Authors: Yukio Mishima

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Japanese author, playwright, poet, director, and actor.

January 14, 1925

Tokyo, Japan

November 25, 1970

Tokyo, Japan

Biography

Yukio Mishima (mee-shee-mah) was a writer of great power—widely regarded in his last years as a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature—whose life became a performance, and ultimately a tragic one. He was born Kimitake Hiraoka in Tokyo, Japan, the son of Azusa and Shizue (Hashi) Hiraoka. His father was a senior official in the Ministry of Agriculture. The boy was an outstanding scholar at Gakushuin (the Peers’ School), where he was cited for excellence by the emperor himself. He was a gentle, bookish child, with a delicate constitution, who was drawn, nevertheless, to books that portrayed the valiant death and ritual suicides of the warrior. He began to write at an early age and was publishing short stories in the magazine Bungei Bunka (literary culture) by his sixteenth year. In 1944 he undertook the study of law at Tokyo University. He graduated in 1947, after his education was briefly interrupted by his conscription in the army in February, 1945. Though short, his period of service affected him profoundly. His religion was Zen Buddhism, but he described in Sun and Steel how his dominant philosophy of physical prowess and the beauty of violent death began to emerge as he underwent the rigors of military life. He was employed in 1947 by the Ministry of Finance, but by the next year he had resigned to devote himself to his writing.

He was influenced by the older writer and his lifelong friend Yasunari Kawabata (winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature of 1968), whom he met while he was still a schoolboy. Kimitake Hiraoka may have chosen the pseudonym Yukio Mishima because of the nature of his first, and very successful, novel, Confessions of a Mask. It is the autobiographical account of a shy, sensitive young man who wrestles with his homosexuality and sadomasochistic tendencies. Critics have argued that this novel set the tone for the rest of Mishima’s career, for with it Hiraoka had adopted a new name and a new personality. Henceforward he would mask his timidity, vulnerability, and aestheticism with an arrogant, even provocative, persona. He retained the love for fine prose and for the Japanese and Western classics that he had shared with Kawabata but began to affect a strident manliness. Through a regimen of weight lifting he developed his slight physique. He studied boxing and karate until he achieved proficiency in both, and he made himself into an excellent swordsman and imbibed deeply the tradition of the samurai. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Mishima produced a succession of critically acclaimed novels. On June 1, 1958, he married Yoko Sugiyama, and two children were born of their union: a daughter, Noriko, and a son, Iichiro.

Yukio Mashima

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By Yukio_Mishima_cropped.jpg: Shirou Aoyama derivative work: PRA (Yukio_Mishima_cropped.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mishima was also prolific in other genres. He wrote many short stories, most of which are uncollected or collected in Japanese editions only. A notable collection in English, Death in Midsummer, and Other Stories, appeared in 1966. Mishima also became one of Japan’s leading playwrights. By his early thirties he had published some thirty plays, several of which are available in English. His modernized versions of traditional Japanese No plays were very popular (these can be sampled in the 1957 collection in English, Five Modern Nō Plays). Often Mishima himself directed the production of his plays.

His life became increasingly flamboyant, and he became a motion-picture actor, screenwriter, and director, even appearing in a gangster film. He recorded songs and became a television celebrity, achieving more fame in this way than through his many literary prizes and awards. He built an Italianate villa in Tokyo and filled it with English antiques. He enrolled his wife in classes in Western cooking. His writing began to contain more allusions to French literature than to Japanese literature. Despite—and perhaps, in part, because of—the Western influence on his own life and work, he came to hate the Westernization of Japan. In a stream of essays and articles he advocated Japan’s return to the samurai tradition. He organized a private army of like-minded university students, the Tate No Kai, or Shield Society. His elitism, his militancy, and his idealization of the old Japan disturbed many people.

On November 25, 1970, he ended his life with a beau geste when he and four members of the Shield Society invaded the headquarters of the Eastern Ground Defense Forces, took the commanding officer hostage, and demanded that the troops be assembled. From a balcony he harangued the twelve hundred soldiers for their failure to rise in rebellion against Japan’s Western-style constitution. The men responded to his speech with laughter and derision. He then knelt and, in the traditional seppuku ceremony, committed suicide: He disemboweled himself with a dagger, and one of his followers beheaded him with a sword. He had written almost the exact scene in the 1960 novella Yukoku (translated as "Patriotism" in Death in Midsummer, and Other Stories) and later, when he had adapted his novella as a film, he had acted in the lead role. He had completed his tetralogy The Sea of Fertility: A Cycle of Four Novels on the last day of his life. Other of his works, too, were posthumously published.

