Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist: An Intellectual Portrait, by Andrew Rankin. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2018).
The front cover of Andrew Rankin’s Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist, condenses the book’s central thesis into a single image. At the top of the cover is a photograph of Yukio Mishma (taken from the book Ordeal by Roses) smelling a flower. Beneath this is a fainter, inverted version of the same picture, suggesting a reflection of the first. It is as if Mishima is gazing into a pool of water, like the mythic figure Narcissus, relishing his own reflected appearance. The implication is that Mishima, like Narcissus, was self-obsessed.
Rankin’s book effectively argues that Mishima’s self-obsession was expressed through his life-long aspiration toward a “solid identity” (p. 8). This ultimately culminated in his anachronistic identification with the samurai tradition; an identification that both embodied a by-gone era and that allowed for the final, symbolic purgation of that era when, in 1970, Mishima committed suicide by seppuku. According to Rankin, Mishima was not born Mishima; he had to become Yukio Mishima through a lifetime of self-obsessed reflection and effort (something that I have also argued in Chapter Nine of my book Cinematic Nihilism, “Yukio Mishima and the Return to the Body”). This process began with a talented and intellectually brilliant Japanese boy named Hiraoka Kimitake who, in living through World War II and in experiencing the defeat and humiliation of his country by the West, sought to understand his place in a confusing world from which he felt alienated. Hiraoka Kimitake would, only after the war, become Yukio Mishima, a literary figure who strained against the limitations of the written word while striving to transform the abstractions explored in his books into concrete reality.
Rankin suggests that it is the problem of beauty that drove Mishima’s quest for a self. This problem is illustrated in what is perhaps one of Mishima’s greatest works, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. In this story beauty is characterized as an impossible goal that always eludes concrete realization. A monk named Mizoguchi becomes obsessed with a Buddhist temple that, while it is supposed to be the most beautiful of structures, nevertheless strikes him as falling short of its ideal. It is painfully shocking to the monk that the temple fails to live up to its promise, and he concludes that its physical existence is what holds back the manifestation of true beauty. Consequently, Mizoguchi resolves to burn down the temple in order that the pure, abstract form of its magnificence might be liberated.
Rankin’s analysis of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is very good, avoiding what I think are some of the mistakes made by many other interpreters of this particular work. He recognizes correctly that the problem with the temple in the story is not that it is too beautiful, but that it can never be made beautiful enough to express perfect, ideal beauty. It is the tangible nature of the building that holds back and degrades the ideal of beauty, and thus the only solution is destruction of its physical structure. Rankin applies this interpretation of the book to Mishima’s life, arguing that he was like both Mitzoguchi and the temple. In his turn toward body-building, Mishima attempted to make his own physique into a fleshy “temple” that he then suicidally destroyed in order to liberate his own self-created, ideal identity. In this quest both to create and annihilate himself, Mishima exhibited an extreme kind of aestheticism that was all consuming, narcissistic and decadent.
Mishima’s narcissism, however, was of a unique sort, according to Rankin. Whereas the original Greek myth of Narcissus has the central character unknowingly falling in love with his own likeness, Mishima instead was, all along, knowingly obsessed with himself. In the myth, Narcissus happens upon his reflection in a pool of water. When he realizes that what he sees is only a reflection – and thus is incapable of being possessed – he dies of a broken heart. When Mishima retells this myth, however, he replaces the pool of water with a “mirror image” (p. 75). This is an important difference, stresses Rankin, since while reflections in pools of water are natural phenomena that can deceive us, mirrors are unnatural, man-made implements that we already know cast our appearances back to us. Looking into a mirror, you know that you are looking at yourself. You know that the image has no substantial existence apart from your own body. There is, thus, no delusion when gazing at a mirror. You do not think you are engaging with other people. The mirror image, in this way, reinforces self-conscious self-involvement. This was Mishima’s frame of mind, according to Rankin. Mishima was a man who didn’t really care about interacting with others since he served as his own audience. His writing was a tool for him to create his own, self-enclosed world; a world that he eventually externalized in body-building. Lifting weights, Mishima watched his own muscles grow, becoming ever more self-obsessed with the transformation of his skinny, sickly body into a muscular, strong body. All the while, he knew that it was his own self that was both being transformed and observed. It was this dual, narcissistic process that came to dominate Mishima’s life. He was “intoxicated” with his own illusions (Chpt. 5).
Transforming his body eventually became part of a larger, public project of reactionary activism that, as Rankin writes, alienated him “from people on both sides of the political spectrum”:
Those on the left objected to what they saw as his crass glorification of wartime militarist dogma and emperor-centered fascism. Those on the right objected to his eroticization of the sacred imperial institution and to his ad hominem criticisms of the reigning emperor. Within a short time, so it seemed, the flippant aesthete had become a dedicated subversive. Hostile critics began to speak of Mishima as a “dangerous thinker,” a label that pleased him enormously (p. 121).
