Yukio Mishima was born Kimitake Hiraoka on January 14, 1925 in uptown Tokyo. His father was the deputy director of the Bureau of Fisheries in the Agriculture Ministry; his mother, from a family of educators and Confucian scholars, was herself well-versed in literature. The family lived in a well-to-do neighborhood in a rented two-floor house with a houseboy and six maids, an unusual extravagance. But for the first twelve years Mishima lived downstairs with his grandmother in her sickroom, leaving the room only with her permission.
His first fiction pieces, which he wrote at the age of twelve as a student at the Peers School, attracted the attention of the editor of Bungei-Bunka (Art and Culture) who invited him to write a story for that magazine. It was the first piece published under his new pen name, Yukio Mishima.
Despite his literary accomplishments, Mishimds father discouraged his writing: in a 1941 letter to his son he wrote, “I hear that some high-and-mighty writers speak of you as a genius, or precocious, or some kind of deviate, or just unpleasant. I think it is high time you took stock of yourself. “Four years later, at the end of1944, Mishima enrolled at the Impe rial University as a student of German law. Classes were almost immediately interrupted by the war, and he received his draft notice in February, 1945; he did not serve in the army, but instead was assigned to work in an airplane factory. He eventually graduated in November of 1947.
His first literary success came in 1949 with the publication of Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no kokuhaku). By the time Donald Keene interviewed him for The Paris Review in 1958, Mishima’s literary talents had been widely recognized in Japan with the publication o/Thirst for Love (Ai no kawaki), Forbidden Colors I (Kinjiki), Forbidden Colors II (Higyo), The Sound of Waves (Shiosai), The Temple of Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji). So too was his reputation beginning to expand into the international arena: a year earlier he had traveled to New York to promote the English translation of his Five Modern No Plays (Kindai Nogakushu). But Keene never completed the interview he began. The essay that follows has been put together from his recollections of their original meeting.
Mishima s non-literary accomplishments also contributed to his expanding celebrity. In 1955 he began a bodybuilding regimen that became an obsession for him and eventually led him to the study of karate and the samurai arts of kendo and Bushido.
In later years Mishima denounced the western influence in Japan. He became interested in ultra-nationalist efforts to defend traditional Japanese culture from outside influence.
Soon his name was increasingly associated with the military in Japan. In 1967 he participated in the Army Self-Defense Force's basic-training camp. The following year he decided to create his own civilian army, the Shield Society, which was often construed as a right-wing militaristic organization but was intended, according to Mishima, to promote Japan s return to the ethical traditions of the samurai.
Despite his increasing attention to the affairs of the Shield Society (in addition to training the cadets, he also designed their uniforms and wrote a march song for the society), Mishima’s literary pursuits were not interrupted. He continued what had become a nightly routine, writing through the hours be tween midnight and dawn. In 1969, the first two volumes of his final work, The Sea of Fertility, were published; the same year he also wrote a ballet and two three-act plays. When the cadets threatened to interrupt his writing schedule with frequent nighttime visits, he rented the lower floor of a coffee shop, the Salon de Claire, where they could meet with him for two hours every Wednesday. Indeed' Mishima maintained a distinct separation between his two worlds: the members of the Shield Society were unfamiliar with his novels and plays, and Mishima thought literary youth unsuited to the military.
On November 3, 1969 Mishima arranged a dress parade to celebrate the first anniversary of the Shield Society. He invited one hundred guests, both foreigners and Japanese; those who did not attend he never spoke to again. Near the time of this anniversary he also began to plot his own suicide. He recruited three cadets to assist him: Masakatsu Mont a, Masayoshi Koga, and Masahiro Ogawa. As the anniversary approached he began severing connections. He backed away from new literary projects and resigned from the Board of Directors of the Japan Symposium on Culture.
Then, on November 25, 1970, after submitting the final pages of the last volume o/The Sea of Fertility to his publishers, he and his Shield Society cadets entered the ASDF headquarters where they had an appointment with the commander, Lieutenant General Kanetoshi Mashida. When Mashida ushered them into his office, he was promptly taken hostage while members of the ASDF were gathered (at Mishima s demand) in the plaza outside. From the balcony of the commander's office, Mishima delivered a ten-minute speech on his political theories to a jeering audience. At the end of his speech he returned to the commander's chambers, sat on the floor and committed hara-kiri, the ritual suicide of the samurai: he plunged his dagger into his abdomen and drew it across his body, making an incision seventeen centimeters long—representing a tremendous degree of control over physical reflex; he was then beheaded by the cadets.
