The following article was published in N-SPHERE June 2012 issue.

»What distinguishes the heroic from the decadent death? (…) What difference there might be resolves itself into the presence or absence of the idea of honour, which regards death as »something to be seen«, and the presence or absence of the formal aesthetic of death that goes with it, in other words the tragic nature of the approach to death and the beauty of the body going to its doom.« [z]

In 1949, then in his early twenties, Yukio Mishima publishes Confessions of a Mask, his first novel which also brought him to international attention: it portrays the largely autobiographical character of a young Japanese man who, throughout his childhood and his youth, come to build a complex but painfully ill-fitting persona in order to satisfy the pressing demands of the post-war Japanese society, most notably in terms of his sexuality. A decade later, we find Yukio Mishima, his own homosexuality a relatively open secret, somehow continuing where his character was left in the story: now married he is expecting his first daughter, Noriko.

In the meantime, on the other side of the pacific, merely three years older than Mishima, sociologist Erving Goffman publishes a book that will change radically both the material and the method of his discipline: The Presentation of the Self in Every Day Life argues that human interactions are best interpreted as those of characters acted out by actors, and that places and objects can, or must be, perceived as sets and props. Goffman’s work and it’s powerful latent aesthetic participated, with Borges, Burke and I in setting the foundations for the mise en abyme narratives championed by Charlie Kaufmann, but also certainly planted the seeds that would grow into what Mathew Wilson Smith coined Total Performance, that is life in its entirety, as a performance and a work of art.

The metaphor of theatre for social life is by no mean an invention of Mishima or of Goffman: the Latin root persona means a mask and the analogies of theatricality were long used to discuss a variety of diegesis and mimesis: the ins and out of characters and social roles, the Socratic dialogue of Ion of Ephesus or even the Platonician duality between the real the staged stand amongst many others in a variety of cultures (»At first tragedies were brought on the stage as means of reminding men of the things which happen to them, and that it is according to nature for things to happen so, and that, if you are delighted with what is shown on the stage, you should not be troubled with that which takes place on the larger stage.« [y]. But Goffman seems the first to have interpreted social life, as a whole, as a form of theatre. The ensuing approach that developed we call social dramaturgy and this was to take part in some major shifts in the arts in general and in performance in particular.

»All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant«

Whereas Goffman sees the theatrics and the dramaturgy in every day life and the most common interactions, Mishima will dedicate his life to re-writing and hijacking not only his harshly shortened take on Shakespeare’s seven acts, but also of the entire performance of modern political history. His very failure on the political stage, will be the necessary condition for his spectacular achievement in the drama of his own life.

»Politicians are concerned with the effect of an act, and effectiveness  is not my motivation. My responsibility is to the act itself.« [v]

Yukio Mishima, born Kimitake Hiroaka had a very sheltered childhood, due to a feeble disposition and an overprotective grand-mother, and was of his own confession, left out of the social life of boys until he reached adulthood – some biographies expand on hints present in Confession of a Mask, asserting he was attributing his own homosexuality to those circumstances, while others of his works most notably Forbidden Colours or Sun and Steel could suggest different interpretations; However he developed early a very bookish disposition and immersed himself, in this isolation, in Eastern and Japanese traditional culture which were to take under his pen, a distinctly eroticized aspect:

In his most famous story The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) he develops in many ways the aching urge for the sublime that lead him throughout his life: whereas he himself and critics occasionally regard others of his works as superior in their maturity and insight (After The Banquet or The Sea of Fertility) the short story seems to capture both the romanticism and youthful boldness of his earlier work, and the more articulated expression of his world view as fulfilled in his death.

In the next 15 years or so he will perfect his style and write many novels, short stories, plays and films, defining a literary style that meshes the refined and traditional aesthetics of Japanese poetry with a modern, angular, sometimes brutal narration, contrasting painfully human characters with their otherworldly aspirations. The label of nihilist that was apposed to him (and which he co-opted) came lately under increasing questioning and is in my eye misleading given the transcendental quality of his ideas of nothingness – yet, if the looming sense of the futility of all action is not present in all of his work there was certainly a deep misanthropy that took part in leading him to the radical idealism he lived and died for.

