Yukio Mishima’s 1961 novel “The Frolic of the Beasts,” a compelling tale of love and violence, has only now appeared in English for the first time. Admirers of the enigmatic Japanese master have reason to rejoice. Those still unfamiliar with his work might very well have a new entryway to one of the most vital — and troubling — literary voices of the 20th century. Of course, it’s impossible to discuss Mishima’s extraordinary life and work without also noting his extreme politics and the circumstances surrounding his gruesome death.
Born in Tokyo in 1925, Mishima published his first book in 1944, shortly before the cataclysmic end of Japan’s involvement in World War II. His 1949 novel “Confessions of a Mask” established him as a leading voice in that nation’s literary life, alongside Kenzaburo Oe, Taeko Kono, Kobo Abe and others. Remarkable novels followed, including “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” and “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea.” For the short remainder of his life, Mishima also wrote the stories and drama (including traditional Noh plays) that defined postwar literature — and not only in Japan.
His “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy stands as one of the epic achievements of 20th-century letters. The day Mishima finished writing the fourth volume, in 1970, he led a nationalistic plot intended to return power to the imperial throne. His group of far-right extremists visited a military base and took the commandant hostage. Unable to persuade the resident soldiers to join him, he committed ritual suicide by disemboweling himself. And he knew what he was doing. The samurai practice of seppuku, or hara-kiri, was something he had described in gory detail a decade earlier in his short story “Patriotism”:
“Despite the effort he had himself put into the blow, the lieutenant had the impression that someone else had struck the side of his stomach agonizingly with a thick rod of iron. For a second or so his head reeled and he had no idea what had happened. The five or six inches of naked point had vanished completely into his flesh, and the white bandage, gripped in his clenched fist, pressed directly against his stomach.”
The pain of that story — not to mention the nihilistic self-righteousness — remains palpable with every rereading. The same year Mishima published that memento mori, he also wrote “The Frolic of the Beasts.” Andrew Clare’s translation provides a ripe opportunity to revisit Mishima’s mind-set at that time.
The story is straightforward, though told in a meandering style that moves back and forth in time. As the book opens, a man named Koji is getting out of prison and arriving at a remote fishing port. There, he meets his former lover Yuko and the intrigue begins:
“As they began to walk, Yuko was seized with anxiety that it had been a mistake to take charge of this forlorn young orphan. Since deciding to care for him, she had not once experienced such a sense of trepidation, which was clearly therefore some sort of presentiment. She had even been censured for her rashness by the prison governor, who said he had never before heard of a case where a member of the victim’s family had become the criminal’s guarantor.”
Koji has been given a job in a greenhouse and invited to live with Yuko and her husband, Ippei. Details about their complicated past arrive in a slow drip of information that we know lead toward a “final wretched incident.” Ippei’s aphasia — the result of a fractured cranium — complicates matters in unexpected and terrible ways. By the time we reach the end, Mishima’s twisty timeline pays huge dividends. A powerful epilogue ties a neat ribbon around the plot.
Mishima’s sensibilities will seem a bit dated to contemporary readers. For example, the excessive and repetitive attention to the breast size of every female character is — to put it in technical terms — yucky. On the other hand, I did enjoy underlining the many fun and weird similes. The nighttime stars are like a “huge blanket of shiny mildew growing across the heavens.” The night itself is like a “colossal, intense piece of meat saturated with hot blood.” A woman’s face is like a “beautiful half-open sea cucumber.” Let that one sink in for a moment.
“The Frolic of the Beasts” comes to us in the midst of a Mishima moment. In addition to the welcome publication of this novel, Hiroaki Sato’s tremendous new book “On Haiku” includes some of Mishima’s earliest poems. One of them goes, in its entirety: “Here’s a stain of perfume on an old ball gown.” Next spring will bring another, previously untranslated work of Mishima’s fiction, his novella “Star.”
By my thinking, Mishima is a magnificent and important storyteller whose implicit value system just happens to make me ever so leery. Perhaps today’s rekindled interest in his work can be chalked up to coincidence. Or maybe there exists another reason some historical examples of far-right extremism and political violence and nihilism elsewhere now resonate so loudly here.
Andrew Ervin is the author of the novel “Burning Down George Orwell’s House” and the novella collection “Extraordinary Renditions.” His most recent book is “Bit By Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World.”
By Yukio Mishima.
Vintage. 176 pp. $16.