Mishima was dressed in his Shield Society uniform for his final “leave-taking " as he had requested in a letter written in the days before his death. In another letter he had asked that “since I die not as a literary man but entirely as a military man, I would like the character for sword — burn — to be included in my Buddhist name. The characte rfor pen — bunrn — need not appear.”
Shortly before leaving New York for Japan in the spring of 1958 I was asked by George Plimpton to interview Yukio Mishima. Interviews with writers were a regular feature of The Paris Review, and I gladly accepted the request, in pan because (like others who have devoted themselves to literatures not widely known in this country) I am something of a propagandist, and I was therefore delighted that a Japanese would be included among the celebrated writers who had already been interviewed.
Mishima readily agreed to the interview. Because his house was then being renovated —as I recall, air conditioning was being installed —he suggested that we hold the interview instead in the recently opened Nikkatsu Hotel. The lobby was not only unusually spacious for Tokyo, but the air-conditioning was thrillingly frigid.
I confess I do not recall how Mishima looked on that occasion. Judging from the photographs of Mishima printed on the dust jackets of his first books published in America, at that time —before he took up weight lifting —he had wavy hair, and an open, uncomplicated face marked by an engaging smile; but my recollections tend to be of the later Mishima, when his face had become a samurai mask with cropped hair and a prevailingly resolute expression. Of course, even in his samurai period he laughed, but it was a roar of a laugh; a mutual friend once told me that Mishima’s eyes never laughed.
Mishima had taken up “bodybuilding” by the time of the interview, but (as I recall) he had yet to transform his face.
I had not conducted an interview with anyone (except for Japanese prisoners during the war years) since junior high school days, and I had totally forgotten how it was done.
I had not even prepared any questions, but asked Mishima whatever came into my head, in no particular order. I wrote down his answers in a script which I now have great difficulty in deciphering. Most unfortunately, I failed to write down my own questions. All that remains, therefore, are Mishima’s answers, written with cryptic brevity in a mixture of Japanese and English. If I had written out my impressions of the interview the same night I probably could have recalled my questions, but I procrastinated, apparently dissatisfied with the interview. In the end, I decided that my record of the interview was too fragmentary and too disconnected to be published in The Paris Review. I suppose I could have asked Mishima to submit to another interview, but no doubt I was embarrassed by the failure of my first attempt.
On looking over my notes, some forty years later, it seemed to me that perhaps readers today might be interested even in these incomplete answers. Mishima may well have been annoyed by the amateurishness of my questioning, but his answers were frank and unevasive.
Here is my first note: “I have been writing ever since I can remember. I was raised by a grandmother who was ill most of the time. I was kept by her side in her room. Reading was my only amusement. I was never allowed to play outside the house. My grandmother thought this was dangerous, that I might make bad friends. I read all kinds of stories—Arabian Nights, Children s Literature of the World. I even wrote my own children’s stories.” Needless to say, these were not Mishima’s own words. The interview was conducted in Japanese, but in order to write as quickly as possible, I sometimes translated his words into English, and I eliminated all but essential words.
The next reply suggests that I pursued the question of his early writings: “I first published in the school magazine when I was twelve.” The earliest work included in Mishima’s Complete Works, published after his death, is the article ‘‘Memories of Elementary School,” which appeared in the literary magazine of the Peers School in 1937, when Mishima was twelve. This multivolume set of Mishima’s works is extraordinarily complete, including everything he ever wrote, even childhood compositions and the captions to photographs.
His next answer was more interesting: “The style of my early works was modeled on Tanizaki’s. He was the first writer I ever read, especially ‘A Blind Man’s Tale,’ ‘A Portrait of Shunkin,’ ‘Tattoo’ and Naomi. I didn’t read Some Prefer Nettles until later on.” Mishima’s admiration for the works of Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, though not as often expressed as his admiration for Kawabata Yasunari, remained with him from adolescence. It is hard for me to imagine any child reading with pleasure “A Blind Man’s Tale,” a difficult work, but I am reassured by Mishima’s next response, which is recorded merely as “Robinson Crusoe. Treasure Island.” These sound like more plausible books for a boy of twelve or thirteen to be reading; but another reply, recorded somewhat later in the interview, indicates that Mishima about the same age saw a performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salome and was so impressed that he went to a bookshop to examine a copy of the text with the famous illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. He said, “From there I went on to Tanizaki, who was said to be the Japanese Wilde.” Perhaps that was, in fact, the order of events, but my notes are too fragmentary to be sure.