»I was there alone and the Golden Temple – the absolute, positive Golden Temple – had enveloped me. Did I possess the temple, or was I possessed by it? Or would it not be more correct to say that a strange balance had come into being at that moment, a balance which would allow me to be the Golden Temple and the Golden Temple to be me?« [u]

His books often tell the us of an encounter with the sublime, either in the form of the sacred or in the form of transgression: it seems that for him the two remain inexorably bound together, whether it is the sacred that free one of the absurd and degenerate conditions of the norm, or the transgression that reveal a world of beauty and absolute behind the heavy curtain of the quotidian. His stories, unlike those of his celebrated contemporaries Tanizaki and Kawabata, are in terms of structure closer to the occidental traditional model, and despite their exotic aesthetics, provide the reader with a rewarding dramatic development, which probably part-took in his western popularity. And this is one of the many reproaches the Japanese (and some of the Occidental) medias have been wielding against his ghost, and one that can hardly be denied: for all of his heroic, intransigent nationalism, Mishima was aware, and fond, of his occidental recognition. For a celebrated high-brow writer he was indulging in a variety of unexpected incursions in the domain of pop-culture, as many »publicity stunts« would say his detractors, from acting in popular action gangster-flicks to posing nude or commenting on an astonishing number of sometimes odd cultural phenomena.

»Dress my body in a Shield Society uniform, give me white gloves and a soldier’s sword in my hand, and then do me the favour of taking a photograph. My family may object, but I want evidence that I died not as a literary man but as a warrior.« [t]

This enthusiasm for gaudy popular forms is reminiscent, in its wide sweeps across high and low culture, of another of his American contemporaries, Andy Warhol. Although Mishima’s dedication to ideal beauty and sacrifice seems worlds apart from Warhol’s endorsement of ruthless, individualistic capitalism, and his disturbing fascination for its paradoxical shortcomings, there are beyond political differences, striking similarities. Warhol’s practice made an extensive use of self-portrait and can be regarded as an attempt to enforce absolute control over his public persona: »Business Art. Art Business. The business Art business«. As he writes in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975), involves his taking self-marketing to radical new heights. From his screen prints to the 1967 Utah impersonated lecture, in flooding mass culture with products and representation in every form and at every level, he discredits alien accounts or interpretations that could potentially hi-jack his image (as exemplified in his famous ad »I’ll endorse with my name any of the following…« in Village Voice).

Mishima’s media conscious character was never perfected to the level of Warhol’s one, nor included the in-built intricacies that made the American so difficult to use or to tarnish. The Japanese writer did share his want for total control over his life, both from within and from without: One of his biographers, Henry Scott Stokes, quotes him confiding »I want to make a poem of my life«, and to achieve his grand project Mishima needed complete control. This pursuit is apparent in his interests in body building and martial arts (The Sun and the Steel) and I find his much derided outings in the realms of the mass media to be attempts at devising an equivalent discipline to master his »public body«.

But unlike Warhol, his dabbling in mass media never made him the two-dimensional, inhumane signifier that Warhol was: his life and his work still appears to us as contradictory, imperfect, flawed and deeply human: in Sun and Steel (1968), defining tragedy he writes »when a perfectly average sensibility momentarily takes on to itself a privileged nobility that keeps others at a distance and not when a special type of sensibility vaunts its own special claims«. One can be tempted to see in his acting for Black Lizard or Afraid to Die, a portrayal of that »perfectly average sensibility«.

In interviews Mishima was reportedly keen to compare himself to Don Quixote, certainly echoing his fondness for the Spanish golden age – but obviously the analogy does not stop here. Cervantes’ character peculiar form of madness springs from having read too many chivalric novels and transposing, inadequately but with great perseverance, those ideals into the real world. This attempt at re-uniting the original duality of the real and the ideal is clearly present in Mishima’s glorification of the man of action, but he also wants to be both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, both the idealist and the witness. The very comparison he draws between himself and the Spanish knight evidence his awareness of that fact, as he probably lacks the necessary, tragic madness to truly believe in his political windmills. His heroic quest, void of the necessary madness, becomes a performance.

»17. Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.« [s]

Mishima’s hubris left him no place to act out any »plan for life« but the one would write. According to his biographers, Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde left him the biggest impression after his teenage readings. If Nietzsche’s pervasive influence can be felt throughout the influence of Wilde certainly part-took in the building of his total performance: in his short dialogue The Decay of Lying, Wilde dispenses his provocative theory: it is not, as established since ancient philosophy, art that imitates life, but life that imitates art.

