Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review -- 憂国 (PATRIOTISM) by 三島 由紀夫 (Mishima Yukio)

憂国 (Yuukoku) by 三島 由紀夫 (Mishima Yukio) is a very, very short work that can easily be read in an hour or two. The title translates, roughly, into Patriotism, although the characters have a slightly different implication. The character 憂 (yuu) can mean "concern" or "worry," and 国 (koku) is the character for "country," "land," or "nation." I'm not certain I understand why he chose that particular kanji as opposed to 愛国 (aikoku), in which 愛 means "love" and translates much more directly into the English term "patriotism." But that's part of what makes this story so compelling. Perhaps the title was deliberately chosen for that reason. Indeed, the original title, 憂國, utilized 國, the original, traditional kanji for "country," as opposed to the more recent, simplified 国.

When I put the story down, I sat for a few moments a bit bewildered, because I know a little bit about Mishima's life, and it is apparent that this work is semi-autobiographical in a sort of prophetic sense.

I might as well come out and say it--I don't know if I am really all that qualified to do something quite so gauche as to actually attempt and review something by Mishima. I've read his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, but his work is so dense and so culturally inundated with Japanese meaning that it is somewhat steep for an Occidental reader to grasp. Mishima was a very enigmatic person, difficult to understand and describe. His work is deeply suffused with his idealism and sense of justice--but it is a very different justice than most might be used to. Mishima was convinced that the Emperor of Japan was a divinity, and indeed denounced the Showa Emperor for renouncing his claim after the atomic bombings. The author felt that the Emperor's divinity wasn't personal, but was a sort of focus or expression of the spirit of the Japanese people.

Yuukoku is essentially the final evening a young army lieutenant and newlywed husband spends with his young wife before they both commit suicide. This young officer had recently been promoted and was looking forward to a bright and promising career. However, in the aftermath of the 二・二六事件 (Ni Ni-roku Jiken--"the 2-2-6 Incident") in 1936, this officer, who was not directly involved, was friend to many of the mutineers involved in the coup-d'état. Inheriting command of a unit destined to attack his friends, he instead chooses the way of the samurai--bushido demands loyalty, and death is an expression of that loyalty. Everything is described intensely, with a great focus on detail and intimacy, from their lovemaking to the husband's act of seppuku in graphic but meaningful detail. Some might find it all incredibly boring, but that is because the entire business obviously would have no meaning to them.

Patriotism and duty are tied inextricably with death. The story is much less about those elements, however, as it is about the moments themselves. The husband is a dutiful officer who chooses to commit ritual suicide rather than choose sides in a mutiny, and his wife follows him into death. This is no surprise, it is given away in the very first sentence of the story that they do this. But I'm profoundly interested in what Mishima didn't explain, perhaps because he didn't think it needed to be explained--how death is tied to patriotism is never elucidated. Mishima never even mentions patriotism in the story itself. Nor does he mention duty. Although something may have been lost in the translation, I feel that these things were left out purposely. Mishima isn't concerned with the why of the actions--they apparently don't need to be explained, but simply detailed, much like Hemingway's Iceberg Principle.

Knowing Mishima's own suicide and failed attempt at insurrection, I felt that he had harbored a profound sadness at the state of his country, which he loved. This love is reflected through the love Lieutenant Takeyama feels for the Imperial Army and for Japan itself as well, and the sadness at its perceived decline and his refusal to fight against his own forces. Mishima, writing after the Second World War, never seems to even consider the war or the loss very much in the works I've read, but everything that deals with the pre-war period (such as "Patriotism") appears to view the growth of military power with a somewhat jaundiced eye, and an awareness of loss of purpose.

This story is really about Mishima's desire for a death in service to his country. It is sad, because it is presented as perfection. He presents Lt. Takeyama and Reiko as the perfect husband and wife, and sees their conduct as moral and correct. What we are reading, in effect, is Mishima's own wish for himself--not literally, perhaps, but morally. And, indeed, Mishima would attempt to prove himself, with his own attempted coup in 1970--an even that would culminate in his ritual suicide.

I find that ultimately sad, but Mishima was someone I believe I can understand and comprehend to a small extent. This short story is far more about himself and his own wish for what he believed was perfection, than it is about patriotism alone. It is about a moral certainty and a sublime peacefulness with one's own decision. The lieutenant and his wife never question, they just do. The decision was made, and they lived their last moments as strongly as they possibly could.

憂国 (Yuukoku or "Patriotism") by 三島 由紀夫 (Mishima Yukio)
Style A
Substance A+
Overall A+

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