The next entry states: “I read cruel stories and vulgar children’s stories.” A taste for “cruel stories” lingered with Mishima to the end.
Next to the last time I saw Mishima, in 1970, at the hotel in Shimoda where he spent the month of August with his family, he showed me what he had been reading. One book had particularly grotesque illustrations in the style of the 1920s.
It was an account of a man who made textiles out of human blood. Mishima said, “I won’t give you this book.” He often gave me books if I showed any special interest in them, but this was evidently one book with which he would not part.
He told me at this time that nothing in contemporary Japanese literature interested him, and that was why he turned to such ‘‘cruel” books.
Mishima’s next reply was, “I was not taken to Kabuki until I was thirteen. I was allowed to see foreign movies, as well as French and German operettas, but my grandmother feared that Kabuki would have a bad effect on me. When I finally got to see Kabuki I was in fact tremendously shocked and excited. I read a lot of Kabuki and puppet plays towards the end of my junior high school days. My grandmother and mother were both interested in Kabuki, but my other grandmother preferred No. Miwa was the first No I ever saw. I saw Kakitsubata when I was fifteen and began to read the texts of No afterwards.” The importance of the theater to Mishima is apparent from his life and writings. He once told me that the only Japanese thing he missed in New York was Kabuki. We went together to Kabuki often, sometimes seeing the plays from a glassed-in booth at the back of the Kabuki Theatre, sometimes sitting in the most expensive seats. We also attended Bunraku (the puppet theater) together, but Mishima did not really enjoy the puppets themselves. He preferred the Tokyo variation—a puppet theatre without puppets, narrated by a chanter who sat with his samisen accompanist in the middle of the vast Kabuki Theatre stage.
Mention of Mishima’s “other grandmother” came as a surprise when I reread my notes. I do not recall any other instance of his alluding to his maternal grandmother. I had wondered about his interest in No for other reasons. In 1966, when we visited the Miwa Shrine together, as pan of his field work for the novel Runaway Horses, he told the chief priest of the shrine that Miwa was the first No play he ever saw. It was also the first, or possibly the second No play I ever saw, a strange coincidence considering that I have not seen it since and it is seldom performed. I went to see No with Mishima about once a month. He had a subscription ticket and sat in the front row of the audience. I do not doubt that he was genuinely interested in No, but it did not mean as much to him as Kabuki. He never wanted to see more than a single No in an evening and would generally ask me which of the two plays to be presented I preferred to see. Sometimes he dozed off during the performance, which did not embarrass him in the least.
I can recall Mishima speaking with special enthusiasm about one play, Okina, a ritual work without a recognizable plot that is performed only on special occasions. He told me that he did not feel that the New Year had really begun until he heard the meaningless but somehow auspicious lines declaimed in the play, fo fo tarari tararira. Mishima also liked the character Munemori in Yuya, because he suggested a Renaissance tyrant, interested only in his own pleasures. I remember, too, that he expressed great admiration when I identified a passage from Matsukaze — not much of an achievement, considering it is the most famous of all No plays. But although Mishima’s emotional commitment to No was relatively limited, his intellectual appreciation was intuitively right, as his Five Modem No Plays demonstrate.
The next comment in my notes seems to be Mishima’s response to a question from me about whether or not he ever read foreign books in the original languages: “I am poor in languages. I read only translations. Occasionally I have read a novel in English, for example, James Baldwin's Giovannis Room and Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar.” I wonder if it was merely modesty that induced Mishima to say that he was poor at languages. Perhaps he was comparing himself to professional translators. German was his first foreign language, and he retained an affection for it, as we can tell from his scribblings on the manuscript of The Thieves, the only one of his working notebooks ever published, or from the German subtitle he gave to his popular Sound of the Waves. Not long ago, during the course of a lecture I gave on Mishima at the University of Trier, I remarked that I had no idea how good Mishima’s German was. After the lecture an elderly gentleman in the audience raised his hand and informed me that he was Mishima’s German teacher at the Peers School, and that Mishima was by far the most accomplished in the class.
