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performativity of death Arrow vol 2 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 2 number 2, 2003

The Performativity of Death: Yukio Mishima
and a Fusion for International Relations

Stephen Chan
University of London

1. Such unpromising material from which to work—such unknowns. I do not know which school or ryu of swordsmanship the young student followed; so I do not know how the downward cut was delivered. It has to be a cut. A chopping action with such swords does not always work. I do not know if the student had practised against objects that were palpable and offered entry then resistance; or if, like so many of the ersatz swordsmen of today's Japan, he had practised only against thin air. I do not know, if practising against an object or against only air, he had imagined the neck of his teacher, his sensei, under the downward stroke (and beneath the sensei's bowed head the hilt of another, shorter sword, protruding from that same sensei's abdomen; that is where the ritual disembowelment of course takes place). We all know the student messed up. Probably chopped. The sensei did not die under the first effort. The student took another two attempts. Then, when a colleague of his little band finished the job for him, he also kneeled and had, in turn, his own head taken off (more cleanly) by his classmate. So there were two heads on the floor. The sensei's wears a little makeup; it wears a grimace; it was difficult, this chosen means of dying. No doubt, when he had directed the drama of his death in his own mind, it was more refined—like a film, like a novel, at least a short story, like a play. His mind, at the final moment, would be fixed on the reason he had chosen for his death; not, pain-filled, wretching for a fatal stroke.

This Choosing To Die For A Cause

2. All the stories and legends of samurai embracing the way of death, doing it willingly for the sake of a cause, even (or especially) if that cause were blind loyalty (chosen, or imposed by an overlord), and practising the delivery (and reception) of fatal strokes, it is all meant to be a living of zen. Even now, in the contemporary practice of iaido, ritual drawing of the blade from the scabbard and cutting, the movements are sparse (like a rock garden), few (like a flower arrangement), decisive (one cut down, one death), minimalist (to respect the beauty of the blade), and these same movements are practised over and over again in kata, or prearranged patterns, suddenly errupting from kneeling and serene postures of meditation, until (suddenly—perhaps one day) satori or enlightenment strikes the mind (like a blue and white cocaine rush to the front of the brain, like the angel's ecstatic arrow into the heart of Bernini's St. Teresa, like a waterfall of cold knowledge on the warmly sleeping soul). The modes of practice are zen; the origins of loyalty unto death are Confucian. China infiltrated Japan with much more than its calligraphy and written rendition of speech; death and text—and now we can begin to build a picture, not just think we did in the parade of images above.

3. To an extent, Japan composed its own picture of itself as a representation with which to face the West. Yoshioka (1995), using the term very loosely, wrote that Japan made itself 'samurai' in order not fully to be colonised by Western culture and values. This is a very neat observation, and is not fully true. Japan has also been seeking a representation of itself by which it might, in fact, face itself, and has been doing this ever since its own constitutional upheavals over the Shogunate and its relationship with the Emperor. But before going into this, before overwhelming ourselves with intensity, it is well to preface it all with human clumsiness—like the death that took so clumsily long to come, guts successfully piling up on the floor and still the head would not come off. No doubt Mishima would have delivered the downward stroke better. A devotee of bodybuilding and the range of modernised Japanese martial arts, he was, among other things, godan in kendo (fifth level black belt in fencing) and sandan (third level black belt) in karate. Only the karate, at least, was hardly devastating. The British champion, Steve Cattle, before his own death, told me of training with Mishima in Tokyo. "He was terrible, just awful, a famous figure in society so they couldn't fail him." Nor could they; and nor could the army commander refuse him entry to his base that finally fatal day, 25 November 1970, and all this despite his bisexuality, his range of idiosyncrasies, his wish to be known as the greatest European writer born in Japan.

4. So many things to start with: martial arts, Confucianism, death, and European writing within a Japanese context. We shall deal with all of these, but let us start with the martial arts—modernised, as mentioned above, but taken still to represent the fully traditional. And perhaps, yes, already we are dealing with crossovers, with fusions. But perhaps even before the martial arts we should ponder the films that touch on Mishima. All these sought a crossover, and some managed (quite artistically) to become pastiche.

The Cinematic Ethos Of The Samurai

5. There has only been one film fully about Mishima, and that is the eponymous effort by Paul Schrader in 1985, establishing a coherence between passages from Mishima's novels and his life; establishing also a contrast between Mishima's fussy, western antique-filled house and the minimalist music of Philip Glass. Schrader had rehearsed this film, however, in his screenplay of Sydney Pollack's 'The Yakuza' of 1975, and the brooding but rigorously self-controlled performance by Takakura Ken was a prototype for his direction of 'Mishima'. In fact, Takakura Ken's faultless demonstration of the first movement of the Sei Tei Kata of iaido (official patterns of solo swordsmanship) is repeated, though less faultlessly by the (also lesser) actor who plays Mishima in the 1985 film. Although a film about the sparse and contained minimalism of a deliberate movement towards death despite all the pyrotechnics and apparatus of life, the Schrader film was a compelling disappointment, the erotics of Mishima's life being left particularly flat.

