Mishima’s Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend

Author: Christopher Ross
Publisher: Da Capo Press
ISBN: 9780306815683
Released: October 2007

If I remember correctly, I first came across Christopher Ross’ Mishima’s Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend while looking for biographies of Yukio Mishima. While Mishima certainly plays an important role in the book, Mishima’s Sword isn’t exactly a biography but still promised to be an intriguing read. First published as a hardcover in 2006 by Da Capo Press, and later as a paperback in 2007, Mishima’s Sword was included in the Kiriyama Prize’s 2007 list of notable books. Part biography, part memoir and part travelogue, with a healthy dose of philosophical musing, Mishima’s Sword is an interesting book. Most likely it will appeal to those who, like me, are already interested in Mishima or in Japanese swords and swordsmanship. It also provides an outsider’s look into Japanese culture in general, including glimpses into some of its shadier aspects. I was intrigued to see what Ross would have to say about it all.

On November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima, one of Japan’s most prominent authors, committed seppuku in the office of General Mashita at the headquarters o the Self Defense Force in Tokyo. A sword that he had received as a gift several years earlier was used as part of the ritual suicide and went missing after the incident. Decades after Mishima’s death, Christopher Ross travels back to Japan, having previously lived there for a few years, in order to attempt to better understand Mishima and his actions and perhaps even track down the missing sword. Ross doesn’t have much information to go on and discovers that many people are reluctant to even discuss Mishima. Once he realizes this he turns his attention to learning more about Mishima’s sword, hoping to have more success with this aspect of his journey. His search leads him to some very interesting places indeed.

After a brief introductory section called “Death in Tokyo,” Mishima’s Sword is divided into two main parts: “Primary: Word(s)” and “Secondary: (S)word.” Although Ross’ search for Mishima and the sword are obviously closely linked, “Word(s)” focuses on his pursuit to understand Mishima while “(S)word” concentrates on his efforts to discover more about the sword. Also included in Mishima’s Sword is a selected bibliography of works by and about Mishima as well as works on bushidō and Japanese swords. A glossary of Japanese terms used throughout the book is also provided. There’s no index, which is somewhat unfortunate, but then again Mishima’s Sword isn’t exactly meant to be a reference work. It’s more of a memoir, and an engaging one at that. But I still wished that I could navigate it a little more easily when I wanted to look up specific information.

I thoroughly enjoyed Mishima’s Sword and found it to be both immensely engaging and readable. Ross’ tale isn’t told in a strictly linear fashion; the narrative consists of a collection of connected thoughts, musings, and diversions. While it is not always clear how a particular digression or tangent is relevant to the work as a whole, they are always interesting. Sometimes the only clue is to be found in the end notes which. I would recommend reading these anyway because they contain important and often fascinating information. While it is not necessary to enjoy Mishima’s Sword, I was glad that I had previously read one of Mishima’s biographies (Mishima: A Biography by John Nathan) as it helped to put the parts of the book dealing with Mishima into better context and perspective. At times, Mishima’s Sword almost seems to read like a novel. While this makes the work approachable, to some extent it also occasionally feels as though the facts are being embellished. But overall I found Mishima’s Sword to be very interesting and learned quite a bit while reading it.

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