Having written recently about the acclaimed but controversial Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima from a kendo perspective, I was offered the opportunity to review a new biography by the publishers, Stone Bridge Press.
Persona (ISBN: 978-1-61172-008-2), is the work of the recently appointed acting governor of Tokyo Naoki Inose, translated by Hiroaki Sato.
Whilst I do not consider myself to be qualified to embark on literary criticism, I welcomed the opportunity to review this book from the perspective of my general interest in Japanese social history and in particular Japan’s pre/post-war transition.
At 836 pages, although well written and translated, this is probably not a book for the casual reader. It utilises eye witness interviews and quotes extensively from Mishima’s huge body of work and that of his literary contemporaries.
I am not sure if this biography brings me any closer to an understanding of this complex character, who was at the same time, author, actor, TV personality and political activist. He was steeped in classical Japanese literature but also an avid reader of foreign writers, particularly of the French and German philosophers. His theatrical experiences were equally broad, from directing Noh plays to acting in Yakuza movies. He promoted himself as a survivor of the Taisho aristocracy and a man-of-the-people, a family man with homosexual tendencies, a dandy and poseur with a serious political agenda, a rightist with some sympathy for the leftist student revolts and a Japanese nationalist with a strong interest in understanding the wider world.
Rejecting kendo in his schooldays because of its physicality and “shouts”, he was drawn to it in maturity for exactly the same reasons. Although his interest in Kendo and Iai did not abate with time, the comments of some of his seniors were not particularly flattering, referring to him as “clumsy” and with “stiff wrists”. This may have been due to his efforts in bodybuilding where he was said to have developed his upper body and neglected his legs.
Although Persona details Mishima’s life and times, providing a rich background to the period in Japan in which he lived, it draws no firm conclusions. Whether the creation of his militia the “Tate no Kai” was a product of his personal vanity or of serious political commitment is debateable. Likewise whether his death by seppuku was solely the result of his devotion to the code of Bushido, or was influenced by his own erotic fantasies is equally open to doubt.
This book does however convey the feeling that whilst Mishima’s personality was multi-faceted, his convictions, although multi-layered, and his resultant actions were sincere. In dealing with this complex subject, the author has had the courage to show Japan’s “dark side” to the west; something that Mishima himself complained was seldom done.