The Decay of the Angel

Author: Yukio Mishima
Translator: Edward George Seidensticker
U.S. publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9780671824518
Released: July 1978

Here ends Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility, regarded by many as his masterpiece. The Decay of the Angel is the fourth and final book in the tetralogy. As with The Temple of Dawn, a different translator from the earlier books was assigned; this time, the responsibility being left in the capable hands of Edward George Seidensticker. (I still find it odd that they changed translators not once, but twice during the series, but there you have it.) Reading The Sea of Fertility was my first attempt delving into contemporary Japanese literature, and in the end I think it made a fine place to start. I didn’t enjoy the previous book, The Temple of Dawn nearly as much as I did the first two novels, but I still expected great things from The Decay of the Angel and, for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.

Almost six decades have passed since the death of Kiyoaki Matsugae. Since then his friend Shigekuni Honda has encountered two people he was convinced were Kiyoaki’s reincarnations—Isao, a passionate Japanese nationalist and Ying Chan, an indolent Thai princess—each who died when they reached the age of twenty despite Honda’s efforts. After meeting Tōru Yosunaga, a sixteen year old orphan, Honda wants to believe that he has once again found Kioyoaki despite evidence against it. Honda is old and without an heir and so decides to adopt the young man, hoping that this time he might be able to save him. But both men are strong-willed, manipulative, and malicious; their relationship can end in nothing but disaster.

I have always appreciated the elegant descriptions of nature and the settings in The Sea of Fertility, but The Decay of the Angel has some absolutely stunning imagery surrounding the sea and ships. Even the attention give to decay is beautiful. I also found the characters to be captivating, although not particularly likeable. Honda, who I actually did like at the beginning of the series, has become even more of a manipulative bastard and his obsessions are destroying him, but he has finally been able to recognize his true feelings regarding Kiyoaki. Tōru’s personality seemed to shift drastically between the beginning of the book and his adoption, but it was to some extent understandable. And the confrontation between him and Keiko was marvelous.

The Decay of the Angel is significantly shorter than the novels that preceded it. Technically, the book can stand on its own—all of the necessary plot elements are included if not thoroughly re-explored—but to me it felt more like an epilogue to the entire series. Not having read the first three books will significantly reduce the impact of the fourth and the tetralogy’s ultimate conclusion. I would understand and certainly wouldn’t be surprised if some people were upset or felt cheated by the ending. I, however, thought it was fantastic and highly appropriate for the story; I also enjoyed its ambiguity and that it could be interpreted in several different ways. Mishima always manages to write plot twits that are unexpected but not unprecedented when looking back at what came before as details fall into place. The Decay of the Angel has several of these moments in addition to the ending, and they can be heart- and gut-wrenching. The Sea of Fertility isn’t without its faults but overall I was quite impressed with the work. I really do think Mishima is brilliant.

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