J-Lit Giants: 2 – Yukio Mishima

I’m back again with another in my J-Lit Giants series, in which I (and, hopefully, a few guests) introduce a famous Japanese writer and recommend a few books to get you started.  Today, we’ll be looking at a writer who made the headlines for more than just his literary legacy…

Yukio Mishima (real name Kimitake Hiraoka) was a prolific writer who came to a rather untimely end.  He began writing during his high-school days (even though his father was against his literary pursuits), and he had one of his stories published in a famous literary magazine.  His career began in earnest after World War Two, and he went on to write a host of famous novels, including the four-part Sea of Fertility quadrilogy.

Mishima was very different to your average writer.  He was an actor and a model, appearing in films and photo campaigns, and he also had a keen interest in weight-training and body-building (something your average writer is not exactly known for!).  He also had a keen sense of tradition and responsibility – something which was to have an impact later on in his life…

In November 1970, Mishima and a group of his followers attempted to start a coup against the Emperor.  After his half-hearted attempt was laughed down, he calmly went inside and committed seppuku – ritual suicide.  One of the most famous writers in the world attempted to disembowel himself with a sword before being beheaded by a helper.  Imagine the headlines today…

One reason for his decision may have been the fact that Yasunari Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, meaning that Mishima was unlikely to ever win the award, despite having been a favourite to win it several times.  Whether this was the reason or not, it was a sad end for a great writer.

Mishima is probably not the most accessible of Japanese writers.  Some of his best works are dense and can be hard going for newcomers to his work.  However, they’re not all quite so difficult to get into.  My three to try would be:

1) Spring Snow – This is a late-career novel, the first in his famous Sea of Fertility series, but it’s a wonderful love story and a novel which is easy to get lost in.

2) After the Banquet – The story of a high-class restaurant owner’s marriage to a dour politician is a novel about opposites attracting, but failing to go the distance.  Again, it displays a much lighter touch than some of Mishima’s works.

3) The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea – This is a short work, more of a novella than a novel, but it is a powerful one.  A sailor’s relationship with a single mother is threatened by the woman’s son – a boy with some very disturbing tendencies.  This may not be one for those with faint hearts and weak stomachs…

So there you have it – another great writer with lots of books to explore 🙂  As always, let us know about your experiences with today’s giant, be they happy or depressing ones.  Our comments box is always open 😉


About Tony

Championing the wonders of fiction in translation... ...but quietly (the kids are asleep...).
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17 Responses to J-Lit Giants: 2 – Yukio Mishima

  1. Have read a few of his books & have a love hate relationship with this writer.


  2. Tony says:

    Gary – I've enjoyed all the ones I've read, but he can be a little difficult. I struggled with 'The Temple of the Golden Pavilion' the first time I read it, and 'Forbidden Colours' was a little dense too.


  3. Rise says:

    one other plausible reason for thesuicide was his romanticization of the death of a man in his prime. “confessions of a mask” and “patriotism” offer some clues to his visions of a “beautiful” death.


  4. Tony says:

    Rise – Two I haven't read yet: I'm sure his non/semi-fiction would give a lot of insights into his character…


  5. Ally says:

    I am planning on reading my first book by him, The Decay of the Angel, next year 🙂


  6. Tony says:

    Ally – Just so you know, 'The Decay of the Angel' is actually the final book of a four-part series – I'm not sure it would be the best place to start…


  7. Ally says:

    Hmm, you're perfectly right, I will have to reconsider the strategy then 🙂 Thanks!


  8. claire says:

    I've only read one book by Mishima (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) but of all the Japanese books I've read I consider this my favourite. Consequently, I believe in my head he's the Japanese writer I most favour. I'm not sure, though, as it was just one book, but I hope I'm right. I'm looking to read more by him this year. Not sure if I'll be able to acquire one by January but certainly reading the Sea of Fertility tetralogy for the next JapLit Challenge in July.


  9. Tony says:

    Claire – It's well worth it 🙂 He has a great style, even if many Japanese don't see him as such a traditionally-Japanese writer as Kawabata, for example.


  10. matttodd says:

    Forbidden Colours is my favourite of his – ironically, I found it much easier going than Kinkakuji and Spring Snow.


  11. Tony says:

    Matt – Really? 'Kinkakuji' I can see, but not 'Spring Snow' 😉


  12. matttodd says:

    I think Mishima is a much better writer when he's dealing with gay issues, since so much of his life is consumed with his constant denial of his sexuality. For me, it's far more fertile ground for him than the other stuff.


  13. Tony says:

    Matt – Which other novels cover that ground? 'The Sea of Fertility' doesn't really go there that much, and I can't really remember anything in the others I've read…


  14. JoV says:

    Ah Mishima, the pure mention of his name sends chill to my spine… in both good and bad ways. I read 4 of his books but would prefer to read something which is not emotionally so destructive! I have been lurking the libraries for years and Spring Snow always seems to be the most frequently missing items from the shelves! I'd really like to read Forbidden Colours as the soundtrack is one of my favourite Japanese songs.


  15. Tony says:

    Jo – 'Spring Snow' would be a great one to read – of course, then you'd be forced to read the other three in the series…


  16. mel u says:

    I just started The Golden Pavilion and hope to complete it in a few days.


  17. Tony says:

    Mel – That's a good one, if a little dense at times. I've read it a couple of times, but it's one I'm sure I'll come back to in the future.


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