THE RUSSO-JAPANESE WAR OF 1904-1905 AS HISTORICAL BACKDROP IN MISHIMA’S NOVEL “SPRING SNOW”

July 12, 2010 at 1:05 am | Posted in Art, Asia, Books, History, Japan, Literary, Military | Leave a comment

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Spring Snow (1968)

(The first book in the Sea of Fertility series)

A novel by Yukio Mishima

“Spring Snow begins innocently enough. Two friends discuss the Russo-Japanese War, which finally convinced the Caucasian world that Asia was more than an inert conglomeration of teeming multitudes.“

The first book of Mishima’s landmark “The Sea of Fertility” sequence, this novel is set in Tokyo in 1912, when the hermetic world of the ancient aristocracy is being breached for the first time by outsiders.

The first novel of Mishima’s landmark tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility is Spring Snow set in Tokyo in 1912, when the hermetic world of the ancient aristocracy is being breached for the first time by outsiders namely, rich provincial families unburdened by tradition, whose money and vitality make them formidable contenders for social and political power.

Among this rising new elite are the ambitious Matsugae, whose son has been raised in a family of the waning aristocracy, the elegant and attenuated Ayakura. Coming of age, he is caught up in the tensions between old and new — fiercely loving and hating the exquisite, spirited Ayakura Satoko. He suffers in psychic paralysis until the shock of her engagement to a royal prince shows him the magnitude of his passion, and leads to a love affair that is as doomed as it was inevitable.

Mishima’s long suicide note is the tetralogy The Sea of Fertility:

Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel.

The tetralogy ends with:

“There was no other sound. The garden was empty. He had come, thought Honda, to a place that had no memories, nothing. “The noontide sun of summer flowed over the still garden.

“THE END “November 25, 1970 The Sea of Fertility.”

Spring Snow begins innocently enough. Two friends discuss the Russo-Japanese War, which finally convinced the Caucasian world that Asia was more than an inert conglomeration of teeming multitudes.

The two friends are Kiyoaki Matsugae and Shigekuni Honda. The year is 1912. It is the era of Taisho. The former Emperor Meiji is dead, mourned. More often than not, the course of true love runs aground, or runs to apothecaries to deal in quick poisons. Kiyoaki is in love with a woman named Satoko and she with him. But their love is as strong as their denial. They are terrified by their own emotions, terrified to give in and be the first to do so. She is older and an aristocrat, he from a samurai family. Each lover hides behind an affected superiority.

Elaborate Asian machinery of saving face:

Matters come to a head when Satoko accepts a marriage proposal from a prince. The scales of pride fall from Kiyoaki’s eyes and he sets out to make Satoko his. They prosecute a clandestine love affair until Satoko becomes pregnant with his child. Cue the family cover-up, the desperate and elaborate Asian machinery of saving face. Face is saved but at the expense of truth, life. By the novel’s end Satoko is a nun, Kiyoaki is dead of pneumonia, and truth dangles from the gallows. Some scholar somewhere has no doubt already sifted Spring Snow for indications of a suicidal tendency in its author. Mishima openly declared that he would probably die when The Sea of Fertility was completed. What we find in Mishima instead are meditations upon how best to die. Kiyoaki wonders whether he would “be able to die young – and if possible free from all pain? A graceful death…. A death marked by elegance.”

These are not necessarily the author’s thoughts. Aristocratic elegance is contrasted unfavorably in Spring Snow with the resolution of the samurai, which had enjoyed centuries of “immunity to the virus of elegance” and “the virus of introspection.”

Certainly Mishima’s writing is more Westernized than, say, Kawabata’s. But Mishima’s work is shot through with nostalgia for the old Japan. And if he was eager to see Japan become further Westernized, he sure chose an odd way of showing it. Informed of an indiscretion on the part of one of his servants, Kiyoaki’s father says (sighs?), “In the old days it would have been a matter of having to cut him down with my own sword.” But no more. Now, “there were no means left to dazzle the vulgar.”

Except, perhaps, one. (suicide…it also involves a sword.)

Runaway Horses brings us up to 1932. Japan is in crisis. The Great Depression has revealed the feebleness of the Imperial government and the contradictions of Western capitalism. The Reds are swarming, as are militant rightists seeking the restoration of Japan‘s halcyon days. Coal-rich Manchuria is now Manchukuo. Honda, who was Horatio to Kiyoaki’s Hamlet, is now a complacent criminal judge. (Mishima himself studied jurisprudence.)

