It was over 30 years ago, when I was a student at community college, that I first read Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility Tetralogy. My memory of the first two books in the cycle remained most vivid over the years while the details of second two books faded into vague impressions. At the time, I was mostly focused on the dramatic relationships between the characters and not necessarily the deeper philosophical message of the narrative as a whole. To me at that time, the Sea of Fertility was primarily a story about reincarnation. It all started with Kioyaki Matsuagae, who after dying young was reincarnated as Isao Iinuma, who then, after dying by seppuku, was reincarnated as a Thai princess. I didn’t remember much about the final novel in the cycle, other than that the spirit of the Thai princess reappeared in yet a further incarnation.
Recently I have begun rereading the Sea of Fertility as part of a project I am working on that involves the development of Mishima’s philosophical nihilism. Having now finished the first novel in the cycle, Spring Snow, I find myself wondering whether as a teenager I was attracted to the themes in this book because I already was a nihilist, or whether the book played a role in shaping my youthful worldview. This is an impossible issue to decide unequivocally, of course, as the chains of cause and effect are forever buried in an irretrievable past. However, it is undeniable that this particular book has in some way become woven into my consciousness, affecting the way that I think about and experience the world.
Spring Snow is a tragedy that takes place in the early 1900’s. It tells the story of Kioyaki Matsuagae, the teenaged son of a Japanese nobleman. Kioyaki is a bright, sensitive, good looking yet melancholy young man, accustomed to being catered to and taken care of. However, Kioyaki comes to realize that the life of privilege he leads rests with being born into a noble family whose title and lifestyle are symbols of a more general period of cultural decadence and decline. Fifty years before, his family had been samurai, living simply and with dignity, but now they have become increasingly westernized, amassing land, wealth and “elegance” as indications of their modernized extravagance. In this era of cultural decay, capitalism and westernization are inexorably undermining the traditions of the old Japan. Swept up in the tide of history, Kioyaki feels he is doomed passively to submit to his given role as the son of a Marquis, accepting his place in life without any aspirations toward greatness or individual distinction. But part of his passive attitude also includes the conviction that he is fated somehow to violate and disobey the traditions and expectations of his family. He feels that he is a conduit, born to channel the energies of Japan’s social and cultural decline, acting as an instrument for the downfall of his era. At once, he is both a symptom and a vehicle of nihilism:
His elegance was the thorn. And he was well aware that his aversion to coarseness, his delight in refinement, were futile; he was a plant without roots. Without meaning to undermine his family, without wanting to violate its traditions, he was condemned to do so by his very nature. And this poison would stunt his own life as it destroyed his family. The handsome young man felt that this futility typified his existence. (p. 13)
In characterizing Kioyaki thusly, Mishima is, at the beginning of this novel, setting the stage for the rest of the tetralogy. This will be a story of nihilism in both the collective, cultural sense and in the individual, spiritual sense. This Sea of Fertility is to be a tale of both cultural and individual decline. It brings to mind both Friedrich Nietzsche’s and Oswald Spengler’s complex characterizations of nihilism in which individual, concrete human beings come to embody the cycles and rhythms of the periods in which they live. To exist in a time of cultural decline is to participate in that decline and to become its tool. In this sense, the purposes and goals of the individual are in fact the purposes and goals of the universe as a whole. Each of the characters that we are introduced to over the course of these novels are, in this way, passive vessels for the expression of a cosmic project.
Kioyaki’s best friend is a boy by the name of Shigekuni Honda. Honda’s role in this novel (and the rest of the cycle) is to serve as a witness to the successive incarnations of Kioyaki’s “soul” as well as to embody the spirit of reason and logic that both contrasts with Kioyaki’s emotional nature and that acts as a symptom of the emerging modern era. Honda aspires to become a lawyer, advocating the view that all humans are equally accountable to objective and knowable principles that transcend convention and social status. Whereas Kioyaki represents the sad and melancholy sense of an era’s passing, Honda represents the optimistic conviction that behind the cycles of history there is a universal and eternal principle of natural law that never changes. In this, he is influenced by western thinkers like Aristotle (p. 365), and thus Honda also stands as a symbol of the incursion of western thought into eastern culture. He, like Kioyaki, is a product of his times. At one point, the two boys converse about their place in history, and Honda suggests that despite their differences in temperament – Kioyaki being emotional; Honda being logical – future generations will lump them together, along with everyone else in their culture, as part of the same people. “You and I, you see, must be immersed in some style of living or another, but we’re like goldfish swimming around in a bowl without ever noticing it.” (p. 91) So, despite their contradictory natures, both boys are in fact complementary embodiments of an era that is itself full of contradiction, strife and friction. But whereas Kioyaki is tied to a way of life that is coming to and end, Honda is tied to a way of life that is on the ascent. For this reason, Kioyaki himself must tragically pass away while Honda must endure and bear witness to the future as it unfolds.
The central conflict in the novel concerns Kioyaki’s doomed love for Satoko Ayakura, a beautiful young woman beside whom Kioykai has grown up. Satoko loves Kioyaki, but he instinctively rejects any show of affection from her. The reasons for this are connected with Kioyaki’s own pride and his impatience with having to “endure people making a fuss over his looks.” (p. 18) Nonetheless, it is apparent that Kioyaki is obsessed with Satoko, but that he is unable honestly to express his feelings for her. Instead, he writes her an insulting letter in which he falsely claims to have slept with a prostitute; presumably to inspire jealousy and to demonstrate his own position of dominance in relation to her. There is anger in his letter directed toward women in general, suggesting that they are no more than “plump, lascivious little animals” (p. 46) His words are obviously intended to wound, but they also appear to be a desperately emotional expression of Kioyaki’s confused feelings of sexual attraction to Satoko. He loves her, just as she loves him, and in fact, everyone around them assumes that the two of them are destined to be married. Kioyaki, nonetheless, is too emotionally agitated to agree to marriage, and so when Satoko is offered a proposal for marriage from the Imperial Prince of Japan, Kioyaki offers no objections. He spitefully claims that he has no interest at all in Satoko.
