Tuesday, April 23, 2013

After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima

Death figures heavily in the writing of Yukio Mishima, as even a casual reader knows. However, his 1960 novel, "After the Banquet," does not fit so neatly into the complete body of work. I've previously written about Mishima here and here.

Mishima himself grouped his novels into two categories - pièces noires and pièces roses, of which "After the Banquet" falls in the former category. It has a female protagonist and dashes of humor, and it displays an advanced and detached understanding of contemporary Japanese domestic politics. And its stance on death, more than anything, gives it a place of its own among Mishima's bloody and brilliant works.

"After the Banquet" opens with Kazu, the female owner of the Setsuogoan, a Tokyo restaurant frequented by the powerful and rich. Kazu's ownership is the culmination of a long climb to respectability, and her reputation as a hostess is well-known and well-earned. Her life changes when she meets Noguchi, a semi-retired former minister possessing a quiet style and a proud, stubborn, antique modesty.

The two form an attachment that later leads to marriage, though laying dormant in their relationship is their incompatibility. Kazu has a fierce, protective love for Noguchi, but we understand that she also sees their marriage as the final seal on her acceptance into polite society. But she is, at long last, an independent woman, and her love for the diplomat is complicated by the demands of her owning the Setsuogoan. Noguchi then begins a political campaign that Kazu takes part in, to the frustration of her husband. She discovers another part of herself in the process.

"After the Banquet" does not often get into the heads of its characters, dwelling instead on details of dress and scenery, going so far as to produce the menu for certain meals at social occasions. There may have been other reasons for this beyond simple considerations of style. Mishima based the story on events in the life of a real politician, Hachiro Arita, who later sued for invasion of privacy in a famous Japanese legal case.

One is constantly reminded that Noguchi and Kazu are older characters, though Noguchi is the more elderly. He has come to see his marriage as his final home, Mishima writes, and Kazu sees it as her tomb. "But people cannot go on living inside a tomb," the narrator's voice intones. 

When Noguchi takes Kazu to his family cemetery plot, and she encounters the grave of his first wife, we suddenly get a peek inside her head:

"Kazu had had no opportunity even at the wedding to meet the living members of Noguchi's family, but she could imagine how the dead ones with their high principles and absolute incorruptibility had transmitted the family's heritage to succeeding generations. Grinding poverty, obsequiousness, lies, contemptible natures - these were no concern of this family. Confused memories returned of obscene parties in country restaurants, of drunken customers thrusting their hands inside an innocent girl's kimono, of a runaway girl shrinking in terror as she boarded a night train, of back alleys in the city, of bought caresses, of petty ruses of every sort employed to protect herself, of the domineering kisses of cold-hearted men, of contempt mixed with affection, of a persistent craving for revenge against an unknown adversary: such experiences were surely undreamed of by this family."

Suddenly, we see Kazu has had a desperate fear of death, as though her life and its struggle would disappear into nothingness at the moment she leaves the earth. At one point in the book, Kazu realizes her possessions, symbolized by a vast collection of kimonos, is meaningless, and she feels "a desolation as if her flesh were suddenly melting away." By marrying a man of means and prestige, she has insured that one day she will buried among his family, her name finally having status and meaning. She perceives that death is the ultimate negation of her vital, emotional life. But by marrying, she has cheated her inevitable destiny.

She returns to the cemetery on election day, after lighting a candle before a Buddhist altar. She has a strange expectation that she can somehow woo the spirit of the former Mrs. Noguchi into bringing about an election victory supernaturally. Even the fact that mosquitoes are biting her is taken as a hardship, the endurance of which will bring about a reward.

"What do you say? Let's join hands, one woman to another, and help him win somehow." Kazu felt as if a beautiful friendship for this woman she had never met was rapidly materializing, and she wept a little. "What a fine lady, a fine lady. I am sure that if you were still alive we'd become good friends!"

Noguchi's defeat, which seems inevitable after a pamphlet reveals Kazu's notorious career for the voters, dooms the marriage. The couple cannot stay together because Noguchi had wanted a quiet retirement, while Kazu still longs for the Setsuogoan. In a decision much like Huck Finn's resolution to "go to hell" in helping a slave escape to freedom, Kazu chooses, in a sense, oblivion.

"There flashed before Kazu's eyes an unvisited grave in some desolate cemetery, belonging to someone who had died without a family...If Kazu were no longer a member of the Noguchi family, she would assuredly travel a straight road leading to that desolate grave...But something was calling Kazu for the distance. An animated life, every day wildly busy, many people coming and going - something like a perpetually blazing fire called her. That world held no resignation or abandoned hopes, no complicated principles; it was insincere and all its inhabitants fickle, but in return, drink and laughter bubbled up lightheartedly. That world seen from here looked like the torchlight of dancers scorching the night sky on a hilltop beyond dark meadows."

In this sense, Kazu is not very different from other "heroes" in the Mishima universe, for whom death is simply another, more final statement of life that adds a meaning, even if the meaning is meaningless. Like much of his audience, it is now that matters - knowing it will not last makes even the pain somehow sweet, in the sort of sad, philosophical sense that only a writer can believe. After the banquet, it is the hired help who cleans up after the celebrants. And the party becomes just another memory, if only for the sober.

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