The exaggerated color of secrecy clinging to politics confirmed its resemblance to the business of romance; politics and love affairs were in fact as alike as peas in a pod.

–Yukio Mishima, After the Banquet

After the Banquet

After the BanquetThe first books I read by Yukio Mishima—Confessions of a Mask and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion—were dense and alienating. They grappled with ideas and were beautifully written, but they were run through by currents of misanthropy as well, which made them difficult to stomach. Something in them attracted me though, and so, when I stumbled upon a cache of his books this summer in a used bookstore in Cleveland, I felt like I’d found a gold mine and grabbed them.

After the Banquet is the first of these I’ve read, and it’s nothing like the other two books, not least because it’s protagonist is a successful woman in her late sixties rather than a young man. This woman is an incredible character, smart, clever, and energetic, and it’s hard not to admire and fall in love with her.

The novel’s story is organized by her late-in-life romance and marriage to a retired government minister in his early seventies, but its content is about this elderly man’s half-hearted bid to be elected mayor of Tokyo. He’s no good at electoral politics and has no clear sense of why he should be mayor, but his wife has drive, a fierce intelligence and a natural talent for campaigning. Also she’s rich (with money she earned from a business she created).

As the novel follows her efforts to elect her husband (he’s a socialist in a city controlled by a conservative political machine), Mishima explores the relationship between politics and land, culture and and landscape, and the signs used to signal and shape the nationalism that remains in post-war Japan. (When I began reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow recently, I thought of this book.)

The novel draws on melodramatic form and tells the story of a woman who suffers at the hands of powerful men. So perhaps inevitably, its political narrative offers a scene for examining the political and economic position of women. And here the novel is moving and sympathetic in the way the novels I read earlier weren’t. Mishma had less compassion in those works for characters that seemed to stand in partially for himself.

Mishima really is worth reading.


The elms stretched delicate branches high into the blue, and the clustered twigs had the sharp clarity of countless cast nets simultaneously thrown into the sky.

–Yukio Mishima, After the Banquet

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

The Temple of the Golden PavilionThis is the second book I’ve read by Mishima and it’s as dense and complex as the first. It’s also just as brutal and unpleasant: Mishima’s characters are instinctive intellectuals but they are also abject. What’s surprising here is that their obsessions develop into an extended and extremely discursive meditation on beauty.

Images of Beauty

The principal image of beauty and of the problems beauty creates is the Golden Temple. Over and over the pavilion and its grounds are described in long passages. Each passage is organized in roughly the same way and each focuses on similar details. The repetitions register the main character’s entrapment while the slight variations between them track his intellectual and emotional development.

Beauty is compared at various moments to a decayed tooth, a breast, a vagina, and a deranged man who must be taken seriously. This is only a partial list but it suggests the way the novel is continually grasping for some way of expressing the truth of beauty.

Temporal Beauty

Mishima’s book insists that art is order consciously imposed on a fecund world in an attempt to reveal its essence even if only for a moment. Music and flower arrangement are his exemplary arts. But in flower arrangement for example, when the arranging is done, the beauty achieved (“what people call art“) offers no consolation and does not last (cf. the temple reflected in a pool of water).

What the protagonist fears is that beauty as perfect and as eternal as that of the temple will cut him off from life completely. Worse he knows that no beauty is in fact eternal; however permanent it seems, beauty cannot last. The harmony will dissipate or crack and the world will come crashing in on him. Better, he thinks, to live without any beauty at all.

Mishima does not fear beauty’s collapse; he yearns for it and writes as if beauty is the cracks. Art is temporal rather than spatial, and his moments of beauty don’t read as narrative scenes and are beautiful precisely because they are broken off from their surroundings and inexplicable. The most emblematic of these involves a woman, seen from above, dripping breast milk into her departing lover’s tea.

Cruel Art

Mishima notes that a skilled hand is often cruel and approaches beauty unbound by morality, and many of the novel’s striking, essential moments are horrific or cruel. The brutal attack on the pregnant woman in the temple garden, for example, or perhaps more obviously, the brilliant final scene in which the centuries-old temple is burnt to the ground. Are these moments beautiful?

I think Mishima would say, “Yes. If you live and are not dead, then yes.” But I need to read more and more carefully to know for sure.

It was skill alone that made it possible. Beauty was skill.

–Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Confessions of a Mask

Confessions of a MaskThis is the first book I’ve read by Yukio Mishima. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what I found was completely disorienting. Mishima is something like a Japanese Jean Genet: a gay man exploring abjection during a particularly repressive historical period. But he’s also very different culturally and in terms of class.

The novel plays out in scenes set before and during World War II, and it concludes in the months following the bombing of Hiroshima. Although the novel has nothing to do with battle or soldiers, the war sets the tone of the scenes and organizes the lives of the people from whom the protagonist is cut off by his emerging sexuality. What’s more, the war seems to stand in allegorical relationship to that sexuality, and the protagonist perceives violence–especially martial violence–in explicitly sexual terms.

When I finished this novel, I thought I was done with Mishima. It was a dark and alienating book. But it is also a powerful one that feels major. And soon, I found myself at the library, standing in the stacks reading the first pages of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. I checked it out and now appear to be in for the long-haul. Mishima’s writing is difficult, heavily patterned and strange, but it’s also controlled. And I’m curious.


The book has four chapters each self-contained. The first tells of the protagonist’s infancy, his time living with his grandmother, and his fascination with the violent deaths of knights in fairy tales.

The second tells of his precocious sexual desires and their formation in response to Guido Reni’s painting of Saint Sebastian. (The young protagonist is looking at this painting the first time he masturbates, a scene that reminds me of moments in Mario Vargas Llosa‘s In Praise of the Stepmother). Later the protagonist describes his crush on an older boy by recalling a moment in which the boy strips to the waist and does pull-ups, a posture that echoes the painting and reveals, to the protagonist’s great delight, his armpits.

The third chapter tells of the protagonist’s flirtations with a friend’s sister during the final years of the war. This experiment is his effort to understand his desires and their connection to the feelings he sees the people around him experiencing and the relationships he sees them maintaining. From it, he discovers that he is 1) attracted to men and 2) not attracted to women (two facts that today we take to be synonymous).

The final chapter tells of the protagonist’s brief, post-war flirtation with the same woman although now she is married. The novel concludes with these two having a drink in a seedy dancing club. As they sit both knowing that by bringing her here the protagonist has ended their affair, the protagonist watches a muscular bare-chested thug and fantasizes about tying his hands above his head, stabbing him delicately with a knife, and watching the blood run down his side and onto his pants.

The Golden Temple cast a perfect shadow on the surface of the pond, where the duckweed and the leaves from water plants were floating. The shadow was more beautiful than the building itself.

–Yukio Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

It is a common failing of childhood to think that if one makes a hero out of a demon the demon will be satisfied.

–Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask

Meanwhile, the cherry trees had blossomed. But no one seemed to have time for flower-viewing.

–Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask