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.

The Temple of Dawn

Author: Yukio Mishima
Translators: E. Dale Saunders, Cecilia Segawa Seigle
U.S. publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9780671824532
Released: July 1978

After reading and being rather impressed by the first two books in Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility, Spring Snow and Runaway Horses, I was anticipating with great pleasure reading the third volume in the series, The Temple of Dawn. While the previous books were translated by Michael Gallagher, The Temple of Dawn is translated by E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Segawa Seigle. I find it somewhat strange that the translator would change in the middle of a series, but each book really is quite distinct in this case. In Spring Snow Honda’s close friend Kiyoaki dies at a young age. In Runaway Horses, he becomes convinced that Kiyoaki has been reincarnated in the young man of Isao, who also dies tragically despite Honda’s efforts. And now in The Temple of Dawn, Honda faces yet another possible reincarnation.

The Temple of Dawn is told in two separate parts. Part One, the shorter of the two, begins in 1940. Honda, who has remained a lawyer since Isao’s death, has traveled to Thailand in order to settle an international case. While there Hishikawa, his guide and translator (who he can’t stand), arranges for him to meet Princess Ying Chan, the seven-year-old daughter of Prince Pattanadid with whom Honda attended school briefly in Japan. Much to the embarrassment of her relatives, the princess is convinced that she is the reincarnation of a Japanese boy. Honda hopes and believes she is in fact his friend Kiyoaki reincarnated, although he does have some lingering doubts. As a bonus for his diligent work on the case, Honda travels through India before returning to Japan—a trip that affects him profoundly and sparks his obsessive study into reincarnation. Part Two begins in 1952 and primarily follows Honda whose obsession has turned from reincarnation to Ying Chan who is in Japan to study. The princess has grown to be a beautiful if somewhat indolent young woman and has no memory of her childhood eccentricities.

Many characters from Spring Snow and Runaway Horses return in The Temple of Dawn or are at least referred to. The Temple of Dawn doesn’t stand on its own quite as well as the first two novels, but most of the information needed to understand the overarching plot is provided. To me, Kiyoaki’s reincarnation as Ying Chan didn’t seem to work as effectively as his reincarnation as Isao. Part of this may be because the story doesn’t really focus on Ying Chan except voyeuristically through Honda who really seems to be the focus of this book. I was somewhat surprised that World War Two did not play a very big role in the novel. The changing international tensions between travelers abroad before the war, the Japanese populace’s reaction to the the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the attitudes towards the American occupation force are briefly explored, but beyond that the war is mostly ignored.

I didn’t enjoy The Temple of Dawn nearly as much as I did either Spring Snow or Runaway Horses. The book’s tone seems very different from the first two books; I’m not sure if this is due to the new translators or if the change is found in Mishima’s original as well. But some things remain the same—great attention is given to the details of the environment and setting, descriptions are sensual and evocative. Some of the writing is simply breathtaking but at other times it can be rather tedious (the primary example being an overly-lengthy exploration of the various theories and philosophies surrounding reincarnation which just serves to show the extent of Honda’s intense interest in the subject). The characters are often cruel and manipulative—Honda himself has become somewhat of a creepy bastard—but somehow even this holds a sense of beauty in its own peculiar way. The Temple of Dawn may not be my favorite volume in The Sea of Fertility, but I am still glad I read it and look forward to finishing the tetralogy with The Decay of the Angel.

Runaway Horses

Author: Yukio Mishima
Translator: Michael Gallagher
U.S. publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9780671436865
Released: June 1981

After finishing Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow I knew that I was going to be continuing with the rest of his books in The Sea of Fertility tetralogy and would most likely pursue his other works as well. Runaway Horses is the second volume in the sequence and like Spring Snow was translated into English by Michael Gallagher who has once again done a great job of it. Runaway Horses captures the early years of the Shōwa period in Japan (1926-1989), particularly the rise of ultra-nationalism. The Westernization and modernization first begun during the Meiji era (1868-1912)—also important to the story of Runaway Horses—has dramatically increased and there are those who demand Japan return to itself and who are willing to resort to violence to make this happen.

In 1932, nearly twenty years after the death of his beloved friend Kiyoaki, Shigekuni Honda is now an established and respected judge at the Osaka Court of Appeals. While attending a kendo tournament he meets an intense young man by the name of Isao Iinuma, a promising and skilled athlete who also happens to be the son of Kiyoaki’s former tutor Shigeyuki Iinuma. As the book progresses, Honda becomes more and more convinced that Isao is actually the reincarnation of his friend Kiyoaki. But Isao is definitely his own man. A student at his father’s Academy of Patriotism, his ideals and fervor extend far beyond his indoctrination at school. Inspired by The League of the Divine Wind (a pamphlet recounting the Shimpūren Rebellion), Isao is determined to initiate the return of honor and purity to Japan and in doing so sacrifice his own life.

