Runaway Horses is volume two in Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility Tetralogy. It tells the story of Isao, the son of Shigeyuki Iinuma, Kioyaki Matsugae’s tutor from Spring Snow. At the end of Spring Snow, Kioyaki, as he lay dying, told his friend, Honda, that the two of them would meet again, “Beneath the falls.” Runaway Horses picks up on this thread, and 18 years later, Honda recognizes his reincarnated friend – now living as the young Isao Iinuma – purifing himself during a Shinto ritual beneath a waterfall at the Konomiya Shrine.
Honda is now 38 years old, married with no children, and working as a judge in the Osaka Court of Appeals. In Spring Snow, Honda’s budding, legal mind was positioned as the rational foil to his best friend’s romantic, passionate nature. While Kioyaki died a young death, withering away from the despair of being permanently separated from the woman that he loves, Honda continued forward in life, systematically pursuing his career until, in Runaway Horses, he achieves a respected position that is the logical culmination of his efforts. As he himself reflects, early on in the story: “…I represent reason for the nation. A height upheld by logic, like a tower formed of steel girders.” (p. 19) Honda, as in the previous volume, will in this story serve as the tempered, rational and reasonable witness to the passionate drama that is about to unfold as Isao, gripped by patriotic frenzy, leads a right-wing revolt against the representatives of capitalism that he and his followers see as indicative of the forces leading Japan down the path of decadence, decay and corruption.
Isao is a student at his father’s “Academy of Patriotism,” a right-wing school that teaches traditional Japanese values, and that rejects the modernizing influences of the west. Isao is one of the school’s most respected students, excelling in Kendo, but held in high esteem primarily due to the purity of his spirit. There is no cynicism or irony in Isao’s manner. He is authentically and uniquely committed to a life in which his values are actualized in every word, every gesture, and every action that he undertakes. Whereas in Spring Snow, Kioyaki represented the purity of tragic love, in Runaway Horses, Isao represents the purity of action. At their core, however, both Kioyaki and Isao are the same insofar as it is a commitment to perfected integrity that defines their essence. In Isao, this perfection is exhibited visibly in his demand that Shinto rituals be carried out with spotless precision, in his excellence at Kendo fighting, as well as in his decorum while in the presence of authority figures. Ironically, it will be this meticulous commitment to tradition that also brings Isao into conflict with the conservative, ruling forces of his own nation. Since these forces – consisting of his father, military leaders, the legal system, and the royal emperor himself – have been infected by the spirit of compromise, submitting to the realities of life in a modern, westernized world, Isao finds himself betrayed by the very institutions that he so passionately desires to reinvigorate. His ideals, it turns out, are too dangerously pure for contemporary society, and so his revolutionary actions are destined to culminate in tragedy. In all of this, the reader who is familiar with Mishima’s own life will see an unmistakable parallel. Isao seems to be playing out the same sort of drama that Mishima himself would enact years later when, after a failed attempt to overthrow the Japanese government and reestablish the Emperor, he killed himself in an act of ritual seppuku. In fact, many commentators detect in this very novel Mishima’s mental rehearsal for his final action.
Isao is fascinated by a story titled The League of the Divine Wind, by Tsunanori Yamao, which recounts an event from the 19th Century during which a group of Japanese patriots mounted a rebellion against the westernized and “Americanized” institutions of the new Japan, which had begun to draw boundaries between religion and government in direct contradiction of the tradition of “government and worship as one.” (p. 66) The rebellion was undertaken by a small group who were pure of spirit, utilizing only traditional edged weapons. Such a strategy doomed the rebellion to military failure. However, just as the physical battle was lost, the spiritual statement made by the League in their tragic deaths by seppuku powerfully reasserted the vigor of samurai values. It is this aspect of the story that captures Isao’s imagination, as in it he sees an inspiration for his own life mission.
Isao passes a copy of this story to Honda, who in response writes him a long letter confessing his own emotional admiration for the patriots. But Honda also cautions Isao against the romantic lure of passion. He tells Isao about Kiyoaki, and how his passion destroyed him. Honda, of course, suspects that he is, in fact, writing to his old best friend, and he is desperatly seeking to avert yet another tragic scenario. Thus, he warns Isao that while the tragic beauty of this particular story is undeniable, it is also a fantasy out of touch with modern day reality. In line with his own logical perspective on the world, Honda points out the contradictions, the incongruities and the inconsistencies within the story, closing by advising Isao that he should avoid “the blurring together of purity of resolve and history.” (p.118) The content of the letter, of course, does not please Isao, and he is further puzzled by why it is that a relative stranger like Honda would take the trouble to write such a heartfelt and passionate letter to him about this matter. It is at this point that Isao decides he will seek the help of those in the military in order to plan and carry out an attack modeled after the events in The League of the Divine Wind.
The relationship between Honda and Isao develops into one of intense friction as Isao becomes increasingly passionate and committed to an early death while Honda increasingly despairs over what he sees as the futility and sadness of a world in which all things pass. In Isao, as pointed out by Roy Starrs in his excellent book Deadly Dialectics, we find the force of active nihilism as he vigorously seeks perfect oblivion in a tragic act of self-destruction. In Honda, on the other hand, we find the force of passive nihilism, which seeks preservation and stasis in an attempt to stop the dynamic flow of an ultimately meaningless world. While Isao pursues action by using violence, Honda pursues stability through logic and reason. Isao follows Dionysus. Honda follows Apollo.