»If it drew some of its strength from using life as rough material, it drew all its weakness from using life as an artistic method.«[r]

Wilde attacks realism for being dull and, ultimately for being wrong: art, in the words of his main character originated in abstract forms, that were later imitated by life (»Art begins with abstract decoration, with purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent. This is the first stage. Then Life becomes fascinated with this new wonde«”) – for Mishima art begin with the idealized, heroic Japan of the Hagakure, that is on the brink of fading away for ever from modern Japan, which fails to perpetuate the tradition of beauty. For Wilde, lying will restore art in its proper position that realism has pretty much extinguished.

The idea of decay, and decay of lying, is very present in Mishima’s work: a Spenglerian sense of imminent doom permeates most of his work. Societal, individual and possibly metaphysical decline is nowhere as central as in the tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, and, as for other traditionalists, attempts at interrupting the process corruption appear to the author futile but none the less necessary: in Wilde’s text, at the very end of the dialogue, the main interlocutor, betraying half of his previous argumentation against nature and fresh air, command his friend to take a stroll outside, proving that the argumentation, in its entirety is ultimately a lie and therefore an artwork.

»The Nihilist, that strange martyr who has no faith, who goes to the stake without enthusiasm, and dies for what he does not believe in, is a purely literary product.« [q]

Throughout the sixties, while Mishima and Warhol are at the top of their career, from the fallouts of Action Painting and the rising political awareness, performance art is blossoming all around the world with movements such as Fluxus or Gutai.

From Austria rose one the most virulent expressions of this new form: in the space of approximately ten years, the Viennese Actionists staged a variety of Aktionen in an orgy of blood, bowels, scat and sex giving rise to a wave of indignation that would lead them to regularly experience legal pursuits and sometimes jail. »Performance art«, in the eyes of the Actionists, was aimed at creating an artistic manifestation that could not be commodified by the state or the system. We find here a clear echo of Mishima’s own political concerns, and it is interesting to note that the Mühl/Brus Actionist manifesto share its title Art and Revolution with one of Wagner’s first texts on the relationship between politics and aesthetics: Mishima was to pick Wagner (predictably) for the music of his short movie Patriotism prefiguring his own suicide.

Of the four core members of the Vienna Actionists, three adopted a relative unconcerned but similar approach, celebrating chaos and transgression on the backdrop of a pagan cathartic ritual, while the fourth character remain a lot more enigmatic: Rudolf Schwarzkogler produced few performances and they were often little documented, he died in tragic and relatively mysterious circumstances in 1969. The case of Rudolf Schwarzkogler shed a particular light on Mishima’s death a bit more than a year later: the actionist’s death was reported by Newsweek as having resulted from one too many an extreme performance, when, attempting to chop his penis into slices he would have lost too much blood and died on the spot. Years later it is now widely accepted that this version of the death of Schwarzkogler was constructed either for sensationalist purpose or to cover the real circumstances of his death following a fall from a window – whether the fall was intentional or not has not been certified yet but the more glamorous option of a suicide remain the dominant narrative.

»To place oneself in the position of God is painful: being God is equivalent to being tortured. For being God means that one is in harmony with all that is, including the worst. The existence of the worst evils is unimaginable unless God willed them.« [p]

Schwarzkogler’s pursuit is more difficult to define, because of the scarcity of theoretical documentation, and because of the form and mood of the one that reached us – ascetic dietary suggestions, disjunct and esoteric instructions for future performances, and a number of lists whose purpose could not be identified. At the very opposite of Warhol’s permanent media awareness, the Austrian performer seemed a very private individual, who performed most of his rare Aktionen in front of an extremely limited audience, if any audience at all. Those performances generally took place in his own flat and involved a highly controlled environment and a restrained aesthetic, miles away from the Dionysiac celebrations of the rest of his fellow actionists. For example, from his notes one can gather that his performances incorporated important colour symbolism, yet most are documented in black and white: This lack of suitable documentation and the total disregard he showed for either press or audience in his work led many commentators to see his practice as being eminently personal and sometimes therapeutic, cathartic, imbued with an urgency that keep them on the verge of outsider art.