The involvement of the Imperial family introduces a pivotal and fateful factor into the relationship between Kioyaki and Satoko. Marriage to a prince is not a matter of individual affection, but rather a ritual that has more to do with tradition and matters of state than it does with love. When Satoko reluctantly accepts the proposal of marriage from the prince – after repeated attempts to reconcile with Kioyaki – she sets into motion a chain of events that can not be interrupted without extremely damaging consequences to the reputations of herself and her family. Forces much larger than the wills of two people are now in effect.
It is only at this point in the story that Kioyaki expresses his desire to be with Satoko. He arranges – with the help of Honda, his own attendant, and Satoko’s attendant – a series of clandestine, romantic liaisons, which result in Satoko’s pregnancy. Why is it that Kioyaki feels compelled to finally express his passionate love only after Satoko has been promised to the prince? I think there are two answers to this question, each corresponding to one level of the collective and individual nihilistic rhythms embodied in this story. On one level, this illicit love affair is one that promises to further the decline and fall of the noble families that are involved in the scandal. This is a circumstance that promotes the fated mission Kioyaki has been assigned by the course of history itself. In defying the traditions of the Imperial Emperor, he plays his key role in the nihilistic decline and decay of traditional Japanese customs and expectations; a role that early on he recognizes as part of his unchosen destiny. The other answer operates on the individual, rather than the cultural level. Kioyaki throws himself into his love affair with Satoko only at the point at which the relationship promises to yield tragic beauty instead of conventional happiness. As Honda suggests to him, “From the very beginning you’ve been bewitched by impossibility…You were drawn in precisely because the whole thing was impossible.” (p. 267) It is only when their love becomes an impossibility that Kioyaki finds value in the relationship. To become married and to perpetuate the life of his parents would chafe against the aesthetics of one who sees the world through the lens of decay and decline. The only appropriate love for a person who is a conduit for the spirit of nihilism is a tragic, impossible love. And for this reason Kioyaki’s passions for Satoko are inflamed precisely at that point in time when their love becomes doomed.
And doomed it is. Satoko is forced to undergo an abortion by her parents, who contrive to hide her indiscretions so that the marriage might proceed. Instead, Satoko cuts off her hair and joins a convent, renouncing the world forever. Kioyaki, travels to the convent but is repeatedly denied a meeting with Satoko. He becomes deathly ill, and when his friend Honda comes to his side, he makes one last attempt to contact Satoko. This request too is denied, and and so the pair of friends depart back to Tokyo, where Kioyaki dies two days after his return home. Mishima makes a point of emphasizing that even in the throes of death, his face, though contorted in pain, is tragically beautiful:
Despite the contortions, however, it was beautiful. Intense suffering had imbued it with an extraordinary character, carving lines into it that gave it the austere dignity of a bronze mask. (p. 374)
So it is that the tragic downfall of Kioyaki, predicted at the beginning of the novel, reaches its sadly beautiful conclusion. His last words to Honda, “I’ll see you again. I know it. Beneath the falls,” (p. 376) set the stage for the next novel in the cycle, Runaway Horses.
Kioyaki’s tragic story provides a background against which many other characters appear over the course of Spring Snow; their stories entangled and intertwined with that of the main character. There are a pair of Thai princes who stay with Kiyoaki while they study in Japan. One of them learns of the death of his fiancé – who is also the sister of the other prince – and they both return home to mourn her loss. There is Kioyaki’s tutor and attendant Iinuma, who is dismissed from his post when he becomes involved in a forbidden love affair with a servant from the Ayakura household. He is a pivotal character in the following book, Runaway Horses, in which he appears as an influential right-wing author whose son, Isao, becomes involved in a terrorist plot against the government. There is also Tadeshina, Satoko’s attendant, an aging geisha, who is instrumental in organizing the clandestine meetings between Kiyoaki and Satoko that lead to the disgrace of both the Matsuage and the Ayakura families. Her actions, it turns out, have been inspired by the long forgotten suggestions of Count Ayakura himself, who had at one point in the past instructed Tadeshina to secretly encourage his daughter to lose her virginity before marriage as a way to spite the Marquis Matsuage, Kioyaki’s father, with whom he carries on an unspoken rivalry.
All of these relationships (and more!) unfold over the course of Spring Snow. While trying to keep track of them can sometimes be as confusing as tracing the associations between characters in a Russian novel, what ultimately ties them together is a message of fated doom and the decline of familiar, old ways of life. Nihilism, in both the collective/historical and individual/existential varieties, is the undercurrent of most of Mishima’s novels and, as in Spring Snow, these currents complement and augment one another. As particular characters find themselves swept along with the tides of history, the dramatic interest of the stories emerges from how each individual experiences the suffering of decline and decay in their own unique, yet connected ways. In Mishima’s world, happiness is never attained by anyone. However, there is a sort of fulfillment and satisfaction that obtains in watching these tragic destinies play themselves out to an aesthetically beautiful completion.