The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.
Sylvia Plath, “Kindness”
by Sarah Nichols
I find myself wondering if Yukio Mishima ever read the work of Sylvia Plath, or if she was at all familiar with his. In The Bell Jar, Plath’s suicidal protagonist, Esther Greenwood, believes that the Japanese “disemboweled themselves when anything went wrong…in one quick flash, before they had time to think twice, they would jab the knives in and zip them round…their stomach skin would come loose, like a plate, and their insides would fall out, and they would die…It must take a lot of courage to die like that” (1).
Mishima would agree that to commit seppuku (or, as it is more commonly as known, hara-kiri) is a courageous act. On November 25, 1970, he, along with members of his private militia, held a Commandant of Japan’s Self Defense Force hostage in Tokyo (2), but John Nathan, Mishima’s biographer, writes that when he founded the “Shield Society” the death that had so often unspooled like a film in Mishima’s head was death through kirijini “ …to die with sword in hand, to go down fighting. It connotes specifically a small band of vassals, outnumbered, who charge an enemy in defense of their lord in full knowledge that they will be overwhelmed” (3). I was surprised at this. In my studies thus far he has struck me as one whose need for domination and individual recognition was so great that only the more individual-seeming seppuku would do for him. He wanted an audience for his death, which Nathan explicitly describes (4), but he also wanted adulation for it. Four years before the ugly reality of a beheading and a sword driven into his abdomen in a bureaucrat’s office, Mishima wanted to “validate the act as a thing of beauty” (5).
It almost works. In the chiaroscuro light on a spare, white “Noh theater stage” (6), the only sound is the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the recording scratchy and old, but still full of the erotic fusion with death. The narrative scroll that Mishima himself prepared (7) seems to take a long time to unfurl; it contains no secrets, however. A young woman, Reiko (Yoshiko Tsuruoka) waits for her husband, a lieutenant, played by Mishima, to return home.
Based “in the margins of the real-life February 26  Incident, an attempt by young army officers to restore direct rule by the ‘divine’ Emperor Hirohito that involved slaughtering politicians and heads of industry in surprise attacks” (8).
This severe mise-en-scene is dominated by a scroll with Chinese characters which mean “Wholehearted Sincerity”; Reiko looks like a child beneath it, wrapping up animal figurines—“ Keepsakes” to leave to her family. One of them breaks, and there aren’t many to begin with; they aren’t wealthy people. This somehow adds a detail of reality for me: Mishima is so intent on reenacting his death; this small gesture, as if she was making preparations for a trip, show a brief glimpse of a life, and it stops being his private, blood fueled hallucination.
Mishima goes out of his way to hide as much of his face as possible. His cap is pulled far down over his eyes when he appears on screen. He tells Reiko that his men are now considered traitors, and that he must kill them, but he knows he can’t; the only honorable thing to do is to kill himself. Reiko agrees, and plans to die with him.
The scroll unfurls a little further: for the first time in their marriage, they are truly uninhibited as lovers, and again, the focus is on Reiko: her hair is wild, there are close-ups of her abdomen; her eyes; a finger. It is not even scopophilia; it’s too detached, there’s no pleasure, and the camera is static. It is a body, not something that the eye worships. Mishima worked diligently on his own body through weight lifting and other exercise (9). The camera does linger here. A well-muscled back, cutting to medium close-ups of Mishima’s chest. His face, in profile, supine.
All we can know now or ever know is that death must always have been his desire. Death confronted him wearing a variety of masks. One by one he took them off and put them on his own face. When he removed the final mask, death’s real face must have been revealed, but we cannot know whether even that was terrifying to him (10).
Mishima sits, naked now, save for his underwear and cap. There is a close-up on the exact place where he will insert the blade. For the viewer, time is crawling. Once he’s stabbed himself, the look of pain and ecstasy is nothing like supposed “uninhibited” lovemaking that we saw earlier. A silent cry. Foaming at the mouth. The white set now has a pool of black blood on it, and he collapses into it.
Reiko prepares to follow her husband; her white robes are stained with his blood, and the stain grows as she walks into a side room to apply make-up. Every gesture, it seems, is done with slow, loving care: Tsuruoka acts out a life, while Mishima acts out a fantasy. She kisses his bloody lips, and licks a dagger, cutting her throat.
They are joined in a way they never were when they were alive. The camera pulls upand away; they are in a raked rock garden, unblemished, Mishima laid out in uniform, with Reiko on his chest, the white of her robes restored. They could be sleeping. This is what Yukio Mishima wants. Like Kafka’s Hunger Artist, he wants us to admire his death.
- Plath, Sylvia, The Bell Jar. (New York: Bantam, 1971) 113.
- Nathan, John, Mishima: A Biography. (Boston: Little, 1974) 274-280.
- Nathan 244.
- Nathan 280.
- Rayns, Tony, “The Word Made Flesh,” Liner Notes, Criterion Collection DVD, Patriotism, 7.
- Rayns 7.
- Rayns 7.
- Rayns 9.
- Nathan 126-27.
- Mishima, Yukio. Kyoko’s House, qtd. in Nathan, 167.
- Nathan 270