6. A much more successful film was Jim Jarmusch's 'Ghost Dog' of 1999. This had nothing to do directly with Mishima, but the core text of the film, narrated or intoned regularly throughout, is the Hagakure ('Hidden Among Leaves'), what is taken to be the epitome of the samurai code of moving faultlessly towards death (of which more below). The film is, in some ways, a reworking of Jean-Pierre Melville's 'Le Samourai', starring Alain Delon. Both Melville and Jarmusch see the samurai ethic, but it is Jarmusch who makes it pedagogical with his use of the Hagakure. Where it does directly touch Mishima is in the fact of Mishima's 'Introduction' to an edition of the Hagakure in 1967. This is the book (among others) by which Mishima sought to live.

7. It is however Oshima's film, also of 1999, 'Gohatto', that catches something of the contained eroticism that goes with being a public samurai. And Ryuichi Sakamoto's music, minimalist also, is here more successful than that of Glass. (The swordwork in 'Gohatto' is also vastly superior to that seen in the other films mentioned here.) The hero of the film is stunningly beautiful and passively homosexual. He is 'female' in his characteristics, but is not only a particularly fine swordsman, being able also to carry out an execution (by decapitation) with chilling ceremony, calm, good manners and, above all, a single correct stroke. The long hair and the traditional samurai skirts help the effect, but he is also passive in the face of fate—a girl-man living in a military barracks, sleeping in a dormitory, the object of a constant voyeurism, accepting what befalls him but able to outfight and kill all his fellow recruits. The power that others have over him is the gaze. And he likes the gaze.

The Martial Arts

8. Although the Japanese martial arts are presented to the world as being very old and representing an ancient tradition, they are by and large not (Chan, 2000). Kyudo (archery) and sumo have retained best claim to actual genealogy; but judo was established by Jigoro Kano only in 1882; karate was brought to the mainland by the Okinawan islanders, Mabuni and Funakoshi, in the 1920s (and today's mainland karate looks nothing like theirs); and Morihei Ueshiba founded aikido in 1938. Even the most 'samurai' of arts, kendo and iaido, received their present forms a little over a century ago. To be sure, all these arts claim forbears but, apart from kyudo, sumo, and some older schools of iaido, no one really knows what they looked like. Almost all has a modern or modernised external form, so the final claim for authenticity is that the inner core of the arts remains pure, i.e. they encapsulate a dynamic approach to zen, and they teach a mental and physical discipline that is timelessly Japanese.

9. The problem, however, is that, insofar as they claim to represent the values and discipline of the samurai, these must be less zen than Confucian—albeit a Confucianism with a shinto metaphysic thrown over it. In any case, the claim to linkage with the samurai can 'age' the arts (like unscrupulous antique dealers can 'age' wood), but cannot make the samurai, beyond a certain point, traditional and an emblem of Japanese tradition.

10. With the overthrow of government by Emperor, and the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, 1600-1868, a new state order was created. The new had both to validate itself with the motifs of the old, and to regulate all that came as armed remnants of the old. The samurai had to be brought within a state-sponsored canon of behaviour, and the ethic of devotion to death had to be both canonised and the devotion contained within it directed only towards the state. A huge etiquette was thrown around the samurai, almost as a prison. Thus, the Hagakure, written in 1716 by Jocho Yamamoto, was a 11 volume work containing 48 principles of samurai life and behaviour. Its most famous lines are "I have found that the way of the samurai is death", but it also instructed its reader to wear a little makeup just before facing death—so that his head might not look too lifeless in the event of its decapitation.

11. Less 'grotesque' was the Budo Shoshin Shu, written in the same period. Here, the meticulous samurai could be taught that it was proper to drink from modern cups provided the teapot was unvarnished, i.e. what looked old had to pour into the new.

12. Under the Shogunate, bunburyodo (the unity of pen and sword) became state doctrine—not unlike the Victorian adaptation of the Greek sense of a healthy mind in a healthy body—and combined scholarly and martial training became the norm within elite and newly 'classical' schooling. Mishima came to this, and came also to the French existential notion of 'l'homme engage', and lived his life, among other things, on this. By now, what had been achieved by the Shogunate was timeless and definitive.

On How Confucianism, Shinto, And The Erotics of Self-Exhibition Might Be Combined

13. With the Tokugawa Shogunate came revisionist religious teachings, although the metaphysical foundations of these were borrowed from earlier epochs. They became curiously animistic and atheistic doctrines (without a central creator God or, if He or She existed, then He or She did so some steps removed from normal worship). There were determined efforts to supplant Buddhism as a principal religion, and emphasis was laid upon the shinto belief in kami, the spiritual personality of each thing. A plant could have a kami, a rock, a body of water. Shinto, however, was not merely analogous to Orphic, but some teachers viewed the entire universe as a gigantic kami. Later, others distilled this kami into the person of the Emperor. The Confucian sense of propriety and hierarchy thus became addressed to ultimate beings who were, whether universe or Emperor, kami. There was an extensive intellectual effort to achieve this. The 'discursive genealogy' (to impose a recently fashionable term) was summarised by Reid (1984, p 377).

14. In contrast with Buddhist thinkers who had interpreted the shinto kami as demigods in need of enlightenment or, later, as avatars of specific Buddhas and bodhisattvas, Ise Shinto (a teacher of the 13th century) had declared that the basic reality of the universe was a kami through whom the Buddhas and bodhisattvas had their being. Yoshida (Kanetomo Yoshida, 1435-1511, the founder of Yoshida Shinto), going a step further, sought to develop a shinto free of Buddhist influences by emphasizing purity of heart as a mystical form of worship.

