Pulp-noir self-portrait by Yukio Mishima

 

 

 

Yukio Mishima, Japan’s most infamous modern writer, was born into a samurai family in 1925 and all his brief life revered the “living god” Emperor Hirohito and the cult of Japan as an Asian master race. On 25 November 1970, after his failed coup d’état against the Tokyo government, the 45-year-old Mishima committed seppuku, the Japanese form of ritualized suicide by disemboweling. The melodrama shocked all Japan. Having severed his bowel, Mishima had his head cut off with his own sword by an attendant disciple. Unsurprisingly, he is remembered today more for the manner of his dying than for the quality of his writing.

 

Mishima’s posthumous reputation is further tarnished by his extremist right wing politics. A kendo black belt, in 1969 Mishima founded a private nationalist militia, the Shield Society, made up of prototype alt-right conspirators in revolt against feminists, left wing student activists and hippies. In Mishima they found a glamorous scourge of parliamentary liberalism and their hoped-for salvation.

 

Over the two decades of his writing career, Mishima wrote at least sixteen novels, 20 short story volumes and almost as many plays, and was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize. His final quartet of novels, written between 1965-1970, laments all that Japan had lost since its defeat in 1945 under western capitalistic values. As well as high-brow “pure” literature, interestingly, Mishima wrote a series of pulp noirs. Life for Sale, first serialized in Playboy Japan in 1968 and published now for the first time in an English translation by Stephen Dodd, is a sexy, camp delight. Beneath the hard boiled dialogue (“Don’t play cute”, “Shut your trap!”) and the gangster high jinx is a familiar indictment of consumerist Japan and a romantic yearning for the past.

 

 

Hanno Yamada, a copy-writer toiling in 1960s Tokyo, is overwhelmed by the “meaninglessness” of his life. What to do? In desperation he puts his life for sale in a Tokyo newspaper advert. What then follows is a black comedy involving yakuza (Japanese mafia) contract killers, a vampire woman, poisoned carrots, a toy mouse, powdered scarab beetle shells, as well as quantities of hush money. As mass-market fiction, Life for Sale works a treat; Hanno, dreaming of the “sweet bath of death”, cleaerly is a veiled self-portrait of Mishima.

 

A body-building homosexual narcissist, Mishima was obsessed by death, and typically liked to be photographed as the Roman martyr St Sebastian, pierced with arrows. His noir fiction dwells at length on violent death and Mishima reportedly play-acted his seppuku with a 20-year-old gay student he picked up in a Tokyo S & M bar. (“As he died he came”, the man remembered.) Life for Sale is replete with Tarantino-like scenes of smuggling and murder, as well as philosophical musings on Japanese attitudes to the sword, the warrior and honour. Mishima’s final and histrionic gesture of 1975, planned meticulously in advance, revived the poetic brutalities of a former age which most Japanese preferred (and still do prefer) to forget. Let no one say that Yukio Mishima did things in half measures.

 

 

This review appeared in the Evening Standard on 1 August 2019