Yukio Mishima: Patriotism

When we were newlyweds, my wife enrolled in a World Literature class.  I still remember how excited she was after reading a Japanese story, how it held on to her for days.  Despite her excitement, I didn’t read it for some reason.  From time to time over the years she has reflected on that story, only she forgot who wrote it and what it was called.  When Patriotism (Yukoku, 1966; tr. from the Japanese by Geoffrey W. Sargent, 1966) came in the mail, I felt certain I had in my hand a nice copy of the story she had read and loved several years ago.  I read the description to her, and all the excitement and awe came back in her face.  It was the same story.  And I have now read it too.

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

A note on this edition: New Directions has just began issuing titles from its new Pearl series.  The first issuance includes Patriotism as well as Federico García Lorca’s In Search of Duende, Javier Marías’s Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, and Tennessee Williams’s Tales of Desire.  Forthcoming are César Aira’s The Literary Conference and Jorge Luis Borges’s Everything & Nothing.  In truth, some of these are shorter than novellas.  Patriotism is only just over 50 large-type pages.  Patriotism, though standing alone here, would be “Patriotism” and is available in a collection of Yukio Mishima’s stories also published by New Directions, Death in Midsummer and Other Stories.  Whether you are willing pay for a stand-alone volume that forms part of a bigger series is up to you.  Personally, I like having the story on its own, isolated from other stories.  Plus, for collectors, the titles look great on the shelf together.  And venerable.

I have one gripe: there were at least a handful of typos that interrupted my reading.  In one place Reiko’s “sucks” slip on the floor — now I knew it meant “socks” but the error is jarring in its nature of being an error but also because of its preposterous albeit accidental imagery.  I’m not sure what process was involved in pulling “Patriotism” from Death in Midsummer, and since I don’t have that volume, I’m not sure if the Pearl edition’s errors are new or have been part of the text for a while.  You’ll notice in the paragraph below that there is an “eight-mat room of his private resident in the sixth block.”  I’m pretty sure it should be “residence,” and if I’m right then there’s a silly error in the first paragraph.  I have spent time in publishing.  I know that errors get through, despite how many eyes cover the documents, but this had a large number of fairly obvious ones.  I think I’m more disappointed due to the fact that this is part of a new series that will cost its readers a bit of money since each short story / novella is being sold for around $10.

Now, let’s move on from the gripe.  New Directions does fabulous work, and I don’t want typos to distract us from the fact that they consistently acquire and publish at the forefront of world literature in striking editions.  This is no exception.

Patriotism is a very strange story.  First, you learn everything that happens in the first paragraph.  I’ll start with it, since it provides a great summary of the story with preemptive spoilers.

On the twenty-eighth of February 1936 (on the third day, that is, of the February 26 incident), Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama of the Konoe Transport Battalion — profoundly disturbed by the knowledge that his closest colleagues had been with the mutineers from the beginning, and indignant at the imminent prospect of Imperial troops attacking Imperial troops — took his officer’s sword and ceremonially disemboweled himself in the eight-mat room of his private resident in the sixth block of Aoba-cho, in Yotsuya Ward.  His wife, Reiko, followed him, stabbing herself to death.  The lieutenant’s farewell note consisted of one sentence: “Long live the Imperial Forces.”  His wife’s after apologies for her unfilial conduct in thus preceding her parents to the grave, concluded: “The day which, for a soldier’s wife, had to come, has come . . . .”  The last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such as to make the gods themselves weep.  The lieutenant’s age, it should be noted, was thirty-one, his wife’s twenty-three; and it was not half a year since the celebration of their marriage.

The style of this opening paragraph reminded me of the opening paragraph to a news report or maybe a short obituary.  It lays out all of the facts of the story while only alluding to some of the emotion; in other words, the style itself here is not emotive.  It is a striking contrast to the remainder of the story when two central events and their preparations are described in a direct yet lyrical style devoted entirely to bringing out the elevated emotions of its two characters.

