All of us approach anything new from our frame of reference. And so I cannot help but liken this novel, the second part of a tetralogy the rest of which I haven’t read, to Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (aka Demons). It’s been years since I read it, but I felt strong echoes of it in this novel. I’m not sure that’s fair to Mishima, but I can’t help it.
Both novels are about plots to (sort of) overthrow the government. But that’s where the similarities pretty much end, especially given the framing device Mishima uses in this novel.
Mishima certainly has some similarities to Dostoevsky, with how much they focus on the minds of seemingly deranged young people (especially in this novel). But where I sympathize with and understand Dostoevsky, I struggle much more with Mishima because I suspect he sympathizes with the revolutionaries in a way that it was obvious Dostoevsky did not. (I more than suspect this, I know it from what Mishima did later in his life.)
And that is where the problem with this novel lies for me.
Mishima does an excellent job capturing the immature obsessions of youth, in this case with “purity,” whatever the hell that is. We’ve all experienced the extreme emotions of youth and we’ve all be convinced about the purity of our own righteousness for a particular cause or idea. Mishima does an excellent job of capturing this.
His framing device is also excellent. Though I do not myself subscribe to the kinds of spiritual nonsense that convinces Honda, I feel like it is a great (albeit somewhat difficult) entry point into the world of the plot. The plot itself is then revealed slowly and we are caught a little off-guard given that we think this novel is really just about Honda’s obsession.
But I know Mishima sympathizes with the revolutionaries. And that troubles me deeply. What also troubles me is the extent to which the elders in this novel sympathize with them. I once again find myself reading a Japanese novel (watching a Japanese film, etc) and struggling with the Japanese person’s concept about the world. I know nothing about Shintoism, but from this novel I don’t think I want to know more.
Mishima’s problematic attitude towards what is clearly wrong is worse when Isao, always too wise for his years, makes his courtroom speech. To me, this feels almost like Mishima’s justification for militarism in Japan, and perhaps even their role in World War II (which, I should not have to remind anyone, caused the deaths of millions of people). Not only is Isao far too wise for his years when he speaks – though really immature at times, he is the most mature 20-year-old at other times, as if he’s in a Thomas Mann novel – this speech has so much conviction, and feels so much like an indictment of modern Japan in general, that it’s hard not to read it as an apologia for Imperial Japan. And that’s awful.
And so I find myself torn: I appreciate the style and most of the characters and I appreciate it as a portrait of a world I do not know. But I don’t appreciate the novel’s morality, which values abstract ideas and traditions over the lives of real people, something I can never get behind.
PS: I read this out of order because I read that these four novels can stand on their own. I certainly had no trouble with this one, having not read the first part of the series. I am not sure I will read subsequent novels, simply because I struggle with Mishima’s morality.