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Edging Toward Japan: Yukio Mishima, a life in pursuit of Nietzsche

Yukio Mishima is interviewed at his home in Tokyo's Minamimagome district in this December 1968 file photo. (Mainichi)

By Damian Flanagan

    Toward the end of the World War II, a shy, precocious 19-year-old youth, seething with inner turmoil and frustrations, discovered a book called "The Birth of Tragedy." It was to become a never-to-be-forgotten moment of epiphany and liberation.

    Nietzsche's concept of the Dionysian as an all-embracing primeval force from which we all emerge and to which we finally return was to be a tremendous source of solace and inspiration to a painfully reserved and isolated youth. His name was Kimitake Hiraoka, but at the age of 16 in 1941 he had first published a work under a pen name: Yukio Mishima.

    As the war situation worsened, the notion that all the turmoil and frenzy of both his exterior and interior worlds could be used to create sublime Apollonian visions of art offered to Mishima's mind a sense of transcendence that was at the core of his life and creative work for the rest of his life.

    Mishima's bond with Nietzsche was described by Mishima's father after his son's death of a special intensity. One week before his real, planned death at the age of 45 in 1970 -- his final return into the consuming fires of Dionysian chaos -- Mishima talked in an interview about the lifelong impact on his imagination of "The Birth of Tragedy" and "Zarathustra." After the shocking ritual suicide, Mishima's mother left a copy of Nietzsche on Mishima's shrine for him to read for all eternity.

    Mishima didn't just write and talk Nietzsche, he was, in the truest sense of the word, the "ubermensch," a person of constant transformations ("ubergehen"). Mishima lived and breathed Nietzsche. By sheer force of will, he turned his sickly, weak body into his own beauteous creation: muscular and fit. Believing himself to be living in a cave, he stepped into the sunlight, sunbathing every day as part of his rituals. Refusing to accept any barrier that stood in his way, he would be a movie star, a photographic icon, a playwright and director, a world traveler, a general of his own army. He wrote in a vast diversity of styles from Kabuki plays to sci-fi novels.

    Just about everything connected in some sense to Nietzsche. When Mishima departed on his first round-the-world trip in 1951, a highlight was to travel to Greece and sit on the steps of the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens. When he undertook an iconic photoshoot in the early 1960s, he famously placed a hammer next to his head alluding to Nietzsche's line about philosophizing with a hammer.

    But perhaps most significantly of all, when Mishima finally designed a house of his own -- an incongruous Spanish-Italianate creation in modern Tokyo -- he planted at the centre of the small garden a statue of Apollo.

    It was here every day that he took a late breakfast and sunbathed. The Apollonian vision was at the centre of Mishima's creative universe and everything in his life moved around it.

    How must it have been that final morning when he bade that statue one final goodbye, signifying that visions of art, the dreams of beauty were over. Somewhere in the Dionysian maelstrom, Nietzsche and Mishima must be even now comparing notes.


    (This is Part 30 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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