It is not absolutely necessary to have read Spring Snow before reading Runaway Horses although it will certainly enhance the experience. The books, just like Kiyoaki and Isao, are very different while somehow still retaining a sense of commonality at their core. Each book’s style captures the personalities of their respective protagonists remarkably well; where Spring Snow is rather romantic, Runaway Horses is much more aggressive in its approach. The portrayal of Isao, a passionate young man who is also a violent extremist, is exceptional—terrifying and even inspiring despite his naïveté. I certainly don’t necessarily agree with him or his methods, but the devotion to his ideals and his charismatic nature shines through and makes for quite an impact.

Runaway Horses was somewhat slow to start, but by the end of the book I was completely invested. The emotional intensity and its buildup is tremendous. Like Spring Snow the book feels ominous from the very beginning; something tragic is going to happen and there is nothing to do but watch how the story plays out. Even expecting this, Mishima is able to throw in some painful twists as peoples’ motivations and actions are made clear. Runaway Horses stands pretty well on its own although certain scenes, particularly the dream sequences, serve mostly to lead into the next book, The Temple of Dawn. It is interesting to note that while reincarnation is important to the tetralogy overall, and to Honda in particular, it isn’t central to Isao’s story who is mostly unaware of it. I was unaccountably thrilled that the son of Kiyoaki’s tutor Iinuma was the character chosen as his reincarnation—it just seems so perfectly appropriate to me. And I won’t hesitate to admit that I am very much looking forward to reading The Temple of Dawn.

Spring Snow

Author: Yukio Mishima
Translator: Michael Gallagher
U.S. publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9780671434946
Released: January 1983

I don’t remember exactly how I first came across Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, but I think it may have been when I was looking into the Japanese works that Michael Gallagher had translated. I’ve recently developed an immense interest in Japanese literature and Mishima is widely considered to be an important author and so I felt his books would probably make a decent starting point; The Sea of Fertility is often mentioned as his masterpiece and I was able to find a complete set in good condition at one of my favorite used bookstores, so I decided to start there. It was only after I started reading the first book in the sequence, Spring Snow, that I realized I actually knew who Mishima was—just not by name. At one point, a cousin was either reading one of Mishima’s books or one of his biographies and happened to mention Mishima’s death in 1970 by seppuku; this apparently stuck with me to some extent.

Kiyoaki Matsugae is the only son of a samurai family that has recently risen in economic if not social status. His father is now the Marquis and his grandfather, now dead, continues to be revered. Kiyoaki himself is somewhat a disappointment and is not well liked by his peers—who find him to be too arrogant, decadent, and melancholy—except for his closest friend Shigekuni Honda. Satoko Ayakura is the only daughter of a noble family in decline. She and Kiyoaki were raised almost as siblings so that he might gain something of culture and experience at court. Kiyoaki knows that Satoko has had a crush on him for years, but he feigns indifference while in reality she has quite and effect on him. He is slow to realize that he has fallen in love with Satoko, but when he does he feels compelled to act upon his desires, despite any repercussions they might bring.

Most of the novel takes place during the beginning of the Taishō era (which lasted from 1912 to 1926), a time period that I knew nothing about before reading Spring Snow. Mishima captures the feel of the time magnificently and shows the turmoil surrounding the increase in Westernization and the changing of Japanese society’s mores and social and power structures. A lot of detail is given to the setting, and while this doesn’t necessarily serve to advance the plot, it provides important background information. Often what initially seem like tangents are tied back into the novel later on in such a skillful and sometimes surprising way that I was duly impressed. I didn’t find the story itself to be particularly original, I’ve read plenty about doomed love, but I did find Spring Snow to be beautifully presented with a multitude of layers to it.

I enjoyed Spring Snow immensely. Gallagher’s translation is very well done (at least as far as I can tell), although some readers might find it to be overly formal. On the other hand, I particularly liked the style, finding it to be elegant, sensual, and evocative. However, I can’t say that I particularly liked Kiyoaki—at least as a person. As a character he was fantastic and even managed to be somewhat sympathetic despite being so self-absorbed and generally unlikeable; he certainly made for a convincing teenager. Despite being the first volume in a four part cycle, Spring Snow stands on its own remarkably well even though the set-up for the subsequent novels is definitely there. I am very much looking forward to reading the next volume, Runaway Horses.