Yukio Mishima was known in 20th-century artistic circles as an “octuple threat”. The author-poet-playwright-actor-director-singer-model-bodybuilder was born Kimitake Hiraoka in January 1925 in Shinjuku, Japan. He had a decent start in life - his father was a senior officer in the Ministry for Agriculture, which was just a smidge short of nobility; and his mother was the daughter of an elite school’s principal.
Mishima spent the majority of his childhood with his grandmother, who was fairly typical as far as grandmothering goes. Apart from removing her grandson from the care of his mother and not allowing him to go outdoors or play with other boys for about twelve years, she was just lovely. Lovely with a hint of violence and a sprinkle of always-talking-about-death.
Mishima returned to his parents’ care at age 12, where his father enforced his special brand of discipline. According to his dad, being outside doing sport was Boy Thing, but being inside and writing stories was not. Mishima, however, was very good at writing stories and being a boy, and he had works published in literary magazines and books before his twentieth birthday.
Mishima’s early works included several poems in the traditional waka form. Because of the difference in word forms between the two languages, translating waka from Japanese to English can be clumsy and imprecise, but crudely summarised, a waka poem has five lines with a syllable pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. For example:
When I was a child
I found a love for stories.
Those words sang to me.
Oh, those pages shone brightly!
And my grandma was mental.
After leaving school, Mishima’s father gradually accepted the idea that his son was going to do namby-pamby girl-writing for a living, and the talented author churned out novels, short stories, poems, plays and essays. Among his many dozens of works were Tabako, about the bullying he suffered at school, Tozoku, about the suicidal intentions of aristocrats, Confessions of a Mask, about the social pressure to hide homosexuality, and Yukoku, about the loyalty and patriotism of a young soldier.
If there was one thing Mishima loved as much as writing, it was doing other things as well. He acted in, and sang the theme song to, Afraid to Die, a 1960 yakuza film directed by Yasuzo Masumura. He acted in several other films, including Yukoku, which he also directed. He modelled for the photographic collections of Eikoh Hosoe and Tamotsu Yato. He became proficient in the martial art of Kendo, and also became an obsessive natural bodybuilder who trained regularly for over a decade.
Am I just writing?
No, I have numerous loves:
To sing, act, direct,
To pose in front of cameras.
Also, my pecs can crush rocks.
Around 1967, Mishima’s exploits became considerably more Daddy-pleasing when he joined Japan’s Ground Self-Defence Forces. A year after making it through basic training, he established his own private militia called the Tatenokai, or ‘shield society’. Mishima recruited and trained his troop of young men, imparting strong ideals of martial discipline and bushido, the way of the ancient Samurai. Mishima had no great affection for the actual emperor Hirohito, who he considered a bit wimpy for denouncing his man-god status after World War II. Instead he valued the ideal emperor – one who embodied honour, divinity and the historical essence of Japan. In his head and in his men, Mishima instilled an unwavering desire to return Japan to its pre-war greatness and reinstate the power of the spooky essence-infused ghost emperor. So, like all typical death-obsessed poets-turned-muscly-militia-men, Mishima attempted a coup.
On the 25th of November 1970, Mishima led four men into the Tokyo headquarters of Japan’s Self Defence Forces, captured the commandant and presented the unit with a list of their demands, which included overthrowing the government.
The men of the Self Defence Forces responded with a smattering of giggles (or whatever it is that tough military-type blokes do when a smattering of giggles is called for, but is not quite appropriate for the military blokiness of the situation). In short, Mishima failed. And what do obsessively honour-driven warriors infused with the spirit of the Samurai do when they fail? They perform seppuku, a ritual suicide by disembowelment.
After the incident, evidence of Mishima’s meticulous planning and his tidy financial affairs suggested that he had been preparing his death for over a year. Speculation still surrounds his suicide, and it is widely believed that the coup was merely a convenient theatre in which to act out Mishima’s lifelong dream, which lay at the heart of his work, of knowing a noble end.
I only wanted
The days of the Samurai,
Our honour intact.
It didn’t go as planned, though.
Bit embarrassing, really.