Yukio Mishima’s Last Act (1970)

To the soldiers in Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, it was just another day at the Ichigaya Camp in Tokyo until they were summoned to the commandant’s office.

Yukio Mishima

A man out of his time, or out of his head.

There, on the balcony above them, stood a broad shouldered man in a military-like uniform. Standing before a banner listing his demands, he harangued the soldiers for several minutes, denouncing the decadence that the Japanese have fallen into, and urging them to join a coup d’etat, restore full power to the emperor, and return the country to its former glory.

The soldiers, who grew up in a Japan devastated by war caused by that kind of thinking, wasn’t having any of it. Amid their heckles and catcalls, the man finished his speech and returned to the commandant’s office. There, with the help of four members of his private army, he removed his jacket and bared his chest. Kneeling, he took an ancient samurai dagger, plunged it into his belly, and disemboweled himself. His head was cut off. The only other person who witnessed this ritual act of seppuku was the commandant, who had been tied to his chair.

Yukio Mishima, Japan’s greatest novelist, was dead.

For nearly 20 years, Mishima was a larger-than-life figure, a prolific author of novels, poems, essays and plays in the classical Noh and Kabuki styles. He was a mass of contradictions: an advocate for Japanese traditions who criticized Western decadence, yet embraced its literature, and its art. He was a writer, an intellectual, yet yearned to be considered a man of action. He was as macho as Norman Mailer but as homoerotic as the young Truman Capote.

Yukio Mishima was a Japanese nationalist, a author of novels, poems, essays and plays and considered one of the great novelists of the 20th century. He wanted the country to regain the old-fashioned samurai values that made Japan great. He was so macho he made Norman Mailer look like Wally Cox. He was so serious he made Bertold Brecht look like Robin Williams.

Mishima was a bundle of passions. He was disappointed that he was kept out of World War II and denied the privilege of dying for his emperor. He was homosexual, as explored in ?Confessions of a Mask,” his first major work. He was a narcissist and masochist, in love with his body and fascinated by its beauty. He got involved in body building and became an expert in the martial arts.

But most of all, he wanted the old ways back, and he formed the Shield Society, a private army dedicated to bringing back Bushido, the samurai code of honor.

On this day, he entered a military base with his crew and held the commander hostage. As part of the ransom, the soldiers were assembled and Mishima spoke to them, urging them to revolt and restore Imperial Japan. But the noise was so loud that they couldn’t hear him, and Mishima was heckled. Ashamed, he returned to the commander’s office where, before the officer’s horrified eyes, he ritually disemboweled himself and his head was cut off (after three tries).

Mishima set an example for all writers to follow. Not to kill themselves after being humiliated, although that would make the National Book Awards watchable. Before he set out on his suicide mission, Mishima turned in the last pages of his ?Sea of Fertility” novels.

Born today: Lope Felix de Vega, playwright, Madrid, Spain, 1562; Leonard Woolf, editor, critic, London, 1880; Oskar Braaten, playwright, novelist, Oslo, Norway, 1881; Isaac Rosenberg, poet, Bristol, Gloucestershire, 1890; Helen Hooven Santmyer, novelist, Xenia, Ohio, 1895; Lewis Thomas, physician, author, Flushing, N.Y., 1913; Shelagh Delaney, playwright, Salford, 1939.

Died: Johannes Jensen, novelist, poet, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1950; Upton Sinclair, novelist, essayist, Bound Brook, N.J. 1968; Yukio Mishima (ps. Hiraoka Kimitake), novelist, Tokyo, 1970; Elsa Morante, novelist, short-story writer, poet, Rome, 1985; Birago Ismael Diop, poet, folklorist, Dakar, Senagal, 1989.

Quote for the Day: “There’s a story that a week or two before the engagement he proposed in a train, and she accepted him, but owing to the rattling of the carriage he didn’t hear, and took up a newspaper, saying ‘What?’ On which she had a violent revulsion and replied ‘Oh, nothing!” — Lytton Strachey, about Leonard Woolf’s courting skills. Woolf was born today in 1880