If westerners are at all familiar with Yukio Mishima, it may be due to his overtly nationalist activities and his larger than life – or larger than death – attempt to end his life with the ritual Japanese seppuku suicide, thrusting a short blade into his belly and trying not to flinch as he dragged the blade horizontally through his midsection while a man stood behind him, holding aloft a longer blade, ready to decapitate Mishima should he fail to die with dignity. Whenever I have read a Mishima story, I have struggled to reconcile the images in my mind of his presumably glorious death with the very simple people and events that populate his novels.
It has certainly been a while since I last read a work by Yukio Mishima. And I am very pleased to have returned to him with his After the Banquet, the story of Kazu, proprietress of the Setsugoan, a country restaurant outside Tokyo catering to the wealthy and powerful of Japan’s conservative elite. That is, until Kazu weds Noguchi, a thin, stern, aging representative of the Radical Party. And consequently, Kazu’s conservative clientele abandon her. The more she throws herself and her quickly depleting wealth into her husband’s campaign to win the Tokyo governorate, the more her enemies crawl out of the word work, seeking to defame her once good name. And she takes such risks apparently for something that most westerners would have trouble understanding – not for the love of her husband, but for the right to be buried in the Noguchi family cemetery and thereby wash away the potentially eternal stain of her own low-class roots.
Naturally, every reader will respond to all of this differently. For me, Mishima was Japan. His style reflects the culture of Japan more than the literary style of others can be said to do. After the Banquet does not relate heroic adventures or earth-shattering events. Most lives are not of such a fantastic quality anyway. Yet western writers, and I am guilty of this as well, seek to create the grandiose within everyday lives, as if to blot out the simplicity of the mundane everyday events we wander through. Mishima revels in the mundane. In his description of fine kimonos, restaurant menus, leaves dancing in the wind, motes of dust floating to the ground, I see again the Japan I used to call home. And I see it, not from my own western perspective, but as a virtual insider. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I see, taste, smell Japan better in Mishima’s writing that I ever really did residing there. Which I think is a shame on my part. But all the more praise to Yukio Mishima.