Yukio Mishima – The Infamous Japanese Author and His Theatrical Suicide

Do you know of Yukio Mishima – the acclaimed Japanese author who made headlines in 1970 when he committed seppuku?

He was famously known as the last person to commit seppuku which was foreshadowed by his film Patriotism, where a general and his wife commit seppuku.  On November 25, 1970, Mishima shocked thousands of people with his words and actions by dramatically committing suicide at Tokyo's Ichigaya military facility. 

How did Yukio Mishima Die

  • Everything culminated on the 25th of November 1970 when he and four other members of the Tatenokai entered a military base in Tokyo of the Eastern Command of the Japan Self-defense forces and held hostage the camp commandant. 
  • He wanted to inspire the defense force to start a coup and restore the power of the emperor which was greatly reduced after the American occupation. While on the balcony of the camp, in full regalia of a Japanese headband Hachimaki and formal military-style wear, he delivered a speech to the soldiers calling for the restoration of the emperor. After realizing the futility of his actions, he uttered his last words, “Long live the Emperor!” and committed seppuku, a Japanese Samurai’s suicide.

He was born Kimitaka Hiraoka in Tokyo, the son of a government official. Later he changed his name to Yukio Mishima so that his anti-literary father, Azusa, wouldn't know he wrote. Yukio Mishima was a lawyer by profession, but he gave it up to pursue his dream of becoming an author. 

He was considered one of Japan's most celebrated transgressional authors, known for his provocative themes and forceful nature. He wrote plays, short stories, and novels that explored issues such as violence, beauty, and individuality. He was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature 3 times in the 1960s but never won it.

Mishima gained tremendous success throughout his career, but it all came to an end on November 25th, 1970. On this fateful day, Mishima not only shocked thousands of people with his words but also with his actions - dramatically committing suicide at Tokyo's Ichigaya military facility.  

There seems to be a resurgence of Yukio Mishima’s writing today. I remember visiting a friend not known for his bookish tendencies and seeing a collection of Mishima’s writing sprawled all over his shelves. I always find myself bee-lining towards my host’s bookshelf during a visit.

Not only are they a collection of someone’s reading history, I see them as building blocks of their psyche. Their collection is a curation of their interests distilled into a series of kaleidoscopic spines and titles. It is a strangely gratifying act of voyeurism, examining someone’s collection, how they arrange their books, and more importantly what type of books are contained within them.

It was a pleasant surprise to see someone reading Yukio Mishima. His dark writing style, while simple, is evocative and often uncomfortable. Mishima’s profane obsession with eroticism bordering on the sacrilegious might not exactly bode well to the layman reader. Yet, I do believe that his fusion of Japanese traditionalism and Western literary flair is essential in understanding the Japanese post-war zeitgeist.

Yukio Mishima is a Japanese celebrity. Aside of course from writing, he was an actor, a bodybuilder, a model, an avid traveler, and for a brief stint, a boxer. He is not one of those recluse writers that shy away from the public scene perfecting their craft in isolation. 

He was constantly exposed, and therefore subject to public scrutiny throughout his career. He became a household name just after the publication of his second novel, Confessions of a Mask (1949), at the young age of 24. Mishima’s career throughout was a public spectacle. Standing at 1.63m, one can say that Yukio Mishima had lived his career as if he were a character in his fictional world, the life he lived as an elaborate performance art piece that ended sensationally.

  • Alarmed by the growing left-wing movement and the forceful incursion of western values in Japan, Yukio Mishima led a right-wing militia called the Tatenokai composed primarily of right-wing university students to curb the left-wing influences in schools and to advance support for the dwindling power of the Emperor of Japan postwar. 
  • He oversaw their martial arts training and physical fitness including sword-fighting, Kendo, and long-distance running. 
Just like his writing, his suicide has an element of theatrical calculated to it, an aesthetic orchestration ripe for signification.
  • Later, after the posthumous release of Mishima’s diary, we learned that his suicide had been planned for years. The date chosen for the failed coup was also chosen carefully by Mishima choosing 25th November, the day when Emperor Showa became regent and the day he began writing Confessions of a Mask. His life was dramatic by design even to the final moment.
  • There is plenty of parallelism between his art and his life. As the author Andrew Rankin calls it, Mishima’s writing style is filled with, “luxurious vocabulary and decadent metaphors, its fusion of traditional Japanese and modern Western literary styles, and its obsessive assertions of the unity of beauty, eroticism, and death.” (Rankin's "Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist: An Intellectual Portrait." )
  • As we can see, this fixation on aestheticism transcends his written work. Furthermore, as a director, he directed one film, Patriotism, where a general and his wife commit seppuku, an explicit foreshadowing of what is to come. Obligatory seppuku refers to the method of capital punishment for samurai to spare them the disgrace of being beheaded by a common executioner. 
  • All of this mayhem was caused by a person that decades before was too weak to be drafted by the Imperial Japanese Army during the tail end of World War 2. His life operated like a rich storyline, complete with an exposition, rising action, and a dramatic climax.

On a personal level, this is the very thing I enjoyed the most about Mishima’s writing, he has blurred our very clear distinctions between fiction and reality. His writing is a mere segment of his artistic output. He used his life, literally, as a canvas for poetic expression. Therefore, can we consider his suicide an art? Political movement? a histrionic final act? I would like to believe that it is a mixture of all three. The ambiguity speaks for Mishima himself, we as the audience get to decide.

 

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