15. Japanese neo-Confucianism began with Seika Fujiwara (1561- 1619). Both he and his illustrious disciple Razan Hayashi (1583-1657), one of the most influential Confucian advisers to the first Tokugawa Shogun, taught that the way of Confucius was virtuous insofar as it fitted into the way of the kami, the way of the Emperor. As often noted, the traditional Confucian doctrines of abdication and justifiable rebellion could not be accommodated in Japan. Under Mitsukuni Tokugawa (1628- 1700), founder of the Mito school, neo-Confucian teachings were recast in such a way as to uphold the superiority of the Emperor over daimyo (aristocratic regional rulers) and shogun, yet also in such a way as to soften the distinction between ruler and ruled by presenting the Emperor as a caring father.

16. A note on the hierarchical nature of kami might be in order here. There is no need for precedence of existence to dominant order of reverence, i.e. if there was a first God, it does not mean that He or She should be worshipped above others. As Random (1984, p 20) puts it:

The divine couple, Izanagi and Izanami, rank only eighth in the order of creation. The first seven steps lead back to the Absolute Creator: the Master of the Centre of the Sky and, this time, the definition is identical to our meaning of the expression Creator of the Universe. These steps embrace a certain number of terrestrial kami which form the basis of the kami universe. The study of these ancient divinities (mikoto) and of the kami which followed them before the advent of Buddhism in Japan (about 538) constitutes ko shinto or ancient shinto.

17. It is this ko shinto that later was joined to a Japanese Confucianism which elevated the Emperor. There are two contradictions we should now briefly discuss. The first is that the elevation of the Emperor was simultaneously a reaction against the Shogunate (which had supplanted the Emperor as a political personage) and a vindication of it (the ceremonial and spiritual personage of the Emperor blessed the political personality of the Shogunate). Even so, as the Shogunate proved incapable of addressing Japan's needs and, particularly, in the wake of Perry's Black Ships, the Emperor provided a ready-made and ready-elevated, spiritually dominant and culturally referential personage to step into its place.

18. The second is that, amidst this admixture of shinto (which had its own sense of free natural action) and Confucianism (which did not) an intuitive and 'natural' form of service to morality developed amongst some thinkers. Influenced by the Chinese thinker, Wang Yang-Ming (Japanese: Oyomei, 1472-1529), the school of Nakae Toju (1608-48) "emphasised man's natural moral sense or intuition rather than his intellect and stressed the importance of action. Man did not attain virtue through the performance of rites, or erudition, but by courageous action according to his moral conscience... but while Nakae's emphasis lay on self-cultivation, these same teachings provided his followers with the moral foundation for political action. Some of Japan's most idealistic and celebrated revolutionaries were followers of the Oyomei School of Confucianism." (Bodart-Bailey, 1997, p 741)

19. Here, one of the most celebrated of samurai poems seems to chime with the sense of natural moral sense and intuitive action.

I have no parents: I make the earth and sky my parents.
I have no home; in the depths of my being I make my home.
I have no divine power; I make integrity my power.
I have no means; humility is my means.
I have no magic power; internal energy is my magic.
I have neither life, nor death; I make the Eternal my life and my death.
I have no body; I make courage my body.
I have no eyes; in the flashing of light are my eyes.
I have no ears; sensitivity is how I hear.
I have no limbs; instantaneous movement—my limbs.
I have no law; I make my own protection my own law.
I have no strategy; freedom to kill, freedom to be merciful—my strategy.
I have no purpose; I seize each moment.
I have no miracle—only just law.
I have no principle; adaptability within the universe—my principle.
I have no tactics; I make existence, I make the void, the source of tactics.
I have no talent; total decisiveness is my talent.
I have no enemy; irresponsibility is my enemy.
I have no armor; I make benevolence and uprightness my armor.
I have no castle; the incorruptible spirit is a fortress to me.
I have no sword.
I take as thought the promptings of the nameless realms around me,
and that is sword.

20. This is the samurai that is celebrated in legends and films. Mushasi, who authored The Book of Five Rings, was an advocate of a lawless intuition. Musashi aside, however, the sense of daring to believe and fight, even in the face of death, had to presuppose the fighting and dying for something. Bocking (1997, p 723) gives the orthodox view of the samurai.

Central to this ethic, which arose out of legendary tales and ballads of samurai heroism, was the notion of overcoming death through the death of 'self'... Bushido (the warrior code) was based on neo-Confucianism and incorporated Confucian ethics and zen meditational techniques built into martial skills... Bushido has represented for a number of twentieth century thinkers, from right-wing militarists to the Quaker Nitobe, the epitome of Japanese virtue. A Confucian culture expects a philosopher to practise what he preaches, and overcoming the weakness of a fear of death is a prerequisite of the exemplary life expected of the 'superior man'.

21. But it was the Emperor who, in both Confucian hierarchical esteem and shinto spiritual encompassment and precedence that provided the context. Henry Scott Stokes (1975, Chapter 1), giving a speculative account of why not only Mishima died, but his student (Masakatsu Morita) also, proposed the possibility of shinju (a lovers' pact involving joint suicide), since neither Mishima nor Morita felt they could spiritually consummate their love until the Emperor was placed above the US-imposed constitution. Nothing was possible until then. This is indeed speculative, but the notion of love accompanied by pain and death allows us now to take a sojourn into that last part of Mishima's life that needs to be explored here.

