Forbidden Colors

Author: Yukio Mishima
Translator: Alfred H. Marks
U.S. publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 9780375705168
Released: February 1999
Original release: 1951/1953

In Japan, Yukio Mishima’s novel Forbidden Colors was released in two parts. The first eighteen chapters were compiled in 1951 while the collection with the final fourteen chapters was published in 1953. The English translation of Forbidden Colors by Alfred H. Marks was first published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1968. Like Mishima’s earlier novel Confessions of a Mask, Forbidden Colors deals with prominent homosexual themes, although the two works approach the material in vastly different ways. Also like Confessions of a Mask, and many of Mishima’s other works, Forbidden Colors contains some autobiographical elements. In addition to being my introduction to Japanese literature, Mishima and his works fascinate me. I’ve been slowly making my way through all of his material available in English, but I was particularly interested in reading Forbidden Colors.

After being betrayed time and again the aging author Shunsuke Hinoki has developed an intense hatred of women. Seeking revenge, he enters into a peculiar arrangement with a beautiful young man by the name of Yuichi Minami. Yuichi has come to realize that he loves men and is tormented by what that means living in a society which doesn’t accept homosexuality. Shunsuke is willing to assist Yuichi in hiding his secret by helping to arrange his marriage and to develop a reputation as a philanderer. In exchange, Yuichi promises Shunsuke to make the women he seduces miserable. They may fall in love with him, but he will never love them in return. The agreement is advantageous for both men. Yuichi will have a perfect cover allowing him the freedom to explore his sexuality—no one would suspect a married man and a womanizer to have male lovers—and Shunsuke will have the revenge he so greatly desires.

Shunsuke is an unapologetic misogynist. His anti-women rhetoric can be difficult to take, but without it the plot of Forbidden Colors would never go anywhere. It is necessary and important as the story’s catalyst. Mishima has very deliberately created a distasteful character who at the same time is enthralling in his extremes. Yuichi, despite being loved by all, isn’t a particularly pleasant person, either. However, I did find his portrayal to be much more sympathetic. He’s vain and self-centered, but he also has an air of naivety and innocence about him. Both men and women fall victim to his charms but Yuichi himself is often manipulated as well. Forbidden Colors is an absorbing tale as Yuichi struggles to keep his two lives separate, sinking deeper into Japan’s underground gay community while trying to keep up appearances in his public life. It’s an outlandish battle of the sexes that is hard to look away from and no one comes out unscathed.

Forbidden Colors explores and deals with a number of dualities: homosexuality and heterosexuality, love and hatred, youth and old age, beauty and ugliness, truth and deceit, cruelty and kindness, morality and immorality, and so on. Mishima plays the dichotomies off one another, but also reveals how closely intertwined they can be. The complexities of the characters’ relationships show that opposites are rarely just that and how at times in the end they aren’t really all that different. Yuichi, for example, comes to genuinely care for his wife but in his twisted way of thinking expresses that love through cruelty. There is a certain logic to his decision and his concern is real, though someone else might not reach the same conclusion. At it’s heart Forbidden Colors is a fairly dark story with erotic underpinnings and characters who, though often unlikeable, are captivating. I found the novel to be incredibly engrossing.

Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima

Author: Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato
Translator: Hiroaki Sato
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
ISBN: 9781611720082
Released: December 2012

My introduction to Japanese literature was through Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy The Sea of Fertility. Ever since, I have been fascinated by his life and works. It has been nearly forty years since a major biography on Mishima has been released in English. I was very excited when I learned that Stone Bridge Press would be releasing Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima by Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato at the end of 2012. The English-language edition is actually an updated and expanded version of Inose’s 1995 Japanese Mishima biography Persona: Mishima Yukio den. Sato was primarily responsible for the adaptation, expansion, and translation of the English-language edition of Persona. It is a mighty tome. With over 850 pages, Persona promised to be the most comprehensive and complete biography of Mishima available in English.

