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Storytellers: Yukio Mishima, Death of a Warrior

By Cindy Davis | Pajiba Storytellers | November 9, 2011 | Comments ()


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Without delving into the nature vs. nurture debate, who can say how far-reaching the ramifications of childhood events are? While each of us knows that at the end of the road death is waiting, few would spend their lives charging full-speed toward it. If one did, would that be due to genetic predisposition, a character flaw or the influence of those around him? What might happen to an infant boy whose grandmother is allowed to confiscate him as her own, like some unclaimed piece of property? What if that infant was kept for years--spending most of his life in a dark, quiet sick room--not allowed to go outside, to run or play with other children, given only limited visits with his own mother and even those small moments, left feeling guilty? This was the beginning of the life of Japanese writer, Kimitake Hiraoka aka Yukio Mishima (Confessions of a Mask, The Sound of Waves, The Sea of Fertility); read on for one of the strangest tales never told (on film).

The noble lineage of Kimitake's grandmother, Natsu (joined with commoner, Jotaro in an arranged marriage) later gave the young man some aristocratic advantage in school admittance, but perhaps she also passed along some mental illness (Natsu suffered bouts of "hysteria"). Natsu and Jotaro sired a son, Azusa, who when he grew up, wed a young woman named Shizue. The couple lived with Natsu and Jotaro, though Jotaro was often away. On January 14, 1925, Kimitake was born and when he was less than two months old, Natsu took the infant boy to her own room and kept strict custody of him until he was 12 years old. According to Kimitake's mother, she was allowed to nurse her baby (timed) under Natsu's watchful eye, after which he was whisked away from her, back to grandmother's prison. Shizue was not allowed out alone with her son until he was 5 or 6 and the boy was only allowed to play with his female cousins, as Natsu thought other boys were too rough. It is clear that Shizue felt as subordinate as a servant in the home of her husband's parents, but very unclear why Azusa never objected to his mother's arrangement. Kimitake had a younger brother and sister, but Natsu took no interest in them.

Growing up under these bizarre circumstances, young Kimitake became stoic and expressionless, resigned to his fate. In his mind though, he daydreamed grand stories that often involved death, quietly acting them out with toy figures. In one of the few incidents where his father argued with Natsu, Azusa took the 4 year old Kimitake for a walk near some train tracks. As a train sped by--close enough to touch, all noise and smoke--Azusa held up the boy and asked if he was frightened. Kimitake gave no reaction, no expression, it was as if he didn't notice reality at all. Though at the age of six he was allowed to attend a private school, Kimitake had no idea how to be social and suffered the usual humiliations of being a small, awkward kid. He continued to stay with and be obsessed over by his grandmother until the age of 12, taking care of her in ways a young boy should never have to. He doled out her medications, massaged her sciatic pain-ravaged hip and leg and led her to the bathroom many times daily. When Natsu finally released Kimitake, the family moved to a separate house and the boy--for the first time in his life--had his own room. Though this should have been the beginning of normalcy, Kimitake was now subjected to his father's cruel dictatorship. Being drawn to reading (Kimitake loved Oscar Wilde) and writing, anything involving literature at all, were vile offenses in Azusa's mind. Kimitake remained close to his grandmother (she died when he was 14) and they still spent a night a week together, often going to the theater and creating a passion for plays that stayed with Kimitake for life. Azusa despised Kimitake's love of the arts and as obsessed as his son became with writing, so was Azusa with squashing that "effeminate" desire. He would go into the boy's room and destroy any manuscripts he found, leaving his son in tears. In the midst of all the madness that surrounded him, Kimitake's writings indicate that he was also struggling with feelings of homosexuality; though he eventually married and had children, there were (somewhat) secret affairs throughout adulthood. Azusa, a Confucian, endlessly pushed Kimitake to turn toward a "respectable" career in chemistry or engineering instead of the "dishonorable" vocation (writing). And though he tried to honor his father's wishes by attending university and studying law, Kimitake continued to write and soon his first book of short stories, using the pen name, Yukio Mishima was published. One unifying theme in many of Yukio/Kimitake's writings (aside from homosexuality) was death; grand, glorious and ceremonial death.

In 1945 at the age of 20, Yukio Mishima received his draft notice which, at the time was basically considered a death sentence. After standing in line for a physical with his fellow draftees, the military doctor examined him and declared him unfit for service because of a "lung-rasp," misdiagnosed as tuberculosis. Mishima's parents were ecstatic, but Yukio's non-reaction appeared odd to them; in writings about the incident, Yukio seemed conflicted within himself. He had so often dreamed of death, thinking he wanted it and now ripped from its almost certain clutches, something inside himself was relieved. It seemed to be a solitary moment where the writer saw the difference between fantasy death and reality. Though the incident clearly shook Mishima, suddenly, WWII was at an end. The threat of death no longer real, his writings continued to reflect Yukio's preoccupation with death as something to be attained--a beautiful, ceremonial, purifying rite. He went on to become a prolific writer, completing essays, short stories, novels and plays. His works were considered for Nobel Prizes (Madame de Sade, Spring Snow) and each time he (prepared to win) was not chosen, Mishima was crushed. Over the years he became obsessed with bodybuilding, training himself to overcome his frail body and appearance. He acted on stage (even performing a gory, ritual death scene in a production of one of his own works) and in film, but Yukio was never satisfied with his life and from his youth, seemed to be hurtling himself toward a spectacular death.

