Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sea of Fertility

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters by bangart
It was Haruki Murakami that turned me to Yukio Mishima's works. I decided upon the The Sea of Fertility tetralogy back in September 2011 and six months and 4 masterful works of literature later, here I am writing this post. How does this differ from Murakami? Murakami's prose largely deals with Japan's Lost Decade; the looming sense of a loss of individualism, losing the essence of what it is to be Japanese. Japan as we must understand had modernity foisted upon it unwillingly by the arrival of the American ships at its shores back in the late nineteenth century. Bakumatsu, or the opening of Japan signaled the drop of the curtain that kept Japan from technological and economic advancement. This also kick started a troubled love-hate relationship between the Japanese and the Americans. The Americans forced a speedy evolution on behalf of the Japanese by bringing with them technological marvels from the West. This ultimately led to an identity crisis: mass volumes of literature were written by poets and writers dubbed nihonjinron that begged the question- what defined Japaneseness?

The masses have always been split between the opinion that Western culture has brought about a modern Japan or whether it has soiled the pristine nature of Japanese spirit, soul and identity. While Murakami muses over the alienation and identity crisis issues and allows the readers to understand and interpret the metaphors, Mishima adopted a more direct approach of his discontent for the direction Japan was heading in. Each of the novels in the tetralogy was set in a different era: Spring Snow in the Taisho era, Runaway Horses in the ultra nationalistic decades of the early 1900's, Temple of Dawn in the '40s and The Decay of the Angel  in the '70s.

The premise of these four novels deal with the idea of the protagonist's reincarnation and a lot of Buddhist and Hindu philosophies are thrown at the reader;  Temple of Dawn pulls out all the stops to bring the case for transmigration of Kiyoaki Matsugae's soul into Isao Iinuma and then into the Thai princess Ying Chan of the lustful flesh. The fourth reincarnation, Toru, seems to be a faux one and Mishima hints at his waning interest in the idea of reincarnation; the idea merely being a plot device to discuss the Japanese socio-economic landscape.
That is however not to discard the work in itself; although the prose often chokes on its own complex philosophies and long winded descriptions of ships, azure skies and the nightmarish material and spiritual filth of Benares, it is studded with gems like:
"I have been self-reliant to the point of sadness. I wonder when I first fell into the habit of washing my hands after each brush with humanity, lest I be contaminated. People have diagnosed the habit as uncommon fastidiousness."
" Desiring to search out the truth, and yet to deny it, wanting to deny the truth, yet seeking only salvation in it. Such emotion went forever around in circles, just as the stray traveler on a mountain road, intending to go forward, somehow always returned to the point he started from." 

All in all, both authors are linked in a way that is easy to analyze. Mishima disdainfully regrets the loss of Japanese identity while Murakami grapples with the ramifications of that perceived loss. The former participates by voicing thoughts and opinions in his works while the latter is a silent observer of the cultural fallout and acts vicariously through his characters.

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