Before the lieutenant even returns home two days after the failed coup, Reiko already knows what to expect.  His closest friends were the instigators, but he cannot fight against them.  His loyalty is to the Imperial Forces, so he cannot contradict their order.  The only honorable way out is seppuku, the ritual suicide.  Less than six months earlier Reiko had promised him she would follow him where he had to go.  We get a glimpse of her cleaning the house perfectly to prepare for the solemn event.

It is difficult to describe the rest of the story because most of it is, as I mentioned above, a wonderful description of their complex emotions as they make love one last time and then commit suicide.  But it’s not all emotion; there are some great questions being asked.  Though the characters are composed on the outside, they are jittery on the inside.  It’s not so much fear as it is anticipation of the great events — the love making and the suicide.

He folded his hands beneath his head and gazed at the dark boards of the ceiling in the dimness beyond the range of the standard lamp.  Was it death he was now waiting for?  Or a wild ecstasy of the senses?  The two seemed to overlap, almost as if the object of this bodily desire was death itself.  But, however that might be, it was certain that never before had the lieutenant tasted such total freedom.

Somehow Mishima succeeds in exalting sex and death, though he spends a great deal of time merely describing the physical details.  For example, here is a passage that connects the imminent suicide with the current sex:

The lieutenant’s naked skin glowed like a field of barley, and everywhere the muscles sowed in sharp relief, converging on the lower abdomen about the small, unassuming navel.  Gazing at the youthful, firm stomach, modestly covered by a vigorous growth of hair, Reiko thought of it as it was soon to be, cruelly cut by the sword, and she laid her head upon it, sobbing in pity, and bathed it with kisses.

There is also the great moment between the suicides that Mishima captures.  I know the first paragraph of the story gives away the events, so I don’t want to describe too much of the emotion.  Rather, I’ll leave this review with this interesting complexity:

Ever since her marriage her husband’s existence had been her own existence, and every breath of his had been a breath drawn by herself.  But now, while her husband’s existence in pain was a vivid reality, Reiko could find in this grief of hers no certain proof at all of her own existence.

21 thoughts on “Yukio Mishima: Patriotism

  1. You create an intriguing dilemma. I too am attracted by the idea of a longish short story/short novella in its own volume (and your review certainly interests me in this story). And then immediately start wondering, if I like this story I’ll certainly want to read more, so why not just buy the collection. I haven’t read any Mishima — have you (or Sherry) read others and do you have any thoughts?

  2. Trevor says:

    I don’t think Sherry has, but maybe she read a few more that I don’t know about. Perhaps she’ll chime in here soon. I haven’t read any more, and you describe the dilemma well. I would like to, but to do so means purchasing the collected stories — which already contains this story. My dilemma is not as hard as others’ since I got the book for free, but I still feel it a bit. I think a few of the other Pearl editions are pieces that are not published anywhere else (I know that to be the case with the Aira that is coming out soon).

  3. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I’ve read one other, though, like with this one, I can’t recall the name. It was a very different story, but still had the same beautiful prose. Mishima really can portray emotions in a very beautiful way without making them unbelievable.
    Thanks for reading the book, Trev. Maybe we’ll count this post as my Valentine’s gift. I knew you didn’t just forget ;)

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for reading the book, Trev. Maybe we’ll count this post as my Valentine’s gift. I knew you didn’t just forget ;)

    You’ve made many readers very jealous. How can this gift be beat?

  5. If it were me, I think I’d still pick up a little someting on the way home tonight.

  6. Trevor says:

    Sherry does enjoy publicly torturing me, even if it means disregarding the truth. Readers can rest assured of three things:

    1) What Mrs. Berrett says on here about books is true;
    2) What Mrs. Berrett says on here about me is not true;
    3) Mrs. Berrett and I have a great relationship; though, if you read some of her comments on this blog or play competitive games with us, you might think otherwise. It is hard to keep up with her!

