Flags and High Windows
Updated: Dec 26, 2020
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. Here I review Yukio Mishima's Star to examine his wider political project in all its strangeness, taking a long detour to also discuss his The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy. First published Apr 20 2019.
Yukio Mishima is a Japanese author who lived between 1925 and 1970, known—beyond his reputation as a novelist—for his theatrical death: barricading himself inside the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, he delivered a speech calculated (with a great deal of futility) to instagate a coup d’état restoring the Japanese emperor to full power, and promptly committed suicide by seppuku. He is one of those strangely liminal figures who attracts a peculiar set of fans. For me, Mishima is entrancing as a consummate storyteller and stylist, but horrifying in every other respect. He is a fascinatingly confused (and confusing) ideologue.
Generally, writers with so definite a politics, horrible or otherwise (from Bertolt Brecht to Ayn Rand) won’t allow all their doubts, contradictions, traumas and uncertainties to be so openly displayed. Mishima’s thinking is an incoherent horror, but it has a definite (if disturbingly reactionary) prescriptive agenda. In one scene from the first book of his most famous literary project, Spring Snow of The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy, the deuteragonists Kiyoaki Matsugae and Shigekuni Honda watch a group of kendo students outside. The men participating in this game are hyper-masculine, displaying martial prowess and bravado. Kiyoaki and Shigekuni show a detached disgust for it all, and it is suggestive of the general disgust of small ‘c’ conservativism for the faux traditionalism of fascist aesthetics. By the next book in the series, Runaway Horses, Kiyoaki has seemingly been reincarnated as Isao Iinuma, one of those selfsame kendo students, and an aspiring fascist militant whose fate parallels (even in its futility) Mishima’s own. The ambivalence here feels oddly self-aware, and expresses itself through much of Mishima’s work.
Generally, writers with so definite a politics, horrible or otherwise (from Bertolt Brecht to Ayn Rand) won’t allow all their doubts, contradictions, traumas and uncertainties to be so openly displayed.
Mishima was gay, a bodybuilder, a modernist conservative who engaged in talks with Maoist student protesters, obsessed over his appearance, obsessed over youth, had a monomania for the dichotomy of ugliness and beauty, for 'western culture', for traditionalism, for state power, for violence, and never really seemed bothered with tying this all together into anything that made even a vague lick of sense. Mishima is emblematic of many preoccupations in our doom laden historical moment (what is optimistically dubbed late capitalism). Or, more modestly, he at least foresees some of the cultural concerns we face, especially concerns that coalesce around a new wave of global fascism. The logic of market fundamentalism has reached breaking point, challenged by its externalities, and in the interlude we have to contend with monsters; Mishima seems well acquainted with them already. But Mishima’s foresight also, and importantly, stops at diagnosis, at mere acquaintance. Beyond that (i.e. there is a problem) his ridiculous suicide can most generously be read as quietist pessimism, and less generously as a failure of imagination.
All of which brings me, three paragraphs in, to the little book I am ostensibly reviewing. It’s a novella recently published by Penguin, originally a part of a short story collection, and it is a typical piece in Mishima’s larger body of work. Reading it reminded me oddly of watching Ezra Koenig’s strange Netflix anime Neo Yukio, starring Jaden Smith in an oddly self-referential role. That is, because the book tackles the same essential problem: a hyper-commercial society of fundamentally alienated people mediated through a string of absurd encounters as depicted via the perspective of an upper class aesthete who is utterly alienated from himself and his society, seemingly unable to reach a revelatory moment in which his predicament is made clear. But whereas Neo Yukio’s answers are found in humorous appeals to the political left, Mishima’s stories ultimately flounder into a kind of performative despair that is more likely to be picked up by the extreme right. This despair is, indeed, the defining gesture of the post-WWII far right.
Star, published in 1961, is about Rikio Mizuno, a twenty-three year old actor approaching twenty-four, and his relationship with his assistant Kayo Futoda: ‘Kayo was in fact my accomplice, my partner in this artifice. To be honest, she was probably the better actor.’ The essential conceit of the story is that Rikio sees his life as all but over at his next birthday, as he will then lack the requisite youth to be the detached object of adulation he has so absolutely (and destructively) made himself. His response to this fate is to readily embrace Kayo’s much-proffered nihilism, which at points borders on psychopathy and is articulated at length towards the end when she argues that ‘a convincing sense of reality can only be borne from an unholy faith.’ It’s a good monologue, although seemingly as contrived as anything else in the book—a point clearly not missed by the author.
Age is just one inevitability amongst many ruptures in Rikio’s life, ruptures that briefly break the irreal confines of his celebrity status.
