Similar things happen in the United States too: an alienated, bookish radical right-winger takes up weight-lifting and martial arts, creates a private militia, dreams of overthrowing the government, then dies in a spectacular, suicidal, and apparently pointless confrontation with the state. In the United States, however, such people are easily dismissed as “kooks” and “losers.” But when it happened in Japan, the protagonist, Yukio Mishima, was one of the nation’s most famous and respected novelists.
Director Paul Schrader’s 1985 movie, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, is an excellent introduction to Mishima’s life and work. It is by far the best movie about an artist I have ever seen. It is also surely the most sympathetic film portrayal of a figure who was essentially a fascist, maybe since Triumph of the Will.
Paul Schrader, of German Calvinist descent, is famous as the writer or co-writer of the screenplays of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out the Dead. His other screenplays include Brian De Palma’s Obsession, Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast, and his own American Gigolo. Other movies directed by Schrader include the remake of Cat People and the brilliant Auto Focus, a biopic about a very different sort of artist, Bob Crane. It is so creepy that I will never watch it again, even though it is a masterpiece.
Mishima, however, is Schrader’s best film. He also co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Leonard. (The score, moreover, is the best thing ever written by Philip Glass.)
The narrative frame of the movie is Mishima’s last day, which is filmed in realistic color. The story of his life is told in black and white flashbacks, inter-cut with dramatizations of parts of three of Mishima’s novels, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses, which are filmed on unrealistic stage sets in lavish Technicolor.
Yukio Mishima was a very, very, very sensitive child. Born Kimitake Hiraoke in 1925 to an upper middle class family with Samurai ancestry, he was taken from his mother by his grandmother, who kept him indoors, told him that he was physically fragile, prevented him from playing with other boys, and made him her factotum until she died when he was twelve. Then he returned to his parents.
Highly intelligent and convinced of his physical frailty, Mishima became bookish and introverted: a reader and a writer, a poet and a dreamer. He wrote his first short stories at age 12. Denied an outlet for healthy, boyish aggression, be became a masochist. He was also homosexual.
Imbued with Samurai tradition, he longed to fight in the Second World War and die for the emperor, but he was rejected as physically unfit for duty, a source of life-long self-reproach. He had a cold when he reported for his physical, and he later claimed that out of cowardice he exaggerated his symptoms so the doctor thought he had tuberculosis.
Mishima’s first book was published when he 19. He wrote at least 100 books—40 novels, 20 collections of short stories, 20 plays (including a screenplay and an opera libretto), and 20-odd book-length essays and collections of essays—before his death at age 45. He also dabbled in acting and directing.
Schrader’s dramatization of Mishima’s 1956 novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion focuses on the author’s Nietzschean exploration of the role of physiognomy and will to power in the origin of values. Nietzsche believed that all organisms have will to power, even sickly and botched ones. In the realm of values, will to power manifests itself particularly in a desire to think well of oneself. A healthy organism affirms itself by positing values that affirm its nature. The healthy affirm health, strength, beauty, and power. They despise the sickly, weak, and ugly.
But sickly organisms have will to power too. They affirm themselves by positing values based on their natures, values that cast them in a positive light and cast healthy organisms in a negative light. This is the origin of ascetic and “spiritual” values, as well as the Christian values of the Sermon on the Mount, which Nietzsche calls “slave morality.”
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is loosely based on the burning of the Reliquary (or Golden Pavilion) of Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto by a deranged Buddhist acolyte in 1950. In Mishima’s story, the arson is committed by Mizoguchi, an acolyte afflicted with ugliness and a stutter. The acolyte recognizes the beauty of the Golden Pavilion, but also hates it, because its beauty magnifies his deformities.
Mizoguchi’s clubfooted friend Kashiwagi tries to teach Mizoguchi to use is disabilities to arouse women’s pity and exploit it to get sex. Kashiwagi can use his disability because he lacks pride and will to power. Mizoguchi, however, cannot enjoy beauty by means of self-abasement. He cannot own his imperfections. The vision of the Golden Pavilion prevents him. He can like himself only if the Golden Pavilion is destroyed, thus he sets it ablaze.
In Nietzsche’s terms, the destruction of the Golden Pavilion is an act of transvaluation. The beauty that oppresses Mizoguchi must be destroyed. For Nietzsche, this act of destruction serves to create a space for new values that will allow him to affirm his disability, just as the destruction of aristocratic values creates a space for slave morality.
Schrader includes this dramatization of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion to illustrate Mishima’s exploration of his own youthful nihilism. Short even by Japanese standards (5’1”), skinny, physically frail, Mishima envied and eroticized the bodies of healthier boys, an eroticism that Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask clearly indicates was tinged with masochistic self-hatred and sadistic fantasies of brutality and murder. (Mishima first became sexually aroused at a photograph of a painting of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.)