One would think that the element common to the books of a cycle called The Sea of Fertility would be agriculture or orgiastic sex. And while Mishima does excel at writing about flesh and flora, he links his books together using the idea of rebirth, about which he says:

“A mere hint of the probability of reincarnation made even the keenest grief suddenly seem to lose its freshness and reality, and begin to scatter like dry leaves. Somehow that was related to man’s unwillingness to tolerate any injury to the dignity that he achieved through sorrow. In a sense, such a loss was more fearful than death.”

At the end of Spring Snow Kiyoaki tells Honda that he will meet Honda “beneath the falls.” In the sequel, Honda meets a young man named Isao. Like Kiyoaki, Isao has three moles in a certain configuration. Isao and Honda stand beneath some falls. Other coincidences convince Honda that Isao is a reincarnation of Kiyoaki. All the more strange is that Isao heads up a militant rightist group whose purpose is to rid Japan of corruption and, that being done, implode.

Isao takes his inspiration from a pamphlet describing the exploits of a similar group called The League of the Divine Wind, a.k.a. the League of the Kamikaze, and his father is the headmaster of the baldly named “Academy of Patriotism.” Isao is prone to revolutionary jargon: ringleaders, lackeys. And he sides with the idea that nonviolent Buddhism has broken Japan‘s will, much as Nietzsche claimed that Christianity had made mice of European men.

Mishima himself was often called a militant rightist because he kept a personal army of young men trained in Japanese martial arts. He was a kendo master; Isao excels at kendo. So it could be said that Isao is an avatar of Mishima’s spirit as well, while a benign and bland Honda looks on in impotent horror. Kiyoaki and Isao represent two extremes of the author’s nature – the static and dynamic. Honda recalls that Kiyoaki had passed through life like “a shining, forever unchanging, beautiful nonwilling particle.” Isao wants to be a bomb.

In the summer of 1965 Yukio Mishima began working on what would become his life’s major literary work , a four volume masterpiece entitled “The Sea of Fertility. “Spring Snow” is the first book of this series. First published in Japan in 1966 the novel sold 200,000 copies. “Spring Snow” introduces the narratives two central characters. Kiyoaki Matsugae is the son of an aristocratic family and his best friend is Shigekuni Honda, who is a fellow student at the school that Kiyoaki attends.

The story takes place in the period just after the Russo-Japanese War. Kiyoaki and Honda are both about to finish high school and go off to college. Honda is rigorously preparing for college while Kiyoaki who has been born into a family of wealth and privilege is lost in his own internal life, that revolves around his ambivalent feelings for a young woman named Satoko Ayakura, the daughter of an aristocrat.

The Matsugae family came to prominence as a result of the Meiji Restoration.They are members of the new ruling class in Japan created by money and power and as a result their claims to aristocracy are seen as being not legitimate by the more established members of the Japanese ruling class whose aristocratic bloodlines can be traced back several centuries.

In an attempt to give his family’s heir more refinement and polish, Marquis Matsugae, Kiyoaki’s father, has Kiyoaki educated at the court of Count Ayakura, a distinguished nobleman whose family has enjoyed the favor of the emperor for 23 generations. Even though the Marquis feels pride in the education that his son is receiving there is something disconcerting about what his son is turning into, as if the heritage of his military ancestors is somehow being diluted by the “elegance” of Count Ayakura’s education.

While at the court of Count Ayakura, Kiyoaki meets the Count’s daughter Satoko. He first meets Satoko when they are both children, but by the time the story takes place the two are teenagers. Kiyoaki has grown into a very handsome young man whose attractive looks are the topic of conversation among all the women that he comes in contact with. Satoko as well has grown into a very beautiful woman.

Early in the story Satoko tries to confess her true feelings to Kiyoaki. They are at a party when Satoko says to him in passing what he would do if she were not here anymore. The remark disturbs Kiyoaki, since he feels that Satoko is just trying to send him into a panic and vex his state of mind. Kiyoaki lashes out at her by writing her an insulting letter and mailing it to her. Immediately after mailing the letter Kiyoaki has reservations about what he did. He calls the Ayakura household and tells Satoko not to read the letter and destroy it. Satoko agrees. The next time that he sees Satoko is at a family function at his home and he wonders if she really kept her word and destroyed the letter. Satoko seems very happy to see Kiyoaki and he feels at least for the moment that his relationship with Satoko is secure once again.

