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|Posted: Sat May 13, 2006 3:55 am Post subject: Article: Mishima's Sword
|Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend
The author of a book on Yukio Mishima is engaged in his own quixotic quest, writes Nicolas Rothwell
May 13, 2006
Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search od a Samurai Legend
By Christopher Ross
HarperCollins, 262pp, $27.95
FRAGMENTED, episodic, composed of braided, bifurcating narratives, Mishima's Sword displays its mazy quest structure like a patterned sheen on its surface. Christopher Ross, a philosophically minded, martial arts obsessed enthusiast of Japanese culture, offers his readers the glint of life's connections, the strangenesses that lurk in broad daylight, more than the satisfactions of sequential progress.
His hero, his subject and the constant focus of his speculations is the once-prominent novelist Yukio Mishima, who committed suicide in the traditional Japanese fashion - seppuku - after mounting a doomed, stagy military putsch on November 25, 1970. It is possible, muses Ross, to view all of Mishima's work "as having occurred during a gap in his resolve to die".
In this kind of writing endeavour, as in the creation of lovely Japanese artefacts, tone, structure and underlying intent are critical, and Ross deploys considerable guile and grace as he escorts his readers through the shadow worlds of contemporary Tokyo and the misty realms of samurai tradition.
S&M club devotees and yakuza men, movie buffs and old hands at the Foreign Correspondents Club, we meet them all, and all serve their part as enablers, teasing along the fine thread of the story.
Ross gives endless detail on the procedures of Japanese suicide, the way the body expires under the pressure of a finely crafted sword, the correct moves involved in the ideal self-administered death and the bungled mess Mishima and the junior captain of his private army made of the job.
But before we turn to consider such final things, Japan itself, that vast, fine chrysanthemum, must be decoded for the foreign eye. The three different script systems, the bushido code of warriors in its many incarnations, the story of the League of the Divine Wind rebellion and the life of the samurai Sanjo are unfurled before us; they hint at aspects of Mishima's books and life.
This wide canvas is no surprise, because Mishima, that "gorgeous mosaic", was astonishingly wide-ranging and prolific: in his 22-year career he wrote 40 novels, 20 volumes of short stories and hundreds of essays, as well as dashing off and producing enough dramatic works for an average creative lifetime.
He remains overwhelmingly popular despite his gruesome death, the crushed, sterile tone of his characters and his wild politics. Indeed, Ross is tempted to imagine Mishima as a "collage of Japan's taboos". He combined in a single personality overtones of homosexual inclination, emperor-centred political radicalism and a fierce reverence for the army as last vestige of the true Japanese spirit.
A figure so highly coloured, a generation dead, brings out modern Japan's ghosts and contradictions. Ross plumbs this soil.
But Mishima's Sword cuts, of course, into the self. Hence the author's own journey is very much on view, and the impatient reader keen to trace the dead samurai novelist's footsteps must make long detours, as Ross describes his interminable abdominal pains, his multiple nosebleeds and the psychological travails that afflict him during his stays in smalltown England.
Perhaps, he wonders, Mishima is actually a lure, an unknowable hero. Why not focus on the sword? With added resolve, Ross returns to Japan, determined to find the fatal blade. This intensified voyage of discovery leads him to the shop of a master swordsmith in Seki City, to a sword polisher in Tokyo and to a critical connoisseur of Mishima's work.
It also sparks a long and inevitably gory excursus on the history of seppuku, an analysis (complete with detailed line diagrams) of Japanese sword fabrication techniques, and a visit to Mishima's home.
We learn the ins and outs of "revenge suicide": the benchmark method involves throwing yourself in front of a speeding train so your hated heirs have to pay the railway company for the enormous clean-up costs.
Above all, though, we become acquainted with the contours of our author's eclectic mind, and his propensity to see joins and illuminations in the parallels and coincidences of his text, which is none other than the diligent record of his experience.
At once observer and man of action, Ross likes to find balance in life, yet feels the seductive call of art; and art, by its nature, involves excess, inspiration, the painful, restorative creative act.
"One way of thinking about the balance of the mind," he writes, "is to acknowledge that human life is a drama between an invisible mindscape and a visible, more measurable, exterior frame of reference that we have come to call the real world. An artist is by this definition someone who dwells, out of balance, in the interior world of his own mind."
Explorations and divagations such as these form the heart of his journey, which leads, like the curve of a well-drawn line, to its inevitable destination: the story, told in vivid detail, of Mishima's death, and the encounter with the unprepossessing, rusted sword used to strike the fatal blow.
Is the sword Ross uncovers genuine? By now, he knows this is the wrong question to ask: "Mishima's sword was, I realised, more real to me as an idea, an archetype for some quixotic grasp at a fantasy past, and didn't need to exist as two feet or so of decaying edged steel. It had, in my failure to find it, remained intangible, yet faintly still vital. Something that could never be completely lost or fully destroyed. Or ever, really, possessed."
Such are the rewards, and disappointments, of the modern literary self-discoverer. Ross has spun a drama worthy of Mishima from the bleak raw material of his hero's death.
Inevitably, his efforts form an extended meditation on the bon mot thrown out as a mordant, modern piece of originality by Albert Camus in his Myth of Sisyphus: "There is only one serious question, and that is suicide."
The Japanese, as in so many things, had got there centuries earlier.