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, however, is a look backwards, at paths Mishima could understand but could not follow. Unlike Kashiwagi, Mishima could not own his physical imperfections. Unlike Mizoguchi, he could not annihilate the ideal of beauty to feel good about himself. This left Mishima with only one choice: to remake his body according to the ideal of physical beauty. Thus in 1955, Mishima started lifting weights, with impressive results. He also took up kendo and karate.
Mishima documented his physical transformation with a very un-Japanese exhibitionism. He posed frequently for photographers, producing a book, Ordeal by Roses (1963), in collaboration with photographer Eikoh Hosoe. Mishima also posed in Young Samurai: Bodybuilders of Japan and OTOKO: Photo Studies of the Young Japanese Male by Tamotsu Yato. His acting work was also an extension of this exhibitionism, as was his dandyism. When he wasn’t posing nude or in a loincloth, his clothes were exclusively Western. He dressed up like James Bond and dressed down like James Dean.
In 1958, his body and self-confidence transformed, Mishima married Yoko Sugiyama. It was an arranged marriage. They had two children. (Among Mishima’s requirements for a wife was that she have no interest in his work and that she be shorter than him. As an indication of his social circles, Mishima had earlier considered Michiko Shoda as a possible bride. She went on to marry Crown Prince Akihito and is now Empress of Japan.)
In 1959, Mishima built a house in an entirely Western style. Following the Nietzschean principle that every authentic culture has an integrity and unity of style, Mishima rejected multiculturalism, including mixing Japanese and Western lifestyles. Since he could not live in an entirely Japanese house, he chose to live in an entirely Western one, where he could “sit on rococo furniture wearing Levis and an aloha shirt.”
The second Mishima novel Schrader dramatizes is Kyoko’s House (1959), which cries out for an English translation. According to the literature, Kyoko’s House is an exploration of Mishima’s own psyche, aspects of which are concretized in the four main characters: a boxer, who represents Mishima’s new-found athleticism; a painter, who represents his creative side; a businessman, who lives an outwardly conventional life but rejects postwar Japanese society; and an actor, who represents his narcissism.
Schrader focuses only on the story of the actor, who takes up bodybuilding when humiliated by a gangster sent to intimidate his mother, who was in debt to loan-sharks. The moneylender turns out to be a woman. She offers to cancel the loan if the actor sells himself to her.
The narcissist, whose sense of reality is based on the impression he makes in the eyes of others, realizes that even his newly acquired muscles are not real to him. The realization comes when his lover, on a sadistic whim, cuts his skin with a razor. In physical pain, he finds a sense of reality otherwise unavailable due to his personality disorder. Their sexual relationship takes a sadomasochistic turn that culminates in a suicide pact—foreshadowing Mishima’s own end.
Having put so much of himself into Kyoko’s House, Mishima was deeply wounded by its commercial and critical failure. Schrader had first wanted to dramatize Mishima’s Forbidden Colors, his novel about Japan’s homosexual subculture, but Mishima’s widow refused permission. (She denied that Mishima had any homosexual proclivities.) But it is just as well. From what I can gather, Kyoko’s House is a far better novel than Forbidden Colors.
Schrader did not dramatize the story of the boxer in Kyoko’s House, but it also foreshadows Mishima’s life as well. After one of his hands is shattered in a fight, the boxer becomes involved in right-wing politics. Mishima makes it quite clear that the boxer’s political commitment is not based on ideology, but on a physically ruined man’s desire for an experience of self-transcendence and sublimity.
The businessman’s outlook is also important for understanding Mishima’s life and outlook. He thinks postwar Japan is a spiritual void in which prosperity, materialism, peace, and resolute amnesia about the war years have sapped life of authenticity, which requires that one face death, something that was omnipresent during the war.
Authenticity through awareness of death, pain as an encounter with reality, and right wing politics as a form of self-transcendence (or therapy): Kyoko’s House maps out the trajectory of the rest of Mishima’s life.
Mishima’s Political Turn
Mishima, like many Western right-wingers, saw tradition as a third way between capitalism and socialism, which are essentially identical in their materialistic ends and their scientific and technological means. He always had right-wing tendencies, but his writings in the 1940s and 1950s were absorbed (self-absorbed, truth be told) with personal moral and psychological issues.
Like many Japanese, however, Mishima became increasingly alarmed by the corruptions of postwar consumer society. He saw the Samurai tradition as an aristocratic alternative to massification, a spiritual alternative to materialism. He saw the Japanese military and the emperor as guardians of this tradition. But these guardians had already made too many compromises with modernity. Mishima was particularly critical of the emperor’s renunciation of divinity at the end of the Second World War. In his writings and actions in the last decade of his life, Mishima sought to call the emperor and the military back to their mission as guardians of Japanese tradition.