Age is just one inevitability amongst many ruptures in Rikio’s life, ruptures that briefly break the irreal confines of his celebrity status. I use the word ‘rupture’ because the juxtaposition between the real and simulacrums is explored by Mishima purely through shocking moments that are both horrific and, at least it is implied, liberatory. For Mishima, as for that oddly similar Romanian pessimist and aphorist Emil Cioran (who also had an odd if more ambivalent relationship to fascism), the loss of illusion constitutes the breakdown of sanity, however much it also seems to be a precondition for freedom. So a young actor attempts suicide and Rikio fixates on her pain as she is resuscitated, or the improbability of a shoplifter’s arrest is alarmingly said to ‘crack the superstructure of reality.’ The best example of these breakdowns, however, is when Rikio notes the painful discrepancy between the constitution of temporality in his films and in his life. And here the book expresses a flat preference for the fictional depiction of reality over and above the reality it depicts:
If you get too used to living life this way, the steady flow of real time—where there is no turning back—begins to feel boring and stale. Let’s say I meet a girl and want to skip ahead to when we’re sleeping together, but I can’t, which makes me antsy, and it feels absurd that I can’t jump ahead to where I’m sick of her, or back to the freedom that I had before we met.
Why do I find all of this, the troubled and troubling embrace of the superficial, the odd desperation, so arresting? Many reasons, in truth. As mentioned before, my relationship to Mishima’s work is complex. But more simply and relevantly, the performative despair on display here is something I also find — albeit in a less articulate, more obscene, less reflective mode—in the politics that calls itself alt-right. And this is a politics that is hideous and well placed to capitalise—insidiously—on the problems of our shared moment, with its non-solutions grounded in ethno-nationalist fantasies and an ironic display of nihilist misery that effectively channels the alienation depicted through a character like Rikio.
At one point in the novella, after Kayo reads out a fan letter to Rikio in which his adorer describes masturbating to his image, he muses: ‘Given the choice, I’d much rather have a girl masturbating somewhere to my picture than actually trying to sleep with me. Real love always plays out at a distance.’ This solipsist and sterile eroticism seems omnipresent on the far right, with its otaku waifus, glib pornification and the seeming contradiction (particularly in the misogynistic Incel community) between an avowed hated of women and a desperate, entitled desire for them. At another point, Rikio notes how ‘if there’s a mirror in the room, I notice it right way and answer its passionate gaze.’ Rikio’s solipsism is a breed of horrified narcissism. Much like alt-right celebs such as Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg a.k.a. PewDiePie (himself a Mishima fan), Rikio sees only himself, and even his audience is just a further mirror to reflect back his own all-encompassing image.
The interplay of ugliness and beauty, transgression and innocence, artifice and reality, youth and power, is everywhere in evidence.
The interplay of ugliness and beauty, transgression and innocence, artifice and reality, youth and power, is everywhere in evidence. Youth above all, ‘Aijiro Kukura’s excesses were evident. He was a living God, male beauty sublime, incapable of doing wrong, but he had committed one great sin: the sin of growing old.’ And all of this is contained within a culture obsessed with status and fame. This is not simply Mishima’s crisis anymore, but a more general crisis that has found expression in online ‘ironic’ fascism. If Rikio is the uncertain subject teetering on the brink of despair-ridden hate, then Kayo articulates the urge to abandon doubt and embrace the logic of the fantasy to its furthest conclusions.
Takeuchi, Rikio’s film director during the story, represents the other, third force in his life: he encapsulates the film reality in which they all reside, which Kayo characterises as a world of masks (masks are an important motif for Mishima). But, Takeuchi doesn’t articulate an alternative vision to Kayo. Rather, he is modernity in all its emptiness, the precondition for a nihilist like Kayo; he merely represents the fragility of the world of masks against those ruptures that presage only Kayo-esque psychosis:
Slip ups like these, blunders that ruin a take, seemed to make him feel like the glass castle that he was labouring to construct was shattering to pieces. He planned his scenes shot by shot, like a criminal plotting out the perfect crime. When he hit some obstacle along the way — a mouse, for instance, kicking a tin can off of a shelf onto the floor — he would reject this unsolicited detail, however realistic, as his sworn enemy.
So, there’s Takeuchi’s simulacrum and the more robust vengeance of Kayo’s nihilism; Kayo, it’s worth noting, is always described as ugly, and this ugliness assumes the level of a symbol of the truly real. But does Mishima stop there? That is, does his performative despair end with Rikio’s life as Takeuchi’s constructed popular heartthrob on the surface, but with a dark pact and deeper attachment to Kayo and her philosophy of meaninglessness and madness? Its illuminating here to return to The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy before I answer that question, because it offers its own answer to the problems being posed, and it’s one that hints at the fatal terminus in Mishima’s thinking.