Eventually Satoko is offered a marriage proposal from the Imperial household. Kiyoaki is having dinner with his parents one evening when his father brings the topic up. His father tells Kiyoaki that the emperor’s son wishes to marry Satoko. He suspects that his son has romantic feelings for Satoko and asks him what he thinks of the marriage proposal and if he has any objections.Kiyoaki tells his father that he has no objections whatsoever and continues eating his dinner.

After Satoko has become engaged Kiyoaki pursues her once again enlisting the help of Satoko’s maid Tadeshina. Tadeshina arranges meetings between the two young lovers. Eventually, Satoko stops seeing Kiyoaki after she discovers that she is pregnant. When her pregnancy is disclosed Satoko agrees to have an abortion. While on her way home from the abortion, both she and her mother stop to visit her aunt who is an abbess at a prominent temple. Satoko tells her aunt of her desire not to marry the prince and decides instead to become a member of the convent. Her aunt keeps Satoko with her so that she may think her decision over, but eventually the abbess lets Satoko take her religious vows and become a member of the temple without telling her parents. Before taking her final vows, the abbess tells Satoko that after she will never again be able to see Kiyoaki. Satoko agrees and begins her life as a member of the temple.

Later, Kiyoaki discovers where Satoko is and goes to the temple to try to persuade the abbess to let him see her. The abbess refuses and sends Kiyoaki away. Kiyoaki returns several more times. Each time the abbess once again sends him away. Kiyoaki becomes ill from the cold and Honda eventually comes to try and take him home. Kiyoaki persuades Honda to go to the temple and try to convince the abbess to let him see Satoko one last time. Honda goes hoping that his going will pacify his friend and afterward he will agree to come back to Tokyo with him. The abbess refuses Honda as well. On the train back to Tokyo, Kiyoaki tells Honda that he has had a dream. He tells Honda that he will see him again under the waterfalls. Honda takes Kiyoaki home where he dies three days later. Kiyoaki is ninteen years old. This is where the novel “Spring Snow” ends.

On the surface “Spring Snow” is a novel about forbidden love and class divisions in a rapidly changing Japan but the story shares many elements of Mishima’s other writings. Starting with his novel “Kyoko’s House” in 1959 Mishima would contrast certain archetypal characters throughout a story. In “Spring Snow” these two archetypes are the emotions and the intellect. Kiyoaki is a man ruled by his emotions constantly pursuing beauty, while Honda is governed by rationality. Kiyoaki Matsugae is in many ways every bit as decadent and self-absorbed as the narrator of “Confessions of a Mask”. Preoccupied with his own internal life, Kiyoaki is oblivious to the world around him. He has no real close friends or relationships. Even Honda is held at a distance. Kiyoaki cannot even feel genuine love for the woman that he desires unless that love is made virtually impossible to obtain by her being engaged to another.

In many ways the character of Kiyoaki is very similar to Mishima himself. Those who knew Mishima during his lifetime would say that he wasn’t close to any other person with the sole exception of his mother. Even Yasunari Kawabata his mentor of many years had a very cool and formal relationship with Mishima. Mishima was a very controlled human being. It was not uncommon for him to discard people as soon as they were no longer useful to him.

The idea that “elegance” symbolized by Count Ayakura has somehow corrupted the true cultural spirit of the Japanese is referred to repeatedly throughout the novel. This idea would be discussed extensively in Mishima’s book length essay “Sun and Steel”. “Elegance” and “refinement” is a disguise for inaction and decadence. This way of life is symbolized by Count Ayakura. The Count is a man who acts on nothing throughout the entire novel. Even the knowlege of his daughter’s pregnancy by Kiyoaki after being engaged to the Emperor’s son causes him not to stir so much as a muscle. All of the Count’s wishes have to be carried out by other people whether it be Kiyoaki’s father or his house servant Tadeshina.Throughout the 1960’s Mishima would be very committed to becoming what he would refer to as “a man of action”. Mishima would later write in “Sun and Steel” about the corrupting power that words had excercised over his life. By the time that he wrote “Spring Snow” Mishima was well on the way to becoming “a man of action”.

