Love of Rite and Death By David MacGregor. In attempting to describe Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, there is the feeling that you aren’t merely describing one man so much as you are describing a conglomeration of personalities...

In attempting to describe Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, there is the feeling that you aren’t merely describing one man so much as you are describing a conglomeration of personalities. There is the Yukio Mishima who became a literary star at the age of twenty-four upon the publication of his first novel (Confessions of a Mask) and who was subsequently nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times. Then there is the Yukio Mishima who took delight in playing the role of a dimwitted gangster in the film Afraid To Die. There is the young Yukio Mishima, a frail and timid child who spent much of his youth in his grandmother’s darkened sickroom, massaging her legs and feet. Then there is the Yukio Mishima who became a bodybuilding enthusiast and who took an exhibitionistic pleasure in having himself photographed in any number of bizarre scenarios. There is the Yukio Mishima who was married and who had two children. Then there was the Yukio Mishima who had a succession of gay lovers, with a particular affinity for female impersonators. There is the Yukio Mishima who dreamed of dying in battle "among strangers, untroubled, beneath a cloudless sky." Then there is the Yukio Mishima who faked a tubercular condition to get out of serving in the Japanese army in World War II. There is the Yukio Mishima who was fiercely proud of his samurai ancestry, who expounded endlessly on the need for restoring Japan’s Imperial system and who even created his own private army (the Shield Society) to help protect the Emperor. Then there is the Yukio Mishima who designed his own Western style house, enjoyed cigars and sherry and spoke excellent English. However, as remarkable and intriguing as all of the above may be, the single act that defines Mishima’s life is the spectacular death that he scripted for himself, a death that he acted out on film five years before his actual suicide.

All told, Mishima appeared as an actor in a total of four films. Not surprisingly, he winds up dead in every one of them, but in different ways each film represents a significant part of his personality. In Afraid To Die (1960), he plays the lead role of a Yakuza gangster who is gunned down at the end of the film. This was the tough guy Mishima, the sickly literary boy transformed into a hard-drinking ruffian, his inherent frailty hidden beneath a leather jacket and a meticulously created veil of muscle. In Black Lizard (1968), he plays a human statue, his naked form frozen in time as an object of physical beauty. In Tenchu (1970), Mishima is a samurai assassin, a noble man of action who commits hara-kiri the instant he is accused of a crime for which he has been framed. But the film that will always define Mishima’s life and art is The Rite of Love and Death (1965).

The Rite of Love and Death is based on Mishima’s short story, Patriotism, which took as its impetus the Japanese Army Rebellion that occurred in February 1936. In this incident, twenty-one officers attempted to overthrow the Japanese government and to restore the Emperor of Japan as the supreme commander of the armed forces. Ironically, it was Emperor Hirohito himself who demanded that this uprising be crushed, and all of the revolutionaries were subsequently executed, with the exception of two officers who committed hara-kiri. For his story, Mishima created a fictional Lieutenant Takeyama and his wife Reiko. Lieutenant Takeyama, we learn, has samurai ancestry (just like the author of the story) and he was not directly involved in the rebellion. However, when he realized he would be asked to take up arms against his friends and comrades, he saw only one honorable course open to him, that of ritual suicide. Beyond that, his wife would kill herself as well. For Mishima, this was "neither a comedy nor a tragedy, but a tale of bliss."

The film version of Patriotism is a Yukio Mishima production from beginning to end. He wrote it, directed it, produced it and starred in it. The calligraphy that introduces each "chapter" of the film was done by Mishima himself. He was insistent on controlling every aspect of this film not only because it was based on his own work, but because what you see is a man literally rehearsing his own suicide. In his quest for verisimilitude, Mishima managed to track down the man who had manufactured the caps worn by the officers in the 1936 February Rebellion and had a replica made. He was able to procure an authentic Imperial Guard uniform from another source. After finding a suitable actress (Yoshiko Tsuruoka) to play the role of Reiko, Mishima was ready to put on film the fantasy that he would subsequently act out in real life. There was only one day of rehearsal, camera tests took another day, and then the entire film was shot in two days. Editing and the addition of a soundtrack were completed within a week.

The finished product was a black and white, twenty-eight minute film. There is no dialogue and, in keeping with Mishima’s interest in Japan’s cultural heritage, it was shot entirely on a Noh stage. Noh is the oldest surviving form of Japanese theatre and Mishima was so taken with it that he even wrote his own Noh plays, although he placed them in a modern setting. As Mishima noted:

In Noh lies the only type of beauty that has the power to wrest my time away from the exterior Japan of today and to impose upon it another regime. And beneath its mask, that beauty must conceal death, for someday, just as surely, it will finally lead me away to destruction and silence.

