Advances in Literary Study
2013. Vol.1, No.4, 50-53
Published Online October 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Yukio Mishima, the Unambiguous, and Myself: Living through a
Writer’s Legacy*
Larry Johnson
Department of English, Wake Technical Comm unity College, Raleigh, NC, USA
Received July 21st, 2013; revised August 25th, 2013; accepted October 14th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Larry Johnson. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attri-
bution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
The recent release by Criterion on DVD of Paul Schrader’s film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
and Mishima’s own film Patriotism (1965) has caused the author of this essay to reconsider his relation-
ship with the late Japanese writers’ books and literary legacy. Believing that these fine films’ presence on
DVD will stimulate much renewed discussion of Mishima both in the US and Japan, the author recalls his
first discovery of Mishima’s existence shortly after his famous suicide in 1970, reading and responding to
his literary output, and prodding famous authors such as Tennessee Williams and Cormac McCarthy for
their thoughts on Mishima’s influence. The author’s two poems about Mishima are included to illustrate
his changing inner perceptions of the internationally famous writer and the (now-fading) adverse reaction
to his work in Japan caused by his politics and his virtually public suicide.
Keywords: Mishima; Japanese Literature
Many readers probably remember that Yukio Mishima (1925-
1970) was the most popular Japanese writer of his day, that he
carried out extraliterary pranks which gave him constant media
attention, directed his own art film and starred in commercial
movies, wrote as his final work an important tetralogy of novels
(The Sea of Fertility, Hojo no umi, 1965-1970), and, most fa-
mously, killed himself by committing seppuku (ritual suicide).
These are perhaps the most memorable facts, but with the re-
cent release of the Criterion Collection’s DVD versions of Paul
Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) and, more
surprisingly, Mishima’s own nearly lost film Patriotism (Yu-
koku, 1965), interest in this author, popular in America and
Europe but until recently a rather taboo subject in Japan be-
cause of his virtually public suicide, should increase worldwide
and spotlight other important aspects of his character and writ-
Indeed, my niece-in-law by marriage, a Japanese citiz en, was
recently impressed with my meager knowledge about Japan and
its culture and about Mishima, gained mainly by reading his
novels and criticism about them. After I showed her Schrader’s
beautiful film and Yasuzo Masumura’s A Man Blown by the
Wind (Karakkaze Yaro), in which Mishima starred in 1960, she
commented that her generation (born after Mishima’s death)
and even younger Japanese were now content to accept Mi-
shima for what he was and to fit him into Japan’s ever more
colorful contemporary mosaic. Certainly, in a culture now
saturated with images from anime cartoons of “phallic-tenta-
cled cephalopodal monsters raping adolescent helpless virginal
girls (Piven, 2004: p. 110),” Mishima’s exploits seem much
tamer, especially when most audiences don’t remember the
Pacific War. “He’s not an actor, though,” my niece said. “He’s
a writer.” She had read none of his books but she could under-
stand the film’s dialogue, and whereas Mishima’s acting looked
halfway decent to me (lacking much of the melodramatic,
womanish quality described by John Nathan in his biography),
she agreed with critics of the time in thinking it “bland.”
Mishima’s Patriotism is silent, so this is not a problem there.
The surviving production members of that film, interviewing
each other on the DVD, seem also to accept Mishima as once
again an important figure, not one about whom to be culturally
As many have pointed out, if Mishima were a fictional char-
acter no one would believe in him, but as life is almost always
stranger and less believable than fiction, and since Mishima
was a real and amazing person, we are forced to remember that
he lived in our own times and influenced them with his extraor-
dinary and sometimes bizarre art and action.
I had never heard of Mishima until after his death, so what
should make me become interested in his work and life to the
point that I’ve read, studied, and taught his works, written two
poems about him, and now seek to entertain or enlighten an
audience concerning my personal relationship with the legacy
of this dead author and cultural icon?
