by Angus Brown
On a blustery day in late November 1970, Japanese Nobel laureate, novelist, film star, and model Yukio Mishima killed himself in the company of a small group of devoted young, male, acolytes – one of whom was likely his lover – at a Japanese Defence Force military base. Just prior to a highly choreographed joint ritual suicide, Mishima had delivered an extraordinary speech exhorting the soldiers to rise against the government, overthrow it, and restore the emperor’s personal rule. This was a moment Mishima had long been building towards: He had found an exclusive ultranationalist paramilitary, and the handsome, wealthy, charismatic (and still relatively young) novelist seemed determined to overthrow the liberal democratic order which he believed had corrupted Japan. When his speech finished, the few soldiers who had managed to hear it laughed at him, and what inevitably followed was a swift – badly botched – ritual suicide. An ‘honourable’ death in darkly comical circumstances. Yet for all its inevitable farce, it represented, at least its perpetrator, the only correct rouse in life: the pursuit of honour, and a good death befitting of a good life. Mishima, who had longed, as a frail and intellectual child, for a largely mythologised heroic Japanese past, and who had adopted the “Mishima”identity in an act of self-reinvention as one such hero (he was born Kimitake Hiraoka), could now finally become a true hero himself. This was a revolt against what he saw as the aimlessness of his society and age, yet for all that it shocked Japan – and the world – this dark coda to a troubled life was not without its literary precedent. Indeed, Mishima’s Life for Sale, written and published just two years before his death (and published in English for the first time this August), presages many of the ideals which drove him to the point of this tightly stage-managed act of “heroic” martyrdom in dramatic defiance of the materialistic, declining, and meaningless world of the second half of the 20th century.
How can one live well, and by extension die well, in a world so devoid of meaning? That is the central question of Life for Sale. It was also the central question of Mishima’s complex, alluring, and deeply troubled life, a life that is imprinted on almost every page. Originally published in Playboy Japan in 1968, a year after the tumultuous student riots and cultural revolt of 1968 which, although a primarily Western phenomenon, also spread to Japan, the novel reflects Mishima’s deeply troubled vision of a society in a state of inexorable moral, cultural, and political decline. Dressed up in an action plot which would put many of today’s thrillers to shame with its clever plotting and eclectic cast of characters, it is nevertheless preoccupied with deeper themes, and concerns itself, above all, with the meaninglessness of modern life, and how it can be overcome. That the novel was published in Playboy of all magazines has led some critics to argue that many of its trappings are part of a deliberate ploy to pander to that magazine’s audience, but this seems a misreading. Certainly, such trappings are present, but they are there in service to the novel’s complex themes and ideas: if at times ludicrous it is always conscious of its own “pulpy” quality, and uses it to play on the expectations of the reader.
Life for Sale’s narrative begins when disillusioned young “salaryman” Hanio Yamada attempts to commit suicide on his way home from work in a fit of ennui so bleak that he can find no meaning to life whatsover. In a moment of maddening clarity, Yamada hallucinates the transformation of the letters of a newspaper into cockroaches, and comes to the realisation that the quotidian routines of his life are totally without purpose. Reflecting on the mundanity of his existence, Hanio wonders if “the world boils down to nothing more than this: is human life really little more than that of the “socially responsible” wage earning employee? The atomised routine of a faceless and anonymous drone whose contribution to the mass society which has absorbed him is probably trivial and certainly essentially “purposeless”. But Hanio must contend with a growing unease: if there is no point to life, then what purpose is there for persisting? Hanio’s suicide attempt fails, but with this transformative rejection of modern normality, he decides to live his life effectively as a one-man revolt against the society in which he lives. The story that follows is a descent into a world just beyond the normal. Hanio finds himself entangled with dangerous gangsters, a ring of aspiring poisoners, a ‘vampire’ and her son, diplomats engaged in a secret war, and a disturbed hippy who wrongly believes she has congenital syphilis. Looming over all of this, half obscured, is the semi-mythical “Asia Confidential Service” (ACS), an organisation which may be the products of a bored housewife’s overactive imagination, but may also be a secret society of criminals pulling the strings behind modern Japan. The plot, while disjointed, never falls into the trap befalling many serialisations of descending into a series of unconnected vignettes. Each of Hanio’s adventures not only build up to the novel’s thematic climax, but also to a coherent (if somewhat simplistic) dénouement.
