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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Book Review: Sun and Steel

Sun and Steel

Sun and Steel
by Yukio Mishima

by Yukio Mishima
Kodansha International
ISBN 4770029039
107 pp

Sun and Steel is a critically acclaimed treatise on the estrangement of body and spirit. It is essential reading for anyone interested in what motivated Japan’s most (in)famous writer.

Words came early to Mishima, earlier than a conscious recognition of the body. Cosseted by his manipulative paternal grandmother until his early teens, he was kept inside and denied physical activity. His isolation as a child continued into his teenage years when his literary talent distinguished him from his peers.

In Sun and Steel words are white ants eating away at a pillar; writing a ‘medium that reduces reality to abstraction for transmission to our reason.’ In contrast to the abstract mind and the corrosive nature of words Mishima extols the virtues of the physical, tangible body. The dichotomy between ‘ideas of the flesh and the loquacity of the body’ was perennial in his work but by middle age, in his mind at least, the physical had triumphed. He had started exercising when he was 25 and did so obsessively until his ritual suicide.

Mishima was intrigued by boundaries and frustrated by their limitations. The physical expression of consciousness through pain was real to him; the subjectivity of the mind indolent. But his real frustrations lay within the inability to combine the two elements into one.

Ultimately, does Mishima merely tire of his own imagination? Tire of the subjective? ‘How many lazy men’s truths have been admitted in the name of imagination?’ he writes. If death is the ultimate mystery and suicide a fast-track conduit through which to realise it, Mishima deems existence a fair price for the experience. To such a vain person suicide also offered an escape from decay – freedom from the imperfection of aging.

By his life’s end Mishima had founded a group within which he could subsume himself; the Tate-no-kai (Shield Society), the private army he formed in 1968. He sublimated his imagination into ‘duty,’ and burnished it ‘in preparation for death as much as he burnished his sword.’

The transition from the fiction of Patriotism, a short story written by Mishima in 1966 about a lieutenant who commits ritual suicide, to the non-fiction of Sun and Steel in 1968 is telling. By 1970 Mishima is addressing troops from the balcony of the Eastern headquarters of the Ground Self Defence Forces in Tokyo, having taken the army commander hostage and besieged his office.

The troops assemble below to jeer at Mishima and ridicule his speech, after which he disembowels himself. The nation thought his ritual suicide retrograde and indulgent at best. Whether Matsukazu Morita, the student leader of the Tate-no-kai was his lover, as hinted at in Confessions of a Mask, is a matter of conjecture. There is no doubt, however, that Sun and Steel is the ultimate autobiographical prophecy.

Reviewed by Justin Ellis Read more about Yukio Mishima

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