  7. Teddy says:

    Always good to read your reviews. Been waiting for these delicious volumes to be published. Havent read any Mishima either so will start here. And look forward to the other volumes. Did you get the Javier Javier Marías’s one?
    As always thanks.
    T

  8. Mrs. Berrett says:

    After looking into it, I believe the other Mishima I read was a small (maybe only eight or so pages) excerpt from the Sea of Fertility tetralogy. I don’t think it was from one particular story, but a summary of excerpts.
    Japanese literature was one of my favorites from the World Literature course. It helped that my professor had lived for a time in Japan. He also brought in a lot of other materials to supplement the reading (Japanese puppetry and movies).
    And, as for Trevor’s comment, he’s not lying about our great relationship. He’s also not lying about my competitive spirit, though it would be a lie to suggest I’m highly skilled at anything other than talking big. However, I don’t recall ever telling an untruth about Trevor or Valentine’s day. I like Kevin’s suggestion. See you later Trev!

  9. Mary Gilbert says:

    I’ve just finished reading Runaway Horses part two of The Sea of Fertility. Although part one ,Spring Snow, was about a doomed love affair, Runaway Horses covers very much the same territory as Patriotism. It’s about an idealistic young man, a fantical supporter of the Emperor, who tries to organise an uprising which is thwarted and who then goes on to commit Seppuku. Knowing that Mishima committed suicide in this manner it’s clear that the book is all about his own preoccupations with honour and the corruption of traditional Japanese society. Objectively there’s nothing about the content of this novel that attracts me – women characters are largely marginalised and it’s about a type of fanaticism that one finds in many religious groups today and with which I have absolutely no sympathy – yet I found Mishima’s prose in this translation so beautiful that I felt totally engaged with it. Inevitably I reach for a cliche but `limpid’ really does seem to describe the coolness of his prose. It’s a very detached style and yet we do find out a lot about Isao’s inner world and his yearning for honour. There are many beautiful descriptions of the Japanese countryside and the Shinto cermonies too. I don’t think I’d want to read another Mishima for a while but I will read more when I’m in the mood for something detached and utterly different. I do recommend Spring Snow this has all the beauty of Runaway Horses but with a central love affair that is perhaps more sympathetic to a western reader.

  10. Trevor says:

    Ted, sorry for not responding to your comment earlier. It slipped past me! I have not got the Marias book. I’m not sure whether New Directions is going to send that one to me or not. Perhaps the deal was one Pearl book because I haven’t received any others from the series. I do believe all of the four books from this first issuance are finished because I saw the Tennessee Williams one in a bookstore the other day. I will definitely find a way to get the Marias, though; I have enjoyed the few things I’ve read by him very much.

    Mary, thanks for the comment. I forgot to mention in my review above that Mishima himself performed his own coup attempt (to restore the power of the traditional emperor) in 1970 and that when it failed he performed the ritual of seppuku. I think that is an interesting perspective from which to read “Patriotism,” a very idealistic story.

  11. Mishima’s life does parallel this story, I was going to mention that but you beat me to it Trevor!

    I’ve not read any Mishima yet, though I plan to. My understanding was that his work generally focused on themes of sex and death, transmitted through marvellous prose.

    Japan has one of the world’s great literary traditions I think, and while we don’t get much of it in English what we do get tends to be very good. I’ve read some Junichiro Tanizaki and I blogged an Akira Yoshimura a little while back (and have another on my shelf presently). Both are excellent. I’d also recommend if you’ve not read him Shusaku Endo. And there’s others, some that I’ve read and some not yet.

    But this is a not yet, so thanks for reminding me of that gap, because I really should read Mishima. The typos sound irritating (they can throw you out of a book, that sucks is particularly unfortunate) but otherwise it’s a nice accessible way to try his work.

    Anyway, thanks as ever Trevor.

  12. I forgot to ask, you mention the story being romantic. My understanding of Mishima’s politics was that the closest European equivalent (obviously not precisely so) would be that he was basically a fascist, and that his fiction was written from an essentially fascist perspective. Is that a misunderstanding on my part do you think?

