Yukio Mishima: Beyond Binaries

An assignment for a comparative film studies class on Japanese cinema at The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), instructor Russell Thomsen, 2017

It is a well-established cultural phenomenon to hold one’s ground, a lauded rhetorical tradition that upholds the values opinion and personal fortitude. The rigorous procedure of argument from thesis to antithesis to synthesis has entrenched itself so ardently in the process of our society’s self-understanding as to border often on dogmatism. Particularly from a traditionally Western vantage, this dichotomous perspective onto the world has long shrouded the peripheralization of minority perspectives, though a thoughtful analysis could observe that notions in recent decades have begun to transcend such simplistic binaries amid the public sentiment. A careful engagement with these modes of understanding would do well to study the cultural works both of and depicting Yukio Mishima, the prolific postwar Japanese author so intricately nuanced with a myriad of identities that any description would strain itself to contain the seemingly innumerable adjectives which even the most basal assessment of his identity would necessitate.

If the singular adamant idea and its following have long produced a cultural necessity for standing one’s ground, Mishima’s oeuvre relinquishes the expectations of this performance to embrace a dirtier, perhaps more pedestrian comprehension of how one might comport oneself. Mishima’s is an identity that produces well in advance of the 21st century an incredibly contemporary fluidity of sexuality, gender and politic without the flattening of character that one might presume to proceed such ambiguity. As if to lament the fact that different languages become indecipherable from one another when whispered, Yukio Mishima instead screams each with such force that the sheer grandeur of their combination attains a holistic character – that is, in place of the polite and often politically correct servitude to all points of view that we might ascribe to the career bureaucrat, one finds in Mishima’s identity a person immensely passionate in all directions simultaneously: at once nationalist and jet set, mainstream machismo and homosexual, spaceshot intellectual and gym-bound body builder.

Rather than strictly adhering to one specific dogma, the at times surreal blending of supposedly oppositional categories in Yukio Mishima’s life (and consequentially in his work) prove that the construction of an identity is a complex process, incapable of reduction to singular politic or an oversimplified stereotype. One might thus extend this investigation with great easy into Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, which thoroughly succeeds on its own terms in the composition of an entirely fluid identity, where author, film and biography laminate into a single thing and yet at once retain the inert qualities and contradictions that endow each with its respective authority, abilities and prerogatives. An analysis of the structures which run parallel between the film and its subject, as well as his very work and its reception, reveal the intricate construction of a fluid conception of identity. These pieces stand to venerate neither of the classic contemplations of the binaries we so often employ the understand the world – either or, both and – but instead to posit the possibility of a third option, what we might call the and yet, which can itself be interpreted as an escape through a meditation of sorts on contradiction from the oppressive demand to choose sides.

To study Mishima from both within and beyond the Schrader frame allows one the right to divert the work’s overall structure to deliver a clearer, summarized narrative of this otherwise overwhelmingly complex trend across the 50 plays, 25 books and 35 essays he produced throughout his lifetime. Where Mishima wove the concepts of hidden complexity and unreconcilable contradiction deep within his work, Schrader’s masterpiece of cinema collects them for a productively superficial reading, as if to focus the interrogation of the author’s complete body of writing onto its possibilities for both understanding and, in a sense, crafting one’s own biography. Similarly, where the biographical film serves to reveal the biography of a particular subject, Yukio Mishima proves particularly interesting for his reversal of this paradigm in his own construction of the self. If we define the biography as revealing the “truth” of someone, then Mishima’s problematizes this enterprise in spitting back at us the complete vacancy of inherent truth, relegating to its place only the intricate construction of an identity from parts, at times so oppositional in their incompatibility as to challenge the very concept of a singular identity in itself.

