Book Review: Mishima A Vision of the Void by Marguerite Yourcenar

On November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima, one of the most acclaimed Japanese writers of all time, was part of a group that stormed a military facility and held a prominent officer hostage. Mishima then appeared on a balcony and gave a speech urging soldiers to return to the view that the emperor was a god, but the military men only mocked the author. He returned inside and then committed seppuku—ritual suicide—with his male lover.

Theories on why Mishima did this abound: some say he was delusional and his attempt at a coup d’etat was serious; others have made the argument that this was only to give the suicide obsessed Mishima the context for a death he had dreamed about. This odd incident served as inspiration for Marguerite Yourcenar, a fan of Mishima’s writing, and the result is this essay.

This is an odd book. Yourcenar knows no Japanese and thus relies on translations, which she herself admits and seems to recognize the folly of it, but then goes ahead and writes this essay anyway. It is primarily concerned woth the relations between Mishima’s written work and his life, specifically his suicide, which she treats as a work in itself. It’s a mixed bag.

When discussing Mishima’s books written before the Sea of Fertility (ex. CONFESSIONS OF A MASK; SOUND OF WAVES; TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN PAVILION), she doesn’t go into too much detail, but her analysis does a lot to illuminate the western influences on Mishima and how these manifest themselves in his novels and plays. Perhaps it is the brevity of this section that lends it its strength, because the next section, devoted to the tetralogy, suffers from the plot summaries.

Finishing up, she goes into his politics and his seppuku, and here the essay as a whole ultimately felt like it does not cohere as much as Yourcenar hoped it would. She sums up the Japanese author who created art out of his own life, a man whose suicide was as poetic as his books, but her analysis of his fiction makes this conclusion appear more as if she came up with the ending and then worked backwards. Cherry picking abounds, and Yourcenar is hastily dismissive of some of Mishima’s works for unsatisfactory reasons.

The biggest problem with this work, though, is that in order to get something out of it, you need to be a fan of Mishima, but if you are such a fan of his that you sought out this volume, it doesn’t offer too much new. Any biography of him offers most of the same information, but in a much more informative and context-laden way. Yourcenar’s writing is stellar but not enough to save this. If there’s nothing else of Mishima’s to read, you might as well go for it, but don’t expect big things.