Mishima is one of the big names in post-war Japanese fiction. I’ve read him before, but was left cold, feeling that he tends more towards philosophy than literature, if that makes sense. But as a person, he continues to fascinate me – particularly the tension in his life between his hard right-wing views, and his sexuality. I’m also impressed that one of the great post-war novelists in Japan is gay, so finding one of his novels that deals with this head-on, I had to give it a go.
When an old writer, Shunsuké Hinoki, discovers the young girl he’s having an affair with at the beach with a beautiful young man, he is not angry. On the contrary, he sees this as an opportunity to destroy the lives of the women in his life who have wronged him. And so using the young man, Yuichi, he begins to plot his revenge. As with the best laid plans, however, things begin to go wrong.
Since reading this post, I’ve been trying to think more about how women are represented in fiction, both by women who write, and by men who write. It’s something of a slap to the face, then, to read a novel that seems to hate women so much. The essential philosophy behind Mishima’s work is that, because gay men have no need for women, they are simply objects to be hated. Shunsuké’s hatred of women, in particular, is deeply ingrained, and deeply unpleasant. This is a man who has been married three times, but in reality, his view of women is that they can only ever be mothers, and since that is not something he has any interest in, there is no point to their existence. Then, the conscious decision to come up with an elaborate plan to cause pain to those women who have wronged him by making them fall in love with a beautiful young gay man, is pretty harsh.
And once Shunsuké gets his hands on Yuichi, the whole thing just gets worse. Perhaps I’m just optimistic, but I don’t think Yuichi necessarily hated women before he met Shunsuké, who essentially moulds Yuichi into what he wished he was when he was 21. At first, he comes off as young and naive, though this seems to be more to do with the fact that he thinks he is the only one attracted to men in this way. Once he begins to immerse himself in the Tokyo gay scene, however, he realises that he is far from alone. Far more importantly, though, he discovers that he is beautiful. Once he realises the power of his own beauty, he is able to turn the tables on everyone around him, particularly Shunsuké. He begins to do things without consulting Shunsuké, and even though they spend much of the novel apart, their relationship is what opens and closes this tale. Because, of course, Shunsuké is in love with Yuichi, though can never bring himself to do anything about it, for fear of being looked upon as old and ugly, something he considers himself to be.
There is other evidence to suggest that Yuichi may have been deeply influenced by Shunsuké. There are moments, small ones granted, scattered throughout the novel that suggest he truly loves his wife. Yasuko tends towards the shy, retiring wallflower cliché, but seems nice enough. And while Yuichi marries her out of familial duty more than anything else, he does fight off a would-be attacker at one stage, and does seem to enjoy the occasional cuddle with his legal wife.
The woman that provides the most interest here, though, is Mrs Kaburagi, an older woman who is renowned for her extra-marital affairs. Her relationship with her husband is fascinating, and though they seem to have an acceptable marriage to the general public, their dysfunction at home is fascinating in its banality. Her decision to have these affairs is born out out of the fact that she hasn’t slept with her husband in decades – his secret is, in the context of the novel, not particularly unexpected, though I was still taken aback.
Many of the characters may be disgusting, but they make sense. They are well drawn, and while you don’t necessarily feel sorry for them, you do glimpse an insight into their lives, and ways of thinking. How much of Mishima is in Shunsuké will no doubt keep academics arguing for eternity, though there are clear differences. This is one of his earlier novels, so perhaps he was worried that he would end up like Shunsuké. He (Mishima) is clearly ill at ease with the entire gay scene/culture, and while I wouldn’t say it was anti-gay, it certainly doesn’t portray the life of a gay man as a bed of roses.
And yet, despite all of this relentless negativity, this is a highly readable, and fascinating work. You certainly don’t come out the other end without being emotionally drained. Mishima manages to keep the philosophy as integral to the plot and characters, making this a surprisingly cohesive text. This is the work of a genius, and while it will make you uncomfortable, you should definitely read it.