This biography about the life and death of Yukio Mishima is written by his personal friend Henry Scott Stokes. Henry was a writer and had came into contact with Mishima, personally visited and been invited by Mishima himself for visits, holidays and house visits. In the introduction Henry explains how he came into contact with him, the books of his that he enjoyed, and how Mishima came across in person: like a narcissist, a muscle man, an intellectual, but also as a soft-hearted and calm man with a healthy body and mind who had devoted his mind to writing, and his body to exercise. He explains his life contact with him, and gives many examples of stories to expand on Mishima on how he came across socially. He then explains how he heard and found out that Mishima had made an attack on an army building, and how he quickly travelled to the location to be there. Arriving too late. Finding out that Mishima had killed himself minutes before he gained access to inside the building.
The book is separated into two parts which work through Mishima’s life. The first part which is straight after the introduction, is called Kimitake Hiraoka, which is Yukio Mishima’s real name. The first chapter is called Hara-Kiri and is a retelling of how Mishima came to take a general hostage with a few fellow Tatenokai members. The Tatenokai was Mishima’s society, called The shield society. This was his right-wing traditionalist military group. Mishima and his fellow students took the general hostage, gave a speech to the gathered soldiers, which wasn’t well received, and then Mishima ritually disembowelled himself (called Seppuku) and then was beheaded, the man who beheaded him then ritually disembowelled himself and was beheaded by another student (Mishima’s beheading was botched, so the student who beheaded Mishima was also the one who beheaded the intended beheader). Henry’s description of this event is based on people who were there, new’s sources and information fed to him. He has recreated the scene and has done it well. It is a fascinating read. This event is known as the Mishima incident.
Chapter two is called Early life (1925-39), and as it says in the title, it tells the story of Kimitake’s early life. How he was born, who to, and how he was kidnapped by his grandmother. Most of this early life story is identical to the life of Kochan in Mishima’s book Confessions of a mask. Henry explains how through conversations with Mishima, he revealed that almost all of Confessions is actually just about himself, and Kochan is him, and Sonoko is a woman he had an affair with, and Omi was also a boy he actually met. As said, most of this chapter is a retelling of Confessions while merging articles written by Mishima’s mother (Shizue Hiraoka), and stories from his friends and so on. The stories from his mother are very touching. She explained how Yukio was gifted as a writer, and because of how alone he was he would spend most of his time by the side of his ill grandmother working away at his notes, but Yukio’s father wanted him to enter the civil service as the family’s legacy was that of being well respected as governmental workers for the civil service. This caused a friction where Yukio’s writing would be found by his father, and destroyed. She remembers a time this happened and Yukio was weeping, she would comfort him with interest in his stories and offering him tea to calm him down. From then on he hid his writings and only shared them with his mother. This gave them a special relationship. She had a literary spirit but no urge to write, while Yukio was a gifted and sensitive writer who needed affection and acceptance.
The next chapter is called Kimitake and the war (1940-49). At this time Yukio was mostly writing poems and being accepted by older students as a gifted talent to cherish and listen to. This made sure his friend circle was older and more mature than him, which he enjoyed. Most of this section traces his poetic progression, and retells sections from Confessions of a mask which are mostly from this time period and correlate with Mishima’s life during and just after world war II. It also lists how he was published by magazines as he built his list of stories and became more well known.
It then moves on to part two, which begins with a prologue where Mishima explains that when he had almost finished his tetralogy (a novel in four books), he was invited to exhibit things about himself in a well known store. He decided to separate the exhibit into four sections: the river of writing, of theatre, of body, and action. Mishima explains that his life has been four rivers converging into one, and that his tetralogy was based on these four rivers.
In that same line of thinking the next four chapters are each part of these rivers. Chapter four, which is the first of part two after the prologue, is called The river of writing. This chapter, as it says in the title, concentrates on Mishima’s writing. It goes through his books, the meaning within them, how successful they were, how Mishima viewed each one and how it was constructed and what it said about Mishima as a writer and as a man. It also explains how Mishima ended up marrying Yoko. His mother was ill and it was believed that she had cancer. Because of this Mishima decided to marry and produce children as soon as possible so his mother could experience it before she died. He used a wife picking service (commonly used in Japan at the time) and choose Yoko, then found out that his mother was indeed ill, but didn’t have cancer. Henry then goes through Mishima’s writing of his tetralogy and how this led up to his suicide, and how and why Mishima was working towards such an end.
