Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima

~written by Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato
~translated by Hiroaki Sato

My introduction to Japanese literature was through Yukio Mishima's tetralogy The Sea of Fertility. Ever since, I have been fascinated by his life and works. It has been nearly forty years since a major biography on Mishima has been released in English. I was very excited when I learned that Stone Bridge Press would be releasing Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima by Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato at the end of 2012. The English-language edition is actually an updated and expanded version of Inose's 1995 Japanese Mishima biography Persona: Mishima Yukio den. Sato was primarily responsible for the adaptation, expansion, and translation of the English-language edition of Persona. It is a mighty tome. With over 850 pages, Persona promised to be the most comprehensive and complete biography of Mishima available in English.

Yukio Mishima, the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka was born on January 14, 1925 to Azusa and Shizue Hiraoka. His upbringing was a bit peculiar--his controlling grandmother snatching him away from his parents. As a child he often struggled with health issues, but exhibited an intellectual precociousness and a talent for writing at a young age. Mishima would eventually become one of the preeminent and most visible authors of his day. He was also an extremely prolific writer, responsible for creating thirty-four novels, more than one hundred seventy short stories, close to seventy plays, six hundred sixty poems, and numerous essays, articles, and other works. Many of Mishima's writings have been translated, but only a fraction of his total output is available in English. He was also involved in the film industry, served as a subject and model for photographers, and was active in martial arts and bodybuilding. Later in life, becoming more politically active, he was a vocal supporter of the Tennō system in Japan. Mishima ended it all in a shocking act of ritual suicide on November 25, 1970.

Persona really is the most comprehensive single-volume work on Mishima currently available in English. However, in part due to its length, it is difficult to recommend the biography as a introductory resource. Before attempting to read Persona, it is useful to have a least some basic understanding of Mishima and Japanese history in general. Persona isn't strictly just a biography of Mishima--it places him within a greater context of economic, bureaucratic, political, literary, and cultural Japanese history. While Mishima always remains an important touchstone, frequently Persona uses him a launching point to address other aspects of Japanese history as a whole. Occasionally the authors seem to wander off on tangents that aren't directly related, but Mishima and his enormous personality are always there in the background even when they're not at the forefront of the work.

Although Persona generally follows a chronological progression, beginning with Mishima's family history and background and ending with his suicide and its aftermath, the biography is organized more by subject and theme. The authors do not limit themselves to adhering to a rigid timeline, which allows them to bring together related material more efficiently. In addition to the main text, Persona also includes notes, an extensive bibliography, and a thorough index. Though its length may be daunting and it's not always a particularly easy read, Persona really is an incredibly complete Mishima biography. Addressing both Mishima's public and private personas, it delves into areas of his personal life (including his sexuality) which I haven't seen as thoroughly explored in English before. While not a biography for the casual reader, reading Persona is well worth the effort for someone with an established interest in Mishima and Japanese history.

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