This distinction between the two characters is further emphasized by the fact that Isao is a follower of the Shinto faith. In Shintoism (at least as depicted by Mishima), the point is scrupulous adherence to ceremony. The entire focus of the faith converges on ritualistic action and the rejection of any speculative ideas concerning an afterlife. Everything is focused on action in this world, and not on some other world. Honda, by contrast, is fascinated by Buddhism, which teaches the perpetual transmigration of souls. The soul, according to Buddhism, really is nothing at all in the end, and so there is a passive sadness and despair written into the core of the religion, summed up in a line from a No performance that obsesses Honda: “Drawing our brine cart along, how briefly we live in this sad world, how fleetingly!” (pp. 210 & 216) Human beings suffer in life, only to die and become reborn into a world in which they suffer and die once again. The whole process is one of ceaseless and vain sorrow, leading one of Isao’s mentors to declare the Buddha a “foolish man” who teaches “a philosophy of evil that reduces everything to nihilism.” (p. 241) Isao and his right-wing followers thus reject Buddhism, an institution, like capitalism, that is a foreign import sapping the vital health of the Japanese nation, reducing them to passive decadence.
As Runaway Horses reaches its crescendo, Isao is first betrayed by the military leaders who had promised him support for his samurai rebellion, and then by his own father, who not only turns his son in to the authorities, but who reveals that his own Academy of Patriotism has been funded by one of the very capitalists who Isao had intended to assassinate. When Isao and his comrades are imprisoned and brought up on charges of treason, Honda resigns his position in the Osaka Court of Appeals in order to take on the role of defending attorney for his reincarnated friend.
Isao, lingering in his cell, philosophizes about the essence of his situation, concluding, “It is in the nature of authority to fear purity more than any sort of corruption. Just as savages fear medical treatment more than disease.” (p. 335) He is correct, of course. Authority fears those who are pure precisely because those who are pure cannot be controlled through threats or intimidation. Like Socrates, they are motivated by ideals alone and thus are apt to resist those who try to use them for corrupt purposes. And like Socrates, they can’t be silenced. They can only be eliminated, taken out of this world so that they will never again interfere with the pragmatic operations of managing and maintaining a functioning society. By their very nature, those who are pure of spirit are immune to the law and can’t be controlled by it. As Isao muses:
The law is an accumulation of tireless attempts to block a man’s desire to change life into an instant of poetry. Certainly it would not be right to let everybody exchange his life for a line of poetry written in a splash of blood. But the mass of men, lacking valor, pass away their lives without ever feeling the least touch of such a desire. The law, therefore, of its very nature is aimed at a tiny minority of mankind. (p. 337)
The outcome of Isao’s trial, is that while he and his co-conspirators are found guilty, their punishments are dismissed, with the proviso that punishment might be reinstated depending upon circumstances. With this threat hanging over their heads, the young men are released. The judge’s ruling considered the patriotism behind their motives and their youthfulness, being handed down with seeming confidence that the perpetrators would be relieved to escape punishment and be eager to get back to their lives, families and future careers. For all but Isao this is an accurate calculation.
As soon as he is able, however, Isao travels to the opulent, Western-style home of the businessman Busuke Kurahara, who earlier in the story had blundered in his performance at a Shinto ritual. Isao stabs the capitalist to death for profanation of the Grand Shrine of Ise and then flees to a spot on the nearby cliffs. It is there that Isao sits down and disembowels himself as he overlooks the ocean. “The instant that the blade tore open his flesh, the bright disk of the sun soared up and exploded behind his eyelids.” (p. 419) Isao dies by ritual seppuku, ending this volume of the story, but opening the way to the third part of the tetralogy, The Temple of the Dawn.
The first time that I read Runaway Horses was about 30 years ago, and out of all the books in the Sea of Fertility Tetralogy, this is the one whose details have remained most vivid in my memory. This might be, perhaps, partly due to the fact that portions of the story are dramatized in Paul Schrader’s film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, or that in much of the scholarly literature on Mishima and his life, this book is highlighted as an important window into the state of his mind in the years leading up to his suicide. The specifics of the story have, in these ways, been reinforced in my mind again and again. Nonetheless, it is still the case that rereading the book today, I find a unique simplicity and purity in Runaway Horses that makes it unforgettable on account of its own merits; even without secondary cinematic and scholarly reminders of its content. The characters have already been established in the previous novel, Spring Snow, and so the reader is not saddled with the burden of becoming acquainted with a whole new set of protagonists. Additionally, we have been primed by the first novel to be prepared for the tragic trajectory of the unfolding tale, and so we need not waste any optimistic hopes wondering if the story will turn out to have a happy ending. The story is also very simply structured, taking us from the introduction of Isao, to his plan for action, his capture, his trial, and finally to his suicide. It is a story that Aristotle would no doubt praise for its well-structured complexity and proper magnitude. The reader can easily hold the entire plot in his or her head all at once, appreciating the aesthetic unity of the tragic drama as a whole. All of these structural aspects free the reader to be swept along with the story-telling.
But the most powerful part of the story still remains the simple dynamic (repeated from the first novel) between Honda and Isao. On the one hand, I felt myself attracted to the logical and reasonable thought process of Honda, our guide through this series of novels. On the other hand, I was utterly entranced by the destructive purity of Isao. The tension between these two ever-present forces in human life – logic and passion – are beautifully and clearly illustrated in Runaway Horses, and in the end I was left unsure as to which of the two I myself believe to be the more admirable. A life of reason and logic can quickly devolve into a life devoid of passion, while a life of passion is always in danger of introducing unreasonably needless suffering and turmoil into the world. Should we side with Apollo or Dionysus? Is it better to think or to act?