However, in yet another one of the contradictions that seem to run throughout Mishima’s life, the musical soundtrack is far from something traditionally Japanese. Instead, the accompanying music is entirely Western, and Mishima was particularly pleased with his choice of Wagner’s "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde.

A written prologue provides the back-story for the drama and then the film opens with Reiko alone, preparing for her own suicide as she waits for her husband to return home. When he arrives, brushing the snow from his shoulders, they come together and look at one another in the certain knowledge that their lives can now be measured in hours. Emblazoned on the back wall is a large ideogram that translates into "Loyalty." Through his suicide, the Lieutenant will be demonstrating his loyalty to his comrades, and through her suicide, his wife will be demonstrating her loyalty towards her husband.

Throughout the film, the viewer never really gets a good look at Mishima’s character. In an approximation of the masks often worn in Noh theatre, Mishima pulled the brim of his hat down far enough over his face so that he is never personalized as a character. Instead, the Lieutenant is more of a symbol and the vast majority of the film is stylized in a similar fashion. The room in which the drama takes place is a stark, minimalist setting. When the Lieutenant and his wife make love one last time, their passion is conveyed in a series of extreme close-ups—Reiko’s hair, the Lieutenant’s eyes—and these are augmented by unusual camera angles that make viewers strain to figure out precisely what it is they’re looking at.

However, when it comes time for Lieutenant Takeyama to commit hara-kiri, all pretense at style evaporates and the film becomes realistic to a grisly degree. With his uniform and hat back on, the Lieutenant sits on his haunches and methodically unbuttons his jacket from the bottom up. When enough skin has been revealed, he takes his sword and tests its sharpness against the top of his thigh. At the slightest pressure, a thin rivulet of blood bursts forth, and he then moves the point of the sword up to his abdomen. His fingers linger over the spot to be penetrated, and then with a sudden thrust six inches of the sword disappear into his flesh.

Even at this point, it would have been easy for Mishima to render the rest of this suicide in a more stylistic fashion. But he has no interest in doing that. The very point of hara-kiri is that it should be a hard, slow, painful death. Ideally, it should be witnessed as well so that guilt is erased and expiation can be complete. It is not, primarily, about killing yourself. It’s about establishing or re-establishing a sense of honor, and honor cannot be won that easily. And so, inch by inch, the Lieutenant pulls the sword sideways through his torso, slicing through his abdominal muscles as he goes. Dark blood spills over his hands, sweat runs down his face, foam spews from his mouth, and spatters of blood spray over the white kimono of Reiko, who looks on with an expression of infinite love and admiration even as tears spill down her cheeks. As the Lieutenant’s intestines spill out of him, neither the camera nor Reiko’s gaze flinches.

At this point in a traditional hara-kiri, a colleague or friend of the person committing the act has an important obligation beyond simply witnessing it. Even the most determined and stoic person will most likely give in to the pain hara-kiri inevitably causes, but it’s important that honor be maintained and that death is faced bravely. So an accomplice stands behind you and slices your head off with the single stroke of a sword (and in fact, this is precisely the way Mishima planned his real suicide) when you appear to be on the verge of succumbing to the pain and thus losing face. However, Reiko is not called upon to do this. Instead, as the Lieutenant removes his sword from his abdomen and tries to force it through his own neck, she stands up behind him and helps force his neck down through the point of the sword. And with that, the Lieutenant collapses, a bloody yet presumably noble remnant of the soldier who was making love to his wife only moments ago.

Now, of course, it is Reiko’s turn to fulfill her side of the bargain. Her husband has paid her the ultimate compliment in allowing her to kill herself after he is dead. It is a sign of his pure and unwavering faith in her, and she will not disappoint him. She applies her make-up (just as the samurai were encouraged to do so that they would present a beautiful corpse), then kisses her husband’s lips one last time. When she pulls her knife from her kimono, she is the very picture of a composed woman entirely at peace with what she is about to do. Reiko’s death, however, is as stylized as the Lieutenant’s was realistic. She brings her knife to her throat, pauses, and then all we see is a spray of white liquid against a black background. And so Mishima gives us his version of shinju, the double suicide of a man and woman which is quite common in Japanese Kabuki plays, yet another genre with which Mishima was very familiar.

When it came time to show the film to the public, the last thing Mishima wanted was to have the film premiere in Japan. Mishima was keenly aware that as much as he was respected as a writer, many people in Japan also viewed him as a narcissist and a bit of a prankster. He was seen as something of a publicity hound, adopting various poses and guises to confound his critics and to amuse himself. After all, how many other Nobel Prize candidates had appeared as a Yakuza in a gangster film, not to mention writing and singing the film’s theme song? Then there was the bodybuilding fetish and the exhibitionistic photos taken by photographer Eiko Hosoe and subsequently published in the book Torture by Roses. With all this in mind, Mishima chose to have the film premiere in Paris at a private screening at the Palais de Chaillot in September, 1965. To Mishima’s immense delight and relief, the response to the film was positively rapturous and he wound up inviting the French film critics back to his hotel to celebrate.