»Lord Naoshige said, The Way of the Samurai is in desperateness. Ten men or more cannot kill such a man. Commonsense will not accomplish great things. Simply become insane and desperate.« [o]

Hagakure is an XVIIIth century book describing in detail the prescriptions of the author concerning the ways and beliefs of the proper samurai – the book enjoy a unique status in Japanese culture for crystallizing the chivalric ideals considered as the height of the tradition, while also being deeply tangled with Japanese nationalist thought, kamikaze and militarism in general – if a comparison had to be drawn, Wagner springs to mind again: although presented by the nationalists as the epitome of vitalism and martial value, Hagakure was actually written in a time of peace were samurai-s were more rarely drawn to fight than to administrative duties. A fascinating read it is also ridden with nostalgia for a lost era of valour and dignity, values it presses the young to adopt less as a tool towards achieving anything than as a method to live a life one can die proud of.

In 1967, Mishima published On Hagakure in which he develops on the central role that the text played in philosophy. One core concept in his interpretations is centrality of death in the proper existence of the samurai. The Hagakure ceaselessly invite the samurai to think about his own death to the point of becoming so familiar with the idea that it would arouse no fear. One should, Mishima adds, not only welcome death but even actively pursue it: as the most absolute embodiment of the beautiful ideals leading  the warrior’s life.

»A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.« [n]

Less emphasized by Mishima but certainly determinant for his future thought was the importance of the daimyo, the master, for whom the samurai total and unconditional dedication has a mystique (or erotic for some commentators) appeal – for a XXth century civilian like Mishima, the direct, individual relationship with a daimyo is impossible and his blind faith is therefore deported onto the last remnant of the transcendental hierarchy, but also its most axial figure, the emperor. Mishima’s relationship to the emperor is a complex one – the national catastrophe that put an end to WWII and initiated the American occupation striped the emperor of any political function but did not abolish the imperial hierarchy, and Mishima held this bastardized condition in awe, sometimes even more than he did for the fully westernized post-war economy.

But that criticism, obviously, was not enough to distract from him the ire of the radical student left which was, in Japan as everywhere in the western world, arising to criticize American hegemony which in Mishima’s country was all the more literal. Red Army groups flourished around the country ultra-left student groups were regularly confronting the authority – their political program, as opposed to Japan’s forced Americanisation as Mishima’s own diatribes were, was also internationalist, communist and materialist in ways irreconcilable with the novelist’s Samurai ethics. Although Mishima repeatedly expressed sympathy for the radical left he was occasionally insulted and mocked by figures of the left and students. Following fifteen years of American occupation and growth oriented politics, in the sixties, Japanese culture produced a large amount of books, films, theatre, music and comics, and the particular Japanese outlook started getting renewed interest in the west, spear-headed by charismatic ambassadors like Yoko Ono, Nagasi Oshima or Kisho Kurokawa. Yukio Mishima himself, although supported and promoted by the older and very popular writer Kawabata, became increasingly alienated from the Japanese literary scene, who, predominantly left-wing, stomached with difficulty his repeated vows of allegiance to the nationalist cause.

Mishima seemed to gather more popularity in the movie industry: maybe his professed preference for actions over words lent itself better, at the end of the day, to performance than to writing. A close friend of Donald Richie, the most prominent expert and promoter of Japanese cinema in the west he acted and directed a short film called Yukoku, based on his much celebrated short story Patriotism (1966). His incursion in popular movies is also pictured in Terayama’s classic counterculture movie Emperor Tomato Ketchup, if in a certainly less ceremonious fashion…

Yukoku in many aspects refuses to submit to even the most fundamental contemporary conventions: the plot, following precisely the short story builds no momentum or suspense. The film itself is shot in black and white and uses scrolls to replace dialogues, while the set design and the acting, slow, calculated and ritual, is referencing Noh theatre. The story depicts the ritual suicide of an army lieutenant and his wife in support of an attempted coup to restore the glory of the Japanese empire: it is of course an other one of Mishima’s oracles as to his future destiny. It is interesting to note that of all his text and plays Mishima picked this particular short-story and went to stage it as filmed theatre, rather than one of his many theatre, Noh and Kabuki pieces.

He was also known for his disdain of Bunraku, the elaborate Japanese puppetry, which he dismissed as being devoid of the essence of performance: film seemed to have in his eyes lacked »the essence of performance« just as much. This tension between the classicist tradition and the new media, between his rigorous inner life and his need to perform it to an audience, is to be found throughout most of his non-literary output: Ba Ra Kei, his modelling shoot with celebrated Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe, captures, at times movingly a certain vulnerability and awkwardness in his public persona, possibly revealing of his fundamental inability to reconcile his heroic longings with lascivious abandon of mass-media.

