Though I can name a whole pile of contemporary Japanese authors, my experience of the modern classics remains woefully underdone. I’m trying to work my way through a lot of stuff, and now I’ve read some of Mishima’s earlier works, I thought I’d make a start on the Sea of Fertility tetralogy – the set of novels that is supposed to best represent Mishima’s mission and thoughts as an author. I’ll eventually get around to reading the other three, but let’s start at the beginning, no?
Matsugae Kiyoaki and Ayakura Satoko are childhood friends from two very different families. Kiyoaki’s father is part of the new moneyed classes of Taiso Japan, while Satoko is the last in the long line of the Ayakura family. Kiyoaki is disturbed one say when Satoko asks him what he would do if she were to no longer exist. This one question awakens subconscious feelings in Kiyoaki that will bring Satoko and him into a relationship that could have far reaching consequences for the nation of Japan itself.
I’m hardly a Mishima expert, but there does seem to be a distillation of themes around which Mishima had been working for his earlier career. The “fall” of the modern Japanese nobility into a state of being where style was more important than substance; beautiful men doing stupid things; stupid women doing beautiful things; the constant quest for aesthetic perfection – the only thing missing from Spring Snow is the interaction with gay themes that marked his early work, such as Forbidden Colours.
Of course, as with all of Mishima’s protagonists, Kiyoaki isn’t the nicest guy on the block. Young and arrogant, he seems completely oblivious to the fact that he is in love with Satoko – indeed, he finds the whole idea repulsive – until she is engaged to someone else, and all of a sudden, he must have her. At first, his realisation and declaration of love for her seems strange and petty, as though the prince had been given a toy from Kiyoaki, who suddenly realised he wanted it back simply because someone else had it. But there is a recognisable through line from beginning to end – as with many annoying teenagers, Kiyoaki’s mind games and proclamations of hatred towards Satoko are simply masking his true feelings, perhaps for fear of being rejected by a woman.
There’s no getting around the fact that Mishima is a huge misogynist. But in Spring Snow, Satako seems to be given a little more agency than female characters in some of his other works. She had made it clear to Kiyoaki well before her engagement to the prince that she was willing to marry him, though he made it pretty clear he wanted nothing to do with it. When Kiyoaki finally gets his act together, she is willing to risk everything to have a sexual affair with him, despite being engaged to a member of the royal family. When the shit inevitably hits the fan, she makes the decision to become a nun, the shame of being discovered to have had an abortion of a child that is not the prince’s too much to bear. The ruined woman running away from the world for fear of judgement is a fairly common trope in all fiction, and Mishima makes these final scenes all the more intense with the ceremonial shaving of Satoko’s head described in great detail.
A quick note on the royal family at the centre of this novel. Just like many crazy left-leaning liberals, I find it difficult to wrap my head around the notion of royalty – particularly when it’s based on male primogeniture, as it is in Japan. But it’s important to remember that this is set in a part of Japan’s history when the Emperor was considered a living god. The Meiji Emperor had died only a few years earlier, so the new Taisho Emperor was still new to the throne, though there was no question of who or what he was. Any slight against the royal family – such as, say, a sexual dalliance with the fiancée of a major cousin of the emperor – was not a good look for anyone, particularly the participating woman.
I haven’t mentioned Honda Shigekuni – the character that appears in all for novels in the cycle – mainly because he plays a fairly minor role in the whole thing. As Kiyoaki’s confidant, he chooses not to get involved in the whole affair, preferring to leave the family drama to other people. I’m curious to know if he plays a more active role in later novels, or if he remains a passive observer of twentieth century Japan.
Spring Snow is a small novel. Though it is clear Mishima wants to talk about big things, by concentrating his focus almost exclusively on one aristocratic couple, he manages to do so effectively. Despite having none of the anger of his earlier novels, the disappointment he feels for Japan is keenly felt in his portrayal of aristocratic families struggling to deal with circumstances beyond their control, for the greater good of the Japanese Empire.