Yukio Mishima, “Runaway Horses” (1969) (translated from the Japanese by Michael Gallagher) – The details of Yukio Mishima’s life and especially his death have a tendency to bleed over into evaluations of his work. Killing yourself after a quixotic fascist coup attempt will do that. Mishima has some advantages in terms of posthumous reputation that the other great fascist writer of the twentieth century, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, lacked. Most notably he had no record of public racist statements. Though lord knows Koreans, Chinese et al probably didn’t find his emperor-worship to be the harmless or merely psychologically tragic affectation as it’s depicted, say, in the “about the author” in the Vintage edition I have of this book, or in the film “Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters.”
The Mishima-biography quicksand is especially grabby in the case of “Runaway Horses.” It’s the second book in the “Sea of Fertility” tertralogy, the last works Mishima ever wrote- he finished the last volume and then set out on his last trip. Moreover, it primarily concerns a young man attempting to mount a quixotic right-wing coup against a corrupt and feckless Japanese government, in this case in the early 1930s, just before Japan took its big leap into war.
You’d assume that what amounted to an extended suicide note by a fascist depicting something like what he planned on doing before dying would basically be a Mary Sue story of strength and violence. Probably the greatest living American fascist artist (which isn’t saying much) is Frank Miller (see?). Imagine how over the top his last comic would be if he had a year to work on it before putting his money where his mouth is?
Funny thing is, that’s not how “Runaway Horses,” or any of Mishima’s work as far as I can tell, reads. For one thing, the main viewpoint character isn’t the young imperialist rebel but a somewhat anhedonic middle class lawyer, Honda. He becomes convinced that Isao, a young kendo student, is the reincarnation of his childhood best friend, who died due a failed romance in the previous chapter. Isao, it turns out, is obsessed with a failed samurai rebellion against the Meiji restoration and organizes some of his high school buddies (with disingenuous help from some army officers) to reproduce the same sort of quixotic uprising. At age nineteen, the only worthwhile thing he can think to do with his life is to die for the Emperor, in a gesture the actual existing Emperor would probably fail to appreciate it. The second clause of that sentence is why I’d earn Isao’s scorn, as do most adults in his world.
There’s a lot of generational repetition and a lot of longing after death. There’s a certain amount of dwelling on violence, but less than you’d think. One funny thing Mishima does is reproduce an entire pamphlet on the historical doomed samurai uprising and have everyone praise it to the skies, despite it being much duller and more didactic prose. Almost everything surrounding Isao’s big move threatens to compromise the purity of gesture he envisions- putting the vision into words lessens it; the planning seems futile and cheap; his inevitable capture and the light sentence he receives for being a good boy overwhelmed by patriotic fervor renders his experience humiliating. Even nobler moments — the support of the other boys and a sort of-girlfriend figure, Honda’s sympathetic quasi-mystical understanding of Isao’s character and fate — become liabilities tying him to earth.
Mishima’s delicate psychological realism meets up with his ideology in the registers of disgust, frustration, and desire for the perfect gesture. The only way out for Isao is to eschew not just his family and social norms — that’s a given — but even his friends and his political goals, if he’s going to get that big perfect gesture/death. Subtler than most fascists, Mishima sees the impediment to beauty and purity of gesture as impersonal forces — time, society, human frailty — rather than a given group. But he shares with them the enshrining of aesthetics — specifically, an aesthetics of death and bloodshed — over morals and norms.
I’ll admit- there’s little more alien to me than the idea of substituting aesthetics for norms anywhere in “real life,” troublesome though that distinction is. I haven’t even really got an aesthetic to plug in there if I wanted to. But it’s a pretty important part of modernist literature (and of fascism), and Mishima lays one way that can go with unusual clarity. ****’