This next chapter is titled The river of theatre, which as implied is about Mishima’s theatrical writings. This chapter is very short, but interesting. It concentrates on how he broke into theatre, and how he wrote a theatrical performance and then a novel, and back and forth again. Mishima said this was because he found novels very difficult, and loved performing and writing theatrical pieces, but always wanted to be a novelist more than he wanted to be a theatrical writer. This chapter also explains the theatre in Japan and how it works. It also goes into detail about how Mishima was a natural theatrical writer and extremely gifted. He struggled with the novel, but as said above he wanted to be a great novel writer. While his natural talent for theatre made it enjoyable and fun for him, but not a struggle which Mishima wrote for. The author of this book doesn’t agree that Mishima was a better playwright, because he thinks that Mishima’s novels and plays are too distinctively different to be compared, which is a good view. Mishima’s plays and novels are different expressions of the same style and man, but because of this they are uniquely difficult and too different to compare.
The next chapter is called The river of body, which concentrates on his bodybuilding and how Mishima used and viewed his own body as a force. He started bodybuilding at thirty and noticed how within a year many of his life-long weaknesses and illnesses left him. He wished to have a powerful and beautiful body, because he feared he would die young and thus not being able to write for much longer if he remained weak. After he built a strong and beautiful body for himself, he also started to have his photos taken more, especially those that showed off his build. Most people didn’t believe he was serious in his bodybuilding as he joked about it a lot, but it was clear from his writing that to him it was dreadfully serious and was a path towards his suicide. He was preparing his body for a beautiful death, and to have a beautiful death without a beautiful body would be a grave dishonour. The book that explains this best is his Sun and Steel (1968).
The next chapter is titled The river of action, and looks into how Mishima went from being in the river of body and ended up in the river of action. His river of body was always going to lead to the river of action, as the author states. This chapter is long and detailed, going into great detail about Mishima’s years in the 60’s and how he came to commit suicide with a great effort to try again at a previous coup which failed called the Ni ni roku incident. This incident was a failed coup because the emperor told these instigators to step down and stop, which they did because the coup was for the greater good of the Emperor. The author also explains how he came to know about Mishima’s group, the Tatenokai, and how he met its members and how they came across, and more importantly: why the Tatenokai existed and why the members were of the political views that they expressed. Japan at the time had a rising group of Communists and Mishima (and many right wing people, especially students), wanted to fight this rise by preparing for combat. In this way the groups didn’t go out and fight, but instead trained themselves so if fighting broke out they could react accordingly.
The next chapter is titled The decay of the angel. This chapter talks about the last novel Mishima wrote which is titled The decay of the angel. The book itself is a novel of anti-climax. The ending and summary of the whole book is that the tetralogy’s foundational narrative (reincarnation) may not even be true within the frame of the story itself. This tells us something about Mishima and the way he believed that his strong body was decaying, it would become ugly, but he could commit a beautiful suicide while his body is still strong and beautiful. The books ending was as ironic as Mishima’s dying by seppuku after years of being a novelist and fluent writer. This section also describes his funeral and how it was received by the papers and public.
The last chapter is titled Post mortem and attempts to look at Mishima’s life and suicide as one thing. This chapter is one of the shortest, but also one of the most detailed and emotionally moving. The author describes the many reasons Mishima could have committed suicide: as a homosexual pact between him and Morita (his beheader), as an honourable end in a traditional way for the emperor, as a desperate act of a psychologically damaged man, or as a right wing take over doomed to fail. Then the author explains how none of these reasons can be enough as Mishima was far more complicated than any of these simple ponderings. So it is more likely that several of these reasons combined were the real reasons. In a beautiful section of this chapter the author explains how Mishima’s idea at the time was that to know is to act, and to merely verbalise his disappointment at a dying tradition was not enough, he must act in order to show this disappointment, and in this way his suicide was successful. It reminded many Japanese people of the ideals they held before losing world war II, and reminded them that at the time it wasn’t silly or a lie to hold these beliefs. He also expresses how the funeral went and how his wife Yoko acted during it and after: like a strong willed stoic Samurai. He also explains how his family didn’t agree with his suicide, while his mother expressed sympathy explaining that if he had had a better father and wife maybe he wouldn’t of killed himself. His mother knew him better than anyone, and they were extremely close, so this statement could be a hint that she knew of his motives, or was at the very least so upset by his death that she lashed out at people who didn’t know him as personally as she did.
The concluding and final statement of this book is the author explaining that the last line Mishima wrote was ‘Human life is limited, but I would like to live forever.’, and the author returns this statement by making it clear that this book is the author’s attempt to remember him, and that he will continue to do so as he lives out the rest of his life, because he loved Mishima and doesn’t think his memory should be denigrated. It should be celebrated. The author does make it clear that it is hard for him to be objective because Mishima was a personal friend and that the event of his suicide wasn’t that long ago (the book was published five years after the suicide of Mishima), but what a beautiful ending to a biography.