Being called a “dangerous thinker” no doubt was pleasing to Mishima in part because this is precisely the kind of thinking advocated by one of his philosophical idols, Friedrich Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche, Mishima was concerned with the advent of nihilism, and he became determined to find a way to combat and overcome this condition. Nietzsche had claimed that nihilism as a cultural disease results from an overabundance of the formal, structured and logical Apollonian force when it comes to dominate over the life enhancing – but potentially destructive – Dionysian force. Likewise, Mishima (inspired by anthropologist Ruth Benedict) diagnosed Japan’s cultural nihilism as stemming from an imbalance between the “chrysanthemum and the sword” (p. 126). The chrysanthemum, like Nietzsche’s Apollonian force, symbolizes tranquility and the gentle side of Japanese culture, while the sword, like Nietzsche’s Dionysian force, symbolizes Japan’s violent and cruel side. For Mishima, the chrysanthemum had come, after WWII, to dominate Japan at the expense of the sword. What was thus needed was a reaction against civilized softness through the cultivation of samurai viciousness. This project took the form of what Mishima would call “aesthetic terrorism” (p. 146).
The Shield Society was a militia formed by Mishima, consisting of himself and a group of about 100 young followers. Sanctioned and supported by the Japanese government, the stated purpose of the group was to protect the Emperor and to assist Japan’s security forces in combating violent insurrection. In reality, The Shield Society appears to have been viewed by authorities as a bit of a joke; the narcissistic project of Japan’s greatest author. From the perspective of Mishima himself, it seems to have been part of his own preparation for a spectacular death. Rankin writes that it was shortly after the formation of his militia that Mishima began to use the phrase “aesthetic terrorism” to describe various violent, but beautiful, political actions, rebellions, and assassinations from Japan’s past. In associating terrorism with beauty, Mishima seems to have been anticipating his final work of art, a performance piece in which violence, politics and art were combined in one spectacular event that would not only be the culminating point of Mishima’s identity, but would also be the final conclusion to his life. On November 25, 1970, Mishima carried out his final act of aesthetic terrorism, storming the office of the commandant of the Self Defense Forces along with four of his soldiers, and then committing seppuku. This act, both shocking and awe-inspiring, was his last and most stunning work of art, according to Rankin. It was, he writes, “the logical culmination of his life’s work and of all the aspects of his thinking that we have investigated in this book” (p. 172).
I really enjoyed Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist. It is well-written and well-researched. One of it’s greatest strengths is the fact that the author is fluent in Japanese, and so has been able to consult Mishima’s original texts, many of which remain untranslated. Rankin’s insights into these works offer fresh support for his analysis of Mishima’s psychological and artistic development, resulting in an unusually full and satisfying account of the Japanese author’s life-long struggles with self-identity. It is a well-argued and carefully assembled book that makes good use of previously neglected material. I agree with Rankin’s conclusions and admire his diligent research.
I have two criticisms, one having to do with the book’s tone and the other having to do with its philosophical content. First, while Rankin himself is impatient with what he thinks is a “dismissive” attitude toward Mishima by other scholars, the Introduction to his own book, I think, strikes its own unnecessarily dismissive tone toward English language writing that does in fact take Mishima seriously. The author sweepingly proclaims most English language accounts of Mishima as “lightweight” (p. 6). In a footnote he abruptly discounts Roy Starr’s book Deadly Dialectics as “unsatisfactory” (p. 175, fn 7), and he fails even to mention Damian Flanagan’s book Yukio Mishima (Reaction Books, 2014). While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of these other studies, they certainly don’t deserve to be summarily dismissed or ignored.
Second, while I do appreciate the serious attention Rankin devotes to Mishima’s own writings and ideas, the book exhibits a lack of depth when it comes to exploring some of the connections between those ideas and Mishima’s philosophical influences. Rankin is obviously an expert when it comes to the Japanese literary tradition, but his study lacks detail when it comes to the wider philosophical tradition of which Mishima was a part. In particular, Rankin’s account of Nietzsche’s philosophy is quite thin, missing important subtleties about how the Nietzschean dynamic of nihilism is replicated in Mishima’s obsession with the conflict between the ideal and the concrete. Ironically, this is something that might have been addressed had Rankin engaged more charitably with Roy Starr’s book.
Overall, however, I would enthusiastically recommend Mishima, Aesthetic Terrorist to anyone fascinated by Yukio Mishima’s writing, his life, or his psychological development. It is an exceptional book.