Mishima's Sword (2006)

On 25th November 1970, the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, accompanied by a private army of extreme right wing students dressed in Ruritanian uniforms he’d commissioned from a well-known fashion designer, entered the Eastern Army Group Headquarters in Tokyo and took a senior general hostage. Armed with traditional weapons, Mishima’s Shield Society cadets fought off a group of soldiers who tried to rescue their commander. The novelist then stepped out onto a balcony and made an appeal to the troops to stage a coup. When they responded with a mixture of hostility and indifference, Mishima went back inside and committed seppuku, ritual suicide, disembowelling himself with a dirk as an assistant severed his head with a katana long sword.

Mishima’s death was a national embarrassment. It flew in the face of the progressive, democratic image post-war Japan was trying to present to the world. It was also, unmistakeably, art. Everything about Mishima’s life and work was deliberately aestheticised. His fiction, with its obsessive focus on death and homoeroticism, was linked to a public image as a stern traditionalist. Even his hypertrophic physique, sculpted through years of body-building and martial arts training, was part of a total performance, aimed at forcing Japan to think twice about its precipitous rush towards modernity.

Christopher Ross heads into this complex territory to produce an engagingly odd patchwork of a book (Mishima's Sword Fourth Estate 2006), a blend of cultural history, memoir, travelogue and philosophical rumination. He frames his story as a quest for the sword Mishima used in his seppuku, a blade reputed to be the work of a master swordsmith of the Seki no Magoruko school. Ross is well-qualified to lead such an expedition. A peripatetic Briton (his curt author bio mentions that he’s ‘travelled in over a hundred countries’), he spent several years in Japan during the nineties. His spoken Japanese is evidently excellent and his pride in his command of the intricacies of Japanese culture is matched by his obvious love for the people. He is also, crucially, a student of iaido, a four hundred year old school of fencing focused on quick draw techniques for use when surprised by one’s enemy with one’s sword still sheathed.

Ross painstakingly excavates Mishima’s motivations, putting his suicide in political and social context. He tells fascinating anecdotes about his own travels in search of the missing sword, unpicking the tangle of tradition and modernity that informs not just Mishima’s story, but so much about contemporary Japan. Anyone who has struggled to understand Prime Minister Koizumi’s annual visits to honour the war dead at the Yasukuni shrine or been spooked by black vans blaring martial music on the streets of downtown Tokyo will find an explanation here.

However, contemporary narrative non-fiction (an increasingly well-defined genre) demands a personal register, a demand Ross struggles to meet. He often appears uneasy, even defensive about his motivations for following this charged and passionate story. In one strange scene, he meets an ex-boyfriend of Mishima’s in an underground S&M bar. The description of the lurid backdrop to their conversation is eerily devoid of personal response. Is he attracted? Repelled? Is the dungeon more or less interesting to him than his trip to the sword-smith or the tea shop? Ross offers a lot of rather pedestrian philosophical speculation about suicide and some contrived attempts to link his experience with Mishima’s (in one of the more strained passages, he has a stomach ache and wonders if it’s a phantom seppuku) but such pseudo-personal reflections appear as a smokescreen for his unwillingness to tell us why he’s here, what he wants for himself out of his quest. One has the sense that he’s caught between a writerly wish to absent himself and a contrary desire to present an impressive persona. Observer or performer? Mishima himself was a film actor as well as a novelist and playwright.

Ross’s book stands in a long tradition of orientalism, a comment which isn’t intended negatively: his narrative is in no way patronising or designed to make a claim for Western superiority. He’s simply gripped by the excitement of passing out of one sphere into another, of acquiring skill and fluency in the most recondite areas of Japanese culture. It’s the same obsession which led Richard Burton to disguise himself to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, the fantasy of crossing over that Rudyard Kipling explored with such relish in Kim. However, unlike those earlier orientalists, Ross’s impulse isn’t colonial. In fact it’s almost the reverse, a desire to be taken over by Japan, to let it flow into him until he’s completely occupied, the austere tradition that was suppressed during the post-war ‘coca-colonisation’ reversing its flow, finding a new home in the unlikely body of this Western student. In this aspect of his work, Ross demonstrates real openness. Foreign commentators have tended to represent Mishima’s tragic self-destruction as pure exotica, a piece of Japonoiserie to be wondered at rather than understood. Ross’s engagement is altogether more serious, even if his motivation is often opaque.