Last year I read 'Spring Snow', the first in Mishima's 'Sea of Fertility' series, remembering it from University. It wasn't on the English syllabus of course (they had a thing about books in translation), but a flatmate borrowed it from the library after his exams were over one year, and got within 20 pages of the end before he had to go back to London for the summer. Not just 20 pages from the end of 'Spring Snow'; 20 pages from the end of the whole thing, in the omnibus Penguin 20th Century Classics edition then available. A very large book. He never went back to finish it. This struck me as perverse, self-defeating. Didn't he want to know what happened? If it wasn't any good (and he said it was), why bother with the first 700-odd pages?
What I didn't realise is that perversity and self-defeat lie at the heart of 'The Sea of Fertility' (or so it seems from the first two volumes): perhaps not quite finishing it was an appropriate response. In 'Spring Snow' the perversity was in the form of teenage world weariness. Futility, directionlessness, the unworldly beauty of pure actions. A love story, more or less, told against a vivid backdrop of the confused Meiji era aristocracy, which didn't know if it wanted to be traditional Japanese or English (every second item / building mentioned is in 'the Western style'). Kiyoake Matsugae, the young anti-hero, pursues his forbidden love to the point of death, and his death seems more symbolic than real: being largely unaware of the world outside his father's grand property, he doesn't survive his first independent contact with it. It is also the perfect expression of the purity of his love.
Is it, though? It certainly seems so, the way it is written. But what has love to do with death? Especially pointless, avoidable death. Kiyoake does not need to die, nor does he want to, but he is not afraid to, and therefore it is a noble action and a cracking way to end a novel. It symbolises his purity, though it leads to a dead end.
Volume two, 'Runaway Horses', takes this idea and magnifies it tenfold. Purity, always purity. Time has moved on, it is now 1932, and Kiyoake has been reborn in Isao Iinuma, the son of his tutor. This time love is left largely out of the picture and the purity in question is Nationalism. Times have changed: Japan has joined the larger economic world, has started to import rice and thereby to hurt its own farmers. Isao and his gang take the view that what is needed is a return to Imperial rule, and the expulsion of market forces; a return to Shinto spirituality and a more (that is to say, entirely) self-contained Japan. Despite the obsession of the earlier generation for all things Western, Isao would have Japan cut off from the West: it's alright for the aristocracy to import clothes, architecture and customs from abroad, but as for economics and the non-aristocratic population, a line must be drawn. This is dangerous thinking, unabashed elitism, a throwback to a way of life which will never come again. And here's the rub: the whole philosophy is tied to spirituality by a belief in the sacredness of His Imperial Majesty, whose power is to be restored. The defence of a crumbling national identity is thus taken from the hands of weak old men such as Marquis Matsugae (irrelevant amongst the capitalists Isao despises), and taken up by a lethal new generation who consider it the highest honour to die in its cause.
The central target of Isao's organisation is Busuké Kurahara, a powerful businessman. Prior to the book's final chapter he appears only once, at a dinner party held by Baron Shinkawa, and at which he seems benign and even a touch comic. A large man who doesn't care for his own appearance ('The second button of his suit had a great affinity for the third buttonhole' (p. 161)) or his personal safety (he likes to give his bodyguards the slip), and who often sits on uncomfortable objects without noticing, he nevertheless speaks the most sense of anyone in the book. On his country:
There is a certain beauty in a nation's lacking even the wisdom to preserve itself [...]. And because I love the people of Japan, I cannot help but hate those who would exploit this beautiful ignorance in order to gain popular favor. (p. 168)He shows himself to be sensitive to Isao's brand of purity, without being swept along by it. Facts must be faced, and as for economics:
'Since economics is not a benevolent enterprise, one must foresee that some ten percent will become victims while the remaining ninety percent will be saved. But if we take no hand at all, the full hundred percent will go happily to their destruction.'Kurahara sticks to his guns. The 'ultimate happiness of the people' lies in 'a stable currency' (pp. 168-9). These are not the words of someone bent on destroying or corrupting Japan, nor even of someone only interested in personal gain. It seems clear that he is hated through no fault of his own, but as a result of widespread anxiety and mistrust about the rise of capitalism, and a reactionary position (gilded by religion) that a return to Imperial rule would somehow be to the good not just of the aristocracy but to the farmers as well. Vote feudal! Firm but fair!
'I presume, then,' said Viscount Matsudaira, 'that the ten percent who are farmers must reconcile themselves to death by starvation?' (p. 169)
A third form of purity is the law. It is unclear why the book is called 'Runaway Horses' in English, the original Japanese version being titled 'Honda', after the character who was Kiyoake Matsugae's prosaic best friend, and who acts first as judge then lawyer here. He underpins the book more than stars in it (Isao's is the name up in lights), spends his time quietly observing, then steps in as defence counsel when things go wrong for Isao's, giving up his position of judge in the process (a conspicuously useful sacrifice in this book overflowing with accounts of supposedly glorious suicide). Not for him the forward thinking economics of Kurahara or the backward looking vagueries of Isao:
Honda [...] knew something about what went on inside a judge. And how intense were a judge's inner struggles! Emotion, sentiment, desire, personal concern, ambition, shame, fanaticism, and all other sorts of flotsam – the fragments of planks, the wastepaper, the oil slick, the orange peel, the fish, the seaweed filling the sea of human nature that was ever pushing against the lone seawall that kept it in check: legal justice. Such was the struggle. (p. 365)There's so much I haven't covered here, but it's such a great book. Filled with the violent hopes of a country at war with its own nature, told so engagingly that it's hard to draw back, to decide afterwards, was that a happy ending?
(Quotations from Michael Gallagher's 1973 translation, Vintage 2000)