February 23, 2018

Mishima's Seppuku Aesthetics

On this day in 1970 Yukio Mishima committed seppuku (ritual suicide, also known as hara-kiri). Mishima was a three-time Nobel nominee, the most famous and translated Japanese writer of his generation -- The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, The Sea of Fertility, ten other novels -- and, in his last year, so internationally popular that he made Esquire magazine's "Top 100 People in the World" list. His spectacularly staged death was front-page news around the world, and it is still being analyzed for what it says about him, or his fiction, or Japan.

The explanations of Mishima's suicide come from all directions, and the story itself is an odd one. He was a patriot, one who believed in the Emperor and in samurai glory. Japan's WWII humiliation and post-War disgrace so appalled him that he formed and financed a private army or "Shield Society" -- some 100 young men who paraded about Japan espousing the samurai knightly code of honor and attempting to rouse a nationalistic spirit. Feeling that two years of displays and speeches had done little, Mishima conceived his ritual suicide as a last inspirational gesture. He and a car-full of his militiamen turned a scheduled meeting with the commander of a military base in downtown Tokyo into a hostage-taking. They barricading themselves in his office and, armed with Mishima's samurai sword, several daggers and some heavy ashtrays, repelled several waves of confused majors and generals who had assembled from adjoining offices. Able to see their bound and gagged commander through a peephole, the officers called for the police and, eventually, gave in to Mishima's central demand: that the soldiers of the military base be ordered to the parade grounds below. Though also summoned by Mishima, the other members of the Shield Society became confused by events, and stayed put.

A plan already frayed now completely unraveled. With the hovering helicopters and the ambulance sirens and the bustling TV crews, the soldiers who were supposed to listen in silence to Mishima's inspirational message, delivered from the commander's balcony, could hear next to nothing. Told to rise up in Japan's name against the Constitution, against America, against ignoble materialist living, they responded with puzzlement and then jeers -- "Come down from there!" and "Madman!" and "Arse-hole!" Mishima finally gave up, and he and his second went inside, to have their ritual disemboweling and beheading performed before the horrified commander. The three remaining militiamen, now weeping and in shock, prayed to the severed heads and then opened the doors to the police.

Some view Mishima as the patriot and fearless martyr he wished to be; others discuss his Shield Society as egomania, or homosexuality, or neurosis, or his grandmother's fault for having raised him on stories of the old Japan. One scholar takes the "aesthetic" view, finding a lifetime attraction to youth, cherry-blossom transience and early death in Mishima's writing. In the months before his suicide he was writing essays titled "The Sword or the Flower: How Should a Man Live in the Troubled 1970s?" and participating in panel discussions titled "Cut Open Your Stomach: A Sweeping Criticism of the General Condition." On the morning of his death he delivered the last pages of his last book to his publishers, though this too was part of the gesture, as they had been written months earlier. His last writing, apart from the political manifestoes, was a traditional tanka, composed two days before his seppuku:
    Storm winds at night blow
    The message that to fall before
    The world and before men
    By whom falling is dreaded
    Is the mark of a flower.

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