  13. Trevor says:

    I’m not sure, Max. The best I can offer at this point is this rambling comment:

    I know little about Mishima other than what’s available on such dubious (but helpful) sites as Wikipedia. From there I learned that while his coup was set up to restore the power of the emperor, it wasn’t necessarily to restore the power of the most recent emperor, whom he did not support. So it doesn’t appear that he was simply being loyal to an old system but to an old ideal. What he really wanted was some return to the old empire, and I assume that means some form of strict discipline that in itself can foster strong nationalism.

    Perhaps fascist is a possible label, then, though I can’t say that I gleaned much of that from thsi story on my first read. Thinking about it now, I can see it. The romantic element, to me, was the yearning that we feel from the couple as they prepare for to comply with a vigorous belief. The way Mishima describes the sex and suicide is in its essence transcendental.

    But I think it’s valid to consider that transcendence they experience to be a result of the vitality one can feel when complying with the strict traditions — at least, that’s kind of the idea Mishima presents here. Again, I have not researched this, but from the little shown it seems that Mishima was ultra-conservative. And if you’re among those in the school of thought that places fascism at the extreme extreme right of the political spectrum, then I think it fits, however loosely.

    That’s a great line I’d like to look into more fully, Max. And hopefully no one will take this comment at any more than what it is — a slapped together, unresearched, unsophisticated, barely pensive “hmmmmm.”

    Also, I haven’t read much Japanese literature, but I do have Endo’s Silence in my pile of books to read.

  14. Thanks for the response Trevor, fascinating. Romanticism seems a common driver, there’s something romantic about wishing the return of an old order too, after all.

    Fascism won’t be quite right because it’s a European political form (and one largely dead before we were born), it just seemed the nearest parallel to what I understood (possibly wrongly) of Mishima. Your response makes it sound more nuanced, more idealistic even. That said, I’m still glad his politics weren’t as successful as his writing.

    I’ve not read Silence. I’ve read Foreign Studies and Scandal (and I think one other that now escapes me), but not that one. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.

  15. me. says:

    Thanks for a great review,i really enjoyed reading this,i have the collection somewhere,think i’ll dig it out and have a read again,(maybe check for those typo’s,although i think i’ve got an old Penguin edition).

  16. Trevor says:

    Hi Me, I just checked out your great blog! I hope to get to know some of the books you’ve highlighted. My Japanese literature collection is very small. Thanks for dropping by!

  17. me. says:

    Glad you like my blog,let me know what you think of any the titles from it you read!.I’m thinking of looking at a title from Mishima soon,but am undecided on which one to look at…

  18. Jeffrey Yang says:

    Dear Mookse and Gripes,
    Thanks very much for your Mishima Patriotism blog. We at New Directions were embarrassed to find those mistakes when finished books arrived. Somehow, this Pearl slipped thru the proofreading cracks, but the others should be clean, and we had already pulled this one to correct the typos.
    On another note you might be interested to check out Mishima’s film of “Patriotism,” recently released by Criterion Collection — starring his muscular self.

    Thanks again,
    Jeffrey Yang
    New Directions Publishing

  19. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the comment, Jeffrey. I’m glad to hear that New Directions already spotted the mistakes and is correcting them. As I said above, New Directions does exceptional work. I’m glad to see that exceptionalism shown here by quickly correcting the slips. I like my edition of The Berlin Stories because it has an error in the text but folded in the book is a corrected page and an apology letter.

    Also, thanks for referring me to the film version. I didn’t know there was one, let alone that Criterion released it recently. I feel much the same way about Criterion as I do about New Directions. Both are indispensible.

    And on another note, I hope to make a visit to New Directions some time in the near future. Hope to meet when I do.

  20. jimmy says:

    I’ve also noticed copy-errors in other New Directions books. I read Ghosts recently and there were at least ten that I caught from reading it. Maybe NDP needs new copy editors?

  21. Trevor says:

    Hmmmm, I either didn’t catch them in Ghosts or immediately forgot them due to the story itself.

    At any rate, I actually visited New Directions yesterday and they promised me error-free editions from now on! That’s a statistical impossibility, I know, but I trust their intentions will bring great results.

    About that visit: what a great group of people we have running one of the best publication houses out there! And what a fascinating process. My respect for New Directions went up even more.

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