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Few writers are ranked with the likes of Camus, Gide and Dostoevsky. Fewer still of their ranks hail from the Far East. Yukio Mishima, however, is among that elite group. His stories are of struggle, inner and outer, and capture the human condition with such clarity as to make one blush. His protagonists are train wrecks, and like train wrecks, are hard not to stare at, slack-jawed in disbelief, for their brutally honest portrayals.

Confessions of a Mask
by Yukio Mishima
Translated by Meredith Weather
James Laughlin, 1958
. ISBN: 0-8112-0118-X
$10.95, 254 pp

First published in 1958, Confessions of a Mask has enjoyed the rare distinction of never having fallen out of print. Now in its twenty-sixth printing, it tells the story of a Japanese adolescent in the first person. Never is the protagonist mentioned by name, which proves effective in making the story feel intimate. It also begs the question: Is it autobiographical? Most of the story takes place during World War II, an appropriate backdrop for the battles going on within the protagonist, whom from here out - for lack of a better moniker - will be referred to as Pi.

Head Games
From a very early age, Pi became aware he didn't play like other boys. A sickly child, he was coddled by his parents, with the unintentional consequence of socially isolating him. By the time he reaches his teens, he's convinced there are no other boys who feel or act like him, and thus begins an existence in the shadows of his peers where he makes a painstaking effort to go unnoticed. It hardly sounds like the normal existence for a boy, but in Pi's mind it makes perfect sense. It is what it is, and the best Pi can hope for is to not stand out.

Pi is a fatalist. He subscribes to the Augustine idea of predetermination, a theory in which free will is abandoned to the fates. He compares it to being served from a preset menu:

    I had been handed what might be called a full menu of all the troubles in my life while still too young to read it. But all I had to do was spread my napkin and face the table. Even the fact that I would now be writing an odd book like this was precisely noted on the menu, where it must have been before my eyes from the beginning.
Pi's inner struggles evolve around his sexuality. A habitual masturbater, he recognizes his attraction to men at a young age. In a conservative social construct like Imperial Japan, that's no easy row to hoe, and he's on the constant lookout to escape it. He examines every decision he makes in excruciating detail, desperately seeking "normalcy". He's so hell-bent on acquiring it, that when he sees a glimmer of what he perceives as normal, he gloms onto it as proof that he is no different than other young men, though these respites are short lived. A leopard can't change its spots any more than a fatalist can escape his destiny.

Death Wish
There's much self-loathing in Confessions. As a boy, Pi is convinced he'll die young. It's a wishful conviction, and one influenced by the war raging both inside and outside of him. If he dies before a marriageable age, he has a chance of taking his secret to the grave. If he doesn't, he's destined for a life of what he terms as "autohypnosis", a "counterfeit hypnosis" in which he all but believes he's no different than anyone else. A life of lies; a masquerade. He becomes so obsessed with the idea of dying that it becomes his "real 'life's aim'". Everywhere he looks he sees death, even taking to visualizing the objects of his attraction as bloodied and dying, pierced by daggers and arrows. It's the image of St. Sebastian's death, an image he encountered as a young child. An erotic image in Pi's mind, but also one of self-hate, and martyrdom. It's a mixed bag.

The principal characters of Confessions are fleshed out and vibrant; minor characters, not so much. This is an aid rather than a hinderance, though, as it makes Pi's isolation that much more pronounced. The world is a lonely category five storm, of which Pi is the eye, spinning, spinning, spinning.

"War has rules, mud wrestling

has rules - politics has no rules."

Yukio Mishima completed his twenty-third and final novel the day he died. After attending a political demonstration, he took his own life by ceremonial seppuku, which - by way of hindsight coupled with the autobiographical approach of Confessions - adds an additional meaning to the image of St. Sebastian: that of self-fulfilling prophecy. Mishima was forty-five.

After the Banquet
by Yukio Mishima
Translated by Donald Keene
Berkley Publishing, 1971
ISBN: 425-02011-8
$1.25, 192 pp

Ross Perot made a bid for the oval office in 1988. He failed. He was quoted then as saying, "War has rules, mud wrestling has rules - politics has no rules." An important observation for anyone considering a run for public office.

Keeping Up Appearances
After the Banquet is a novel of political intrigue in post-war Japan. It came at a time when Japan was reinventing herself as a nation. An era when old traditions still weighed more heavily on the daily lives of her citizenry than the new Western-influenced consumerism. Japan was yet to realize the economic powerhouse she would become; America was still buying American. Against this national backdrop, the story follows Kazu on a quest to realize her own reinvention in the new Japan.

A businesswoman, Kazu is the proprietress of the Setsugoan, a popular Tokyo restaurant. It's a luxurious establishment with an exquisite garden and building worthy of national treasure status, and a reputation for discretion. The Setsugoan counts among its frequent patrons members of Japan's Conservative Party. They're a ruthlessly polite bunch who hang onto power by knowing where all the bodies are buried, speaking words of appeasement even as they maneuver to upend their rivals. Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac of their ilk, and to keep it, no trick's too dirty.

Third Eye Blind
When the Kagen Club - an association of retired diplomats - books a banquet at the Setsugoan, Kazu is impressed in particular by one former cabinet member named Noguchi. His energy sets him apart from his retired comrades, who for the most part are ten years his senior and finished with politics. Kazu sees potential in Noguchi. They soon marry and she sets to financing his political comeback with a run for the governorship on the Radical ticket. Kazu has convinced herself she's doing it out of love and that it's her husband's political ambitions she's financing, not her own. Just as Japan's modernization is leaving tradition in flux, so too is the wife's role in a modern Japan - embodied in Kazu - in flux.

As the campaign proceeds, things get ugly. Forced to close the Setsugoan - business is off due to the fact she's financing the Conservative Party's opposition - Kazu enters the role of full-time wife and defacto campaign manager. When her checkered past comes to light, the Conservative Party wastes no time in using it against Noguchi. Kazu, exposed, brings shame on her husband and Noguchi's political career is finished.

But a shadow of her former self, Kazu, like the garden and restaurant which have fallen into disrepair, has lost all previous possession of grandeur. Stripped of pretense, she's forced to see herself for what she really is, and it's not the retiring wife of a former cabinet member. She realizes, just in the nick of time, without the Setsugoan, she's nothing. The very same dirty politics that brought down Noguchi have proved to be Kazu's salvation. If not for the disastrous election results, she might never have looked at herself - and the world around her - honestly. And she might never have learned that most valuable rule of politics by which to exact her revenge: there are no rules.

posted 12/05/16