In 1960, after writing Patriotism (the story of a group of military officers who try to overthrow a government and commit seppuku [Japanese ritual suicide], described by the author as "a tale of bliss"), Yukio Mishima--not previously involved in politics or religion--appeared to take on the role of an extremist. He made declarations about the difficulty of living in peace and despaired over the loss of Bushido, the way of the warrior. Mishima's interpretation of Bushido included the consciousness of death, the thing with which he had been fascinated his whole life. He began practicing Kendo (sword fighting), finding solace in its violence and fantasies of a warrior's death. By 1966, Mishima was researching an historical uprising--notable for martyrdom--for another book he was writing. He seemed to be on a mission to gain faith. Upon rediscovering the will he had written at 20, when he thought he was going off to war, Yukio may have found that faith in his own words: "I trust that Chiyuki (Mishima's brother), following his his elder brother, will hasten to become a brave warrior in the Imperial Army, ready to die in His Majesty's defense." The same year, Yukio met a couple of men described as "believing in Japan, the Japanese and the Emperor," who had founded a magazine devoted to politics. Mishima began writing for them and questioning the new Western style of life affecting Japan. In one of the articles, Mishima speaks of still being young enough to die a hero's death, referring to a famous fanatic who at 50, committed seppuku.

In 1967, saying he was motivated by concern over national defense, Yukio somehow managed to get into military basic training (as a civilian). Though he was 42 years old, he was able to keep up with his peers, most of whom were still teenagers. He studied the ways of a samurai and began to prepare for death. Mishima created his own civilian army, ostensibly to aid the Japanese military in time of attack. He trained several small groups of men, holding his own version of boot camp, and held monthly meetings to discuss politics and play warriors; he wrote and published an essay about "The Defense of Culture," which spoke of defending the Emperor, "the guarantor of Japanese culture." Yukio's brother, Chiyuku, felt all of Mishima's politics and war playing was simply to make up for the amusements he had missed as a child. At this time, Yukio met a young man named Masakatsu Morita; Morita seemed to share Yukio's death obsession and it is believed they were lovers. By 1968, they had resolved to die together, with ongoing demonstrations and riots opposing a U.S. visit by Prime Minister Sato providing the unsettled backdrop. The two concocted a plan that included two other men from Yukio's civilian defense group. Mishima made all the necessary preparations, including last meetings with friends and colleagues, bequeathing his properties and a final family vacation. Most bizarrely, he had a series of photographs of himself taken. He gave the series, in which he posed in death scenes of his own design (drowning, run over by a truck, shot with arrows, seppuku, etc.) the title: "Death of a Man." Some of the photos were included in a photographic retrospective of his life which he held at a department store, before his actual death. Finally, Yukio wrote a manifesto, (about restoring Japan to her true form) which he intended to read as part of his plan to hold a military General captive, make (unimportant) demands and carry out an elaborate death scenario. The "soldiers" involved held rehearsals in the days before and there was a final celebratory dinner.

On November 25, 1970, Mishima dressed in a uniform, carried one long sword and two short, and he gave his aides envelopes with money for lawyers fees and letters (instructions and taking full responsibility for his actions). The group of four went (under pretenses) to the office of General Masuda, distracted him so he could be bound and gagged, then passed their list of purported demands under the office door they barricaded shut. There was a small skirmish when a few men were able to break in, but Mishima and his men drove them back. By this time, authorities had been notified and a crowd was gathered outside. Mishima went out on the balcony to read his manifesto, but the noise of the crowd kept him from finishing. Yukio opened his jacket and sat; his companion, Morita, took his designated position as kaishakunin (the second person, who assists in seppuku), behind Yukio. Mishima took a short sword and plunged it into his own stomach, grunting as he drew it across his abdomen. Morito struck twice at Mishima's neck, attempting to behead him, but it was necessary for one of the other men to finish the job with a third strike. That same man beheaded Morita, once had Morita stabbed himself. The two remaining participants cried and released the General, as had been planned. Yukio Mishima had finally achieved a warrior's death.

""The instant that the blade tore open his flesh, the bright disk of the sun soared up and exploded behind his eyelids." Yukio Mishima, Runaway Horses

Because I'm certain there are more fine Japanese actors besides Ken Watanabe, but I don't know them, I really can't suggest who should play Mishima. I'd love to see someone like Brian De Palma or David Fincher direct this amazing life story.



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