»Before Hosoe’s camera, I soon realized that my own spirit, the workings of my mind, had become totally redundant. It was an exhilarating experience, a state of affairs I had long dreamed of.« [m]

The German terminology of Gesamtkunstwerk, roughly originating in Wagner’s project of fusing music, poetry, painting, theatre, dance and all other arts he could include, hints at a seamless artwork, a microcosm of sort under complete control of it’s creator. In his book The Total Work of Art, Mathew Wilson Smith draw a daring parallel between the »spatial« Gesamtkunstwerk à la Wagner and the total performance of the self, as represented by Warhol, and, to me, by Mishima and maybe by Schwarzkogler. Indeed the lives of those artists in the burgeoning age of the mass media involved many forms of arts, from their original practice in painting, writing or graphics, evolved to encompass music, film or happening – but what they strived to achieve, and Bayreuth couldn’t ever dream to fulfill, was the fusion of those many artistic practices with the artist himself, with the art of living – and the art of dying.

»I just finished the novel on the very day of my action in order to realize my Bunbu-Ryodo. After thinking and thinking through four years, I came to wish to sacrifice myself for the old, beautiful tradition of Japan, which is disappearing very quickly day by day. I wish you the happiest and healthiest life.« [l]

The Japanese terminology Bun means Culture Arts, Bu means Warrior Arts and Ryodo stands for Synthesis. The Bunbu Ryodo is part of the traditional samurai ideal and involves an all around knowledge of traditional Japanese arts, from music to calligraphy, floral arrangements or poetry. It is traditionally complemented by the concept of Bunbu Ichi, the »Unity of the Culture and Warrior arts«.

Throughout his life and his writings, as his existence was coming to a close Mishima’s interest in literature seemed to wane, or at least he liked to pretend so: as best exemplified in his commentary of the Hagakure and Sun and Steel, the influence of the Yomei philosophy lead him to a mystical glorification of action over words, as if, to realise his Bunbu-Ryodo, much action was needed to balance all the words of his literary career.

Such an ambitious synthesis for Mishima like for Wagner, sits somewhere between romanticism and modernism. In a Japan were tradition and modernity or action and theory were becoming ever more polarised, this pursuit was bound to create conflicting aspirations, conflicting allegiances too, and death appeared throughout his work as the absolute solution for those situations as for all compromises. Too fond of beauty to be Warhol and too keen on public attention to be Schwarzkogler, Mishima was hovering somewhere in between on the scale of the total performance.

Mishima, Warhol or Schwarzklogger, each in exercising such unrelenting control over their public persona, had the intent of transcending the dramaturgic paradigm, the separation between the genuine and the pretence. Warhol’s approach to the »total performance of the self« differs radically from the one of Mishima: Warhol wanted to extinguish the actor, to leave only a mask, and to make the void behind the mask all the more conspicuous whereas Mishima attempted to fusion the mask and its wearer, for the actor to become his character. At any rate both wished to dissolve the fundamental diegesis as outlined by Goffman – for Warhol this was death of the conscious, the dissolution of the individual in the image and the product, but for Mishima, to achieve this death was the only solution.

Sources |
[z] Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel, 1970.
[y] Antoninus xi 6
[w] Jacques in William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II Scene 7
[v] Mishima, reported in a posthumous article in The New Yorker 12.12.1970
[u] Mishima, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
[t] Yukio Mishima, Letter to Kanemaro Izawa on 24.11.1970 containing instructions regarding his own suicide.
[s] Epictetus, Enchiridion
[r] Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying – An observation, 1891
[q] Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying – An observation, 1891
[p] Georges Bataille in Bataille, Feydeau and God, interview in France-Observateur, 1957
[o] Hagakure, Yamamoto Tsunemoto, 1709-1716
[n] Hagakure, Yamamoto Tsunemoto, 1709-1716
[m] Yukio Mishima, Preface to Eikoh Hosoe’s Ba-Ra-Kei, 1961
[l] Mishima in a farewell letter to an American friend, as reported in The New Yorker 12.12.1970

artwork | Yukio Mishima & Shintaro Ishihara. 1956.

by Bertrand Marilier

Full article here.