Four months later, in January 1966, the film took second place at the Tours Film Festival, and the showings were enlivened by the number of women who fainted dead away during the hara-kiri scene. Now keenly aware of Mishima’s film, the Japanese press began to demand a premiere in Japan. With the critical soil suitably prepared by its European success, Mishima consented to this and the film was subsequently released to Japanese audiences in April, 1966. The result was that not only did some Japanese viewers faint as well, but the film set a box-office record for a short film.

In a subsequent interview, Mishima explained his intent in making the film as follows:

Spiritually, I wanted to revive some samurai spirits through it, because I don’t want to revive hara-kiri itself. But through the vision, a very strong vision of hara-kiri, I wanted to inspire and stimulate younger people and through such a simulation I wanted to revive some old traditional sense of order or sense of very strong responsibility and such a sense of death in order.

Still, Mishima was very aware that his "strong vision" of hara-kiri was a little stronger than many people might have liked. By way of explanation, he reiterated some of the points he had made in Confessions of a Mask: "Such a way of very extreme eroticism and such a bloody eroticism, maybe it is born in my mind from my birth. On the other hand, I don’t want to show it as a private confession or something like that. I want to combine it with a more public situation."

And yet, while a film is indeed "public," it’s merely a representation of its subject matter, in this case "bloody eroticism." Ever the artist and ever the showman, Mishima contrived to commit his real suicide in the most public situation he could conjure up. On November 25, 1970, the forty-five year old Mishima signed and dated the last page of his final novel, gathered some of his closest acolytes from his personal army, contacted the press to inform them that a significant media event would soon be taking place, then made his way to Army Headquarters in Tokyo. After taking the commander of the base hostage, Mishima demanded that the troops be assembled so that he could address them. His brief harangue to the confused soldiers demanding a coup d’etat to rid Japan of its American imposed constitution and to restore the Imperial system was soon over, whereupon Mishima went back into the commander’s office and committed hara-kiri. The suicide note that was subsequently found simply read, "Human life is limited, but I would like to live forever." Some people looked upon his suicide as a political act, others as an artistic act, and others simply considered him insane. But as one of Mishima’s male lovers remarked upon hearing the news, "I thought, ‘Well done. You did it’. He had wanted so much to die in that way."

It could be said without undue exaggeration that Mishima’s entire life had simply been a prelude to this kind of death. In fact, Mishima described his life as being composed of four rivers: the River of Writing, the River of Theatre, the River of the Body and the River of Action. In his mind, one river led into the next, and by the end of his life he had become tired and suspicious of words alone. While he was determined to revive within himself the old samurai concept of Bunburyodo—the way of the pen and the sword—his take on that particular philosophy had a dark underside to it. As he wrote, "I have often heard the glib motto, ‘The pen and the sword join in a single path’. But in truth they can join only at the moment of death."

Historically, the act of suicide in Japan has a heroic, romantic quality to it. Whether it is samurai eviscerating themselves en masse rather than surrendering, or kamikaze pilots plunging their Zero fighters towards battleships, the urge towards complete and utter self-destruction is seen as being quite a good thing, the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that is more important than any one life. It is an act of supreme courage and honor, requiring a heroic degree of control and commitment. As Mishima once put it:

Hara-kiri is a very positive, very proud way of death. It’s very different than the Western concept of suicide. The Western concept of suicide is always defeat itself, mostly. But hara-kiri sometimes makes you win.

On the other hand, a shift in perspective can transform hara-kiri into nothing more than a supreme act of exhibitionistic self-indulgence, indicating nothing whatsoever about the genuine character of the person committing it. Certainly the Japanese weren’t quite sure how to respond to Mishima’s suicide. While he became a taboo figure to Japan’s intellectuals and writers, over ten thousand people showed up for his funeral. No doubt Mishima would have found this final contradiction an appropriate response to a life that seemed to be defined by contradictions.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that after his death Mishima’s widow made it her mission to see that every single copy of The Rite of Love and Death was destroyed. If this is true, it’s quite fortunate that she failed in her quest, because the film captures the essence of one of the most remarkable artists of the twentieth century. It also provides, in a kind of cultural shorthand, the political, social and artistic history of not just the man, but the culture that produced the man. Whether or not Mishima was trying, at least in part, to redeem himself or Japan through his final act is an issue that will never be satisfactorily resolved. What is certain is that even if you strip hara-kiri of all its social and cultural trappings, it still remains a terrific spectacle, and this is a point that surely wasn’t lost on Mishima, an artist down to his very last breath.

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