Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Sea of Fertility by Yukio Mishima

This may seem an odd entry to begin a discussion of Christian themes in world literature, but it happens to be what I just finished reading.

The Sea of Fertility was written in four parts in the late sixties by the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, a highly-Westernized writer whose works still enjoys wide acceptance and translation in the West. The four volumes of the series are:

Spring Snow
Runaway Horses
The Temple of Dawn
The Decay of the Angel

The title of the series comes from the area on the surface of the moon, The Sea of Fertility, and is meant to conjure up a lifeless, stark, cold area of mystery and dark grandeur. It is believed this was Mishima's feeling on his homeland. The last volume of the work takes on added significance when one considers that Mishima turned in the final manuscript for the novel on the same day he and his followers stormed the office of a Japanese general and forced him to assemble the men of that particular detachment of the Japanese Defense Forces. After giving a speech from a balcony urging the men to reject Western values and embrace Emperor worship, among other things, Mishima committed ritual suicide.

This last act, the significance of which is still debated in Japan, becomes even more incongruous when one reads the four parts of this work, which doesn't seem to spring from the same mind that committed that last act.

The four-volume work follows the life of Shigekuni Honda, whom we first meet in 1912 as a student through his association with Kiyoaki Matsugae, the son of a baron who falls in love with the daughter of a titled family. "Spring Snow" shows how this love affair touches the newly Westernizing families of Japanese aristocracy and the royal family, eventually ending in Kiyoaki's tragic death. However, in "Runaway Horses," Honda, now a judge in the 1930s, believes he encounters the reincarnation of his friend in the person of the young Isao Iinuma, a right-wing fanatic who blames Japanese capitalism for the country's decline in morals. Honda reaches this conclusion because of Kiyoaki's last delirious words to him, and the sight of three moles on Isao's chest that perfectly match a set Honda saw on Kiyoaki's chest.

The first two volumes of "The Sea of Fertility" are easily the best, the first a passionate love story while the next one is a celebration of doomed Japanese nationalism. The writing is, at times, poetic if a bit grandiose and lingers all too lovingly on a vanishing idyll. What struck me the most as I was reading them were the moments where Mishima came very close to Christian iconography - even in the midst of what is a nominally Buddhist social setting. “How strange man is!” one character observes in “Spring Snow,” echoing Hamlet. “His touch defiles and yet he contains the source of miracles.”

By the time of "The Temple of Dawn," Honda is now an old man whom we follow through various vignettes from the beginning of World War II into the late 1950s. This is the most obviously Buddhist of the series, where Honda begins to meditate on the implications of Buddhist theories of reincarnation. He takes a trip to Benares, to the Ganges in India, a city he describes as a place of extreme holiness and extreme filth.

This pilgrimage comes after he encounters a seven-year-old Siamese princess who believes she is the reincarnated Isao. However, Honda is unable, until late in the novel, to confirm whether this is so. By this time, Honda's character has become a much more Westernized, much more culturally and intellectually lax individual, and begins to indulge in voyeurism and an easy corruption. We feel in watching him that Mishima is commenting on how Western virtues have corrupted the purity of Japanese life at virtually every stratum of society.

The final volume, when considering that Mishima was planning his own end while writing it, feels rushed and thinly sketched when compared to the other volumes. By now, Honda is approaching eighty and believes he has found the latest incarnation in a student named Tōru Yasunaga. However, instead of encountering an innocent boy, an idealist, or a beautiful princess, our latest incarnation is overtly, consciously evil. Honda, believing he can somehow entwine himself in the boy's life, adopts him, hoping to somehow short circuit what he believes to be "destiny." In the end, he can't actually be sure of what his life means, or even if he was correct in any of his assumptions. How much did he have to do with these previous "incarnations" and the ends they met?

What can we glean from this work, so ambitious and uneven that we aren't even sure if the author was secure in his intentions? After all, Mishima gives Honda a fully-realized consciousness of reincarnation, yet by all accounts, Mishima himself didn't believe in the transmigration of souls. Instead, he is aiming at what he believes is happening to Japan - that in the middle of Coca-Cola advertisements and the Western Constitution and its mass entertainment culture is a feminizing slackness that is robbing it of knowing what it once was, and could be again. Are any of Japan’s endless incarnations still “Japan,” or has something been irrevocably lost?

One could make a case that Honda learns that no matter how much one is willing to superimpose a theological template on some events, the outcomes almost certainly undo our expectations. Life is more complicated than a narrative, as Mishima himself illustrated not just with his art, but his life. The dominant image of the novel cycle is that of a waterfall - “the direction of uncertainty, the realm behind this clearly defined world, a realm whose phenomena were flowing over a waterfall.” What one finds from that image is a rushing current of events with no discernible recognition of their meaning, or source.

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