First of all, there is an interest I have always had in so-called
“decadent” literature and its influence on society. Like Mishima
before me, I read Petronius, Lucian, Huysmans, and Wilde
(especially Salome) with glee, and I loved fiction alluding to or
about ancient history, such as Death in Venice and Memoirs of
I’m also able to remember dates and personal events very
*In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata titled his Nobel Prize address “Japan, the
Beautiful, and Myself.” Kenzaburo Oe, in 1994, titled his address “Ja-
an, the Ambiguous, and Myself.” Mishima was several times thought
to have been in contention for the Nobel Prize.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 51
easily and clearly. Mishima’s thoughts and motivations are
ambiguous, perhaps, but not his words, actions, and the dates
that he undertook them or foresaw them undertaken. Let’s look
at a few coincidental examples where his works and my life
overlapped, as in Mishima’s last novel, The Decay of the Angel
(Tennin gosui, 1970), which begins on May 2, 1970, a day I
remember very well: it was my twenty-fifth birthday.
The first time I ever heard of Mishima was one or two weeks
after his death when I saw that event covered on the NBC
Nightly News, David Brinkley’s naturally deep voice even ris-
ing a pitch in reporting that one of Mishima’s comrades had
“sliced off his head.” This certainly intrigued me, unambigu-
ously, but I did nothing about it.
However, in the summer of 1970, a colleague of mine at
Alma College, Dr. Timothy Thomas, had voyaged to Japan
with his wife. In 1971, he told me that on the same ship were
Tennessee Wi lliams and a handsome Japanese boy, a student at
UCLA, obviously an object of homosexual desire, though he
was not the dramatist’s lover. Williams was going to Tokyo to
revisit Mishima, among other things1. This meeting and Mi-
shima’s response to Williams and the uninhibited Japanese stu-
dent were later recounted in Esquire magazine in 1972.
In January 1973, I noticed a new copy of Runaway Horses
(Honba, 1968) in my local public library. Remembering how
much Mishima’s death had interested me I picked it up and
read the dustjacket, thinking that I now needed to read some of
this man’s works, but in order. Over the next weeks I checked
out and read Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no Kokuhoku,
1949), Thirst For Love (Ai no kawaki, 1950), Forbidden Colors
(Kinjiki, 1953), Spring Snow (Haru no yuki, 1966) and Run-
away Horses. I loved the poetic and “decadent” aspects of these
works, missing too many of Mishima’s philosophical ideas then,
but glorying in the fleshly formulations of Confessions and in
the fever pitch pace of Runaway Horses, leading to the hero’s
suicide in that sublime last sentence, translated as “The instant
that the blade tore open his flesh, the bright disk of the sun
soared up and exploded behind his eyelids.” It reminded me of
the gorgeous synesthesia of Hart Crane’s lines “...carbonic
amulet/Sere of the sun exploded in the sea.”
At Christmas 1973, my wife gave me hardcover copies
($7.95 each!) of Runaway Horses and The Temple of Dawn. I
did not reread the former but plunged into the lush, jungly,
sexually exciting interior of The Temple, unbored by the arcane
Buddhist ideas, and fascinated by the poetic, the sensual, the
In January 1974, a group of Mishima’s books appeared in
inexpensive paperback form ($1.25 each) from Berkley. On the
tenth of that month, I bought several.
July 3, 1974, I acquired Henry Scott-Stokes’ The Life and
Death of Yukio Mishima. This was an inflammatory reading
that inspired some ridiculous hero-worship as well as formal
appreciation of Mishima’s writing skills (could I compare him
to Berlioz, whose biography I had just finished reading? Yes!).
To me he was a romantic hero, like Berlioz or Byron, not a
political figure I found possessing any credibility.
Then on May 18, 1975, I entered a bookstore and there sat
the final novel of Mishima’s tetralogy, The Decay of the Angel
(not Five Signs of a Gods Decay, as had been its earlier an-
nounced title). Had I known that various events at the novel’s
conclusion had not even taken place yet, Mishima having ex-
tended the action beyond his own death, I would have read it
immediately and perhaps honored the day of its ending, July 22,
1975. But I was reluctant to see the tetralogy end, apparently,
because I put off finishing it until November of that year and
was disappointed, then, with the undramatic, religious-philos-
ophical ending. Could Mishima’s answer to all the phantasma-
goric richness of his life and work really be “Nothing?” Mi-
shima’s life had been a constant effort to deny nothingess, it
seemed, even the fantasy of seppuku being a supremely visceral,
unambiguous act illustrating his “autoerotic desire for the rap-
ture of violent [consummation] (Rayns, 2008),” a verification
of his apparent “paralyzing inability to feel alive except when
approaching death (Rayns, 2008),” this imagined or real death
producing the “tragic beauty” which Mishima existed to create.
The year 1975 also saw the composition (before I finished
reading The Decay of the Angel) of my first poem about Mi-
For Yukio Mishima
Not that you died—
not that the steel,
sharpest that moment in all its 300 years,
serrated your corded tendons so slowly;
not that your entrails slimed out
like answers to some question of life
veiled in your meridian’s indigo;
not that Morita slashed your neck so clumsily,
or even that the photograph of your head
was published around the world,
but that the guardsmen in the parking lot
laughed, and cursed your self-knowledge—
a porphyry-veined commitment to that pe nul timate
quivering horizon before explosion of orange-blood sun.
But that laughter was too much a part of
the concrete, Coke bottles, and gas masks
to delay you. It was not
what sent you arrowing above transistors and
a thin steel of soul, invisible,
we seeing only its contrail,
rising to rake the sun’s guts,
plunging back to the fleshed garden—
waterfalls, fruits, vines, purple wisteria death.
Overly romantic, atavistic, and idealistic, yes. But poetic,
certainly. As with too many of my poems, a ridiculously long
time passed before it was published. It finally appeared in Nebo
(with two typos) in 1989 and was reprinted in Hammers 3 in
June 18, 1976, saw me finally delving into John Nathan’s
biography Mishima. I quickly saw that though Henry Scott-
Stokes had done a better job of recounting the author’s last day,
Nathan’s book was much more informative about most other
aspects of Mishima’s life.
Now the only person I had ever seen who had met Mishima
was Tennessee Williams, whom I had observed eating lunch at
Gallatoire’s on December 21, 1974. I was never introduced to
Mr. Williams, but on May 10, 1980, I was finally able to ask
him about Mishima in a question and answer session at the
University of Tennessee. “Can you tell us what Yukio Mishima
was like?” I yelled from the floor. Disappointingly, what he
1They had met once before, in the 1950s.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
answered was mostly a brief summary of elements related in
the Esquire article, but at the end he at least enlightened us
about something that happened after their dinner together. The
next day, he recalled, Mishima telephoned him and said “Ten-
nessee, you know I really like you, but you really shouldn’t
drink so much,” an unsurprising comment from a novelist who
is reputed to have gotten drunk only once in his adult life2.
Their meeting had come only three months before Mishima’s
death on November 25, 1970. Why, many have asked, did he
choose that date? It was probably not because he had started
Confessions of a Mask, his first successful novel, on November
25, 1948, or because he had finished the first novel of his
tetralogy, Spring Snow, on November 25, 1966, and would die
after he finished the last on the same date in 1970. Nor was it
because the next day was Thanksgiving (Mishima did enjoy
celebrati ng some Western holiday s). No, more likely , two other
factors played into his selection of the date.