Most Japanese learn their English from textbooks of grammar, and even if incapable of uttering a single intelligible sentence know all the rules governing the use of “will” and “shall” or “would” and “should,” but Mishima’s English was acquired conversationally, and even when rules of grammar were broken, he was entirely intelligible. Unlike most Japanese, he showed no hesitation about speaking or writing English, and when he spoke it was usually in a loud voice, not the hesitant tones of someone who fears he will not be understood. He had the habit of picking up whatever words were in vogue and using them incessantly. When he was in New York in 1957 the adjective “monumental” occurred in nearly every sentence, though I cannot recall ever having said it myself. Mishima enjoyed not only speaking English but writing it, even to people who could easily read Japanese, like my late colleague Ivan Morris. It is noteworthy, too, that although he had learned English conversationally, he was able to read the two novels he mentioned.
These novels — Vidal’s and Baldwin’s — represented an interesting choice of reading matter. Neither novel had been translated into Japanese; Mishima was obliged to read them in English. But he seems to have chosen them neither because they were masterpieces nor because he was specially interested in the author. As far as I know, he never met Gore Vidal. I was present on the one occasion when Mishima met Baldwin at a publication party for Five Modern No Plays at the Gotham Bookmart. I could tell that Mishima was repelled by Baldwin’s face, and he made a visible effort before he could shake his hand. Clearly there was some other reason for choosing these particular books. Both openly treat homosexuality, and this was a subject in which Mishima was particularly interested.
The next section of my interview dealt with Mishima’s early novel Confessions of a Mask. Did I proceed to questions about this novel because of a connection I detected between it and the two American novels? Or was I merely tracing the chronology of his literary career from the beginnings? There is no way I can determine this now, but Mishima’s answer to my first question was startling: “The whole of Confessions of a Mask was based on personal experiences. Everything originated in what I had actually felt, though I twisted or exaggerated my feelings. I even used materials from school compositions in the book. The section on Ryotaro was originally written when I was thirteen, and the one on St. Sebastian when I was sixteen.” Mishima at times denied emphatically that Confessions of a Mask was autobiographical, but here was clear testimony that he had described, in literary form, of course, actual experiences. I can still remember that I was startled to hear him say these unambiguous words at a time when Japanese critics tended to refer to Confessions of a Mask as a “parody” or drew allegorical meanings from the account of the narrator’s sexual preferences. Mishima underlined the factual truth with his next remarks, concerning Sonoko, the young woman whom the narrator of Confessions of a Mask loves but does not desire: “Sonoko was described as a Christian because she really was one. It was the only thing about her I disliked —or, to be more exact, which didn’t suit me. Sonoko read Confessions of a Mask. She said that it made her very happy, and that everything was exactly as she remembered it. I was amazed by her attitude.” Years later, in fact shortly before his death in 1970, Mishima told me that the model for Omi in Confessions of a Mask had recently come to his door. Mishima, from a perch on the balcony of his house, was able to get a good look at the man without being observed. Unlike the dashing Omi, with whom the narrator is in love, the man looked down-and-out and wore wooden clogs instead of shoes. Mishima decided not to meet him. Other incidents in Confessions of a Mask can be verified by references in his autobiographical essays and similar works, but this was the only time, as far as I know, that he so openly mentioned his relations with Sonoko.
The next note reads: “I feel I first became a novelist with Thirst for Love." Reading this statement more than thirty years after the interview, I was astonished because I had always supposed that this was my discovery. On several occasions, in the course of discussing Mishima’s writings, I had made the same statement, always believing that I was the first to discover the special importance of Thirst for Love. Only on rereading my notes did I realize that Mishima himself had told me this. Thirst for Love (1950) was the work in which he definitively separated himself from the confessional novel. His next comment was: “I was strongly influenced by Francois Mauriac at the time. I was very fond of his writings, but that is no longer the case.
