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Sunday, April 13, 2008


Mishima's literary mistress

MISHIMA ON STAGE: The Black Lizard and Other Plays, edited and with an introduction by Laurence Kominz, foreword by Donald Keene. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2007, xii + 328 pp., with photographs, $70.00 (cloth), $26.00 (paper)

Though most famous as a novelist, Mishima was also a prolific dramatist. From 1949 to the year before his death, 1969, he wrote numerous plays, nearly all of them staged in his lifetime. He found their composition easier than that demanded by his novels and once said that drama was his "mistress," as compared with his "wife," the novel.

He wrote both plays and novels simultaneously and apparently felt no conflict in working this way. "The theater and my study are at opposite ends of the seesaw that is my life," he said, and I remember he once expressed astonishment that Tennessee Williams found playwriting so difficult, a matter for a few lines a day. For Mishima a play was simply its own structural logic. "Once the structure is built you can write it in one stretch."

This professed ease (dalliance with a mistress) has perhaps been responsible for Mishima's drama's critical reputation of being, somehow, of less value than his stories and the novels. At the same time, however, they are products perhaps more typical of the author.

By this I mean that Mishima found drama everywhere. His own life was a drama, carefully shaped as he desired, with a real coup-de-thea^tre at the end. Likewise, in his relationships, he often acted as casting director, giving out various supporting roles in the ongoing extravaganza of his life.

Perhaps this typicality is the reason that there has been a recent critical interest in the author's stage works. The present collection of translations was created, says its editor, "with the purpose of demonstrating the breadth and scope of Mishima's talent as a playwright."

"The anthology," he continues, "is intended to demonstrate that Mishima is an accomplished writer of comedy, that Mishima's kabuki plays are classical masterpieces for the stage and significant works of literature as well, and that Mishima's intimate knowledge of many different theatrical genres enables him to create plays that combined elements in ways that no other playwright could imagine doing."

To support these assertions editor Laurence Kominz has assembled a collection of translations: "The Black Lizard" and "The Blush on the White Hibiscus Blossom" (Mark Oshima);

"Busu" (Donald Keene and Kominz); "Yuya" (Jonah Salz and Kominz); and "The Lighthouse," "Hell Screen," "The Sardine Seller's Net of Love," "Steeplechase," and "Sash Stealing Pond" (Kominz).

The worth of Mishima's dramatic output is, however, still disputed — though not by the editor whose presentation is firmly supportive. Some of the plays (I am thinking of "Our Friend Hitler") are psychodrama, with the different characters representing merely the varied aspects of Mishima's own psyche. Tamasaburo Bando, the Kabuki onnagata who has appeared in several of the plays, complains that Mishima characters talk "at each other," rather than "with each other," and for that reason finds that the lightweight "Black Lizard" represents "the real Mishima," since too much of the time he felt otherwise compelled by pride and ambition to don the mask of the intellectual writer or the rightwing political activist.

What this collection admirably accomplishes is that by offering us the plays — which, judged or not, may be enjoyed (or not) — we are lead to a fuller understanding of Mishima and his ambitions.

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