Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima
Yukio Mishima is about as famous as he is infamous. The enormous body of work left behind almost outshines his shocking public suicide after taking hostages with the help of his personal nationalist militia at a Self-Defense Forces base. In Persona, the first biography of Mishima to appear in English in over thirty years and the first translated into English from Japan, Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato take an extremely lengthy and detailed account of this paradoxical figure of modern Japanese literature.
And when I say lengthy, I mean a Tolstoy-esque brick of a tome. You could do some real damage with this book. The reason for this is twofold: Mishima as a writer was extremely prolific, with thirty-four novels, almost two hundred short stories, seventy plays, and countless essays, poems, interviews, and more to his name—and this was all before his death at just 46. Not every piece of writing is addressed here (how could it?) but a shocking amount is, even if certain novels (many unfortunately still untranslated) hardly get a few paragraphs of attention. It’s both tantalizing and frustrating to get a taste of Mishima to which English speakers still don’t have full access.
More importantly, perhaps, in regards to Persona’s length, is that ultimately, it is not really just about Mishima. Persona, I would argue, is a book about Japan itself, as filtered through the life of one of its perhaps most important creations. Mishima is Japan in microcosm, a man deeply torn between European enlightenment and patriotic nationalism re: traditionalism. I hate to characterize any argument down to “He’s East-meets-West,” (it has become one of the most annoyingly clichéd characterizations of Japanese culture) but of all Japan’s writers, Mishima encapsulates that beautiful, violent schism most perfectly. If Japan truly represents the Occident and the Orient as so many would have us believe, it’s because of icons like the talented, tragic Mishima.
But Mishima really was a man divided in two. He came from both samurai and peasant stock, his grandparents a witness to Admiral Perry’s Black Ships forcing Japan to open their gates to the West. According to Persona, the great loves of Mishima’s life were women, but his sexual proclivities towards men are well documented and numerous. He was a sickly, smothered bookworm of a child who grew up to become obsessed with bodybuilding and martial arts. He was extremely well read in both Eastern and Western writers, devoted equally to Kabuki as he was to the works of George Bataille. He was a literary writer with clear commercial instincts, aspiring for both the Nobel Prize and blockbuster movie adaptations of his work.
Inose and Sato (Inose wrote the original biography, and Sato both translates and expands the text) are not afraid to draw both literary and political meaning out of the life and work of Mishima, frequently providing criticism and interpretation that the reader will often have to take at their word, since much of the referenced work is not available in English. The criticism is welcome, as Inose and Sato are certainly well researched and compelling, but they often go the opposite direction as well, by taking Mishima’s fiction and mapping it to his life. The parallels between Mishima’s childhood and homosexuality dovetail nicely with the widely accepted autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask, but it seems inappropriate to expect the same parallelism from his other work and assume that scenes in other novels and stories probably happened in his real life, as occasionally happens throughout Persona.
Towards the end, Persona’s focus becomes much more political than literary, and though his plays and serialized novels are mentioned frequently enough, the essays and interviews that are expounded upon the most are more political in nature, as the real driving force in Mishima’s life seems to become his nationalism (though in fact he was still writing his Sea of Fertility tetralogy until the end of his life, delivering the final chapters to his editor on the day of his suicide). The book overall is well balanced between the personal, the literary, and the political. We can thank Inose in that regard, as he is both a renowned writer and the current Governor of Tokyo. He is also, refreshingly, not afraid to criticize Mishima’s poorer fictions and his contradictory, sometimes illogical political ideologies.
But what about the gossip you say! Don’t worry, there’s plenty of it, and while the tone of Persona is certainly tasteful and dignified, there is quite the wealth of salacious tidbits. Mishima’s childhood was particularly weird; after he was born, he was basically snatched away by his grandmother, who smothered him, and only allowed his mother to see him at scheduled times purely for breast-feeding (and these sessions were timed at that). He hardly ever left his grandmother’s room, hardly ever even seeing sunlight until she passed away. Those that knew the family describe Mishima’s subsequent relationship to his mother as “incestuous”; one incident describes how Mishima’s mother complained that her foot hurt and had Mishima lick the painful area in front of friends and family.
Mishima was well connected with the writers, poets, and celebrities of the day. He despised his contemporary Mori Ogai, and was also close friends with the Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata (and even pursued his adopted daughter for marriage). He correctly predicted that if Kawabata won the Nobel, he would not, and that Kenzaburo Oe would probably be the next. He briefly dated the future Empress Michiko, before she met the Crown Prince and current Emperor Akihito. Mishima apparently loved to dance, but was notoriously clumsy.
Persona has much to offer for anyone interested in Mishima the writer or political figure, even though because it covers so much ground, it feels like there could be so many more details to explore. Mishima had a fascinatingly full and busy life outside of writing—traveling abroad, starring in films, researching and training for his Shield Society militia—that even after this 800-page journey, Mishima is still very much an elusive figure. That may, in fact, be one of Persona’s strengths as a biography. It can be satisfying to write or read a story that can take a man’s life and tie it nicely into one big, thematic bow. But Mishima was a complicated genius of a man, and any narrative that only focused on one aspect of his life or personality would lose too much in the process. Persona attempts to capture the totality of a man, but instead ties a complex man to his beloved, complex country, which I think is all Mishima could have ever wanted. To the reporters he trusted and invited to witness his final, climatic day, he wrote:
“No matter how you might look at it . . . No matter how deranged an act it may seem, I would like you to understand that to us it derives from our sense of yukoku“—patriotism.