Thirst for love or Ai no Kawaki in Japanese, is Yukio Mishima’s 1950 novel. This is extremely early in his writing career. This is his second major novel, the first being Confessions of a mask. Etsuko is a widow who lives with her father-in-law Yakichi in the Sugimoto household, after her husband passed away from typhoid fever.
She returns home one day to him reading her diary, she pretends not to have noticed and he says he is reading some other book and leaves her room. It turns out that she has two diaries. The first is the one that Yakichi has been reading, this is a fake one which puts everything positively and speaks of happiness and respect for the father-in-law. While the other one, the real one, speaks more viciously of life and the father, telling her true feelings of sorrow and resentment. In the false diary she mentions a woman initialled S. which she has deep feelings for and feels at peace with, this has been reversed in the real diary: S. is a man. S stands for Saburo, and is the male servant of the household who Etsuko is in love with. He lives with the other servant Miyo. While Etsuko’s brother-in-law, Kensuke, lives with his wife, Chieko, and her sister-in-law, Asako, and her children: Nobuko and Natsuo. All in one household, but separated by floors and departments. While Etsuko lives with the father-in-law, Yakichi. It is made clear that Kensuke knows that Etsuko loves Saburo.
We are then told about Saburo and Etsuko’s first real meeting. She often went out for walks, and because she walked a certain way (that of a pregnant woman) many of the locals began to believe she was some form of ghost. Saburo went out to get the bread rations, but stopped on the way back to lay down on the floor and read. Etsuko accidentally runs into him, and states that she won’t tell the household about him relaxing on the job. He was eighteen at the time, but his build and muscles made her assume he was older. She finds this attractive.
We are also told how Etsuko’s husband, Ryosuke, died. He would often not return home for days, and would do odd things like suddenly have a new tie and smell like cheap perfume. This was all designed to make her jealous, but instead of being jealous and asking, she would just be upset and not give him the jealously he wanted. She once threatened him with suicide, but he slapped the pills out of her hands and injured her in the process. A few days later he died during a fever. Whether she poisoned him is not made clear. During his fever he was diagnosed with typhoid but he was missing the major symptoms, which may hint at the poisoning. While at the hospital several women visit him and run into each other, it is guessed that these are the cheap women he had been seeing in order to peak Etsuko’s jealously. Another woman comes in to see him, this one she recognises from the photos that her husband had left around the house, which she had burned in reply. The doctor then diagnoses him with advanced stages of typhoid, which suggests that he wasn’t poisoned, although they have no idea how he got it. They guess he may have drank some bad water on one of his business trips.
The story then moves to when Saburo was forced to sing for an egg. After he got over his embarrassment he refused the egg and sang anyway. He was then given three days off, as he was given every year. During these three days Etsuko doesn’t miss him, she actually has a joy of him being gone, which is her perverse love: it is as if Saburo is dead, and that feeling of being torn from him is a type of love and joy that Etsuko seeks. In the same way that she never felt closer to her husband than when he was dying in bed with her nursing him. This works in the same sense that when her husband was dying in bed, her nursing him and him needing her was what made her happy – in a sense his dying and death allowed him to love her, and Saburo’s lack of presence allows her to love him, and Etsuko views this as joyous.
She finally gives Saburo the gift of socks which she purchased at the beginning of the novel. He doesn’t wear them, she guesses this is because he will only wear them for more formal occasions. While throwing something away she finds the socks in a bin, she confronts him about this and he simply says that he threw them away because he is a peasant and he shouldn’t have such things. But the other servant, Miyo, is crying and says that she did it because she thought it was a suspicious gift. Saburo is protecting Miyo, which makes Etsuko guess they have some kind of love-based relationship. They may even be in love. Etsuko forgives them both and says it is nothing to worry about. The next day Saburo is wearing the socks. Etsuko now thinks that she has a reason to live. She later searches their quarters for evidence of their love life, but she finds nothing. She doesn’t realise that Miyo throwing away the socks is the evidence of her jealously and love for Saburo. When Yakichi finds Etsuko snooping around there he asks why, she says she was looking for their diary, Yakichi falls silent and leaves the conversation there. He cannot accuse her of wrong doing as he regularly does the same thing with Etsuko’s diary.
The entire family goes to a festival where Saburo will be taking part. The family separate looking for him. Etsuko runs into him, but he doesn’t notice because of the crowd and his energetic engagement with the traditions. He runs his back into her by accident, and Etsuko claws his back open leaving blood all over her hands, but he doesn’t notice. One of the family members tells Etsuko to come back as something has happened. She returns to find Miyo on the floor looking ill with a contorted face. She is taken away on a stretcher and Yakichi asks a doctor what was wrong with her, he answers that Miyo is pregnant. The whole family is shocked, but Etsuko fails to show her shock, this makes the family assume she already knew or at least she isn’t shocked to find out. Etsuko wasn’t surprised about Miyo, she was jealous. She was jealous in the way that made Miyo throw away the socks.