What stands out most in the novel is Mishima’s analysis of a country in a prolonged, Spenglerian, decline. The Japan of Life for Sale is not idealized: it is not the Japan of honourable warriors and impeccable manners which nationalistic writers like Mishima revere, but the Japan of the 1960s, engulfed in Americanised modernity, and gripped by a profound uncertainty. For the profoundly conservative Mishima, the Japan of 1968 is not just a nation still reeling from defeat and occupation two decades later, but one unmoored from its past, and from meaning. It is a nation in which, as Hanio notes in disgust when discussing their future with a lover, most live “cockroach lives” of routine domesticity. It is a nation “awash” with new money made through dishonourable pursuits, in which “everyone can lay their hands on money, but they’re never allowed to use it for themselves… Succumb to temptation and make a grab at something, and suddenly you find yourself a criminal.” This is a familiar notion in Mishima’s work. In The Temple of the Golden Pavilion we are exposed to the realities of this “fallen” Japan when a young acolyte at the eponymous temple agrees to stamp on a rich Westerners’ mistress’ stomach to provide an ad hoc abortion. His price? A pack of cigarettes. In the new, post-war world, dominated by American money, anything is for sale because nothing has inner meaning or worth. Even a man’s dignity –or his life. In this sense, that Hanio puts his life up “for sale” is the ultimate reflection of the condition of a man under modern capitalism, albeit from a conservative rather than a more traditionally leftist anti-capitalist perspective (indeed Mishima loathed socialism even more than the corruption of capitalism). Yet it is also the core of Hanio’s revolt against his world, his embrace of the absurd reality of human life. When he notes that “nothing is safer than not even knowing your destination yourself”, he is referring to the mechanics of escaping an enemy, but his conclusion also applies to his stance towards life itself. By alienating the capacity to decide the course of his life and the circumstances of his death, Hanio embraces the nature of a world without meaning. He does not fear death, because he accepts it as a reality beyond our control, and in doing so finds a certain liberation from the fears of a normal human life.
The same sentiment is expressed when, having learnt that his ‘vampire’ lover intends to drain the last of his blood and kill, Hanio eagerly reflects that “selling your life was such a spending way out: it took away all need for responsibility”. If life cannot have meaning, then the ultimate freedom, as Camus might have noted and as Mishima seems to do here adroitly, is to accept the absurd reality of the world, and to go out at peace with its arbitrariness. Again, later, Hanio compares himself to a group of “hippies”, complaining of their “groundless” despair, and caustically claiming that “they were seekers of ‘meaninglessness’, all right, but he could not imagine them having the guts to confront the real thing when it inevitably came calling”. Not only does this allow the reader a glimpse into Hanio’s belief that even those who claim to have embraced the meaninglessness of life are, largely, unprepared to really accept it, but it also lays the ground for the wider ambiguity which Mishima begins, from then on, to insert into the novel.
For all of Hanio’s admirable qualities, however, it is never quite clear that the author views his actions as authentic. Towards the end of the novel as the ACS seem to be closing in on him, and as his chances of a violent and utterly controllable death approach, Hanio abandons his credo that he will accept death when it comes. If, as a superficial reading might suggest, Hanio represents an idealised stoic-absurdist, then why does Mishima take such pains to show the rejection of his principles, and, in the face of his condemnation of the hippies’ unwillingness to face up to meaninglessness, his hypocrisy? In fact, as the novel reaches its climax, the whole pretence that Hanio has, in some way, escaped from the cycle of life and death without meaning falls away, and his rejection of his world is revealed to be, at best a farce. And it is at this point that Mishima comes, subtly, ambiguously, to reveal the true ‘meaning’ hidden within the novel, a meaning which embraces his own values far better than those Hanio purports to hold. Throughout the second half of the novel –from Hanio’s first meeting with Reiko, a wealthy young hippy who believes that she has inherited syphilis from her father and who has allowed an obsession with this to consume her life – Mishima subtly introduces the idea that Hanio, thus far a narrator to be taken at his word, has a skewed view of the world. This is build up slowly as Reiko relates her own “madness” to our protagonist, and reveals her dark fantasies of a double suicide with a man who, infected with her supposedly imaginary disease, will descend into madness with her. At first, he scorns her desire to end her life – ironically given that all of his actions are driven by a similar death wish – and her belief that she is going mad, a belief which her parents have informed him is entirely of her own creation. But as his time with Reiko progresses, Hanio notes that, far from perfectly sane, Reiko is indeed gripped by a kind of madness, and as he finds himself pursued, once again, by the ACS and is forced to escape, it becomes less and less obvious that he himself is sane.
