Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Yukio Mishima - 'Runaway Horses'

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.'

'I presume, then,' said Viscount Matsudaira, 'that the ten percent who are farmers must reconcile themselves to death by starvation?' (p. 169)

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!

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)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Proposition

'We went to see "The Proposition"... it was written by Nick Cave... he told me it was going to be violent... I think he thought it wasn't as fast-paced as it could have been... What's that? He's stopped taking drugs? Ha ha. Yeah, I think he does have a family now...'

You're right, my sweet, of course you are. People with young children shouldn't take drugs, should grow up, set an example. But this isn't people: this is Cave. Who on drugs gave us 'The Mercy Seat', 'And The Ass Saw The Angel', 'From Her To Eternity'; off them, 'God Is In The House' and 'The Boatman's Call'. Cave should do drugs. Art trumps life, you can't have it both ways. It's also true to say that Cave does set an example: the ostentatious displays of notebooks (see: the inner sleeve of 'Let Love In' for a piano drowned in paper), the hard graft of turning out new record after new record, of which he is almost as proud as of the records themselves. The marathon live shows, the punishment to which he subjects his knees, jumping and landing on them in a devotional fury. This is some work ethic. This is some self-belief.

For a long time prior to the release of the reassuringly great 'Abattoir Blues' / 'The Lyre of Orpheus' there was something wrong, at least to my ears. Those Cave moments, so ridiculously over the top, so vital and so laughable, were gone, as he went about the business of becoming a respected musician. He turned in 'Nocturama' and it seemed that the best we could hope for from him was a caricature of what had gone before. 'Babe, I'm On Fire', whilst a blast and possibly the moment he realised he wanted to be Cave again, was strangely pointless, a nonsense song. The second 'Get Ready For Love' hit my stereo though I breathed again, knew it wasn't so. It should have been obvious: Cave's too vain to pander to anything but his own ego for too long. But it was too long.

Now we've got him back, the wretch, the loverman, the stripper, now comes the question: can he genre-hop as spectacularly as he did with his novel back in '90? Can he wrench a Western from the earth and drag us back down with it, into the bowels of the Earth, the entrails of human depravity? 'And The Ass Saw The Angel' managed something similar, being 'Henry's Dream' writ large (and 'Henry's Dream' wasn't exactly writ small), containing all the squalor, rain, freaks, rain, murders, thunder, lightening, degradation and rain you could ever want. The man can write. What the fuck was a Nick Cave film going to be like?

It starts well: a stake out in a brothel. Bullets fly, people die, with sickening thuds and liberal helpings of the production's dark syrupy stock of fake blood exploding all over the place ('A bloody halo like a think bubble circling his head'). From behind wooden slats a scorching sun pours in through ever more numerous bullet holes (all perfectly round), and things look bleak for our low life heroes Charlie and Mike Burns. The victor of this stand off, Captain Stanley, huffs and puffs, administers a few blows and puts his Proposition to Charlie. In order to save Mike from the gallows, he must track down and kill his other brother, Arthur. This much you can get from the trailer. So far so promising.

There is a lot to enjoy here: John Hurt's vile bounty hunter; the terrific outback scenery (makes it feel a bit like 'Walkabout', but maybe I haven't seen enough outback films); the camera's focus on Martha Stanley's naked bathing back shifting to her hands as she lifts them out of the water, describing to her husband a dream she's had about a dead friend and her unborn child; a group of captured Aboriginals howling like dogs as they tell a frustrated Captain Stanley lies about Arthur Burns' whereabouts ('he... grew long hairy ears, and turned into a dog. Ooooooo!'); Captain Stanley running smack into a door instead of opening it first, startled by an early morning shot outside his house. But I came out slightly underwhelmed. It wasn't the pace exactly that disappointed, but this is a tale of vengeance, and a certain sense of horrible inevitability is missing. Captain Stanley spends too long at home with his wife, being scared, being thankful how relatively normal their family life is when they'd fully expected to be murdered in their beds. For an officer who began the film by rising above the law, taking it into his own hands in the interests of retributive justice, it's quite a come down. He should be an avenging dark angel, and so much of the time he seems like a harassed bureaucrat.

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