He is just too clever. Therese Desqueyrouxis too well written." The interview at this point seems to have gone back to an earlier period in Mishima’s career. He briefly described the situation prevailing in the Japanese literary world during the postwar period, when some celebrated writers like Tanizaki, who had maintained silence during the war, began to appear in the magazines again, and when some younger writers were enabled by the defeat to publish works they had kept hidden from the censors. Mishima was still unknown. He commented, “Even the publication of Confessions of a Mask brought me no sensational fame. It did not sell many copies. I thought while I was writing it that everybody would hate it, that it was very daring, and that perhaps only a hundred copies would sell. As a matter of fact, 10,000 copies were sold. This was not bad, but it was not a best-seller. It brought me a kind of fame for my technique and style, not because of the content of the book. The book was said by some reviewers to constitute a new analysis of human character, but it caused no shock.
Most people thought Confessions of a Mask was a novel about impotence, rather than homosexuality. Not until I published Forbidden Colors did anyone bring up the question of homosexuality. It was probably because in Japan there had been no such novel since the seventeenth century, when Saikaku wrote about homosexuality among the samurai. But there were plenty of stories of impotence brought about by war wounds or by lack of food. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is a novel about an impotent hero, after all. People at the time spoke about “spiritual impotence” as if it were the malady of the generation.
“When I wrote Confessions of a Mask a complete translation of Proust into Japanese had not yet been made. I had never read Saikaku. Cocteau influenced me, especially the character Dargelos in Les enfants terribles. I had read Gide’s Corydon and Si le grain ne meurt, but they did not influence me. In fact, I disliked Gide, though he was very popular in Japan, especially as a thinker. I am even now not very fond of Proust, perhaps because of the translation. I like Cocteau — he reminds me of haiku. Raymond Radiguet, whom I first read at sixteen, became an obsession for six or seven years. I was insanely fond of his works.
“After publishing Forbidden Colors there was a lot of gossip about my private life, but no one said a word after Confessions of a Mask. I am glad that an American translation of Confessions of a Mask will appear. I am particularly glad that this will be my third book in English translation.” Confessions of a Mask, translated by Meredith Weatherby, was in fact the first novel of Mishima’s to be translated into English, but Harold Strauss at Knopf, the editor who did more than anyone else in the New York publishing world to promote interest in modern Japanese novels, rejected the book, saying that it would “brand” Mishima as a homosexual in the eyes of the American reading public. It certainly had not branded him in the eyes of Japanese readers, and even today most Japanese interpret the novel as a description of immature, rather than homosexual love. In America, where the writings of Proust, Gide and others had made readers familiar with the persona of the author as homosexual, and where the lives of such writers as Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote attracted attention for this reason, it was nevertheless felt undesirable to associate Mishima with this body of writing. Mishima evidently agreed. Confessions of a Mask appeared after The Sound of Waves and Five Modem No Plays.
The Sound of Waves was popular with American readers and created the kind of interest in Mishima that the publisher hoped for, but Mishima commented during the interview: “I have never written with Western readers in mind and will not do so in the future. I have no idea why my books are popular in the West.” Only at the end of his career, shortly before his dramatic suicide, would Mishima change his mind and actively seek to win success with foreign readers. For some years he had been desperately eager to win the Nobel Prize as the supreme recognition of literary merit. He became convinced at some point that the way to win the prize was to have as many of his books translated as possible. I had previously agreed to translate Thirst for Love, but only on the condition that there would be no deadline. Mishima at first agreed, but later became impatient and asked me to yield my rights to make the translation. I immediately agreed. The translation that appeared, as it happens, was not good, and I doubt that it helped Mishima’s chances with the Nobel Prize Committee, but his need for foreign recognition became increasingly urgent. He had come to feel disgust with Japanese critics, especially because of their failure to review his final tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility. Some critics disqualified themselves, on the grounds that they did not know enough about Buddhism, treated at length in The Temple of Dawn, the third volume of the series; but it is more likely that Mishima’s right-wing activities made them fear to praise his books lest they lay themselves open to the charge of being fascists. Mishima, contemptuous of their cowardice, decided that the reactions of foreign reviewers would be the real test of the worth of his books. His last letters, sent to Ivan Morris and myself, asked that we do what we could to ensure the publication of the translations of the final two volumes of the tetralogy. He had somehow obtained the impression that American editors were unwilling to publish the works of dead foreign authors. Even if this had been true, it was strange that a man, about to commit a “suicide of remonstrance” in the traditional manner of the samurai of the past, was concerned with his popularity among foreign readers.