The Either Or

In a preliminary stage of constructing such an identity of supposed contradictions, Mishima frequently embraces simultaneous dichotomies, often reveling within their significance as if to play their dueling crescendo to a point of strange harmony. Take for example a quote from Sun and Steel, referenced in the final act of Schrader’s film:

The upper atmosphere where there is no oxygen is surrounded with death… No movement, no sound, no memories… In this stillness was a beauty beyond words: No more body or spirit, pen or sword, male or female… I saw a giant circle coiled around the earth, a ring that resolved all contradictions, a ring vaster than death, more fragrant than any scent I have ever known. (Sun and Steel 47)

Here, an incessant recalling of dualistic categories (“male or female”, “pen or sword”) accentuates Mishima’s internal struggles between the societal implications of choosing sides. This itself becomes problematic in Japan’s cultural digestion of the author. Both for his embrace of taboo and deep interest in rightwing celebrations of the monarchy and nationalism, Mishima’s cultural legacy is somewhat condemned to permanent interrogation (Flanagan). While it is often the case the prominent figures attain a complex and commonly refuted cultural following, Mishima accelerates the problems around his own fandom to a nearly incomprehensible level. His astonishing internal adjacencies between liberalism and conservatism or masculinity and femininity (as culturally perceived in his time) necessitate a simultaneous appreciation and frustration in the mind of any admirer.

By the same manner, it becomes therefore impossible to come to terms with Mishima’s work without acquiescing to some of his shortcomings. What makes this compromise so fascinating and successfully executed with the author’s conscious agency is that these shortfalls are utterly subjective on the part of the admirer and completely independent from the author’s choices. If the Left adores Mishima for his embrace of a rather queer understanding of gender in times of otherwise rigid adherence to the artificial juxtaposition of the male and female categories, it must compromise its adoration for his extreme celebration of traditional Japanese culture. Where the Right found these venerations of history and legacy refreshing in a contemporary postwar literary figure, it must take great hesitance to condone Mishima’s extramarital escapades into homosexuality, as evidenced in several of his books.

In his film, Schrader mirrors this rumination around dichotomies in the use of color. While biographical elements are presented in black and white, the earlier parts of the cinematic experience indulge in a great deal of multichromatic exuberance with its presentations of three works from the author’s oeuvre. Bathed in rich tones and saturated backdrops, these dynamically contrast the starkness of those scenes focusing on Mishima’s life alone, yet the entire dichotomy becomes problematized in the final act, where an increasing flickering between Mishima-as-person and Mishima-as-character challenges the simple indexicality of saturation that previously demarcated reality from supposed fantasy. Upon depicting his final act, Schrader flashes back through the various characters depicted in the previous tales. Each ringing progressively louder in their parallel nature to the author’s life, the final act of seppuku is not only referenced between literature and reality by way of filmographic projection but itself displayed in simultaneity within the film itself by Ken Ogata’s role of Mishima and Toshiyuki Nagashima’s parallel portrayal of Isao Iinuma in Runaway Horses, who too ends his life in ritualistic seppuku. This double lamination between Mishima and his literature and the film onto itself serves to enharden the prominence of the author’s persistence on self-authoring his own biography.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this behavior can be found in its odd problematization of the biographical identity. To the extent that Mishima choreographed his own masquerade across history, he also left incessant doubt as to the verity behind each move. This indistinguishability between performance and reality intensifies to the point that one might question the value of their delineation. With utmost vibrancy, Mishima engages the postmodern condition to reveal the subject’s identity as no more than a construct that intermediately blurs the conscious with the externally determined to the extent that the demarcation of the two is nullified as important in understanding the significance of such actions. What Flanagan describes as Mishima’s obsession with “micro time”, the period of one’s life, and “macro time”, the historical age to which one belongs, become exasperated terms in so far as they become unable to hold separate these two spheres of influence on the biography when subjected to insistency of Mishima’s curation. In this way, it becomes again poignant that Schrader treats his depiction of Mishima and his work in two tones. While the fictional acts of the author’s works are cast in full color (though, importantly, against sets with a high degree of self-awareness to their own artificiality), those scenes focusing on the orthodoxically biographic portions of the film lack the “truth” that we might ascribe to a full color treatment for the bulk of the film.