In the fall of 1960, Mishima wrote “Patriotism,” a short story about the aftermath of the “Ni Ni Roku Incident” of February 1936, an attempted coup d’état by junior officers of the Imperial Army who assassinated several political leaders. The officers wished the government to address widespread poverty caused by the world-wide Great Depression. The coup was cast as an attempt to restore the absolute power of the emperor, but he regarded it as a rebellion and ordered it crushed.
Mishima’s story focuses on Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama and his young wife, Reiko. The Lieutenant did not take part in the coup but was friends with the participants. He is ordered to help suppress it. Torn between loyalty to the emperor and loyalty to his friends, he chooses to commit suicide by self-disembowelment after a night of love-making. Reiko joins him in death.
Mishima published “Patriotism” in 1961. In 1965, he directed and starred in 28-minute film adaptation which he first released in France. The film of Patriotism is erotic, chilling, and cringe-inducingly graphic (people regularly fainted when they saw it in theaters). In retrospect, it seems like merely a rehearsal for Mishima’s eventual suicide. The music, fittingly, is the Liebestod (Love-Death) from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Mishima’s widow locked up the film after her husband’s death. After her death, it was released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. (Mishima also committed suicide on screen in Hideo Gosha’s 1969 film Tenchu!)
Schrader shows bits of the filming of Patriotism and also dramatizes a very similar episode from Runaway Horses (1969), the second volume of Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility quartet (1968–1970). The Sea of Fertility is a panorama of Japan’s traumatic crash course in modernization, spanning the years 1912 to 1975, narrating the life of Shigekuni Honda, who becomes a wealthy and widely-traveled jurist.
Runaway Horses, set in 1932–1933, is the story of Isao Iinuma, a right-wing student who seeks the alliance of the military to plot a rebellion in 1932. The goal is to topple capitalism and restore absolute Imperial rule by simultaneously assassinating the heads of industry and the government and torching the Bank of Japan. The plot is foiled, but when Isao is released from prison, he carries out his part of the mission anyway, assassinating his target. The assassination, of course, is politically futile, but Isao feels honor-bound to carry out his mission. He then commits hari-kiri.
Isao’s plot is clearly based on the Ni Ni Roku Incident of 1936. The novel also tells the story of the Samurai insurrection in Kunamoto in 1876. But it would be a mistake to conclude that Mishima put his hope in a successful military coup as the most likely path to a renewal of Japanese tradition. Mishima’s focus was on the ritual suicides of the defeated rebels.
The Way of the Samurai
Japan had 300 years of peace under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Conflict had been outlawed; history in the Hegelian sense had been ended. Yet the arts and culture flourished, and the Japanese had not been reduced to a mass of dehumanized and degraded producer-consumers. The cause of this was the persistence of the Samurai ethic.
The Samurai, of course, like all aristocrats, prefer death to dishonor, and when prevented from demonstrating this on the battlefield, they demonstrated it instead through ritual suicide. They also demonstrated their contempt of material necessity through the cultivation of luxury and refinement. The cultural supremacy of the ideal of the honor suicide served as a bulwark protecting high culture against degeneration into bourgeois consumer culture, which springs from an opposing hierarchy of values that prizes life, comfort, and security over honor.
Mishima’s cultural-political project makes the most sense if we view it not as an attempt to return to militarism, but as an attempt to uphold or revive the Samurai ethic in postwar Japan so that it could play the same conservative role as it did under the 300-year peace of the Shogunate. (Mishima’s outlook would then be very similar to that of Alexandre Kojève, who in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel claimed that Japan under the Shogunate showed how we might retain our humanity at the end of history through an aristocratic culture that rested on the cultural ideal of a “purely gratuitous suicide.”)
Mishima produced a spate of political books and essays in the 1960s, most of which have remained untranslated. Two of the most important, however, are available in English. In 1967, Mishima published The Way of the Samurai, his commentary on the Hagakure (literally, In the Shadow of the Leaves), a handbook authored by the 18th-century Samurai Tsunetomo Yamamoto. In 1968, Mishima published Sun and Steel, an autobiographical essay about bodybuilding, martial arts, and the relationship of thought and action which also discusses ritual suicide. (In 1968, Mishima also published a play, My Friend Hitler, about the Röhm purge of 1934. He was coy about his true feelings toward Hitler. In truth, he was more a Mussolini man.)
Mishima the Activist
But Mishima did more than write about action. He acted. In 1967, Mishima enlisted in the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) and underwent basic training. In 1968, Mishima formed the Tatenokai (Shield Society—Mishima was pleased that the English initials were SS), a private militia composed primarily of right-wing university students who studied martial arts and swore to protect Japanese tradition against the forces of modernization, left or right.