First, in his final letter to his parents, Mishima had said that
he wanted “to die not as a literary man but e ntir ely a s a mili tary
man (Rayns, 2008).” While this seems fairly ridiculous and
mere fantasy in spite of the fact that Mishima had organized his
own private army, his last months were indeed devoted to mili-
tary endeavors, such as training his group with the Jieitai, the
Japanese Self-Defense Forces. This would point to a historical
significance for November 25, such as that November 25, 1941,
was an important day for the Japanese military and national
spirit because it was the day on which the Japanese fleet’s
strike force received its orders to refuel and move into position
to attack Pearl Harbor.
Second, Mishima’s ashes were placed in his family burial
plot on January 14, 1971, forty-nine days after his death. The
belief is that the spirit of the dead person departs for reincarna-
tion at that time. This might be unremarkable except that Janu-
ary 14 is Mishima’s birthday. He would have been forty-six.
Had Mishima planned this birth/death ceremony to coincide
when arranging for his final day? Surely it makes sense.
In my first letter to Cormac McCarthy in January of 1987, I
included my first Mishima poem and asked if he had any
thoughts on the matter. He replied that though he had seen the
famous photograph of Mishima’s severed head in Life maga-
zine, he thought that time would quickly erase most of Mi-
shima’s concerns as well as our concerns about him.
When I finally met Mr. McCarthy on May 23, 1989, I gave
him a copy of Schrader’s film Mishima, which he thought
would “never get to El Paso.” He highly approved of it.
In these same late 1980s the anti-Mishima sloganeering and
propaganda were in full swing among Japan’s younger fiction
writers. Professor Susan Napier recounts published discussions
between Masahiko Shimada and Akira Asada in 1988. Here
Shimada references Mishima as “an artificial [horror] that re-
fuses to die” (Napier, 1995: p. xvi) and finally says “I think that
Mishima might come back as a an AIDS virus
(Napier, 1995: p. xvii).” Reading this I was annoyed and de-
cided to let Mishima indeed come back, in a poem, only he
would not be an AIDS virus but the most representative Japa-
nese monster in modern history: Godzilla (Gojira in Japanese).
It was time for Japanese intellectuals, I thought along with
Napier, to stop ignoring or trashing Mishima because he repre-
sented aspects of Japanese society they would prefer to remain
buried (Napier, 1995: p. xvii). Thus “Yukio Mishima Returns
as Godzilla” emerged from the abyss in slithery free verse to
deconstruct Tokyo all over again.
Mishima Returns as Godzilla
“... I think that Mishima might come back as a monster….”
—Masahiko Shimada
Slickly ascending, godlike, from Tokyo’s harbor,
Mishima returns in a gray rubber Godzilla suit—
his face, grinning, shines through the open mouth.
Astride a titan leather rhinoceros, animate, he guides
the creaking, bloated creature with his knees to crush
Big Cedrics, Nissans, Coke cans, blue and orange-haired
and whipping his tail overhead stomps for the cemetery
he may avenge himself on Grandmother’s ashes.
Gojira! Gojira! scream the crowds,
some running away, blindly, others desperately grabbing
the rhino’s legs, humping frantically as they stand
on its toenails—humping away as it reaches the Ginza
where gay bars empty: some denizens fall prostrate, some
shrieking the bitter glory of their savi o r -a v a t a r; other s
recoil at such tackiness, yet the fronts of their pants jerk
like creatures vomiting; a handful are raptured, ascending
to Fuji’s tip—
flensed of snow, it erupts, but no one sees this now.
Toriis snap, powerlines stretch, dragging intestinelike,
squelched humans by their headphones, their teeth show-
ering sparks.
Right wing morons emulate the homosexuals, throwing
forward in worship under the clublike feet; mashed to
they squirt out, splash in the eyes of yakuza,
noose-bound politicians, into the mouths of skinny house-
receiving the slime shamelessly, invigorated as they swal-
The Self-Defense Forces (SDF) cannons fire again but
is wounded no more than Godzilla, past or present.
Literary critics, pixilated novelists attack from the rear,
silicon implants, kasutori dregs, computer mice and Bar-
bie dolls, only
to drown, squabbling, morcellized in a mild tsunami of
Bad-ah Taste-ah!