But to return to The Sound of Waves. Mishima explained to me why he had written this novel: “I had always written about the underside of human relationships, and wanted for a change to write about the surface. I felt this was necessary because I had begun to doubt the appropriateness of always depicting hidden motivations. I had come to realize that it was not true that the surface must be a lie. I wondered if confession, the characteristic of literature written from the underside, was not the result of Christian influence. I tried to write The Sound of Waves from the front.” The inspiration for The Sound of Waves was originally provided by Mishima’s visit to Greece in 1952. The sunlight and the simplicity of the life he observed aroused a revulsion against the way of life of the Japanese intellectual and particularly against the haggard look they typically wore as the badge of their suffering. He never recovered from this revulsion.
Mishima obviously enjoyed the company of some intellectuals, but it probably gave him greater pleasure to associate with members of the Self-Defense Force or, later, his own Shield Society than with other writers. He also enjoyed the company of non-Japanese, though he satirized them mercilessly in some of his books. His manner was not that of some Japanese who turn to foreigners for wisdom and guidance, but the opposite: he seems to have found Western people appealingly childish and uncomplicated in contrast to the deviousness of the Japanese intellectuals. Of course, the perception of Europeans and Americans as appealingly childish owed much to Mishima’s inability to speak English (or German) well enough to engage in intellectual discourse with Western equivalents of the Japanese intelligentsia.
All the same, Mishima constantly turned to the West for inspiration after his first discovery of the sunlit simplicity of Greece. He recreated in his Sound of the Waves the old Greek romance Daphnis and Chloe, substituting for the shepherd and shepherdess of the original more plausible Japanese protagonists, a fisher boy and a fisher girl. He did not expect that this novel would be a great success, considering it to be mainly an exercise in stylistics, imparting new life to a very old story by means of local color, and persuading readers that something like pastoral beauty existed in Japan.
Mishima termed both Forbidden Colors (1951) and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) philosophical novels.
Forbidden Colors was influenced in its manner, though not in its content, by the works of Thomas Mann, whom Mishima at the time considered to be the greatest living writer. He did not say much else in the interview about Forbidden Colors, but my notes contain some hints as to what impelled him to write The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, perhaps his finest work, in which he related the circumstances that led a priest to burn down a celebrated Kyoto temple. The notes, rather incoherently, say: “Already existing beauty. That alone is alive, exists, and will never die. The T of the novel is cut off from that world. He can’t become beautiful and he can’t create anything because there is before him a perfectly beautiful object. Being cut off from beauty, he must destroy the obstacle in his path before he can become free. He tries to live. We must all try to live, though we are imprisoned in art. Probably I will write no more works about beauty.” We seem to have moved on then to a more general discussion of literature, though the notes are again unclear: “I gained liberation through literature, though I never sought it. Proust is spiritual, but I am physiological. Literature enabled me to free myself from many complexes and from tension. I became interested in all aspects of human life and I shed my adherence to self. In this I think I am unlike most Western writers. I have come to think that I am not dissimilar to other people, though when I wrote Confessions of a Mask I thought I was.
Goethe thought he was better than other people, not different from them. The same was true of Mori Ogai.
“I have almost never found anything in Western literature that seemed alien to me. Even within Japanese society, of course, I like only certain people, and at times it is harder to understand the behavior of members of my own family than those depicted in the works of Western literature. But the methods of description followed by some Western novelists seem unnecessarily detailed to Japanese readers, who are accustomed to make the intuitive leap necessary to understand a haiku. Zola always felt it necessary to explain that a desk has four legs, that a room has four walls.” I remember asking Mishima if he thought that the emotions of the characters in a Dostoevsky novel were not too violent for the Japanese to comprehend. I asked this question because a Japanese friend had told me that a Japanese, faced with the mental torture experienced by characters in the novels of Dostoevsky, would rather kill himself or go mad. Mishima answered, “The extremes of passion in Dostoevsky are not much worse than those in a Bunraku (puppet) play.” But, he added, the Japanese are like the Spaniards in the quickness with which they boil over with passion. Suicide or murder tends to be decided on in an instant, rather than after a long process of cogitation.
