By the time he killed himself by seppuku (harakiri) at the age of 45 on November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima had been recognised at home and abroad as Japan’s greatest post-war writer. His dramatically staged suicide was preceded by a speech in which he addressed Japanese soldiers at the army headquarters in Tokyo. Unlike many writers and poets who took their lives without writing about it, Mishima had started meditating on the Japanese suicide ritual as early as the 1950s.
The presence of death can be traced alongside the idea of beauty in Mishima’s writings. The cult of the male body, glorified and reinforced by the samurai sword, was a dominant symbol in Mishima’s art. He posed as Saint Sebastian, the Christian martyr whose body was pierced by arrows, and played the role of an army officer who committed seppuku, in the 1965-film Patriotism.
Thus, for Mishima, suicide was both an aesthetic and a heroic action. He considered true beauty as an erotic and sensual expression of death. By identifying with his tragic heroes, Mishima, through his words and deeds, transformed the suicide of the samurai into a noble action. However, he approached the act of suicide as the final gesture of a suffering shared in a brotherhood of warriors, where the individual sacrifices himself for the community.
Mishima’s creation of the Tatenokai or the Shield Society in 1966, in order to defend the Emperor of Japan against attacks from the left, was more a romantic quest for an exemplary death than a political and military adventure. Mishima had been planning his suicide for years — he had trained his body with intensive physical exercises, including military training with the Tatenokai. The acute awareness of his body allowed him to find a harmonious balance between the power of creativity and physical strength. For admirers, his suicide can be considered as the culmination of his life project, the unification of action and art.
From a man of letters, Mishima became a man of sword, blurring the line between the writer and the samurai. For him, the synthesis between the Japanese philosophy of Bushido (the way of the warrior) and the Greek idealisation of physical beauty was only possible in the heroic act of death. His quest for purity could only be glorified through the act of seppuku. In accordance with his aesthetic vision of reality, he preferred the dramatic and heroic death of a beautiful and powerful body to the slow death of an ageing and sick body.
Mishima delivered his last manuscript to an hour before his death. In his suicide letter, Mishima wrote: “Human life is limited, but I want to live forever.” He wanted to live and die as a man of ideas and a man of action. Death was a matter of knowing when and how to renounce life, and seizing that moment.
Mishima believed in the deep wisdom of the Bushido, which from his point of view, had been undermined by post-World War II Japan. His aesthetic dissent turned into an elitist and self-valorising spirit, a confrontation with the passivity and mediocrity of the surrounding world. The forcefulness of his aesthetic dissent was reinforced by his alertness to what was happening around him and to Japanese heroic values. This is perhaps more noticeable in Mishima’s book The Sun and the Steel, where he praises the aesthetic value of the body and the Greek concept of beauty. His response to the existential hopelessness and despair in Japan was to overcome it by the power of words and body — he transformed himself into a master of the realms of creativity and physicality.
Mishima maintained a harmonious balance between beauty and death. He chose to die in a theatrical manner in order to give meaning to life in a meaningless world. Many were repelled by his seppuku, others were deeply moved. He knew that many will not understand the true meaning of his death. Perhaps, he was reminded of what his favourite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, had said: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 24, 2020 under the title ‘Body of art’. The writer is Noor-York Chair in Islamic Studies, York University, Toronto.
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