Author Works Long Fiction: Tōzoku, 1948 Kamen no kokuhaku, 1949 (Confessions of a Mask, 1958) Ai no kawaki, 1950 (Thirst for Love, 1969) Ao no jidai, 1950 Junpaku no yoru, 1950 Natsuko no boken, 1951 Kinjiki, 1951, and Higyo, 1953 (combined as Forbidden Colors, 1968) Shiosai, 1954 (The Sound of Waves, 1956) Shizumeru taki, 1955 Kinkakuji, 1956 (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1959) Nagasugita haru, 1956 Bitoku no yoromeki, 1957 Kyōko no ie, 1959 Utage no ato, 1960 (After the Banquet, 1963) Kemono no tawamure, 1961 Utsukushii hoshi, 1962 Gogo no eikō, 1963 (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, 1965) Kinu to meisatsu, 1964 Hōjō no umi, 1969–1971 (collective title for the following 4 novels;The Sea of Fertility: A Cycle of Four Novels, 1972–1974) Haru no yuki, 1969 (Spring Snow, 1972) Honba, 1969 (Runaway Horses, 1973) Akatsuki no tera, 1970 (The Temple of Dawn, 1973) Tennin gosui, 1971 (The Decay of the Angel, 1974) Short Fiction: Misaki nite no monogatari, 1947 Yoru no shitaku, 1948 Kaibutsu, 1950 Tōnorikai, 1951 Manatsu no shi, 1953 (Death in Midsummer, and Other Stories, 1966) Radige no shi, 1953 Drama: Kantan,wr. 1950, pb. 1956 (English translation, 1957) Yoro no himawari, pr., pb. 1953 (Twilight Sunflower, 1958) Dōjōji, pb. 1953 (English translation, 1966) Iwashi uri koi hikiami, 1954 Wakodo yo yomigaere, 1954 Aya no tsuzumu, pr. 1955, pb. 1956 (The Damask Drum, 1957) Aoi no ue, pr., pb. 1956 (The Lady Aoi, 1957) Hanjo, pb. 1956 (English translation, 1957) SotobaKomachi, pb. 1956 (English translation, 1957) Kindai nōgakushū, pb. 1956 (includes Kantan, The Damask Drum, The Lady Aoi, Hanjo, and Sotoba Komachi; Five Modern Nō Plays, 1957) Rokumeikan, 1957 Bara to kaizoku, 1958 Tōka no kiku, pr., pb. 1961 Yorokobi no koto, 1964 Sado kōshaku fujin, pr., pb. 1965 (Madame de Sade, 1967); Suzakuke no metsubō, pr., pb. 1967 Waga tomo Hittorā, pb. 1968 (My Friend Hitler, 1977) Chinsetsu yumiharizuki , pr., pb. 1969 Raio no terasu, 1969 Nonfiction: "Aporo no sakazuki," 1952 "Shi o kaku shonen," 1956 Fudōtoku kyōiku kōza, 1959 "Ratai to isho," 1959 "Hayashi Fusao ron," 1963 "Watashi no henreki jidai," 1964 Hagakure nyumōn, 1967 (The Way of the Samurai, 1977) Taiyō to tetsu, 1968 (Sun and Steel, 1970) Wakaki samurai no tame ni, 1969 Kodogaku nyumon, 1970 Yukio Mishima on "Hagakure": The Samurai Ethic and Modern Japan, 1978 Edited Text: New Writing in Japan, 1972 (with Geoffrey Bownas) Miscellaneous: Hanazakari no mori, 1944 (short fiction and plays) Eirei no Koe, 1966 (short fiction and essays) Bibliography Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Fiction. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. A massive study of the fiction produced since the Japanese "Enlightenment" in the nineteenth century. The last fifty-eight pages of the text are devoted to Mishima. Keene, Donald. Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology. New York: Grove Press, 1956. Pieces compiled by Keene from various genres. His last selection is "Omi," extracted from Confessions of a Mask. The evaluation of Mishima in Keene’s long introduction is of historical interest, because it was made so early in the novelist’s career. Keene, Donald. Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciation of Japanese Culture. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1971. The section on Mishima and his work comments on a variety of his works but especially on Confessions of a Mask, because, atypically, this novel is autobiographical, providing insight into his thinking and his relation to his own work. As in most works, Mishima’s preoccupation with death is explored. Includes a short reading list but no index. Keene, Donald. "Mishima in 1958." The Paris Review 37 (Spring, 1995): 140-160. Keene recalls his 1958 interview with Mishima, in which Mishima discussed influences, his delight in "cruel stories," the importance of traditional Japanese theater for him, and his novels and his other writing. Miyoshi, Masao. Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Chapter 6 in part 2, "Mute’s Rage," provides studies of two of Mishima’s major novels, Confessions of a Mask and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, as well as comments on works that Miyoshi considers to be important. Includes notes and an index. Napier, Susan J. Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio and Ōe Kenzaburō. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Napier uncovers shocking similarities as well as insightful dissimilarities in the work of Mishima and Ōe and ponders each writer’s place in the tradition of Japanese literature. Nathan, John. Mishima: A Biography. 1974. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2000. The classic biography of Mishima, with a new preface by Nathan. Index. Scott-Stokes, Henry. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima. Rev. ed. New York: Noonday Press, 1995. Following a personal impression of Mishima, Scott-Stokes presents a five-part account of Mishima’s life, beginning with the last day of his life. Supplemented by a glossary, a chronology, a bibliography, and an index. Starrs, Roy. Deadly Dialectics: Sex, Violence, and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishima. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994. A critical and interpretive look at sex and violence in Mishima’s work. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976. Mishima is one of eight Japanese writers treated in this volume. While Ueda discusses certain novels in some detail, for the most part his discussion centers on philosophical and stylistic matters and suggests that Mishima’s pessimism derived more from his appraisal of the state of human civilization than from his views on the nature of literature. Includes a brief bibliography and an index. Wolfe, Peter. Yukio Mishima. New York: Continuum, 1989. Wolfe asserts that common sense explains very little about motives in Mishima. "What makes him unusual is his belief that anything of value exists in close proximity to death." Yourcenar, Marguerite. Mishima: A Vision of the Void. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. This edition of a biography of Mishima published in 1986 contains a foreword by Donald Richie, a well-known critic and Japan expert.

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