Yukio Mishima. You could probably count the number of Japanese novels I have read with one finger of one hand. And if you asked me to name some Japanese novelists, I’d know them more from the films made from their books than from the books themselves. But I did know the name of Yukio Mishima–a name I knew only because I knew that he committed seppuku, a violent form of ritual suicide. So, when I saw a copy of John Nathan’s 1974 biography of Mishima, I decided to read it, not knowing if I would read it through.
What a fascinating story. Starting out in a family with an overly domineering father and a nurturing mother, Kimitake Hiraoke (Yukio Mishima was a pen name) started out life as the proverbial 99 pound weakling, a young boy given to romanticism and poetry. Although he did marry and have two children, he was primarily homosexual, something to be hidden in mid-twentieth century Japan. He was also sickly as a child, and was rejected for military service for medical reasons, something which made his parents very happy, as their young son was certainly not built to be a soldier.
Once he started publishing, he published with a vengeance, writing 40 novels, 18 plays, 20 books of short stories and more over his career. His writings to a great extent presaged his life – he wrote about art and beauty, and about extraordinary acts and extraordinary deaths.
World War II was obviously a difficult time for Japan – so many of Mishima’s contemporaries were killed, and so much of the country destroyed. Following the war, Mishima became more and more nationalistic, believing that the country had become too western and too materialistic, and not sufficiently respectful of the emperor. He particularly bridled at the new Japanese constitution, which allowed for a small self defense force, but not for a standing army or navy.
In order to build his own self-esteem and, Charles Atlas-like shed his weakling physique, he became a body builder, developing a very muscular upper body. Deciding to join the self defense force (at twice the age of the typical volunteer), he went through the difficult training course, but did not continue in the force. Instead, he decided to form his own para-military unit, which he hoped to eventually merge into a full scale Japanese army.
This was sort of like playing soldier, of course, and he never was able to attract many others to his cause, which was basically to return Japan to a social and governmental structure of a century or so earlier.
As time went by, he paid more and more attention to his nationalistic and militaristic interests, and he kept up his writing and publishing, although he was falling more and more out of favor with the public.
Then he hit on his ultimate plan. Attack the headquarters of the Japanese military, take hostages, demand the right to speak to the Japanese self defense forces, and expect them to desert and join his movement, converting themselves into a regular army. He and several others attacked, and captured the commandant. He gave his speech, and of course none of his audience moved to join his cause. Going back inside with three of his co-conspirators, he took out his long dagger, stabbed himself in the side of his abdomen and moved the dagger across his body, and then down. Then, bearing the pain, he gave the final command to one of his companions, who took out a longer sword and, with one movement, sliced off his head. He was 46.
An extraordinary story, you say. On one level to be sure, but on another, it is not that unusual. How many people grow more nationalistic, more right wing, more delusional, and more paranoid as they grow older? The psychology is not that unusual – Mishima just operated with more extremes. It makes you think.
Christina Haag and John F. Kennedy, Jr. Last month, Vanity Fair Magazine, excerpted a chapter of Christina Haag’s new book, “Come to the Edge”. Haag, an actress I admit I know nothing about, was a friend of John Kennedy’s since school, and a long time girl friend through their graduate school years, tells the story of their relationship in her book. The excerpted chapter told of a vacation in Jamaica, and specifically of a sea kayak trip, which turned from the ordinary to the extraordinary because of the chances which Kennedy insisted they take. She talked about his flirting with danger as a necessary part of his makeup and character. It was enough to intrigue me.
“Come to the Edge” is an interesting book in various ways. Haag and Kennedy both grew up in the upper east side of New York City, went to exclusive private schools, Brown University, and returned to the city, where he decided to go to law school, and she to Julliard for acting lessons. The book gives you an insight into upper class East Side society, to their lives both at Brown and back in the city, and certainly to JFK, Jr. and his mother, Jackie Onassis.
Jackie O. comes out a very human and welcoming person (Ethel Kennedy does not). I actually did not get a picture of what John was like – he obviously comes across as his parents’ son, he is obviously highly charismatic and physically attractive, but it’s hard to see actually what was going on inside him – perhaps not enough. Christina Haag comes across as a very talented and serious young woman (but then again, she wrote the book), certainly not simply as a groupie or hanger-on.
It’s a fairly short book – I think it is worth looking at.
Lansing Lamont. The third book I read this week was Lansing Lamont’s “You Must Remember This”. Lamont, a descendant of the chair of JP Morgan who decided to go into journalism, rather than business to the chagrin of many in his family, was for many years a correspondent for Time Magazine. He was in Washington for the JFK funeral and for the 1968 riots, in Los Angeles the night Robert Kennedy was killed. He was stationed in London for several years, then in Ottawa, and then he covered the United Nations.
His memoirs, which cover his early years, as well as his professional years, provides a good reminder course in American history during the second half of the twentieth century, and provides particular insight into several important events. An easy read, I enjoyed it.