Legendary Japanese Author Yukio Mishima Muses About the Samurai Code (Which Inspired His Hapless 1970 Coup Attempt)

One day in Novem­ber of 1970, Nobel prize-nom­i­nat­ed author Yukio Mishi­ma bar­ri­cad­ed him­self in the East­ern Com­mand office of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and tied the com­man­dant to a chair. Accom­pa­nied by a hand­ful of young men from the Tatenokai, a stu­dent soci­ety-cum-mili­tia, Mishi­ma had launched a coup against the gov­ern­ment. He fol­lowed in the tra­di­tion of lit­er­ary rad­i­cals, whose ranks held writ­ers as diverse as Alexan­der Pushkin and Pablo Neru­da, with one key dis­tinc­tion: while Russ­ian and Chilean authors sought left­ward polit­i­cal shifts, Mishi­ma espoused a jack­boot brand of ascetic nation­al­ism. If Mishima’s cap­ti­va­tion with author­i­tar­i­an pol­i­tics seems out of char­ac­ter for a writer of such emo­tion­al depth, it is worth not­ing that his val­ues were root­ed in the hon­our code of the samu­rai, known as bushi­do. A rare clip of Mishima’s Eng­lish inter­views, above, makes the author’s beliefs about both art and hon­or pal­pa­bly clear:

I think that bru­tal­i­ty might come from our fem­i­nine aspect, and ele­gance comes from our ner­vous side. Some­times we are too sen­si­tive about defile­ment, or ele­gance, or a sense of beau­ty, or the aes­thet­ic side. Some­times we get tired of it. Some­times we need a sud­den explo­sion to make us free from it. For instance, after the war, our bru­tal side was com­plete­ly hid­den… I don’t like that the Japan­ese cul­ture is rep­re­sent­ed only by flower arrangement—a peace-lov­ing cul­ture. We still have a very strong war­rior mind.

The samu­rai ethos was a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of Mishi­ma’s most mov­ing works, includ­ing The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea and Patri­o­tism. In the film adap­ta­tion of Patri­o­tism, below, Mishi­ma shows that to him, even love is sub­or­di­nate to—or per­haps great­est when it works alongside—honour. While the film’s the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion and graph­ic nature may not be for everyone’s tastes (we also note that the clip below has been re-scored, with the orig­i­nal film avail­able here), the rit­u­al sui­cide it depicts offers some insight into the author’s psyche—after his failed coup, Mishi­ma plunged a blade into his stom­ach, and had one of the Tatenokai mem­bers behead him. He was 45 years old.

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

In Search of Haru­ki Muraka­mi, Japan’s Great Post­mod­ernist Nov­el­ist

Watch Kurosawa’s Rashomon Free Online, the Film That Intro­duced Japan­ese Cin­e­ma to the West

Amer­i­can Film­mak­ers in Japan­ese Ads: Quentin Taran­ti­no Sells Cell Phones, Orson Welles Hawks Whisky

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  • David Miller says:

    “Nobel-prize nom­i­nat­ed” is a pret­ty mean­ing­less acco­lade. If it was the Lit­er­a­ture Prize he was nom­i­nat­ed for, any “pro­fes­sors of lit­er­a­ture and of lin­guis­tics at uni­ver­si­ties and uni­ver­si­ty col­leges” may nom­i­nate some­one.

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