces or mutilated by arrows” among other gruesome deaths. As such, it is easy to imagine that Mishima posing as a saint shot with arrows was influence by this tradition. Yet, this seems to miss Mishima’s message: i.e., that actions — especially military actions — are aesthetic, not mechanical or merely practical.
Mishima’s message — never shouted from the rooftops — is entirely in keeping with Japanese history and sensibility. Many samurais — including the celebrated Miyamoto Musashi — were artists and calligraphers as well as swordsmen. Moreover, influenced by Zen Buddhism, the Japanese have long regarded the different arts as unveiling to the practitioner the same satori (understanding) or kensho (grasp of the true nature of the self), often in a momentary revelation during practice. Flower arranging and the arts of the warrior, as such, are not two different things. As the Hagakure says, “It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything that is called a Way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all ways and be more and more in accord with his own.”
Mishima’s “way” (Do) led him from writing to acting in movies (where he played such characters as gangsters and detectives) to forming his own private army. The Tatenokai (Shield Society) consisting of one hundred young men. Mishima said he formed it to give students — who did not fit easily into the new Marxist zeitgeist — a place of their own. But, even here, Mishima’s preoccupation with aesthetics led him to design the uniforms, drawing inspiration from the more classical uniforms of the armies of Europe. (The “stiff uniforms make one think of Germany and old Russia,” remarks Yourcenar.)
In reality, the Tatenokai was not a fighting unit. Its primary purpose may, indeed, have been purely aesthetic: to remind Mishima and to awaken Japan to the idea that there still could be a spiritual, aesthetic, and yet masculine way of living in the modern era — not “way” as in the English word, but as in the Japanese Do or Chinese Tao. Notably, Mishima was keen that his army should not become involved in lowlife and ugly activities: “No street demonstrations for us, no placards, no Molotov cocktails[…] no stone throwing,” he determined. “Until the last desperate moment, we shall refuse to commit ourselves to action. For we are the world’s least armed, most spiritual army.”
In 1970, Mishima and members of the Tatenokai entered the Ichigaya Station of the Japanese ground self-defense forces. Mishima appeared on the balcony, lecturing to the soldiers below about how Japan had become materialistic and decadent, although his words were soon drowned out by hovering press helicopters. Finally, out of sight, he committed seppuku, by cutting his stomach open with a samurai sword.
Japan was embarrassed by Mishima’s public suicide, and, to some extent, is is still uncomfortable with the playwright. One can understand this. But, we should pause to reflect that, in the West, at least, the heroes of the modern age have, all too often, died of drug overdoses, face down in their own vomit. or gunned down in a drive by shooting. And, nor infrequently is this seen as virtually admirable — proof of their sincerity. It is, of course, only proof of the shallowness barbarousness of such people, who find entertainment in death.
Despite his suicide — and often flamboyant style (which is very un-Japanese) — Mishima’s works are considered classics. Even in the West, his books are required reading for those undertaking Japanese literature courses at university. It is possible to separate the man from his art, and his death from the message of his life: that actions are aesthetic, and that masculinity, at its best, is spiritual: concerned, as it must be, with values and Beauty, inner strength and self-discipline.