Yukio Mishima, the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka was born on January 14, 1925 to Azusa and Shizue Hiraoka. His upbringing was a bit peculiar—his controlling grandmother snatching him away from his parents. As a child he often struggled with health issues, but exhibited an intellectual precociousness and a talent for writing at a young age. Mishima would eventually become one of the preeminent and most visible authors of his day. He was also an extremely prolific writer, responsible for creating thirty-four novels, more than one hundred seventy short stories, close to seventy plays, six hundred sixty poems, and numerous essays, articles, and other works. Many of Mishima’s writings have been translated, but only a fraction of his total output is available in English. He was also involved in the film industry, served as a subject and model for photographers, and was active in martial arts and bodybuilding. Later in life, becoming more politically active, he was a vocal supporter of the Tennō system in Japan. Mishima ended it all in a shocking act of ritual suicide on November 25, 1970.

Persona really is the most comprehensive single-volume work on Mishima currently available in English. However, in part due to its length, it is difficult to recommend the biography as a introductory resource. Before attempting to read Persona, it is useful to have a least some basic understanding of Mishima and Japanese history in general. Persona isn’t strictly just a biography of Mishima—it places him within a greater context of economic, bureaucratic, political, literary, and cultural Japanese history. While Mishima always remains an important touchstone, frequently Persona uses him a launching point to address other aspects of Japanese history as a whole. Occasionally the authors seem to wander off on tangents that aren’t directly related, but Mishima and his enormous personality are always there in the background even when they’re not at the forefront of the work.

Although Persona generally follows a chronological progression, beginning with Mishima’s family history and background and ending with his suicide and its aftermath, the biography is organized more by subject and theme. The authors do not limit themselves to adhering to a rigid timeline, which allows them to bring together related material more efficiently. In addition to the main text, Persona also includes notes, an extensive bibliography, and a thorough index. Though its length may be daunting and it’s not always a particularly easy read, Persona really is an incredibly complete Mishima biography. Addressing both Mishima’s public and private personas, it delves into areas of his personal life (including his sexuality) which I haven’t seen as thoroughly explored in English before. While not a biography for the casual reader, reading Persona is well worth the effort for someone with an established interest in Mishima and Japanese history.

Confessions of a Mask

Author: Yukio Mishima
Translator: Meredith Weatherby
U.S. publisher: New Directions
ISBN: 9780811201186
Released: January 1958
Original release: 1949

Yukio Mishima’s second novel Confessions of a Mask was originally published in Japan in 1949. It quickly became a bestseller and is considered to be one of Mishima’s first major literary success. Following his later novel The Sound of Waves, Confessions of a Mask was also Mishima’s second novel to be translated into English. In 1958, Meredith Weatherby’s translation of Confessions of a Mask was first published by New Directions. Many of Mishima’s works includes strong autobiographical elements, but this is particularly true of Confessions of a Mask. Mishima was my introduction to Japanese literature, and so I have a particular interest in him and his work; I have slowly been making my way through Mishima’s novels and biographies available in English. And because Confessions of a Mask is semi-autobiographical and was Mishima’s breakthrough novel, I was particularly interested in reading it. Due to its themes of homosexuality and sadism, Confessions of a Mask was somewhat controversial but it was also extremely successful upon its release.

Ever since he was a child Kochan had poor health. The first son born to his family, his grandmother was particularly controlling and overprotective of him. Because of this, growing up he had very little interaction with other boys his own age. In middle school, Kochan would come to realize that his health and family situation weren’t the only reasons he was an outsider—he was attracted to the masculinity and strength of other young men, not just as fellow classmates, but as objects of desire. In addition, his fantasies were filled with blood, death, and torment. Struggling with his feelings, Kochan tries to act as though he is like everyone else, lying to himself and to others. When he was older he even managed to develop a complicated relationship with a young woman in an effort to appear normal. But as close as they become, Kochan is never able to completely suppress his dark sexual desires for other men. Unable to fit into society despite his efforts every day is a constant and painful reminder that he is different. Hiding behind a mask of decency he puts on for the sake of others, keeping his sexuality a secret, he is out of sync with the rest of his world.

While reading Confessions of a Mask I was frequently reminded of Osamu Dazai’s 1948 novel No Longer Human. Both books include autobiographic elements. The novels also both feature a protagonist who pretends to be something that they are not as a sort of self-defense mechanism. Their very natures keep them separated from the society around them. I found plenty to personally identify with in both novels. Although Confessions of a Mask and No Longer Human share many similarities, they also have their differences. For one, Confessions of a Mask doesn’t seem to be nearly as filled with overwhelming despair as No Longer Human is. However, Kochan’s struggles and personal turmoil are still incredibly difficult. Confessions of a Mask is also much more erotically charged than No Longer Human. Kochan’s intense desire and need for normalcy is just as potent as his desire and yearning for other young men. These needs conflict with each other but are both extremely important to Kochan and who he is.

