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Sunday, Oct. 26, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Writer behind the writer


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD

As a reporter in Tokyo in the late '60s, what was your professional interest in Yukio Mishima?

He was easily the biggest story in sight. There were major student demonstrations in the capital, some of them turning very violent, but the news desks of the world very quickly got bored with these stories. As a personality, as a commentator, and as it turned out a friend, Mishima was in a minority of one.

Can you tell us about the genesis of your Mishima biography?

After his death I immediately knew that I had to do something. I had original material, I knew a lot of details. I believed all of that was going to be lost unless I stirred myself. There were also letters from him. They were short but extremely pregnant, in which he alluded to suicide. I knew it was historic material, and that it was inconceivable I would not do a biography.

Having already experienced the works of two older literary giants, Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki, the West seems to have perceived Mishima as completing a trio of Japanese figures: the ascetic, the eroticist and, finally, the samurai. Would you agree?

It's an interesting idea. I think he actually did fulfill that role for the West. He cut through sensitive topics that took real courage. When the early translators came forward -- Donald Keene, Ivan Morris and Edward Seidensticker, another very impressive trio -- they grabbed the best titles. There was the samurai element; there was also the gay side, of course, his rapierlike wit, and the enormous range of forms he used, all of which put him in a very special category.

You talk in your book about Mishima's "titanic energy," his immense creative output. Was that palpable in his presence?

Yes it was. After his suicide there was a very real gap in the air. He had this enormous ebullience. It was best seen in his appointments book, which I glimpsed at from time to time. The last one was burned by the family after he died. It was absolutely jam-packed with appointments in the afternoon and early evening. As he was pursuing this arduous schedule day by day, he somehow sustained each appearance. He would stop drinking alcohol at about 9:45. He would then start drinking tea. He used to read magazines and fish through materials he had before starting to write at midnight.

How premeditated was Mishima's work and death?

I believe his premeditation started very early in his teens when he saw his contemporaries being drafted, vanishing into the armed forces while he was left alone on the beach, so to speak. The very conscious premeditation of his death seems to have occupied him for the last four to five years of his life. You can see him committing himself stage by stage as he completed each of the four books of the tetralogy, "The Sea of Fertility." When he completed the first book, "Spring Snow," he decided to train with the Self Defense Forces. This was in '67. When he completed the second book, he formed the Tatenokai [a rightwing private army]. The chronology is fairly close. When he completed the third book, "The Temple of Dawn," he formed a group within the Tatenokai which was the "suicide squad." The day he handed over the manuscript for the fourth book was the day of the suicide. I believe that, step by step, as he accomplished his literary objectives he moved forward to his death.

What was going on in your own mind on Mishima's last day, Nov. 25, 1970?

As I sat in the taxi going over to Ichigaya, I focused my thoughts on exactly where Mishima would be on this last day of his life. I was convinced he would commit seppuku [ritual suicide]. There was no way that he would end his life with a gun or a box of pills. And military combat, of course, was out of the question. I had this great desire that he should accomplish what he wanted. Some people might say that for a non-Japanese to have arrived at that stage of thinking, to have so thoroughly absorbed the mores, means that you have been in the country too long. But that is exactly where I stood on that day.



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