Former Japan correspondent for the Guardian Jonathan Watts summarized the similar noteworthiness of the theatrical quality in Mishima’s ritual suicide by dubbing it “at best, an artistic performance by a showman and, at worst, a futile gesture by a deranged extremist” (Watts). This confusion between performance and truth is harkened in Schrader’s conflation of color and grayscale towards his film’s finale. Where the increasing uncertainty of Mishima’s truthfulness comes to an ultimate head in the film’s final act, we encounter this aforementioned lamination in its complete scope of persona and character. It no longer stands as distinguishable to determine which pieces of Mishima’s identity are constructions and which legitimate truths, thus invalidating the very question of such a distinction. The identity itself is unabridged to allow, if not to encourage, taking on seemingly false, performative qualities and otherwise oppositional stances.

The Both And

By so often probing their immediacy in unexpected situations, Mishima further enlivens his investigation of the gray space presumed otherwise unobtainable within such oppositions. This is most clearly articulated (both in writing and in cinematography) by The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, where an obsessive acolyte is driven by sheer infatuation to destroy the very object of his desire, the Rokuon-ji Golden Pavilion outside Kyoto. That beauty should become so intensely overwhelming to the point of necessitating its destruction might at first seem contradictory, but Mishima’s ruminations around the subject begin to construct a psychotically juridical ground for the simultaneous appreciation of such mutually exclusive qualities. This fascination is foregrounded in the novel by the death of Uiko, a village woman for whom the story’s narrator, Mizoguchi, grows an enormous infatuation, at the hands of the Japanese Kempeitai during the Second World War.

Mishima employs the character to ponder the temporality of death and how the notions of destruction and liberation might not attain a distinction as significantly as one would at first presume. This delicate preponderance emerges in such moments as when Mishima’s protagonist reminisces on his secret fascination:

While Uiko was still alive, I had felt that she was able to go freely in and out of a double world … Even at the time of that tragic incident, just when she seemed to be rejecting the world, she had once more accepted it. Perhaps for Uiko death had been merely a temporary incident. The blood that she had left on the gallery of the Kongo Temple had perhaps been something like the powder that remains from a butterfly's wings when one opens the window in the morning and it instantly flies away (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion 225).

This hybrid appreciation of creation and destruction, as enumerated both across the larger arc of the story in the arson of the temple and in the poignancy of Uiko’s death, shows Mishima’s capacity for entertaining contradictory ideas to the end that their comparison might produce something new, perhaps something productive.

In the case of the Golden Pavilion, this is represented both through the release from obsession (personified by the protagonists incessant stutter attributed to the overbearing beauty of the temple) and the release from obligation to stand for something. Where the temple stood to represent time, its immolation relinquishes it from the responsibility and authority of representing the past. This mirrors Mishima’s observation about the incapacity for reality to harbor the totalizing aspect of things as represented on the micro scale by Uiko. Fluctuating to the macro scale of human epochs to imagine the destruction of the pavilion in an expected American B-29 raid over Kyoto, Mizoguchi wonders that “… The Golden Temple … [would be] until then been constrained by its form, [but] would be freed from all rules and would drift lightly here and there…” (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion 47). This immediacy between the temple and its own death, and thus between the material understanding of an object and the possibility in its utter pulverization that a new comprehension might emerge underlines Mishima’s ability to conjure an understanding or arbitration in the extreme difference of oppositional categories.

In this resolution of difference exists a liberatory potential, analogized through the arson of the Golden Pavilion as a reconciliation of contradictions without the reduction of either quality. To burn the pavilion, for Mishima, was to enshrine its beauty to an idea while at once assuring that the physical presence (the age, the demeanor) which so troubled his tale’s acolyte would relinquish itself from the material world. In such an assessment of dichotomy as a means for arranging, in a way capacitating, the irreconcilable gap between various qualities, the hybridity of this concept manifests itself more literally in Mishima’s identity as a gay man with a wife, as well as his virulent nationalism in someone who nonetheless greatly fetishized the West.