Although, of course, a somewhat tired conceit at this stage, it is hard to avoid the notion that the novel’s later events, at least as narrated by Hanio, are not as they appear. This idea is flagged in the text, and becomes unavoidable towards the end of the novel, with the ultimate reality of Hanio’s situation left to the reader to decide. When he attempts to tell a police officer that he was kidnapped by the shadowy ACS, the man rebuts him disdainfully, noting that “It’s not unusual for lonely men to suffer from delusions”. And, in a sense, it makes considerably more sense to see Hanio’s adventure after fleeing from Reiko as being “delusions” brought on by the stress of living with a mad woman (and potentially from his contraction of syphilis from her) rather than as reality. Before this point, at which even Hanio is concerned he may have gone mad, the ACS “exists only in thriller mangas” as a genteel artist tells Hanio; the same man later reappears as an agent of the ACS in the faintly unreal final chapters. In fact, though all the threads of the novel are seemingly drawn together by a vast conspiracy, it seems entirely incredible that they might be – perhaps this is just Mishima working to the genre he has adopted, but it seems more likely that he is, instead, using these tropes to touch on larger themes. It is, of course, not certain at all that we are supposed to believe Hanio has gone mad at the end of the novel, and it would be remiss to say that this interpretation is in any sense definitive. But, as he stands alone “on the verge of tears… a kind of twitching troubling the back of his throat” staring up into a sky where “The stars blurred and a myriad of lights blended into one” it seems rather as if the hard-nosed nihilistic persona Hanio that has constructed has fallen away, and the delusional man it masked revealed.
This ending is not just a classic twist for its own sake as one might find in a more mundane thriller, however, but rather plays a key role in the transmission of Mishima’s philosophy of life. For those familiar with Mishima’s work, the idea that he would embrace an absurdist philosophy of life might seem somewhat unusual, and, for all that individual vignettes from the novel might suggest this, in its totality it presents quite a different picture. In fact, Hanio’s seeming descent into insanity is indicative, for Mishima, of the failure of embracing meaninglessness. Such a spiral into fantasy, hallucination, and yes, ultimately, insanity becomes the consequence of living for nothing, and by extension of having nothing to live for. As Mishima wrote in his novel Runaway Horses, “Perfect purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood” – the good life is not had by accepting that our world is meaningless and revolting against a meaningless society by embracing Hanio’s ultra-nihilistic, death-seeking, creed. Rather, insofar as Mishima seems to point to some conception of a good life, it is one of utter self-sublimation not to the tumult of fate, but to same cause towards which one struggles.
On the surface, Hanio’s decision to accept that, in the face of a pointless society, one should live a life of total freedom unencumbered by conventional morality appears to be lauded, but can this really be the case if Mishima ultimately shows Hanio to be hypocritical, at times cowardly, and potentially even deranged? In light of Mishima’s own beliefs and life, it seems as if Hanio is halfway to the “correct” path, but ultimately fails to meet it. Whilst, like Hanio, Mishima believed that in the face of a society stripped of value one ought to engage in a life of total reconstruction of the self (indeed, this is a central theme of his infamous Sun and Steel), for Mishima this act of creation is quite different. The response to modernity’s utter lack of meaning, for Mishima, is not to accept the inevitability of meaningless oblivion, but to embrace the true meaning of an older age: for Mishima one’s life should not simply be alienated as a worthless item up ‘for sale’. It should, instead, be dedicated to service to your community, and its traditions, and it was on this model that he himself chose to live and, ultimately, die.
And it is in this tension that we return to Mishima’s abortive “coup” of 1970. If Mishima rejects Hanio’s nihilism, the book may still capture something of his own ultimate and much publicised fate. For all the seeming earnestness of Mishima’s suicide, it was clear to those at the time, and clearer still to many today, that Mishima knew it had no chance of success. Far from a genuine attempt to overthrow the liberal order, the coup seems, with hindsight, like little more than a pretext for Mishima to achieve the honourable death for which he longed. Though this novel may reject the path of alienating one’s life which it explores, in the end it was exactly what Mishima himself chose to do. For all that he dressed it up in a ritual of patriotic honour and disgrace, in the final analysis it is hard not see his suicide as little more than an attempt to escape a world whose lack of meaning he could not accept. This was not truly the heroic act of martyrdom in the name of national salvation Mishima portrayed it as, he surely knew it was an entirely pointless endeavour, and the widely respected novelist became a darkly comedic figure in death, distrusted for the fascistic overtones of many of his writings and of this final propagandistic act. If Mishima might be right to see Hanio, who abandons his own steadfast commitment to face death head on the moment he has to as a poseur, he was no less one himself. After a lifetime of attempting to achieve meaning through means other than existentialist revolt, but through the embrace of a ‘traditional’ way of life, in the end Mishima chose to end his own through a kind of alienated suicide just as Hanio longed to. And in that sense, the author was rather more like his creation than he might have liked.
ANGUS BROWN reads History and Politics at Magdalen College.
Art by Abigail Hodges