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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography


Inose Naoki, with Sato Hiroaki

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To purchase Persona

Title: Persona
Author: Inose Naoki
Genre: Biography
Written: (1995), (Eng. 2012)
Length: 736 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Persona - US
Persona - UK
Persona - Canada
  • A Biography of Yukio Mishima
  • Japanese title: ペルソナ
  • An 'expanded adaptation' of the Japanese original, translated by Sato Hiroaki

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating character, very well-captured here -- even if a great deal remains missing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 26/3/2013 I.Hijiya-Kirschnereit
The Japan Times . 5/5/2013 Paul McCarthy
Wall Street Journal . 7/12/2012 Allan Massie

  From the Reviews:
  • "Zweifellos bietet dieses auf der Auswertung umfangreicher Sekundärliteratur beruhende Mammutwerk vielen vieles, aber so recht wird man bei der Lektüre nicht froh, fragt man sich doch immer wieder, was eigentlich im Fokus stehen soll: die Person, das Werk, das Umfeld ? Das Buch bietet von allem etwas, aber angesichts der wuchernden Exkurse, der Informationen über alles und jedes im Haupttext und in den Fußnoten, verliert man leicht den roten Faden. (...) Für Mishima-Fans und geduldige Leser ist das Buch aber zweifellos auch eine Fundgrube." - Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Interested readers will find a wealth of information, copiously documented in footnotes, on these, and other, subjects. (...) Those who are interested in the brilliantly gifted writer of mid-20th century Japan who is its subject will learn much from this volume, and should be stimulated to go back and read, or re-read, what Yukio Mishima has left us." - Paul McCarthy, The Japan Times

  • "Naoki Inose's biography is immensely detailed and punctilious and not easy reading for a foreigner not versed in Japanese culture and history. The author scrupulously refrains from speculation and interpretation, content to let the narrative, with its many quotations, speak for itself. (...) It may be that his work can never escape the pressure of our awareness of the manner of his death. But I hope that this biography revives interest in the best of his novels, especially in the tetralogy." - Allan Massie, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[As annoyed longtime readers know, complete review house style is to write author-names as they appear locally: in Japan family names are written first -- hence 'Mishima Yukio'; fortunately, this book also follows Japanese custom -- except, oddly and slightly confusingly, in the subtitle]