While hybridity can muddy the perception of a clear identity, leaving it often underappreciated in Western tradition, its innately contemporary ability to reconcile otherwise impossible dichotomies provides a basis for deepening an understanding of contradiction that functions to liberate identity from the constraint of consistency. If the Rokuon-ji were to be freed by fire from representing the ages of Japanese tradition, then we might also presume that freedom from the constant scrutiny of singularity in the identities of people could propose potentials for learning to cope with the innumerable contradictions of contemporary life, such as was the case for Mishima’s homosexuality amid the performance for a societal expectation of mainstream heteronormativity.

The And Yet

Where Mishima innovates is his transcendence of the mere acknowledgement of contradiction to a new understanding where one might contemplate the possibility of pushing beyond the hefty reliance on oppositional dichotomies on which so many aspects of culture rely, it is in this veneration of the and yet statement that allows Mishima to effortlessly weave between performance and reality, tradition and iconoclasm and, in Schrader’s intervention, biography and construction. Rather than angling towards the single resolution, this alternatively proposes a constant stream of differentials. Mishima’s work, and thus his identity, are of a state close to near permanent collapse in that they refuse to levy one monumental thesis against which every detail can be compared. In a way, the grain of the wood fails to pull through every molecule of its composition the indelible sturdiness of the material. It instead forfeits the task of constancy for a preferable condition of hybridity and frivolousness. This does not indicate that Mishima’s position lacked a seriousness, but rather to underline its capability of intaking simultaneously a swath of contradictory elements with such breadth than its problematization of the author’s biography continues to tarnish attempts to summarize him nearly half a century after his death. This quality illuminates the “ring that resolved all contradictions” in portraying its construction as one which allows for contradictions and yet at once resolves them without diminishing the prominent differences in character between constituent parts so as to celebrate their dichotomies as moments of ideological diversity which nonetheless perform towards a common end (Sun and Steel 47).

Literary critic Lee Quinby observes this in an analysis about Mishima’s conception of beauty in Confessions of a Mask. As Mishima, himself quoting from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, laments that “Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it never has and never can be fathomed … within beauty both shores meet and all contradictions exist side by side”, Quinby propositions that the contradictory subject becomes “not merely a zero-sum game in which binaristic forces cancel one another out”, one in which any given identity (in this case, beauty) can “become a site in which excess is engaged … for the purpose of baring the nature of binarisms themselves, inherent in social norms” (Confessions of a Mask n.p., Quinby 196). Quinby goes further into the topic, glancing Mishima’s and Dostoyevsky’s evocation of “beauty’s iconography [as] a pastiche of signifiers in which [connections] both implicate the one in the other and retain [their] antinomies” (Quinby 196). For Mishima’s work, this serves to undermine such oppositional qualities as Quinby lists in the same passage between “homo/hereto, illicit/licit, male female … and profane/sacred”, all of which serve to make indeterminant previously held societal positions between ostensibly oppositional categories.

Likewise, Schrader’s interpretation of Mishima’s prerogatives constructs a film which to its namesake’s abilities swoons between mere biography and totalizing fabrication without reducing to either of the two. Where it depicts the life of an author, its imaginative set design and heavily choreographed pacing through the first three of its acts work to undermine a perception that one’s identity is something antonymous, choosing instead to revel in the possibility that would be the reconciliation between reality and fantasy. Instead of arbitrating opposing qualities, a process in which their differences would be polished over until an exact tangency between their identities would bridge any gap and unite them, one might surmise that Mishima and Schrader work to harmonize them. With each distinct item ringing at the very tone and intensity of the other, the authors crisply enhance the space between them to enable an atmosphere in which an entirely strange collage of the two produces a unified affront to all normativities.