In 1968 and 1969, when leftist student agitators had the universities in chaos, Mishima participated in debates and teach-ins, criticizing Marxism and arguing that Japanese nationalism, symbolized by loyalty to the Emperor, should come before all other political commitments.
On November 25, 1970, after a year of planning, Mishima and four members of the Shield Society visited the Icigaya Barracks of the Japanese Self-Defense force and took the commander hostage. Mishima demanded that the troops be assembled so he could address them. He had alerted the press in advance. He stepped out onto a balcony in his uniform to harangue the assembled troops, calling them to reject American imposed materialism and to return to the role of guardians of Japanese tradition.
The speech was largely drowned out by circling helicopters, and the soldiers jeered. Mishima returned to the commander’s office, where he and one of his followers, Masakatsu Morita, committed seppuku, a ritual suicide involving self-disembowelment with a dagger followed by decapitation with a sword wielded by one’s second.
Mishima’s stunt is often referred to as a “coup-attempt,” but this is stupid. Mishima had been talking about, writing about, rehearsing, and preparing for suicide for years. He had no intention of surviving, much less taking power. His death was an attempt to inspire a revival of Samurai tradition. In Samurai fashion, he wanted a death that mattered, a death of his choosing, a death that he staged with consummate dramatic skill.
Mishima also wished to avoid the decay of old age. Having come to physical health so late in life, he had no intention of experiencing its progressive loss. (His last novel, The Decay of the Angel, paints a very bleak portrait of old age.)
Schrader’s depiction of Mishima’s suicide is far less graphic than Patriotism but every bit as powerful. He saves the climaxes of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses to the very end, inter-cutting them with Mishima’s own suicide, to shattering effect.
This is a great movie, which will leave a lasting impression.
In the end, though, what did Mishima’s death mean? What did it matter? What did it accomplish?
It would be all too easy to dismiss Mishima as a neurotic and a narcissist who engaged in politics as a kind of therapy. Right wing politics is crawling with such people (none of them with Mishima’s talents, unfortunately), and we would be better off without them. If a white equivalent of Mishima wished to write for Counter-Currents/North American New Right, we would welcome his work (as we would welcome translations of Mishima’s works!). But we would also keep him at arm’s length. Such people should be locked in a room with a computer and fed through a slot in the door. They should not be put in positions of trust and responsibility.
But Mishima is safely dead, and the meaning of his death cannot be measured in terms of crass political “deliverables.” Indeed, it is a repudiation of the whole calculus of interests that lies at the foundation of modern politics.
Modern politics is based on the idea that a long and comfortable life is the highest value, to be purchased even at the price of our dignity. Aristocratic politics is based on the idea that honor is the highest value, to be purchased even at the price of our lives.
The spiritual aristocrat, therefore, must be ready to die; he must conquer his fear of death; he even must come to love death, for his ability to choose death before dishonor is what raises him above being a mere clever animal. It is what makes him a free man, a natural master rather than a natural slave. It is ultimately the foundation of all forms of higher culture, which involve the rejection or subordination and stylization of merely animal desire.
A natural slave is someone who is willing to give up his honor to save his life. Thus modern politics, which exalts the long and prosperous life as the highest value, is a form of spiritual slavery, even if the external controls are merely soft commercial and political incentives rather than chains and cages.
Thus Mishima’s eroticization of death is not a mental illness needing medication. By ceasing to fear death, Mishima became free to lead his life, to take risks other men would not have taken. By ceasing to fear death, Mishima could preserve his honor from the compromises of commerce and politics and the ravages of old age. By ceasing to fear death, Mishima entered into the realm of freedom that is the basis of all high culture. By ceasing to fear death, Mishima struck a death-blow at the foundations of the modern world.
In my review of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I argued that the Joker is Hollywood’s image of a man who is totally free from modern society because he has fundamentally rejected its ruling values—by overcoming the fear of death. An army of such men could bring down the modern world.
Well, Yukio Mishima was a real example of such a man. And, as usual, the truth is stranger than fiction.
In my reviews of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, I argued that somebody in Hollywood and the comic book/graphic novel industry must be reading up on Traditionalism, for the super-villains in these movies can be seen as Traditionalists. Since Traditionalism is the most fundamental rejection of the modern world, weaponized Traditionalists make the most dramatically potent foils for liberal, democratic, humanistic superheroes like Hellboy and Batman.
Well, shortly after I wrote that, Savitri Devi’s Impeachment of Man was ordered by someone at one of the major comics companies.
I can see it all now. Somewhere down the line, Hellboy will be squaring off against the Cat Lady of Calcutta and her fleet of Zündelsaucers, and Batman will face his new arch-nemesis . . . a five-foot Samurai with spindly legs in tights.