       Several Japanese authors have achieved international recognition and fame, including Nobel winner Kawabata Yasunari, Tanizaki Jun'ichirō, Natsume Sōseki, and Abe Kōbō, but before Murakami Haruki surely the best-known was Mishima Yukio -- helped, no doubt, also by the sensational conclusion to his career and life. Disappointingly, much of Mishima's œuvre -- indeed, if one counts the essays and journalism, the vast majority of it -- remains unavailable in English translation, but at least several of the major novels -- including the great The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, as well as his final work, 'The Sea of Fertility'-tetralogy -- have been translated and are relatively well-known. The picture English-speaking readers can form of the author is thus generally limited to a small sampling of his work and the near-overwhelming awareness of how he did himself in at a relatively young fifty-five; two early biographies (both 1974), by John Nathan and Henry Scott-Stokes, as well as the Paul Schrader film add some background and color, but are also limited in their coverage and insight. This biography is, in the main, not the freshest either -- it was first published in Japan in 1995 -- but in this version, an "expanded adaptation in English" by Sato Hiroaki, certainly the most comprehensive; for now and some time it looks likely to stand as the definitive Mishima-biography.
       One gets a clear picture here of how Mishima's personality was shaped in childhood under the early influence of a domineering grandmother who watched over the infant, allowing, for example, Mishima's mother Shizue little contact beyond the strictly regulated (and timed, with a watch) nursing-schedule. As Mishima himself acknowledges, the circumstances (including also his ill health in childhood, and near-death episodes) led to him: "acquiring an odd personality". If the grandmother was the dominant influence, the occasional glimpses of father Azusa's pedagogic efforts seem similarly extreme, such as dangling him in front of oncoming trains (the child surprising his father by proving imperturbable -- a passionlessness that seems to have marked him throughout his life).
       Despite his odd upbringing, Mishima -- in many ways a traditionalist -- seems to have remained very close to his immediate family throughout his life (his parents both outlived him). Unfortunately, Persona falls a bit short in making clear how this continuing relationship evolved and functioned. So, for example, a mention of Mishima, in 1966, handing: "the manuscript to Shizue to read, as he routinely did with his writings" comes as a complete surprise, because there's been practically no mention of either parent being involved to this extent with his writing.
       Mishima's talents were recognized by elders early on, and he published his first book at the height of the Second World War -- in a first printing of four thousand, remarkable enough in a time of paper shortages and a focus on other priorities. One forgets the environment he matured in: at his 1944 college graduation he was the top graduate in the literature department, and received for that honor a silver watch as well as: "three German novels with the Nazi Hakenkreuz embossed on each from the German ambassador who attended the ceremony". (As the use of the word 'Hakenkreuz' suggests, Sato remains too close to Japanese usage in some of his translation; in English one of course always uses the word 'swastika'.) Regrettably, Inose does not record what those three books were .....
       Mishima -- always industrious and prolific -- established himself as a witer quickly (avoiding the fate of following his father into civil service). One difficulty with the sheer mass of his output -- which would come to thirty-four novels and almost seventy plays, aside from many stories, essays, and incidental pieces (right down to reporting extensively about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for several newspapers) -- is in integrating that into any story of his life. Inose largely steers clear of literary interpretation -- with a few notable exceptions -- and much of Mishima's work remains undiscussed in any detail -- somewhat frustrating for English-language readers who have no access to the many untranslated works. By and large, it is the most significant novels and plays that have been translated (as well as short pieces such as the one translated as Patriotism) that figure most prominently, along with some tantalizing glimpses of some still-untranslated work. In some cases, the connection to Mishima's life is self-evident, as in the early Confessions of a Mask; elsewhere Inose's focus is more on the research the almost always punctilious Mishima did in preparation for his books. Inose makes clear how packed Mishima's schedule consistently was -- which included generally sleeping very late (past noon) and long nights working -- but it still amazes how much he accomplished, both writing and simply experiencing.
       Mishima was socially and physically very active. Amusingly, though he loved to dance and took up various activities such as boxing and kendō, he is consistently described as near-hopelessly clumsy (and apparently was also largely oblivious to his own clumsiness). Bodybuilding seems to have been yet another manifestation of his obsession with being fit -- and something he repeatedly notes separated him from most writers, who paid little attention to the temple of their bodies.
       Mishima's odd sexual life is given considerable room here, yet remains somewhat mystifying. He appears to have been sexually very active, pursuing and sleeping with both men and women -- and making little effort to hide his predilections. Abroad he sought out gay bars and the like -- though not always finding what he'd bargained for: Donald Richie reports about one New York expedition in search of the gay scene:

There were several such in Greenwich Village, I had heard, and so we set out and eventually located one named Mary's. There we sat over our drinks and watched middle-aged men talk like women. This was something neither of us had expected and it was not very interesting.
       (Strangely enough, Inose later reports Mishima inviting someone to the same place five years later, saying: "Let's go to a bar I save for special occasions.")
       Despite having several female love-interests over the years, when he decided to get married Mishima pursued an arranged marriage. Among the women he met for that purpose was the future Empress Michiko, but he settled on Sugiyama Yōko. No doubt, Mishima's domestic married life was likely unusual -- and perhaps largely peripheral to his working life, embraced only out of a sense of tradition -- but among the more disappointing aspects of Persona is that one gets very little sense of it, whatever it was. Yōko and especially their children barely figure at all in the text, with Yōko's most notable appearances dealing with her handling of Mishima's legacy. (Among the small amusing titbits that do crop up: Mishima never got a driver's license, so it was his wife who drove; typically, however, when the opportunity arose, Mishima did learn how to drive a tank.)
       Mishima had great Nobel aspirations -- dashed by a single "self-appointed Japanese expert" with strongly conservative views, reports Inose -- though he had already recommended Kawabata (at the old master's behest) for the prize years before Kawabata finally became the first Japanese literature laureate. Presciently, Mishima reportedly then said:
If another Japanese gets it, it will not be me, but Ōe
       There is some record here of Mishima's paths to English publication -- and the rather large number of translators he went through. Among the amusing anecdotes is how the novella with the relatively simple Japanese title 午後の曳航 became The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea -- fortunately, surely, since translator John Nathan reported he: "couldn't come up with anything in English better than Glory Is a Drag". (Interesting too is the brief professional relationship between Mishima and Nathan, which zoomed from Mishima wanting his future biographer to be his "official translator" to denouncing him as "a hoodlum seduced by the Left".)
       In his last years Mishima increasingly devoted himself to his 'Shield Society', and Inose does a fine job of relating the bizarre spiral into nationalist delusion that led to Mishima's spectacular end. Particularly helpful is also Inose's extensive discussion of the '2.26 Incident' -- the 26 February 1936 officers' failed attempt at an imperial restoration -- that left its mark on the young Mishima:
The 2.26 Incident is the one incident that has extended important influence to my spiritual history. The sensation I had when I was eleven years old was repeatedly ruminated and became a yeast that formed my own ideas of 'breakdown,' 'tragedy,' and 'heroism.'
       As to the silly end itself, Inose may be right with his closing words -- "It was a magnificent seppuku" (the belly-splitting cut Mishima performed on himself) -- but the rest of the ceremonial procedure was rather a mess, the kaishaku not at all textbook:
Morita swung his Seki no Magoroku down. His first stroke cut into Mishima's shoulder, his second cut his neck in half. Gen. Mashita saw Mishima's body fall forward. Morita tried two more strokes, but could not sever Mishima's head.
     Koga Hiroyasu finished the job.
       Mishima's life, and his many interests (he also traveled extensively, acted in film, and was active in the production of his many plays) make for fascinating reading, and Persona is a riveting account. Yet it's still hard not to feel that only the surface has been scratched here. Most of the work remains undiscussed and while one gets a good sense of hyperactive Mishima's many accomplishments there's much more one would want to know in greater detail. Nevertheless, this is a very fine and readable biography.

       The English edition, though helpfully updating some of the material, has a few minor but irritating flaws. The greatest, certainly, is that, as the note preceding the Bibliography explains:
     A great many of Mishima's writings exist in English translation and, no doubt, many more are being translated. But in principle they are not listed here.
       The lack of any sort of English-language bibliography of Mishima's work (or, for that matter, a proper Japanese one) is a significant and much-missed omission. Not that much of his work has been translated, and it would be helpful to have some sort of overview; one can find some bibliographies online, but none seem definitive.
       A minor irritant are also a few transliteration slips that slip in -- so, for example, poor Curd Jürgens appears as 'Curd Yürgens' and Alberto Moravia -- at least correctly listed with that name in in the Index, unlike Jürgens -- becomes 'Roberto Moravia' in the text. The Index, too, omits some name-mentions (Poe, repeatedly -- once also misspelled in the text --, etc.).
       These are minor irritants, but given that this is the now-standard work on Mishima one hopes they'll be corrected (and especially that that bibliographical information will be added) in future editions.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 December 2012

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Persona: Reviews: Mishima Yukio: Books by Mishima Yukio under review: Books about Mishima Yukio under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       Inose Naoki (猪瀬 直樹) was born in 1946, and was elected governor of Tokyo in 2012.

       Sato Hiroaki (佐藤紘彰) was born in 1942 and has translated many works from the Japanese.

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