To these ends, Mishima himself elucidated the dichotomy that was his very life in a 1965 interview with the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK). Reminding his audience which had by that time somewhat drifted from the pains of the Second World War, Mishima notes “when the war ended – when we lost the war – although [our] world was expected to collapse, the trees, the green around me was still bathing in the light of summer” (NHK). Damian Flanagan again clarifies the ideological distinction this boundary posited in the Mishima biography in a 2015 lecture at the Daiwa Foundation:

For Mishima, born in 1925, the first twenty years of his life he lived in a quite repressive, militarized state with all the state mythology [such as] the emperor as god [and] Japan expanding across East Asia. In 1945, when Mishima, when Mishima was 20, this all abruptly came to an end, and a completely different Japan appeared, the Japan that was Americanized, that was democratized, that was economy-first. Mishima thrived in this environment, but it was a completely different world to the first 20 years of his life… it was form 1965, when he had exactly lived 20 years in this Western, democratized country and 20 years in this quasi-Fascist country that he started undergoing this radical politicization. (Flanagan)

This crux between the apolitical and the overtly nationalistic personalities that Mishima took up indicates a larger trend in the author’s ability to sustain seemingly disjoint narratives. Where contradiction hinges on the apparent incompatibility of the opposing positions, both Mishima’s literal chronological split between each categorical distinction and his behavior towards them indicate a specifically sharpened refusal to entertain either by itself. It is with this sentiment that even Mishima’s final act of ritual suicide reinforces the and yet aspect of his life. Caught perfectly between the dually challenged forces such persistent dichotomies, Mishima’s approach establishes a resolution to each conflict that negates the very oppositional presumptions with which the rivalry was initially configured.


Yukio Mishima was in one comparatively short lifetime an innumerable set of things – nationalistic and yet feverous for a set of fetishized Western ideals, outwardly presumptive and yet receded in his intense scrutiny of the world around him, machismo in the most meekly heteronormative way and yet wound intimately within the underground culture of gay life in postwar Tokyo. By escaping the constancy of expectations, which themselves are formed so often in binaristic comparisons between categories we are lead into believing as mutually exclusive, Mishima embraces a series of identities which weave various constituencies.

Beyond the implicit pragmatism this provides professionally as well as socially, it stands culturally to embrace the notion of hybridity in so far as it allows the production of a more contemporary construction of identity. Far from the stalemate insistence on strong character, which emerges in its reorganizability as a holistic (i.e. consumable) item, Mishima represents for us a transcendence on the nagging insistence towards consistency. This quality has dually become precisely the reason for Mishima’s often troubled descent into history and yet the aspect around which works like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters can continue to produce novel cultural concepts around his intricate lineage. More amalgamated vibration between a series of positions than singular dogma, Mishima’s oeuvre inspires a kind of cultural thinking that functions in the periphery to establish at once a contradiction and a holistic sentiment around a concept.

It is for this very reason that we might view the literary conundrum of digesting his legacy both for the community of Japanese literature and less overtly the entire postwar era as something of a triumph, the ultimate acquiescence to the postmodern complexity that has come to define our existence. It is a veneration of the moving target, something so constant in its slippage between identifiable qualities that its only ubiquity is its preference for indeterminism in the face of complacent expectation. Mishima himself is a condolence to the insurmountable demand that we identify ourselves.

Works Cited

Flanagan, Damian. “Yukio Mishima’s Enduring, Unexpected Influence”. The Japan Times, 21 November 2015. Web.

Flanagan, Damian. “Yukio Mishima”. The Daiwa Foundation. 28 January, 2015. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nq-M5n529ls

Mishima, Yukio. Confessions of a Mask. New York City, New Directions, 1958.

Mishima, Yukio. Sun and Steel. New York City, Kodansha America Inc., 1970.

Mishima, Yukio. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Singapore, Tuttle Publishing, 1956.

Quinby, Lee. Genealogy and Literature. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Schrader, Paul, director. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc., 1985.

Watts, Jonathan. “Dead Writer's Knife is in Japan's Heart”. The Guardian, 25 November 2000. Web.

Unknown author. Interview with Yukio Mishima. Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK). 1965. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeskvAXHfZw