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Sunday, May 21, 2006

The search for a legendary sword


MISHIMA'S SWORD: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend, by Christopher Ross. London: Fourth Estate-HarperCollins, 262 pp., £14.99 (cloth).

On Nov. 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima committed seppuku or, to employ the term he preferred, hara-kiri. He did so with a great deal of fanfare (he had hoped to have the event televised) at the Tokyo headquarters of the Ground Self-Defense Force after he had harangued the soldiers there about yamato damashi (Japanese spirit) and other arcane and outdated concepts.

Christopher Ross notes that a journalist leaving the base shortly after the incident "passed a group of SDF soldiers . . . excitedly playing volleyball." "They must have started to play," Christopher Ross comments in "Mishima's Sword," "soon after Mishima's balcony appeal. They were still playing when his body was not yet cold."

That Ross includes this vision of soldiers engaged in a decidedly nonmartial game is characteristic of the sharp eye and dark wit with which he scrutinizes Mishima's life. All too often observers who are, like Ross, enthusiasts of "the way of the sword," treat Mishima's 45 years with a seriousness that is perhaps not the most fruitful attitude to adopt when examining an existence that was, even as one must admire aspects of it, not devoid of silliness. Gore Vidal once remarked that America is the only country that could have created a Hemingway and not seen the joke. The good news is that, when Japanese bother to think about Mishima at all, they do see the joke, and so does Ross.

Perhaps Ross' knowledge that, for all his very real and impressive achievements, Mishima was a bit of an ass is what kept him from producing a conventional biography and led him instead to include with the biographical, elements of travel book, memoir and philosophical quest. Wherever its genesis lies, one is happy that this is not yet another Mishima biography, but rather something much more original.

The grail that is the object of Ross' quest is the sword that ended Mishima's life. One is happy Ross set out in search of this blade, not so much because one cares where it is but rather because it allows the author, in the course of his search, to tell us about Japan and, most of all, about himself. Indeed so delightful are Ross' self-deprecating bits of memoir that some may find themselves wanting to move quickly through the pages given over to sword-lore or to Mishima in favor of those where Ross writes about his early devotion to the TV show Kung Fu, or his life as a Tokyo English teacher in the early '90s, or his encounters with the people he incidentally meets while hunting for the elusive weapon.

Though one wonders a bit about Ross when he suggests that it is entirely reasonable to ask someone one has just met at a party how he or she would like to die, one forgets one's reservations when a few pages later he notes that, "Mishima killed himself before he had the chance to try a Spicy Mos [Burger] with Cheese." It is Ross' humor rather than his earnestness that wins one over.

Drawn in by Ross' humor, one becomes more receptive to his insights into Mishima's character. His account, for example, of how Mishima transformed himself from a coddled mama's boy -- actually a coddled grand-mama's boy -- into a "hypertrophy of maleness," is excellent. Mishima, Ross helps us to see, understood that, in Susan Sontag's words, "the mask is the face." To be a macho man one needs only to look like a macho man and to do the things that a macho man does. To be a Japanese patriot imbued with yamato damashi one needs only to look like a Japanese patriot, to act like a Japanese patriot, and -- this must have been key for Mishima -- to die as such paragons die.

When a one-time playmate of Mishima's, a habitue of a Shinjuku S&M club, informs Ross as they chat in one of the club's chambers that "Mishima liked what would nowadays be called role play," it comes as no surprise.

What is surprising is the novelistic turn things take as the book approaches the end and Ross approaches the sword. Indeed, the manner in which Ross is escorted by a couple of yakuza thugs to meet their boss will remind those who've read it of a similar scene in Jay McInerney's Japan novel, "Ransom."

That's not to say things didn't really happen the way Ross records them, but his book is such a delightfully odd amalgam that one wouldn't put it past him to have thrown a little fiction into the mix, and wouldn't hold it against him if he had. As in the most popular form of the quest narrative, the detective novel, one is less interested in "who done it," or in this case "where is it," than in the journey toward it.



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