The family get together without the children or servants to discuss the current situation. Yakichi makes it clear that Saburo will either deny the responsibility, and will be sacked, while Miyo will be forced to have an abortion. Or, Saburo will take responsibility, be forced to marry Miyo and raise the baby. Etsuko doesn’t say anything in response, but while outside with Yakichi, she manages to ask Saburo to go somewhere private with her for a talk, while Yakichi goes back to the house. She asks Saburo about Miyo being pregnant and he says he knows, she then asks him if it is his and he says it is. She asks him if he loves Miyo and he says no, he says no again, and then states that he will marry her if that is what Master Yakichi demands. Etsuko is jealous of Miyo, while Yakichi is jealous of Saburo, in this sense they have the same frustrations and relationship. Lost in a daze one day, Etsuko severely burns her hand in an open flame, which Yakichi saves her from. He later purposely injuries his hand with a thorn, but recovers with no problem, while Etsuko cannot sleep or recover because of the agony of the burn.
She takes a bath when everyone else is planning one, and pulls the plug just so Miyo and Saburo cannot bathe together. She then wakes Yakichi up during the night, and asks him to sack Miyo, which will make Saburo leave. He agrees. The deal is that they will go to Tokyo if this is done, as Yakichi suggested it, but Etsuko wants something in return for going. Saburo is sent off to a festival, and to see his mother and bring her back to meet Miyo and arrange the marriage. Miyo is now several months pregnant.
While Saburo is away Miyo is sacked by Etsuko, and when Saburo returns he doesn’t mention her absence, nor does anyone tell him what has happened, nor does he ask. The trip to Tokyo is going ahead and is tomorrow, when Etsuko approaches Saburo and asks him to meet her at an arranged time alone, and not to tell anyone. They meet and Etsuko confesses that she sacked Miyo, Saburo says he already knew because Asako told him. She asks him why he isn’t upset and he repeats what he said before: that he doesn’t love her. Etsuko asks if he doesn’t love Miyo then who does he love, but she doesn’t understand that Saburo is a simple person, just because he doesn’t love Miyo doesn’t mean he loves someone else. He states he doesn’t want to talk about love, but can see that she is wanting something from him, she wants to be mentioned. Backed into a corner in the conversation and being a servant, he aims to please so he can get out of this situation, so he says, it is you Etsuko that I love.
It is clear to her that he is lying and just wants to please so he can leave this conversation. She tries to leave but he blocks her path. She then tries to run away and he stops her which ends up in an odd chase which seems like rape but internally Etsuko is enjoying it, she is joyous but screaming for help. It is very surreal and strange. She is an actor externalising something which makes no sense to her internal world. This points to Etsuko’s confused idea of love. Yakichi hears the scream and runs over to Saburo and tries to hit him with a tool, he misses but Saburo stands still. Etsuko snatches the tool off Yakichi and kills Saburo while he is unaware of the attack. Yakichi asks her why she has killed him, she states that anyone who hurts her has to die. They bury the body, and for the first time in a long time, Etsuko has a happy and sound sleep. This is how the novel ends.
This novel seems to be written in a way which replicates Etsuko’s internal landscape: it goes from being joyous and vivid, to depressing and bland, it keeps working in these cycles as Etsuko’s emotional states are heightened or disappointed. Her idea of love is clearly damaged by her past relationship with an abusive and cheating husband, and the one person she loves has to die when he was in the process of loving her for the first time. Her internal state contradicts her external one, and in this sense she is severed from her love because she is confused. She is good to Yakichi and acts like his wife, but she doesn’t like nor love him, while she treats Saburo coldly and distantly, yet she loves him. From this, we must conclude that she doesn’t know what love is, and is using the term love incorrectly to explain her deep seated and unrealistic desires.
We are often given clues of her schizophrenic dualistic nature: her reality is split into two states which contradict each other. Four of these clues are that of the dead husband and the alive father (the Father and Son opposition), the two pairs of socks instead of merely one pair (one blue pair, the other brown: a calm colour, and a dull colour, respectively.), the tool that kills Saburo is a mattock which is double sided, and her two diaries (one full of happiness and lies, the other full of truth and sadness). When it comes to Etsuko’s damaged idea of love, maybe the biggest clue of all is the title of the book, Thirst for Love. Is she merely hungry for love in the sense that she desires it, or is her love parched and dry, with none left to give except the last pieces of sawdust at the bottom of the barrel? We do not know, but her love is troubling either way.