Our conversation shifted from his novels to other kinds of literature that he had written: “For a time I thought I would become a poet. I was mistaken. Just as a woman supposes she is beautiful and only gradually comes to know what her face really looks like, I wanted to be a poet because poets —at least in their portraits —were so much handsomer than novelists.
Poets looked like Byron, Shelley or Keats, but novelists were all bearded old men. I wrote poetry between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, sometimes in free verse, sometimes in the normal Japanese meters.” Mishima wrote little poetry in his maturity. Apart from the stylized dramatic poetry in which he cast his version for the puppet theater of Racine’s Phedre, there were only sporadic examples, such as the song he composed for the Shield Society or the valedictory poem to the world written shortly before he killed himself. But I recall that one year, soon after I had returned to Japan, he asked me to a restaurant where he had me examine his translations of some poems by James Merrill, whom he had met in New York. I was surprised that Mishima, despite his disclaimers about his knowledge of English, was able to interpret accurately modern poetry, and I thought that the translations were in themselves poetry. Sometimes, too, his prose came so close to poetry that is was difficult to distinguish between the two. This was true especially of the dialogue in his plays, where the language is usually not that of everyday speech (which Mishima, of course, could write easily and accurately) but of poetic intensity.
Mishima was attracted to the classical Japanese theater because, even when the plot of a play could have been treated realistically, it managed always to maintain a stylization of language that at times approached the highest reaches of Japanese poetry. He said during the interview, “The theater has been the strongest influence on me. I doubt anyone could form an attachment to Japanese literature merely by reading the classics. The appeal must be more sensual.” While at the Peers School, Mishima had been influenced by his teachers of classical Japanese literature. He was better acquainted with this literature than any other writer of his generation and returned to it again and again in his own works.
But, at least when we had our interview, he was less interested in the traditionally admired works of classical poetry and prose than in works written for the theater, and some of the scenes in his novels were created in a deliberately theatrical manner.
Mishima, unlike many who read or see classical plays, seems to have been uninterested in discovering characters in the old masterpieces who resembled himself or his acquaintances. He preferred more abstractly conceived characters, who speak in a poetic language that often contrasted with their station in life. He felt that a dramatist’s fidelity to his time limited the interest of his themes. This may be why he was not especially interested in the most famous Japanese dramatist, Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653-1725). When my volume of translations of the plays of Chikamatsu appeared in I960, Mishima quite seriously proposed that these translations should be translated into modern Japanese, so that the texts might acquire greater stylization in passing through the medium of a foreign language. On the other hand, he sharply criticized the attempts of the management of the National Theater to make Kabuki popular with the young by modernizing the language. He enjoyed the texts because of their language, even when the plots were absurd or grossly inflated, and he hoped that later generations of Japanese would come to know the same pleasure rather than have the texts fed to them in simplified, banal modern language.
The next reply by Mishima indicates that I asked him if he had ever thought of becoming an actor. Mishima’s reply was: “I thought I would like to become an imaginary person, but never an actor!”
The answer was typical of his humor, but I wonder if it was true. In later years he seemed to enjoy appearing on the stage, where on occasion he sang French chansons dressed in a sailor suit, or appeared as a Roman guard in the final performance of his translation of Racine’s Britannicus. He also appeared in the films, once as a gangster, another time as an army officer who commits hara-kiri, and in a third film as a fire-eating swordsman of the nineteenth century. He also took bit parts on occasion, especially in plays he had written. I recall him telling me that once, while he was sitting in a bar somewhere, he was approached by a stranger who spoke mysteriously of a deal in which they were both involved. Little by little Mishima realized that the stranger had confused him, because of the part he played in a gangster film, with a real yakuza of his acquaintance.
The story sounds too ingenious to be true, but even if Mishima invented it, it suggests his pleasure in assuming other identities.
Mishima had a special fondness for yakuza films, de Mishtma before his suicide in Tokyo in 1970.
UPI/Bettmann lighting in their bad taste and overall stupidity. They certainly did not afford anything resembling the aesthetic pleasure of No or Kabuki, but he not only attended such films regularly but occasionally insisted that I accompany him. I did not share his enthusiasm, but that may be because I was unable to forget my professorial dignity.