Mainland and Hong Kong businessmen, US Airmen en-
gaged to
lissome Japanese girls place gallons of liquor they’ve
hand-carried in
from China (the kind with the snake curled in the bottle’s
before the creatures—“Kong Long spare us,” they cry.
The rhino
scarfs them all up, crunching bones and bottles together in
Triceratopsian beak. Mishima snorts, howls, inhales its
ebriate breath.
Hentai tentacles slurp from his back, ears, asshole—
2An assertion authoritatively debunked in Persona:
Biography o
Yukio Mishima b y Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato (2012).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 53
grabbing thugs, waiters, and would-be ninjas alike, zai-
batsu and
rough trade together, he lifts them, impaled in all orifices,
his mouth where he lectures on Beauty and post mortem
with Marlon Brando, then eels out of them with resonant
They fall, damaged but enlightened. “I am now what you
me to be,” the tongued tentacles shrill. They slither back,
Now the tyrannical two sweep around the Imperial Palace,
avoiding damage: twin salutatory flames rip from Mi-
shima’s nostrils,
collide over the palace and fall like fireworks. Man and
swag for the cemetery where the SDF will make a last
stand. Their
plans are known, or at least guessed—fountains of cya-
nide, arsenic,
thallium and rat poison are prepared, ready to spew.
Surely these will
panic the thing that rides the rhino. Alas, Godzilla-fire
vomits from his
jaws this time, scorches the poisons to powder, harmless,
onward over the mossed gravestones, splitting a certain
urn atwain:
the rubber suit spins around, gelatinous humid urine
erupts from its
vent, soaks and sears the ashes, which implode to void.
Suddenly somebody notices Fuji, points—what first
seems lava
resolves to more tentacles: flaring from the mountain
they rise, curl into a uroboros round the sun, and Mishima
acknowledges, smiles: the leather rhino inflates like a
mushroom cloud—Mishima towers—then pops, utterly
Not falling, man and rubber suit soar, higher, aiming for
the mountain’s turbulence, which seeks them out, but
simulacrum falls away, fleers to the waves, vanishes.
embraced by Fuji’s limbs, is drawn over and down to the
writhing sucked inside, along with the apo-
gay revelers...the tip glazes as before:
Mishima, at long last, has returned to his country.
When the wreckage has settled and microphones prolifer-
ate like mould
out of the growing dusk, and the spotlights shudder,
the SDF commander says, “It could have been worse.
It could have been Godzilla returning as Mishima.”
Big Cedric: a model of Japanese car
Gojira: the Japanese name for Godzilla
toriis: ceremonial Japanese gates
yakuza: Japanese gangsters
kasutori: a cheap liquor, full of impurities, made from
saké dregs
Kong Long: the Chinese name for Godzilla
hentai: tentacle sex, as in Japanese anime cartoons
zaibatsu: Japanese industrialists
In the form of his newly re-released movie Patriotism Mi-
shima has indeed returned, and his fans as well as his critics
should see it, but I would prefer that audiences turn to his liter-
ary works rather than his final performances (both cinematic
and actual) to realize that, as I have seen over 43 years of read-
ing, observing, and living through my encounters with his leg-
acy, Yukio Mishima is a poetic, persuasive writer, one steeped
in ideas unambiguously vivified: thought and word made flesh.
Napier, S. J. (1995). Escape from the wasteland: Romanticism and
realism in the fiction of Mishima Yukio and Oe Kenzaburo. Cam-
bridge, MA: Coun c il on East Asian Studies, Harvard University.
Piven, J. S. (2004). The madness and perversion of Yukio Mishima.
Westport, CT: Praeger .
Rayns, T. (2008). The word made flesh. Booklet. Patriotism (1965). Dir.
Yukio Mishima. Perf. Yukio Mishima and Yoshiko Tsuruoka. DVD.