~by John Nathan
After finishing Yukio Mishima's The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the author, a major figure in Japanese literature. The one thing that I was vaguely aware of was Mishima's ritual suicide in 1970, but beyond that I knew very little about his life. There are two main biographies of Yukio Mishima written in English: John Nathan's Mishima: A Biography and Henry Scott Stokes' The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima. I decided to at least start with Nathan's biography for several reasons. It seemed at first glance to be the more academic of the two. Nathan also received assistance from Mishima's wife, friends, and family in the writing of his biography. In addition, Nathan also knew Mishima personally and served as the translator for the English edition of Mishima's novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Mishima: A Biography was originally published in 1974 by Little, Brown and the 2000 Da Capo edition includes a new preface by Nathan.
Yukio Mishima, born as Kimitake Hiraoka in 1925, stunned the world in 1970 when he and his follower Masakatsu Morita committed seppuku after addressing Japan's Self-Defense Forces in Ichigaya. Most of his friends and family were caught unawares. Mishima was a tremendous personality: author, playwright, poet, stage director, actor, body builder, lecturer, and ultimately, political activist. These are only a few aspects of a very complex and charismatic man. Nathan examines Mishima's life and works from his precocious youth until his death, delving into his writings and speaking with those closest to him throughout his tumultuous life. Mishima baffled many but he was respected for his work both in Japan and worldwide, even being considered for a Nobel on multiple occasions.
Nathan frequently includes excerpts of Mishima's published works and surviving personal papers in Mishima: A Biography, often translating the materials himself. Although Nathan offers context and interpretation of the passages, to some extent he allows Mishima to speak for himself. Regrettably, the works quoted are not always cited as clearly as they could be. Granted, some of this material has never been published before, let alone been translated into English. Throughout Mishima: A Biography, Nathan explores the concepts of Beauty, Ecstasy, and Death--elements that permeate Mishima's work--and Mishima's pursuit of these, his ideals.
Mishima: A Biography reads very easily and at times even seems novel-like; I never once found it to be dry and it held my attention throughout. Although technically a biography about Yukio Mishima, the book understandably has quite a bit to say about the state of Japanese literature during his lifetime, too. Nathan makes extensive use and interpretations of Mishima's work within the biography. Occasionally Nathan seemed more concerned with the writings than with the man himself, but Mishima often included autobiographical elements in his writing. In addition to a very useful index and a nice selection of photographs, the book also includes a list of Mishima's major novels and plays, indicating which have also been translated into English. Personally, I would have liked to have seen a more complete bibliography or at least the inclusion of all the works mentioned by Nathan and/or all of Mishima's materials available in English. Overall, I think Nathan's biography of Yukio Mishima is very successful--he remains as objective as he can and shows respect for all those involved. Mishima: A Biography was a fine place to start learning about Yukio Mishima and is particularly valuable for its insights into his writings.