This definition gives insight into the last years of Mishima’s life. If Mishima had intended to ultimately die a heroe’s death he had to act soon because by the time that he wrote “Spring Snow” he was already nearing forty. If he waited much longer he would just be another middle aged man who committed suicide , a very unheroic end to someone’s life no matter how dramatically he carried that end out.

The “Sea of Fertility ” novels followed very much in the tradition of “bunburyodo” or “dual way of literature and the sword.

Mishima had become very interested in this practice in the last years of his life which can be traced back to the ancient samurais. Samurais were expected to cultivate both the military as well as the literary arts in equal measure. It is doubtful whether Japan‘s medival soldiers actually did this, but Mishima saw this way of life as the pattern by which he intended to live the last years of his life.

On its publication in Japan in 1966 “Spring Snow” was an immediate success selling over 200,000 copies despite the fact that the Japanese literary establishment choose to ignore the book.

Mishima had been falling out of favor with them for some time. Mishima’s increasing right-wing views had offended many of Japan’s leading writers and intellectuals who during the 1960’s tended to lean towards the left in both their political and social views. By the 1960’s, only Yasunari Kawabata, Mishima’s life long mentor, would continue to support the author through any controversy.

The success of “Spring Snow” immediately re-established Mishima’s reputation as one of Japan‘s premier novelists and set the stage for the second volume of the series “Runaway Horses”.

“Spring Snow,” on the surface the story of two young classmates at the Peers School in 1912, the illicit love affair of one Kiyoaki, a marquis’s son whose pride “like a silvery mold. . .would spread at the slightest touch,” and of Honda, his witness, begins under the shadow of the Russo-Japanese War, ended when both were 12. A photograph, “Memorial Services for the War Dead; Vicinity Tokuri Temple,” showing thousands of soldiers in the mountain setting, hands over Kiyoaki’s youth like a scroll and over the book like an epigraph. His grandmother places unopened on the shrine her Government pension for his two uncles killed in the war; but he himself, beautiful, sensitive, melancholically distant from contemporaries he thinks coarse, feels “I’ll never shed real blood. I’ll never wound anything but hearts.”

When he falls in love, it is with Satoko, daughter of Count Ayokara, in whose court family, nobler than his own, he has been reared. Honda, who will help the affair serving both as Laertes and scholar of the new, observes, “Although the Matsugaes seemed to lead a Westernized life and although their house was filled with objects from abroad, the atmosphere. . .was strikingly and traditionally Japanese.” In Honda’s own household “the day-to-day life as a rule might be Japanese, but the atmosphere had much that was Western in spirit.”

Two themes dominate the affair, the friendship, the separate path of Kiyoaki’s attempted progression out of himself and every social scene in the book: the decline of the aristocratic spirit from the nobly martial to the merely elegant, and the rise in it of the West. As lector at the Imperial Poetry Recitation, Count Ayakura ends with the poems of the empress and crown prince, who “graced him with their attention as the . . .beautifully modulated voice sounded. . . . No tremor of guilt blurred its clarity. . . . What poured smoothly from his throat was the very essence of elegance, impervious to shame. . . .”

The marquis, Kiyoaki’s father, on the other hand, is ignobly sunk in a love of Western food and wine, extravagance and ostentation, though his full Kagoshima-style celebration of the Doll Festival is renowned, to Europeans and Americans as well, he also shows films. “Trying to settle the choice. . .gave the marquis some agonizing moments. There was one from Pathe, featuring Gabrielle Robin, the star of the Comedie Francaise. . .the Electric Theater in Asakusa had begun to show films made in the West, the first of which, ‘Paradise Lost’ had already become wildly popular. . . . Then there was a German melodrama filled with violent action. . . . The marquis finally decided the choice most likely to please his guests was an English five-reeler based on a Dickens novel.” One of the guests, Baron Shinkawa, owns the second Rolls Royce ever purchased in Japan and wears a smoking jacket. And all through the book two visiting Siamese princes, one engaged in a proper court love affair and sorrow, serve as the rest of Asia’s eyes watching Japan‘s Western calisthenics, just as they watch the two Japanese boys actually performing these. “In the eyes of the princes, this modern, totally self-centered penance was the funniest thing in the world.”

