“True beauty is something that attacks, overpowers, robs, and finally destroys.”
― Yukio Mishima
Novelist, playwright, actor, and patriot Yukio Mishima was the most celebrated and internationally acclaimed Japanese writer of the mid-20th century: prodigiously talented, dazzlingly inventive, audaciously controversial, and a prime candidate for the Nobel Prize, for which he was nominated three times.
Yet on a brilliant autumn morning in 1970, Mishima shocked Japan and the world with a bizarre, theatrical, and grotesquely violent attempt at a coup d’état, a political act that ultimately ended in his samurai-style suicide by ritual disembowelment, or seppuku.
That morning, Mishima led four university students to Army headquarters in Tokyo, took the commander hostage, barricaded the office doors, and demanded that the entire Eastern Division of the Army be assembled in a plaza below the office’s balcony. He demanded a rebellion to rid the country of its American-imposed constitution and to restore the imperial system.
As Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato describe in their biography of Mishima, Persona, “In his speech Mishima tried to cover the main points of his manifesto: that unless the Japanese Army Self-Defense Force effects constitutional reform, they will forever remain part of the US military.”
“All of you are unconstitutional!” he thundered at them.
While it’s unclear whether he actually expected this to go over well or not, whether he was driven by megalomaniacal patriotism or perverse self-destruction, his speech was met with heckling and derision as the troops below harangued the pleading writer.
“Finally,” Inose and Sato recount, “Mishima asked: ‘Isn’t there anyone among you fellows who will follow me?’ The jeering grew ferocious. He then remained silent for a while. Then he said the last sentence slowly: ‘All right, I can tell you are not rising up for Constitutional reform. I have lost my dream for the Self-Defense Forces. Well then, I will shout: Long live the Emperor!’”
When his speech ended, Mishima stepped back into the office, removed the jacket of his uniform, plunged a sword into the left side of his abdomen, sliced his stomach open, and gave the signal for his followers to decapitate him. It took three blows to successfully separate his head from his body.
There will never be a definitive account of Mishima’s final act. Like the bold fantasies and dark desires he brought to life in his novels and plays, the enigmatic and gruesome spectacle Mishima performed before the world was meant to be deciphered, examined, and viscerally felt.
Some people believe that it was intended to be a work of art, the last in a series of exhibitionistic acts—one final expression of the desire to shock for which he had become notorious. Others think it was fundamentally a political action, a patriotic gesture of protest against present-day Japan. Others see elements of psychotic lunacy, of madness and despair.
Still others saw it as a public act of homosexual love for Morita, the young student who, of his own volition, gave Mishima the final blow and who died after him. In feudal Japan, shinju, or double suicide, was a way in which lovers sometimes ended their lives when their emotions had reached their peak
While most feel that politics are absolutely crucial to truly understanding the Mishima incident, that there’s no way to regard the suicide of a man in the main military base in Tokyo as anything other than a political gesture, this interpretation falls a bit flat. As with his life, Mishima’s death was swathed in artifice, subsumed in a hermeneutical bubble whose complexities cannot be reduced to a single defining act or quality.
If one thing can be definitively said, it is this: Mishima’s death was an over elaborate gesture that took on a life of its own, as if his final moments of existence took place in some liminal state between fiction and reality. Like his finest literary achievements, his operatic death has lodged itself into the cultural landscape of modern Japan.
If you're curious about the life and work of Mishima, we recommend you read his critically acclaimed biography Persona, a book that removes the mask he so artfully created to disguise his true self.