Mishima Yukio: The Last Samurai

On the 25th of November 1970, Mishima Yukio, a Japanese writer, actor and film director, killed himself in the traditional Japanese warrior manner of seppuku in Tokyo, Japan. His suicide shocked equally the Japanese and people worldwide. It is believed that Mishima’s suicide was a premeditated act determined by certain political but also personal and aesthetic motives, revealing the truth about his paradoxical life. “Mishima’s whole career was one of paradox built on an extraordinary tension between spirit and body, words and action, and artistic creation and commitment to the world.” (Hisaaki Yamanouchi, Mishima Yukio and His Suicide, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1972).

Mishima was born in 1925 in Tokyo. His early childhood was overshadowed by his eccentric grandmother Natsuko, who separated the boy from his family and peers. Natsuko was thought to have possessed some occult powers. She kept the young Mishima away from sunlight and did not allow him to interact with other kids. Most of the time he spent indoors attended by a nursemaid or in the company of his female cousins and their dolls. At the age of twelve Mishima was finally reunited with his family, but the damage to his psyche was already done. Some biographers claim that this early experiences of seclusion are responsible for Mishima’s fascination with death, which he later depicted as a sensual, almost sexual experience: “The soldiers’ odor of sweat – that odor like a sea breeze, like the air, burned to gold, above the seashore – struck my nostrils and intoxicated me… But it did gradually and tenaciously arouse within me a sensuous craving for such things as the destiny of soldiers, the tragic nature of their calling… the ways they would die…”. (Henry Scott Stokes, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima).  On the other hand, back with his family, Mishima was faced with his father’s rigorous, almost military parenting techniques; the father would for example hold the boy up to the side of a speeding train. These two opposing upbringing methods, his grandmother’s – aiming for the boy’s feminisation, and his father’s – aiming for his masculinisation, lead to an inevitable internal conflict, present throughout Mishima’s adult life.            

Mishima is claimed to be one of the most significant modern literary voices in Japan, proof of which are his three nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1968, he lost the award to another Japanese author, Yasunari Kawabata. Mashima wrote novels, popular serial novellas, short stories, literary essays and highly acclaimed plays for the Kabuki theatre. “In embracing both traditional Japanese literary sensibilities and knowledge obtained from European literature he was as masterly as Natsume Sōseki …, Mori Ōgai … and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke…. In Mishima’s case, however, the mode of amalgamating the two elements was far more complex that in his predecessors. The philosophy underlying his seppuku was definitely Japanese.” (Hisaaki Yamanouchi). In an interview with the English cineaste Basil Wright his devotion to the Japanese tradition was made very evident: “I cannot believe in Western sincerity because it is invisible,” he said “but in feudal times we believed that sincerity resided in our entrails, and if we needed to show our sincerity, we had to cut our bellies and take out our visible sincerity. And it was also the symbol of the will of the soldier, the samurai; everybody knew that this was the most painful way to die. And the reason they preferred to die in the most excruciating manner was that it proved the courage of the samurai. This method of suicide was a Japanese invention and foreigners could not copy it!” (Stokes).

Led by this devotion to Japanese traditions and martial arts, of which he was a faithful practitioner, on the 25th of November 1970, Mishima together with four members of Tatenokai – a private militia dedicated to traditional Japanese values and veneration of the Emperor, entered the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces. They barricaded the office and tied the commandant. Then Mishima stepped onto the balcony to address the soldiers gathered outside. The idea was to inspire a coup d’état to restore the power of the Emperor. But Mishima’s elaborate manifesto caused a reaction contrary to his expectations. The soldiers started mocking and jeering the unfortunate orator, who then went back into the building and committed seppuku. One of his previously chosen companions, Masakatsu Morita, was then to perform the duty of kaishakunin and behead Mishima. But after failing several attempts he was eventually replaced by another Tatenokai member, Hiroyasu Koga. Morita could not bear the shame of failure in the conduct of the ritual. He stabbed himself in the abdomen and Koga fulfilled the duty of decapitation for the second time. 

Later it was revealed that Mishima had been planning to commit seppuku for over a year. In 1985, his story was depicted in an American/Japanese film by Paul Schrader, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. The executive producers of the film were George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. The film starts on the day of Mishima’s ritual suicide and is filled with flashback episodes from his past life. It shows his transformation from a frail and weak boy into a highly acclaimed writer, overtaken eventually by a narcissistic body cult and an extremist traditionalism. The film is segmented into four chapters: Beauty, Art, Action and Harmony of Pen and Sword. The culminating moment of the film is Mishima’s seppuku.    

“Japanese people today think of money, just money: Where is our national spirit today? The Jieitai must be the soul of Japan. … The nation has no spiritual foundation. That is why you don’t agree with me. You will just be American mercenaries. There you are in your tiny world. You do nothing for Japan. … I salute the Emperor. Long live the emperor!”

Mishima’s final speach (1970)