I have a lot of ground to cover when it comes to Japanese literature. I loved A True Novel by Minae Mizumura when I read it a couple of years ago. It made my Best of 2017 list and was also one of my nominations for the 100 Best Books by Women Writers in Translation.
I have a read a couple of books from Hiromi Kawakami and Yoko Ogawa. But sadly, not much of the earlier Japanese writers. Clearly, there are big, gaping holes that I need to fill up.
So when Penguin Modern Classics released a new edition of The Frolic of the Beasts, I decided to start there. I hadn’t read any Mishima and besides, I thought the cover was striking.
Yukio Mishima’s history is quite fascinating and turbulent. He is widely believed to be one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century and he was considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times, one of those times losing out to his compatriot Yasunari Kawabata (another author I haven’t yet read).
But it’s his death which caught headlines. Here’s an extract from the author profile…
In 1970, Mishima staged a military coup, which failed as he anticipated it would, whereupon he performed ‘seppuku’, a form of ritual suicide.
Quite an intense man then, and that intensity has rubbed off on this novel too…
The Frolic of the Beasts opens with a prologue which reveals to us the tragic fate of the three main characters, Yuko, her husband Ippei and her lover Koji.
The subsequent chapters in the book then flesh out the events that led up to this tragedy in a narrative where the tension keeps building up.
The opening lines of the book are beautiful…
Koji thought about the sunlight that shone brightly into the connecting corridor that led to the bathhouse, cascading over the windowsill, spreading out like a sheet of white glossy paper. He didn’t know why, but he had humbly, passionately loved the light streaming down through that window. It was divine favor, truly pure-dismembered, like the white body of a slain infant.
Those lines belie the harsh reality which is a prison where Koji has been serving a sentence.
Koji has been imprisoned for a crime of passion for which he believes he has repented. When the time comes for his release, it is Yuko, his lover, who comes to pick him up and not any of his family members, which only adds to the overall strangeness in the opening pages.
But Yuko has her doubts.
As they began to walk, Yuko was seized with anxiety that it had been a mistake to take charge of this forlorn young orphan. Since deciding to care for him, she had not once experienced such a sense of trepidation, which was clearly therefore some sort of presentiment. She had even been censured for her rashness by the prison governor, who said he had never before heard of a case where a member of the victim’s family had become the criminal’s guarantor.
Gradually, we begin to glean the details. Koji, a University student earlier, had been working as an apprentice with Ippei (Yuko’s husband). Ippei is a cultured man, a literary critic whose books have been well received. But he is cruel and a womanizer.
Koji immediately falls in love with the beautiful and enigmatic Yuko (the red lipstick on her pale face is often cited as the striking feature of her beauty), and begins a doomed affair with her. The impossibility of the situation, however, drives Koji to attack Ippei with a wench. And Koji finds himself in prison for this act.
Upon his release, Koji decides to work in the greenhouse which is situated on Ippei and Yuko’s estate in a rural part of the country. Ippei is a changed man though after the attack. He is suffering from aphasia, a condition which has hampered his speech and his ability to understand and communicate leaving him vulnerable, and a shadow of his former self.
Thereafter, begins an uneasy and ill-fated relationship between the three, as Yuko and Koji still find themselves trapped in a situation from which they don’t know how to untangle themselves. It can only end in doom.
The Frolic of the Beasts then is a psychological novel, a tale of seduction and violence, as we try to discern what goes on in the minds of the protagonists and what drives their actions.
While it was easy to understand Koji and the conflicts, thoughts and emotions raging in his mind, Yuko comes across as pretty inscrutable. That was a problem for me because I couldn’t really grasp her motives. But then, maybe Mishima intended it that way.
Ippei is a fascinating creation. Especially, in the way he exerted control (or seemed to) over Koji and Yuko, both when he was in full command of his faculties before the attack, and even as an invalid after that event.
Even before he (Koji) saw Ippei’s completely changed form, he ought to have dropped to his knees in tears and apologized. Instead, something had intervened, clogging the machinery and stopping this course of events. He couldn’t put his finger on what it was; perhaps it was that unsettling smile that hung about Ippei’s mouth like a spiderweb.
In terms of prose, Mishima’s writing is languid and gorgeous. He is very good at evoking a sense of place, of painting an atmosphere where there is tension lurking beneath the surface. The feeling of claustrophobia is palpable throughout.
The trees and the grass had begun to dry out from the morning dew and the previous day’s rain. The rising water vapor and sunlight appeared to completely cover the surface of the mountains and forests in trembling silver leaf. It was extremely quiet, so much so that it seemed as if the mountains and forests were lightly enveloped in some sort of glittering shroud of death.
Mishima also excels in giving psychological depth to his characters. In this passage, he attempts to convey what’s going on with Ippei after the catastrophic transformation in him.
In a sense, it was as if the connection between spirit and action had been severed and the one jewel that had been both the source of his self-confidence and the measure of his public respect had split and become two complementary jewels, which had been placed on opposite banks of that large dark river. And while the jewel on the far bank, namely his literary works, was to the public at large the real treasure, to Ippei, it was nothing more than a pile of rubble. Conversely, while in the eyes of the general public the jewel on the near bank, namely his spirit, had already turned to rubble, it was to Ippei alone the only genuine jewel in his crown.
Indeed, in a way, the essence of the novel can be summed up in a conversation between Koji and Ippei in the final pages…it is Koji’s rant which also gives the novel its name…
We could have discarded our troubles, dug ourselves a hole as big as yours, and, right in front of your very eyes, Yuko and I could have had done with it and slept together like a pair of frolicking beasts without a care in the world…But I couldn’t bring myself to do that. And neither could Yuko. Do you understand?
The Frolic of the Beasts is my first Mishima. It’s a slim novel and therefore the perfect entrée to give a flavour of his writing. He is certainly an interesting enough author for me to want to read more from his oeuvre. I have the Confessions of the Mask, After the Banquet and of course the famous Sea of Fertility Quartet. Would greatly appreciate any suggestions as to which of his I should try next.