We tend even now to forget, under the stereotypes we have managed to maintain ever since Commodore Perry’s expedition that this Westernization of spirit and object has been going on since the roughly coincidental Meiji restoration of [missing text]. In the continuous dialogue between the two young men, Honda, whose father is a Supreme Court justice trained to respect German logic, and who is a law student (like Mishima himself, who graduated from the School of Jurisprudence) says at various times, of history and of Kiyoaki: “To live in the midst of an era is to be oblivious of its style. . . . The testimony of your contemporaries has no value whatever. . . . You detest that bunch on the kendo team, don’t you?” In the midst of the turmoil of history, each man builds his own little shelter of self-awareness. . . . “You have one characteristic that sets you quite apart; you have no trace whatsoever of will-power. And so I am always fascinated to think of you in relation to History.”

This seems to be Kiyoaki’s function; his love affair cannot vie with it and perhaps is not meant to in the perspective of the books to come. It is a stylized affair; some of its attitudes, particularly those of Satoko and her old attendant Tadeshima, must be intentionally of the period; but Kiyoaki’s inner life, as a male marked by beauty and on his way from the “beautiful” emotions to the “ugly” ones, bears many reverse resemblances to the marked men of Mishima’s other books, notably “Golden Pavilion’s” stuttering monk, who incapable with women, convinced that the world finds him repellent, confides to his crippled opposite, a warped philistine to his warped mystic, that beauty is his enemy; his conception of it has stuttered him. And it is the women who always make the advances, to him as to Kiyoaki; the latter’s girl cousin laying her head on his lap exactly as the girl in “Confessions of a Mask” (the sister of its narrator’s friend), lays hers on his; but Kiyoaki will wait for Satoko’s oblique taunts and clear invitations. Mishima’s heroines of a certain sort are often the more erotic for their sisterliness. Or perhaps only more available.

Satoko to the end remains impenetrable both to him and to us; one reminds oneself how many romantic heroines do. Yet Etsuko, the obsessed widow of “Thirsty For Love,” for all her long inner monologues, remains more mysterious there than in her acts, which are grossly reasonable. Mishima’s old women are satisfying character actresses; his middle- aged ones often sharp socio-sexual portraits, like Mr. Kaburagi in “Forbidden Colors,” or big-blonde funny like Kazu in “After the Banquet,” but no younger one functions as more than muted background or is reported with more than 19th century heroic emphasis: “the way they all nodded alike, as though each had a finely wrought gold hinge in her smooth white neck. . . .” Their inner regions are not seriously available, and we do not feel with them, are not intended to.

Meanwhile, until the rest appears, we read “Spring Snow” for its marvelous incidentals, graphic and philosophic, and for its scene-gazing, in whose emotional alliance with nature, emancipated altogether out of the West’s idiot “pathetic fallacy,” Mishima remains most consistently Japanese. Now and then, in a description of a 1912 Ford or a lecture on the Laws of Manu, there is a touch of that retrospective love of detail which afflicts the historical novelist, reminding us that this is such a novel, no doubt partially researched, but the author’s vitality and native omniscience are triumphant. “The brilliant color of the sliding Genji door gave it a kind of suffocating, painting sensuality, as though the room itself were a picture rolled up within a forbidden scroll.”

Or we may read in another context. Honda, dreaming of men seen each as “a single vital current,” postulates a “theory of the unity of life and self-awareness” in which “the whole sea of life. . .the vast process of transmigration called Samsara in Sanskrit would be possessed by a single consciousness.”

He tells Kiyoaki, “The age of glorious wars ended with the Meiji era. . . this is the era for the war of emotion. . .and just as in the old wars there will be casualties.” Honda makes clear that his friend, in his final fate, is one of these. Each, as if corresponding to one half the current that was the man Mishima– and like each of his books, where one has only to tally the blood-images against the metaphysical one and find the balance–leads straight to the testament of “Sun and Steel.”

Spring Snow begins innocently enough. Two friends discuss the Russo-Japanese War, which finally convinced the Caucasian world that Asia was more than an inert conglomeration of teeming multitudes.

The two friends are Kiyoaki Matsugae and Shigekuni Honda. The year is 1912. It is the era of Taisho. The former Emperor Meiji is dead, mourned.”

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