In Sun and Steel, Yukio Mishima, one of Japan's most important writers, offers an intimate look at how he reconciled his life with the creative process.
From the outset, it is clear that Mishima advocated an "active" creativity and that he held in contempt those who used words to convey experiences yet denied their own heroic capabilities.
For Mishima, art, action and creativity had to embrace the tragic. To be a hero meant sacrifice of the highest order and suffering life's strangest and most difficult problems. "He who dabbles in words can create tragedy, wrote Mishima, "but cannot participate in it."
Mishima begins Sun and Steel by telling us that, for much of his life, he held an unnatural view of the world, due to the fact that his awareness of words preceded his awareness of his body. This isolated him, he says, and he spent much time at his bedroom window simply watching the world go by.
"Words," says Mishima, "are a medium that reduces the world to an abstraction...and in their power to corrode reality inevitably lurks the danger that the words will be corroded, too."
Mishima explains how he attempted to overcome this "corrosive function of words" with physical discipline of the body. Because his early years were suffused with words, as an adult, he seeks balance in life with a preoccupation with the physical. His body, he says, came to be a metaphor of the human condition and allowed him to directly experience the tragic in life.
Life, says, Mishima, can be intellectualized, but the only thing that imposes dignity on life is the element of mortality that lies within. Here we have the key to both Mishima's writing and his own life and death.
As Mishima continues to impose a rigorous discipline over both his mind and body, he comes to realize that the mind and body are truly inseparable. "I was driven to the conclusion that the 'I' in question corresponded precisely with that physical space that I occupied."
In taking up the practice of Kendo, Mishima comes to the realization that he desires neither victory nor defeat unless he also has conflict. The battle is emphasized, not the goal.
Anyone can conquer what lies beneath him, says Mishima, and it is the process of overcoming higher and higher obstacles that brings one into the sphere of the tragic.
Mishima finally comes to the conclusion that, "The most appropriate type of daily life...was a day-to-day world destruction." Mishima had thus become a nihilist, a hero who could look death in the eye and choose to act anyway.
Although seemingly severe and extreme in outlook, Sun and Steel reveals Mishima to be a man who advocated moderation instead. His desire to create is balanced with a desire to nothingness; he lives his life in an area that is inaccessible to words or action alone.
Those who have read Mishima's fiction and found it inaccessible will benefit greatly by reading Sun and Steel. Those who have read and enjoyed his words will, with Sun and Steel, arrive at a deeper and fuller understanding of this complex and fascinating man.
Had we only been able to read these words prior to November 1970, we might have been able to both understand and appreciate the circumstances surrounding Mixhima's tragically heroic death. It is still not too late.
Sun and Steel is most accessable if you are already familiar with the life of Mishima. It is his most honest, unadorned writing. It is filled with his death romanticism and also with his frantic quest for beauty, strength, action and his obsession with aging and longevity. It is a passionate piece of writing, consisting of one paragraph around 100 pages in length. His fetish for militarism is evident towards the end of the book, and he begins with an almost embarrassed admission of his age and stature as a "mature' writer, reflecting his obsession with eternal youth and glorious death. To sum up, this book is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it is quite likely the most honest and naked autobiographical writing ever.
This book is a literary type that was once common in Japan, the self-obsessive partial memoir. But Mishima's style, tone, and content are absolutely unique.
He writes about the relation between world and word, body and mind or spirit. But to me, the most interesting aspect of this book, and Mishima's whole outlook is something that's often overlooked. It is this, he could not stand ugliness. He shrank from (his own perception of) ugliness as we would from a rabid rat. So then, how did he define beauty and ugliness? You may call it shallow but no matter, this book makes no apologies: beauty or ugliness lie in physical appearance, body and face.
To most of us there are many kinds of beauty, and maybe that multi-perception keeps us going - we see or imagine the beauty of inner virtue, selfless giving, artistic projection, humility or humor and so on. A wide expansive definition.
But there's room on your bookshelf for somebody who takes an uncompromising view: beauty is the beauty of your body and your appearance. While it can be crafted and guided by external method (who knows what Mishima would have thought of the cosmetic surgery craze now sweeping China), ultimately physical beauty to him is the only important projection of the soul.
The insanely monomaniacal American football coach Vince Lombardi once said "Winning isn't everything - it's the only thing". This book, despite all its meandering and subtle threads, is really saying just that, about beauty - it's the only thing. And Mishima, at mid-life, was losing all illusions about attaining or retaining any personal beauty.
Of course what sheds the interesting backlight on this book for most readers is Mishima's dramatic seppuku at Ichigaya Japan self-defense force headquarters. (Reminds me of the wit who stated, when informed of Sylvia Plath's suicide, "Good career move".) People read this book to try to unravel the mystery of it.
But in light of what I've said above, about beauty and Mishima's uniquely narrow definition of it, this book leaves no mystery to his action. Just as Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray slashed the ugliness accumulated on his horribly aging portrait, Mishima, lacking a magic painting, did just the same to his own body - sentenced it to death for the crimes of aging and ugliness.
It is entirely summed up by the following single line from 'Sun and Steel':
"I had already lost the morning face that belongs to youth alone."
This isn't Mishima's best work. Mostly because he is too close to the subject. At once a guide book on his beliefs and how he transformed himself from "bookish" into a physical specimen. But you can see his troubled focus shift from the internal Mishima to the external Mishima.
To me this is an explanation of something even Mishima doesnt understand. More of a catharsis of the self than a clearly defined work.
Many of the descriptions of Mishima's internal evaluations sound almost as if he was dealing with aspects of Borderline Personality Disorder. Which would make his style of death even more ironic and symbolic.
Don't get me wrong, this is true Mishima -- makes us think and examine ourselves even as he talks of himself.
Any work by Mishima is worth reading and adding to your collection. It took me years to find a copy, now it is available for everyone -- I wouldn't hesitate to buy or read.
Every author should write at least one of these books of personal reflection. This is not the only place you can get a glimpse of the inner workings of Mishima's mind ("Confessions of a Mask" and "Patriotism" are good examples).
Of course, this is assuming the book accurately reflects the author's views. If you have read Mishima biographies such as Stokes' "Life and Death of Yukio Mishima" you might agree that "Sun and Steel" is a true reflection of the author's feelings. Otherwise, you might not have a good frame of reference.
It's a good idea not to make this the first of Mishima's works that you read (the aforementioned biography and "Confessions of A Mask" are suitable prerequisites). However, it is an interesting work in its own right.
My main reason for not giving this book 5 stars is that I was longing for more depth into his character than could be provided in so short a work; but maybe that's just because of my fascination with the author's life.