Confessions of a Mask is a very apt title for the novel because it is just that, Kochan’s confessions. In it he bares his soul completely, admitting to himself and to others the true nature he hides behind a carefully crafted public persona. Confessions of a Mask is written in the first person; Kochan is very aware of his audience and even addresses the readers directly. His admissions are told almost stream-of-conscious. Occasionally he drifts off onto tangents, but his thought process is easy to follow. Because of this, Confessions of a Mask feels immediate and intensely personal. Kochan is very frank about his sexual desires and fantasies, revealing their violence and his inability to control them. Kochan’s battle between what society expects of him (and not just in terms of his sexuality but his entire being) and accepting who he really is (something he will probably struggle with his entire life) is captured brilliantly. Confessions of a Mask left a huge impression on me.

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.

The Sound of Waves

Author: Yukio Mishima
Translators: Meredith Weatherby
U.S. publisher: Putnam Books
ISBN: 9780399504877
Released: January 1981
Original release: 1954
Awards: Shincho Prize

In 1956, The Sound of Waves became the first of Yukio Mishima’s works to be published in English. The translation was done by Meredith Weatherby, who also translated Mishima’s novel Confessions of a Mask. Having been previously impressed by Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, I looked forward to reading more of his work. I had actually intended to read Confessions of a Mask next, but recently I had seen several references made to The Sound of Waves in my other reading and so I decided to read it first. Originally written in 1954, The Sound of Waves quickly became one of Mishima’s most popular successes and remains so today. The book also received the first Shincho Prize to be awarded by Shinchosa Publishing, also in 1954. According to John Nathan’s biography Mishima, The Sound of Waves was inspired in part by the early Greek story of Daphnis and Chloe.

Shinji Kubo is eighteen years old and recently graduated from high school. He has lived in a small fishing village on Uta-jima, “Song Island,” his entire life. Shinji has no particular plans to leave—currently he helps support both his widowed mother and younger brother—but he’d like to master his own boat in the future. And then Hatsue returns to the island. The daughter of one of the village’s most successful and wealthy inhabitants who has declared that he will adopt her suitor into his family, she has caught the eye of many of the young men. Shinji, too, has taken an interest in Hatsue, although unlike most of his opportunistic fellows, he has genuinely fallen in love with her and she seems to share his feelings. But their budding romance is cut short when vicious gossip about the two of them is spread throughout the village and her father forbids them from seeing each other.

The Sound of Waves, like Mishima’s other works, features beautiful descriptions of nature, the scenery, and in this particular case, the sea. The book really has a wonderful and lovely sense and feel of place. The portrayal of the idyllic fishing village and its people as well as their importance to Shinji is what gives the novel its driving force. Sometimes life in a small village where everyone knows your business and rumors can destroy a person can be difficult, but it can also be a source of tremendous support when the people pull together to champion one of their own. In The Sound of Waves, Mishima captures these conflicting qualities in a very convincing and genuine way. In fact, this was probably the thing I liked most about the novel, even more than the actual love story.

I was really not expecting a happy ending from Mishima—apparently, The Sound of Waves is one of the few examples of this in his work—the story is suffused with a sense of joy and life. The book is certainly more approachable than The Sea of Fertility and I can easily understand why the story is so popular. The plot is a straightforward coming of age love story, and although it’s not as complex or mature as some of his other works, it is still an enjoyable and charming tale. While free from the gut-wrenching twist I’ve come to expect from Mishima, The Sound of Waves still reminded me of his other novels, The Decay of the Angel in particular, and things aren’t always easy for the protagonists even if it all more or less works out in the end. Some of these similarities may be the result of Mishima’s tendency to incorporate autobiographical elements into his novels. Although The Sound of Waves didn’t affect me as profoundly as The Sea of Fertility, I still found the novel to be thoroughly enjoyable and I continue to look forward to reading more of Mishima’s work.