Mishima remarked during the interview that he thought of the novel as his wife and the theater as his mistress. He said the same thing on later occasions. He believed that he so easily took to writing plays because of the conversational gifts he had inherited from his family. Unlike some Japanese families, whose remarks at table are restricted to monosyllables, his family kept up a flow of witty conversations, and he eagerly took part. This enabled him in later years to write theatrical dialogue with great speed, about five times as fast as writing a novel. I asked Mishima specifically about Five Modem No Plays, which had been published in my translation the previous year. He answered, “I had considered the possibilities available to me for writing poetic drama. I first tried writing some Kabuki plays because I wanted to create something in the manner of the old texts, but I never felt there was a future in writing new Kabuki plays in the old language, however nostalgic it made me. It was no more than a whim. I had to look up the old words in a dictionary, but these words had come naturally to the dramatists of the past.
“I came to realize also that No, unlike Kabuki, is not fixed to any one period. It is complete and perfect in absolute terms.
It occurred to me that I could take the themes of No and use them in modern plays of my own. In the case of Kabuki plays, the themes and the expression are one and they cannot be separated from their time. No is an abstract an, but Kabuki is quite concrete. Everything is overtly expressed in Kabuki.” As I reread these remarks of Mishima I felt a twinge of guilt.
For years I had been telling students precisely what Mishima told me about the differences involved in making modem plays out of No and Kabuki, forgetting that I had heard this from him, and supposing I had made a fresh discovery.
Mishima went on to discuss shingeki, the modern theater, created in the twentieth century after European prototypes: “I believe that shingeki will become more refined and will enjoy a development peculiar to Japan, a drama of dialogue.
I doubt that modern Japanese drama will come any closer to European drama. In the case of the novel, there is not much chance of a distinctively Japanese form to develop if only because the novel has no form, but I think that a Japanese form will evolve in the modern theater. Perhaps there will be a revival of No or of Kabuki, though there is no sign of it as yet. The shingeki actors still imitate the West too much, and as a result Western people find Japanese modern drama uninteresting. But perhaps in a hundred or two hundred years they will decide that our shingeki is unique. I hope that some day there will be plays of Ibsen, Racine or Chekhov that can be seen only in Japan. At present the Japanese perform slavish imitations of the Moscow Art Theater when staging Chekhov, and of British companies when staging Shakespeare. But one day there will be a Hamlet or a Macbeth that can be seen only in Japan, though I don’t know what form it will take.” This is where the notes for the interview conclude. Perhaps Mishima had another appointment or he may have become tired of answering my questions. As I have mentioned, I never made any conscious use of the remarks he made during the interview, though some of his words evidently sank so deeply into my mind that I thought they were my own.
I remained Mishima’s friend until the day of his death on November 25, 1970. While I was in Japan (generally, the three months of the Columbia summer vacation) I saw him frequently, and we corresponded when I was in New York.
He was an excellent correspondent, but during the last few months before his spectacular suicide his letters became irregular, and their tone suggested an increasingly bleak outlook on the world. I naturally did not suspect the cause was the emotional turmoil he experienced as the day for his self-appointed death approached, the day he was to deliver to the publisher the final episode of his four-volume novel.
On the night of his death (it occurred about midnight by New York time) I had gone with a Japanese friend to see Oh Calcutta!. Soon after I got back home the telephone rang. It was a Japanese newspaperman in Washington who informed me briefly of what Mishima had done that day and asked my impressions. He apparently did not know I was a close friend of Mishima’s, and had telephoned simply because I was a professor of Japanese literature. I was too shocked to say anything intelligible, but the telephone rang all through that night from newspaper and magazine people in Japan, and by dawn I was speaking rather glibly. I have since then written on several occasions about what I felt that night, or when I saw the newspaper photograph of Mishima’s head, or when I read his letter (which reached me three days later) opening, “When your read this I will be dead.” I have given numerous lectures about Mishima and, in response to questions from members of the audience, offered explanations of his spectacular death. I confess I do not really believe my own explanations.
Did he really kill himself because he couldn’t bear the thought of becoming old? Or was it because, having written far more than most authors in a full lifetime, he felt he had written enough? Or was he so infatuated with samurai ideals (like the ideals of the suicide-bent kamikaze pilots) that in the end he had to experience disembowelment? I still keep searching for clues. Perhaps a vital one, yet undetected by me, lies hidden in that interview of forty years ago.