Spring Snow’s Kiyoaki represents a pristine version of Japanese nobility, but he is ultimately corrupted; one can see something reified and inherently fascist in the notion of a country being so personified, but it’s also noteworthy that Kiyoaki’s degenerated reincarnation, not Kiyoaki, is the violent nationalist. His third incarnation, Ying Chan, is not even Japanese (but Thai) and an indolent princess, too—there’s some pretty strange eroticism in this third book, The Temple of Dawn, and interpreting it would merit a separate essay. But more significant to understanding Star is the fourth book in the tetralogy, Mishima’s literary suicide note published between 1970 and 1971, The Decay of the Angel.
In that final instalment, that last work of literature, we meet Kiyoaki’s final and most degenerated reincarnation, Toru Yasunaga. And if Mishima did stop with Kayo’s nihilism, Toru would be a perfect double for Rikio despite the books being written a decade apart. And yet, there’s a passage in Star that harks back to the earlier works of The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy, which complicates such a reading and seems to join up Mishima’s hyper nationalism (as seen in book two of the tetralogy) with his suicidal despair (as seen in Star and book four). In this passage, the actor Rikio briefly overcomes his impasse, and he does so by admiring a flag:
Just as it would fall limp, it whipped against the sky, snapping between shadow and light, as if any moment it would tear free and fly away. I don’t know why, but watching it infused me with a sadness that ran to the deepest limits of my soul and made me think of suicide. There were so many ways to die.
In his poem ‘High Windows,’ English poet and melancholic Philip Larkin describes a world where ‘Bonds and gestures [are] pushed to one side’ and ‘everyone young’ is ‘going down the long slide// To happiness, endlessly’, and in so doing seems to echo much of the despair at the heart of Rikio’s situation: a frustration with a society in which all values are reduced to youthful and fleeting pleasures that are somehow, for Larkin as much as for Mishima, unsatisfactory. Larkin concludes in a stanza that reminds me of Rikio’s spasming flag, ‘snapping between shadow and light,’ and it is worth including the end of the poem here in full, since the juxtaposition strikes me as apt:
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows: The sun-comprehending glass, And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
There’s some transcendence being looked for here, in flags and high windows, in nationalisms and, arguably more meaningfully, faiths. And ultimately whatever it is finds its expression in suicide, at least for Mishima, or in skies and heavens and nothingness for both men—to be clear, I find Larkin’s resolution the more profound. For the aforementioned Emil Cioran, too, sadness and transcendence and suicide (qua a flight into nothingness) are intermingled, ‘Suicide is a sudden accomplishment, a lightning-like deliverance: it is nirvana by violence.’ The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy ends not with a redemption by suicide, however, or even death per se, but a failed suicide (Toru manages only to blind himself in a feeble attempt) and Shigekuni’s discovery that Kiyoaki’s former romantic interest (the reason for Kiyoaki’s death in Spring Snow), Satoko Ayakura, reveals that she does not even recall Kiyoaki's existence. From doubting that Toru is the reincarnation of his lost friend, Shigekuni comes quickly (after his disturbing encounter with Satoko) to doubt even his own existence.
One illusion is offered as a substitute for another.
At the end of Star, Rikio comes to a similar doubt, too: ‘I couldn’t say for sure that Kayo was at the PR Office, could I be sure that she existed?’ And, ‘If Kayo didn’t exist, if that much was true, what guaranteed that I did?’ Ultimately, Rikio meets that older version of himself, the silent era actor Aijiro Kukura, and sees his future as an old man, but he is as quickly reassured by Kayo (who perhaps does, then, exist?) of her loyalty to him irrespective of the future ravishes of time. Much as with Toru’s fate, and the ambiguity of Shigekuni’s doubts, or even Mishima’s pointless suicide, it's an ending that resolves nothing, that reaches desperately for transcendence in the context of a society that has failed, but doesn’t remember how to reach beyond that society’s all-consuming calamity. And even finds solace in empty symbols (flags) of that society. One illusion is offered as a substitute for another.
This, finally, is why I am fascinated by Mishima. His failure is the one we must surpass. Some will reach this point, the crisis in identity and meaning repeated over and over in Mishima’s books, beyond which they cannot seem to go. We find dissatisfaction with liberal capitalism, anger at an alienated society, nostalgia for something better, but it then remains to be seen whether we can, in fact, still find a source of salvation more satisfactory than suicide and flags and maybe even than high windows, than a grasping at… nothing in particular.
It would certainly be good to arrive at something more satisfactory than the cult of youth. At the very least, more satisfying than the stale resentments of the alt-right! Star is one place we could dimly start, but it hardly offers more than an outline of our shared predicament, and beyond that only a tawdry nationalism in the form of a flag ‘whipped against the sky, snapping between shadow and light.’
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