22. Let us glance at the idealised training of the pure martial artist, the one who retires to the mountains to become a yama bushi (mountain warrior ascetic and recluse). "Such men, lightly clad, even in freezing cold winters, develop apart from their ability to resist cold all sorts of natural or parapsychical powers... Faithful to tradition and ancient knowledge, a master of budo (martial spiritual development) by necessity feels the need to recharge his energy and this involves solitary meditation, the cold, icy baths, fasting, etc., all of which facilitate the acquisition of fresh energies and often stimulate a profound internal illumination and transformation." (Random 1984, pp 84 and 5)

23. To most readers this will seem a form of masochism, and so it is. This is not to connote the masochism with anything but self-cultivation. What, however, if it were connoted with something else? Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834-1901) wrote influential works to do with the fusion of the best of east and west. It was towards the end of his time that the Japanese novelist, Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), was born and, at university, discovered the work of R. von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902), the celebrated writer of 'Psychopathia Sexualis' (1886), in which sexual fetishisations were written about in detail, with equally detailed case examples. Tanizaki was greatly taken by the sections on masochism and, as one of the inventors of the 'I-novel' (with an autobiographical and existential style of narration), he wrote deliberately as a masochistic expressionist (Suzuki 1996, p 162). So there was a forbear of Mishima's interests in such practices.

24. In Mishima's work, the masochism always seems associated with night-time, and with cold. It is also associated with an extreme interest in voyeurism and an identification with the female characters. Both Krafft-Ebing and his disciple, Walter Braun, wrote of these associations. "Masochistic voyeurs reach their highest peak of sexual excitement when witnessing the pain of others and identifying themselves with the victims." (Braun 1996, p 135) Braun also noted (1996, pp 141-2) the links between male homosexuality, masochism, and transvestitism. Much of this is now regarded as outdated—but it was revolutionary in Tanizaki's time, and still important in Mishima's.

25. Tanizaki aspired to be like western authors he viewed as having masochistic orientations (only for him this seemed to involve everyone from Dante to Shakespeare to Goethe). Mishima also aspired to be a great European writer, but in Japan. Whereas Tanizaki rejected the Japanese Naturalist Movement of writing, Mishima's work is full of this sense of naturalism. His Noh plays, and use of Noh motifs in his other writing, all suggest an aspiration to the primeval, to the world of kami. Writing on Noh, Dunn (1999, p 509) says that it articulates a "beauty born of use...and it is also sensed (in the absence of) the vocal acrobatics and passionate emotions of an Italian aria... (expressing itself only in) the deep, half-swallowed words that seem to be emanating from something that was once human, but that now seems much closer to the world of spirits."

So now we have an apparatus by which to peruse some themes in Mishima's writing.

From First Ejaculation Onwards

26. Mishima was born in 1925. In 1947 he graduated in jurisprudence from Tokyo Imperial University with the highest honour student citation from the Emperor. Before he died on 25 November 1970, he had written 257 works, including 100 books, 15 of which were novels. Here are, in my opinion, his most important works (with the date of first publication in Japan):

Confessions of a Mask
Thirst for Love
Forbidden Colours
(Japanese: Kinjiki. This was an openly gay novel.)
Secret Pleasures (Higyo. Also gay.)
Death in Midsummer
Five Modern No Plays
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
After the Banquet
(This was a rare openly political novel. It resulted in
Mishima being served with an invasion of privacy suit.)
Patriotism (This was a short story, ending in ritual suicide for a nationalistic
cause. Many have seen this as Mishima constructing the archetype for his
own later death.)
The Sailor who fell from Grace with the Sea (This was made into a lamentable
film starring Kris Kristopherson and Sarah Miles; but its graphic sex scenes
ignited western interest in Mishima's original novel, and in his other work. It
was at this stage, from 1966, that English editions of his novels began to
appear with cover photographs of Mishima wearing only a headband and loincloth, holding a sword and exhibiting his physique.)
Madame de Sade
The Introduction to Hagakure

His last great works were a quartet, usually known in English as The Sea of Fertility cycle, this title referring to a barren plain on the moon. Early translators in Japan itself called it The Fruitful Sea cycle, so it is unclear how widely the irony of the title was unsuspected.
Spring Snow
Runaway Horses
The Temple of Dawn
The Decay of the Angel

27. The last installment of The Sea of Fertility cycle lay wrapped neatly on his desk, ready for posting to his publisher, on the morning of his death. All seemed deliberate. It was just that the stubborn head had not attended the rehearsal of Patriotism, and was hacked rather than cut off.

28. Mishima led a celebrity life in Japan. His death was as if David Beckham had killed himself publicly after having written a political manifesto. He had had photographs of himself taken by celebrated photographers such as Kishin Shinoyama and Eiko Hosoe, usually of him showing off his naked or near-naked physique, and these were widely published. One, by Kishin Shinoyama in 1966, had him posed as St. Sebastian, tied to a tree, with an arrow in his side. It was a picture of St. Sebastian, Mishima once recalled, that he saw in his youth that induced his first ejaculation. The theme is reiterated, Japanese-style, in his first (immensely successful) novel, Confessions of a Mask (1949), only the victim is not shot by arrows; he is slashed by katana (the Japanese sabre); and later paperback publishers in the west depicted the scene on their covers—of a beautiful youth, naked apart from a loincloth, bound to an execution post, and slashed by swords.

29. I want here to depict some of the themes and images of Mishima's writings. I do not propose to recount the plots, as others have done this (e.g. Scott Stokes 1975). The intention here is to draw parallels to preceding sections of this paper, by which Mishima might be understood. The final section of this paper will say something about the politics of his death and how it has been widely seen as a political suicide, with the primitive and crude programme only of restoring the Emperor to constitutional eminence. There may have been primitive elements (though not the sort many meant), but nothing was crude. For western Political Science and the discipline of International Relations, this is a story, partly of the West made East, but of the East within nothing that a simple orientalism can uncover. I do not think Mishima's was a political death—which is why Japanese politicians, including the prime minister, thought he had gone mad—I consider it primarily a normative death, though couched within a poetics. If there is one thing easily accessible to the west, it is the erotics of a certain self-contemplation and imagination of Self as Other. This last, even if shorn of its eroticism, is a lesson for our regard of others.

Until The Angel Decayed: Themes And Images in Mishima's Writings

30. Mishima's first novel, Confessions of a Mask (1949), was a sensation—although it was also a youthful fixing of bearings, of orientation. It begins with a quote from Dostoevski's The Brothers Karamazov, to do with not renouncing the beauty of the Madonna, but embracing the beauty of Sodom. "The dreadful thing is that beauty is not only terrifying but also mysterious. God and the Devil are fighting there." An early passage establishes this basic dichotomy. A young boy loves to dress up like a movie heroine, but is also fascinated by the outline of the lower male body in tight trousers. The dichotomy has become an ambivalence by the young manhood of the protagonist. He devotes his soul to his girl, Sonoko, while his body is attracted to men. He attempts to prioritise devotion and attraction, but "the emotions have no liking for fixed order. (p 241, 1960 UK edition)

31. The satori (the zen moment of epiphany and ecstatic revelation) comes with his sudden insight and fantasy related to the beautiful physical specimen of a man, ripped by blades and covered in blood. Here, Mishima, like Saint Theresa, is engaged in orgasm, the vision as powerful as if a "thunderbolt had fallen and cleaved asunder a living tree." (p 253) Hereafter, in his literary work at least, but also discernibly in his public life, Mishima's reconciliation of dichotomy and ambivalence allowed himself to be male within a masochism, and allowed himself devotion to femaleness by a two-fold process of identifying with his female characters, and subjecting himself as female also to submissions and exhibition. Both processes, the male as masochist and the female as masochist, required voyeurs, not only looking upon, but analyzing—they required readers and viewers of his plays and photographs to be like the adolescent Mishima, procreating his sense of St. Sebastian. But they also required the world of kami, the world of nature and the world of spirits, to act as witnesses of perfected flesh undergoing mortification through perfected ritual.

32. His second novel, Thirst for Love (1950), is full of love and murder under the moon of cold winter nights. His short story 'Death in Midsummer' (1953), is founded on an image of death by drowning, of being swallowed by the sea—which, otherwise, merely ripples at one's feet, "the light, derisive laughter of the waves at themselves". (p 186, 1960 Tokyo English edition) To be witnessed (and validated) by kami, and to be absorbed into kami, allows us an entry point into Mishima's modern renditions of Noh plays. He published Five Modern Noh Plays in 1956.

33. A favourite theme of traditional Noh is the substitution of identity, not only among living humans, but of ghosts and kami taking on human guise. They become part of human life, but cannot partake in it fully—being forever voyeurs, though desirous of more. The audience thus watches a play with characters who are themselves watchers. The audience sees, however, that both human characters and spirit characters are subjected to fate, to an implacable destiny. Because Noh was a court entertainment, it is heavily ritualised and stylised in a way so esoteric that both gesture and language require translation. Spirits and humans suggest life by movements that are more kata than anything naturalistic. Simultaneously, nothing could be more naturalistic to a shinto devotee than that spirits and humans, however contingently, should interact; that assumed or mistaken or substituted identities should interact—no identity in any case being able to escape fate.

34. Mishima's Noh plays use what the Chinese filmmaker, Ang Lee, years after called "an industrial Tao", i.e. the modernisation of context, with the core as it always was. (My earlier comments about martial arts might also be viewed with the use of this evocative term.) Mishima's plays therefore have modern settings and the actors wear modern dress. In 'Kantan', for instance, the protagonist dreams not of becoming Emperor of China but a great financial tycoon. Nevertheless, the old themes demand the old emblems of naturalism. Even if in an urban setting rather than the countryside, as in 'The Damask Drum', the ghost is an incarnation of the moon. Seeing, and being seen, seeing oneself being seen, under the moon or exposed to cold, became perpetual Mishiman themes.

35. Probably the most shocking sense of this comes in two novels Mishima wrote in the middle 1950s and early 1960s. In The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956), much attention has been given to the climactic scene, where the novice priest, Mizoguchi, in a fit of psychotic despair at its lack of passion and lived spirituality, burns the temple down. Paul Schrader made much of this in his film on Mishima. However, the key moment, not so much of this novel but of Mishima's writing in general, is the voyeurism of the young priest as an American soldier and a prostitute meet in the snow-covered grounds of the temple. The prostitute is pregnant and very beautiful. She wears a red coat and scarf over her nightdress, and nothing else. Catching Mizoguchi watching, the soldier asks him to participate. The girl is thrown to the ground and her coat falls open with her white thighs spread. This is the prelude to no normal rape however, for with "a warm, sweet voice" the soldier orders him to step on the girl. She does not resist. The soldier keeps urging Mizoguchi to step on all parts of her, and Mizoguchi finds himself giving "way now to a sort of bubbling joy", now treading on her breasts, then on her belly. "I had never imagined that another person's flesh could respond like this with such faithful resilience." (pp 77-8, 1959 UK edition)

36. The key is not that Mizoguchi tramples the prostitute, it is the sense that Mizoguchi would also enjoy being trampled. The girl does not resist—neither her near nakedness on the cold snow, nor being stood and walked upon. In The Sailor who fell from Grace with the Sea (1963), the identification of boy and woman is made complete. Noboru has been hiding and watching his mother make love to a sailor. Mishima celebrates the phallic insurgency of the sailor.

37. Noboru gazed in wonder as, ripping up through the thick hair below his belly, the lustrous tower soared triumphantly erect. Assembled there were the moon and a feverish wind, the incited, naked flesh of a man and a woman, sweat, perfume, the scars of a life at sea, the dim memory of ports around the world, a cramped breathless peephole, a young boy's iron heart—but these cards from a gypsy deck were scattered, prophesying nothing. The universal order at last achieved, thanks to the sudden, screaming horn, had revealed an ineluctable circle of life—the cards had paired: Noboru and mother—mother and man—man and sea—sea and Noboru... (pp 12-13, 1965 US edition)

38. The final and most emphatic statement of fusion between the watcher and the woman watched—where watching is also actively to will onwards what is seen, and what is seen is the passive obedience to this will, even ritualistically passive, is found in Mishima's play, 'Madame de Sade' (1965). Here, the play consists in an all-female cast, and seeks to be Sade through female eyes. Madame de Sade has been faithful to her notorious husband throughout his imprisonment, and the play leads up to the moment of his freedom when, abruptly, she leaves him. The key character, however, is perhaps the Comtesse de Saint-Fond, who describes a Satanic rite in which she is used as a naked table, an altar for mass. Lamb's blood is poured over her, and her arms are held open like a cross, her hands holding candles. Although treated as a ceremonial object, she resubjectivises herself within the same animation as those using her.

I merely wanted you to know that I have succeeded, though from quite the opposite direction, in making Alphonse's excitement my own. Alphonse is obsessed with seeing, I with being seen. Our experiences differ. But when the blood of the lamb streamed over my nakedness I understood who Alphonse was...He was myself. I mean he was the bloodbathed table of flesh... Yes, I knew that the Marquis de Sade was the bloodstained abortion of God who could become himself only by escaping from himself, and that whoever was there beside Alphonse—the women he tormented and the women who lashed him—were Alphonse too. The man you call Alphonse is only a shadow." (p 52, 1967 US edition)

39. By the time of what Mishima hoped would be his most enduring testament, only three to five years later, the same themes were apparent, but accompanied by a resignation that other selves seeing the self regarding itself, and transmuting itself into selves it itself regarded, might never be satisfactorily accomplished. The 1966 photos by Kishin Shinoyama, like those of Eiko Hosoe, still brought gasps from onlookers (some were displayed in giant format in a Tokyo department store), but there was also a sense that Mishima was 'showing off', and that the exhibition of himself was shallow. Besides, the exhibition was of Mishima as himself, and not of Mishima-multiple: Mishima transmuted into those persons or creatures he himself sought to see exhibited. The photos were one-dimensional—as photos tend to be. The great Sea of Fertility cycle, or quartet, had to reconcile all the youthful urges with their limits.

40. It is in this cycle that many have seen a major shift, a deterioration in the sense of realised and realisable voyeurisms, of realised self-exhibitionism by which one might be recognised as selves that one has seen—of sight made life. The first of the quartet, Spring Snow, appeared in 1968. As ever, Mishima was writing fast, and the second, Runaway Horses, appeared in 1969. This contains not only a line of self-voyeurism, but almost self mockery, as one of the characters indulges in an obsessive washing of clothes:

Sawa never explained what he meant by 'be of service' beyond an unswerving insistence that when the hour struck it would be unfitting for any man to be clad in other than dazzling white underwear. (p221, 1969 UK edition)

41. The denouement of voyeurism as identification and absorption into the object viewed—the self-subjectivisation of the viewed object—is pointedly revealed in the third novel of the sequence, The Temple of Dawn, which was published in 1970. By this time Mishima was writing at the pace of two novels a year. Here there is a reprise of the scene from The Sailor who fell from Grace with the Sea, published seven years earlier. The protagonist is again in hiding, peeping through a hole in a bookshelf, hoping to see the female character, Yin Chan, naked.

It now became clear that Honda's ultimate desire, what he really, really wanted to see could exist only in a world where he did not. In order to see what he truly wished to, he must die. When a voyeur recognises that he can realise his ends only by eliminating the basic act of watching, this means his death as such. (p 297, 1973 US edition)

42. To see the object as subject, one must finally become that subject seeing herself and being seen by others without clothing or superficial disguise. It was an impossible aspiration. Only the kami of the Noh plays could assume such convincing guises—and even they were, finally, only glimmers of moonlight, temporarily warming themselves and longing to be cold again. The Sea of Fertility as a title for the quartet, referring to a barren plain of the moon, is as apt as a title can be.

43. The last novel in the quartet—the one wrapped ready for delivery on the day of Mishima's death—is called The Decay of the Angel. It is a recognition of illusion. Simultaneously, it is to do with a last voyeurism. Honda, aged 76, has adopted Toru, aged 16. In fact, as a famous judge, Honda is arrested for voyeurism—but the central voyeurism of the book is his constant watching for the decay of Toru. The young man bears the five mythical marks that suggest he will die at 20. However, it is Honda, as the watcher, who seems to decay, being subject to constant stomach pains, and consumed by the thought he might have cancer in his stomach. The book ends in a temple garden. Honda is seeking to see once again a lost love who has become a priestess. In fact, she has become the abbess and hardly seems to know Honda. The temple is set in a garden, an empty garden, "a place that had no memories, nothing", and no future either. It was all, and will be all illusion. Even rebirth or reincarnation is an illusion. The shinto sense of life is more rigorous than the promise within that of Buddhism. For Honda—shortly also for Mishima—the only reality would be death. But, oh, what a death in Mishima's case. Seen by the world, pain piercing his abdomen—but no one would want to be him, and he would see and want to be no one else again.

The Gaze of Theory

44. The notion that Mishima was concerned about ageing and, thus, bodily decay—an end to his physical narcissism and self-voyeurism—is one of three popular theories as to why he committed suicide. The novels within The Sea of Fertility quartet are taken as thematic evidence of this. The second theory is largely political: that he truly believed, as the extreme right in Japan is taken to believe, in the godliness of the Emperor; that the Emperor deserved constitutional eminence above all other institutions of state; and that the postwar constitution, as a US imposition, rendered it impossible for Japan to be a mature and independent country, true to its roots. Mishima's speech to the troops at the army base, minutes before his suicide, is seen as the most compelling evidence of this.

45. The third theory is the one provided by Henry Scott Stokes (1975), who had frequent interview access to Mishima and who probably knew his subject as well as any westerner. He advanced the theory that Mishima and his student, Morita, were lovers; and that it was Morita, as a young extreme idealist, who egged Mishima on. Instead of posturing as true patriots, Morita demanded a great and final patriotic act, himself no doubt also living out (and dying from) the rehearsal Mishima had written in his short story, 'Patriotism' (1960). The evidence here is that it was Morita who was chosen to decapitate Mishima (and he who failed miserably, hacking away in a frenzied panic), and who was decapitated in turn. This was shinju, a lovers' suicide pact, albeit within a political context and with political animation. There was a fourth view, that of the Japanese prime minister immediately after hearing the news and recognising the political theatre involved, and that the performativity of death might just have a symbolic resonance or even actual political repercussion, and that was that Mishima had simply gone mad. Those were the taunts and jeers of the assembled soldiers at Ichigaya base, whom Mishima had sought to address. This is what happened that 25 November 1970 at Ichigaya base:

Dressed in the fussy dark green uniforms designed by Mishima, he as sensei and a small troop of his students who formed the (unarmed) paramilitary Tatenokai (Green Shield Society) arrived as expected guests of the commander of the base. Mishima and he were on good terms, the Tatenokai having participated in training exercises with his army units. (The Japanese army is still designated as a self-defence force as a result of the postwar constitution so, technically, Japan cannot project itself militarily overseas. It is far more than a proto-army however, and is well-equipped.) The Tatenokai, once in the general's quarters, did not finish the tea offered but seized him and bound him to a chair. It took the general some minutes to realise it was not a joke; that he was now a hostage.

46. At Mishima's demand, the soldiers on the base were assembled on the parade ground outside the general's headquarters and Mishima appeared on the balcony, wearing his green uniform and hachimaki (headband) and began to address them on the need to restore the Emperor to constitutional and political supremacy, and on how, as soldiers, they could only be ashamed of their role under the present constitution. Most could not hear him. Those who could, jeered. The press came and captured the event. (In their next issues, even Time and Newsweek magazines covered it.) Then Mishima went inside and, before the horrified gaze of the general, the suicide and decapitations followed as best they could. When it was finally over, the remaining members of the Tatenokai surrendered.

47. As the photographers show it, it seemed a bizarre and macabre attempt at a coup de theatre. Despite the makeup and the efforts of his young followers to arrange it nicely, Mishima's head did not look pretty, and its expression was that of someone who had died in pain. His entrails had spilled over the floor, and there was blood everywhere. The messiness of it all horrified more people than it could ever have hoped to inspire. He was nevertheless buried with great honour. Important personages attended. The photographs of this second event show Mishima's widow (whom he had once described as "having no imagination") looking sombre, smart in western black, and very thoughtful. It is for us now to imagine some reasons. "Imagine" because we cannot "know". There was no simple truth, epistemology, or a simple fanatical warp of truth here.

Bunburyodo and the Pairing of Opposites

48. For it was not as simple as any of the prevailing theories. He lived by the pen and died by the sword. He commanded a paramilitary group that owned no arms (swords excepted). He had gay relationships and fantasies, but was happily married (we understand). He died a Japanese death but lived in a house of European antiques. He had a beautiful male physique but sometimes wrote as a woman (and, if the interpretations, above, are correct, idealised the merger of the sexes), or, as in the Noh plays, wrote for men playing women. He was a European writer writing of things Japanese, i.e. he wanted to be remembered as a philosophical novelist, like his western heroes, but to make sense also in the Japanese philosophical context. He wanted to be a philosophical novelist but also like Hemingway. He castigated the postwar constitution imposed by the US but prized the critical appreciation he received in the US. He died Japanese-style but fantasised death in the image of St. Sebastian. He actually looked better in western suits than in Japanese costume. And the militaresque uniform in which he died was not Japanese at all, except that it bore echoes of that late 19th century era when Japan was, almost in a frenzy, adopting the industrialisation and outward dress forms of the west, while protagonising its Emperor (in western-style admiral's uniform with medals), not as godlike (that is a crude western interpretation) but as the grand kami of a strangely timeless though changing landscape of curious fusions.

49. To be Japanese (even if partly western) one must live by rituals. Kata is a ritual. The sword swings in a kata. The karate kick and punch is delivered in a kata. The aim is to purify the ritual. Ideally, one purifies it practising the punches under waterfalls, meditating at night or in the snow, exposing self to the cold. Expression and exposure become synonymous. Pleasure comes from getting the kata right and getting it right, the practice, is painful. It is a world readily transposed into ritual sexuality, into the self-pain and self-exposure of masochism. It is a world in which one can transpose personalities, and to bridge the personalities through voyeurism: one becomes what one sees. One not so much objectivises oneself as resubjectivises self. And practise enough kata, enter sufficient a meditational trance, and one can see the light of the spiritual world—one can become, momentarily, kami.

What To Make Of It All

50. It is almost impossible then to divorce the literal from its spiritual archetype. The Emperor was both political symbol and political eunuch. The disjuncture did mean something as long as Hirohito (the Emperor who lost 'Emperorness') lived. It is less pronounced now that Akihito has succeeded to the throne. But there is less disjuncture between sex and pain and death. The Japanese expression for orgasm is not "coming", but "going". One is leaving oneself, dying a little. The equivalent to Tibetan tantra, the extended, seemingly endless prelude to orgasm which can become a substitute for orgasm itself, resides in that state of anticipation that exposure, exhibition, and moonlit cold can bring. This is, of course, to poeticise the actual disjuncture, to make it seem less. The art of Mishima was to poeticise certain disjunctures, to make literary and artistic fusions a creative life-form—the kami fills the gap. It was only when he sought to close the gap himself, in his own person, by his own death, that he fell into the void.

51. The neat presentation of his final manuscript that morning was as if to say that art had finished. With it, life itself had now to finish, death consummating art as much as ending life. The Decay of the Angel, the final novel, "had no memories". This, after all the Confucianism, was also zen, "nothing". A life, like a novel, ends at that point of recognition, and all the anticipation over years of writing those 100 books ends in "going". This is itself to poeticise our gap in understanding, to imagine in the site of the gap. It is unsatisfactory because the philosophical novelist ended his life in a tragic sort of monstrous farce. It was not like the books. And the Emperor did not rise again, Japan did not become more Confucian. The final gaze upon Mishima was one of horror, some pity, much wonder—and, only slowly, some imagination.

52. For International Relations (IR) and political philosophy, a primary lesson is that orthodox western epistemological devices cannot be applied to Mishima. One cannot, for example, examine Mishima's life, works, and death by suggesting a series (or serial) of contradictions, and apply them to a dialectical process. There is no synthesis here. One does not, in his case, seek to reconcile a lion and an eagle. Neither synthesis nor reconciliation is the same as fusion. One simply acknowledges a griffin. To apply, instead, a hermeneutical enquiry, one must be sensitive to the nuances of fusion and their manifold layers, busily intersecting at different levels, before one can say a circle has been joined—or even half a circle discerned.

53. Mishima may be an extreme case—or he may simply encapsulate a very great many of Japan's postwar, post-Shogunate directions of thought and movement. When we examine the 'right wing' in Japanese politics, or turn the gaze upon a complex embodiment of it in Mishima, there is nothing here antipathetic to the West. It is not revanchist in that it seeks an antiquity before the western victory of 1945. Some parts of it are as western as the West. The writings of Krafft-Ebing were used to articulate something very Japanese but previously lacking precision in its self acknowledgement; but that precision, and the artefacts it can give rise to, is not dissimilar to the precisions of technology also absorbed by the Japanese (and it is we who absorb its artefacts). Other parts are as Japanese as the Japanese could invent for themselves over 400 years. Mishima's own prized katana, his sword, was 400 years old. Its kami saw the compression and ordering of social life into a diamond Made in Japan. It didn't stop being layered and recompressed. The internal life of the sword, the internal life of Mishima, these emerged in performativities: books, nakedness, death. Finally IR, which fills books, knows nothing about nakedness and death. About poetics. About the idealism behind a wretchedly botched suicide. If kami were sentient, rather than merely self-conscious (and that is another riddle) they would have been, if gazing on, horrified.

Stephen Chan is Dean of Law and Social Sciences at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and Professor of International Relations in the University of London. His major research interests are in Southern African politics (Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence, 2003) and in the multicultural composition of international ethics (The Zen of International Relations, 2001). He is an 8 dan in Shorin Ryu karate, 5 dan in both Goju ryu and Shotokan karate, 3 dan in iaido, and 1 dan in ju jutsu, and has been awarded the ceremonial title of Hanshi, generally the highest such title accorded to a non-Japanese. He has a (non-academic) interest in the crossover points between Tibetan Buddhism and Shinto. Stephen Chan's own early literary work in New Zealand was recently anthologised in the defining Auckland University Press volume, Big Smoke. Email:

Author’s note

I last wrote about Mishima 18 years ago. I thank Ranka Primorac for encouraging me to return to him, and Christine Sylvester who commissioned what was always going to be an unorthodox work.


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