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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Life for Sale

Mishima Yukio

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To purchase Life for Sale

Title: Life for Sale
Author: Mishima Yukio
Genre: Novel
Written: 1968 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 188 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Life for Sale - US
Life for Sale - UK
Life for Sale - Canada
Vie à vendre - France
Leben zu verkaufen - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: 命売ります
  • Translated by Stephen Dodd
  • 命売ります was made into a TV mini-series in 2018

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Our Assessment:

B : wild mix, careening from the pensive-existential to the silly

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Evening Standard . 1/8/2019 Ian Thomson
The Guardian . 8/8/2019 James Smart
The Japan Times . 31/8/2019 Damian Flanagan
Le Monde . 27/2/2020 Florence Noiville
New Statesman . 31/7/2019 John Gray
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/5/2020 John Williams
The Spectator . 3/8/2019 Andrew Taylor
The Times . 26/7/2019 Boyd Tonkin

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) sexy, camp delight. Beneath the hard- boiled dialogue (...) and the gangster high jinks is a familiar indictment of consumerist Japan and a romantic yearning for the past. (...) Life for Sale is replete with Tarantino-like scenes of smuggling and murder, as well as philosophical musings on Japanese attitudes to the sword, the warrior and honour." - Ian Thomson, Evening Standard

  • "(H)ere he stares unimpressed at a 1960s Tokyo awash with money and adverts, where manicured streets are overlooked by bland offices and self-indulgent hippies roam. It may be only a footnote in his career, but this surreal tale offers a trenchant critique of a city that has misplaced its soul." - James Smart, The Guardian

  • "(T)his is Bond with a Kafkaesque edge. Hanio is a protagonist comically caught between his instincts for self-preservation and self-destruction, and with villains who shift back and forth between appearing to be the agents of an international crime network and prosaic figures engaged in personal fantasies." - Damian Flanagan, The Japan Times

  • "A sense of meaninglessness is the central theme in his newly translated Life For Sale, where the absurdity of life is conveyed through the tropes of pulp fiction and manga comics. (...) Life For Sale is not a great work of fiction, but it succeeds in capturing vividly the bathos of the self-pitying modern nihilist." - John Gray, New Statesman

  • "Mishima may have held Life for Sale in contempt, and it doesn't rise to the level of those novels by Graham Greene that Greene once called his own "entertainments," but it's a propulsive, madcap story with echoes of the deeper concerns that interested and plagued its author. (...) Life for Sale was serialized in Japan's Playboy magazine, and it has a serial's episodic rhythms, a string of scenes in which Hanio encounters and manages to survive new misadventures. Mishima brings to these set pieces a colorful imagination. (...) It would have been helpful for this book to include an introduction or some other explanatory material. Those who don't know Mishima, and even those who do, could use some context." - John Williams, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This existential crime novel has an arresting premise and Mishima plays it for all it's worth. Quotidian reality has no place here. (...) There is a place in life for the exhilarating, surreal and sometimes downright silly. This novel ticks all the boxes." - Andrew Taylor, The Spectator

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:

       Life for Sale is an unusual and slippery novel. It begins with an unusual premise, but that's far from the most outlandish thing that happens; indeed, the set-up is probably the easiest leap for readers to take. Sure, it seems a bit of a stretch, but the potential -- both philosophical and plot-wise -- is very promising.
       Life for Sale begins with Hanio Yamada waking up in hospital after a failed suicide attempt. The twenty-seven-year-old is a successful copy-writer at a prominent ad agency who rather impulsively decided to end it all; it was reading the newspaper -- and, specifically, a cockroach slithering among the pages -- that seems to have pushed him over the edge, first a sudden revelation that: "So the world boils down to nothing more than this", and then the simple conclusion that ending it all was the only thing left to do. Failing at the attempt is not the wake-up call to double-down on life and immerse himself in it all the more; instead, it frees him. He breaks all ties -- not that he has many, beyond his job -- and finds: "a wonderfully free and empty world opened up before him". And he has a plan: he puts an ad in a newspaper offering his: "Life for Sale. Use me as you wish".
       Hanio sees this as the perfect means to his ends, offering himself up for whatever purposes his customer(s) might wish for and willing -- indeed, even eager -- to sacrifice himself in the process: he imagines going through with his assignment(s) will cost him his life. It's the perfect solution, avoiding the difficulties suicide poses -- such as actually managing to accomplish it successfully ... -- but leading to the same end:

Selling your life was such a splendid way out: it took away all need for responsibility.
       Would that it were so easy. Hanio is soon hired by someone who wants revenge on his cheating wife. The scenario the customer imagines is Hanio becoming intimate with the wife, but making certain that her mobster-lover catches them in the act -- promising: "you're sure to get killed, and she'll probably be dead meat too". Hanio is on board and jumps right into the role, but obviously, things do not go as planned -- as is then repeatedly the case: Hanio gets hired and expects to die in the process but survives, even as he more or less successfully carries out his assignments: he might not die, but there is a growing body count in his wake.
       The scenarios Mishima comes up with are colorful, to say the least. In one instance, Hanio shacks up with a woman with vampiric inclinations who slowly drains him of blood; when he finally again lands in hospital the blood sample they take: "was quite yellow and seemed to consist mostly of water". And while most of the attempts to sell himself are on a smaller, personal scale -- generally involving a woman, and in that case generally involving getting involved with her -- he eventually gets drawn into a bigger government case involving two embassies and a spying imbroglio (and ... carrots), by which time he's almost in full debonair James Bond-mode, complete with parting advice:
     "And now a few words for you, Mr. Ambassador. Stop over-complicating the way you think about things. Life and politics are generally simple, much more simple -- shallow, even -- than you imagine. Of course, I'm aware that my attitude might be different if I weren't prepared to meet death at any moment. It's only the desire to live as long as possible that makes everything seem complicated and mysterious."
       Hanio makes some good money with his 'life-for sale'-scheme -- "Really not a bad business. His income was ten times what he had earned as a copy-writer" --, and after a while he doesn't seem as displeased that nothing has been working out exactly as planned (i.e. that he hasn't died yet). Still, all this, and some of the other surrounding circumstances, prove quite wearing too; as one person eventually diagnoses:
I know what your problem is. You're tired of trying to die.
       Life for Sale is an existentialist thriller that veers into the spy-(near-)spoof, complete with a shadowy, nefarious international crime syndicate, the ACS (Asia Confidential Service), that people keep bringing up, as well as with details straight out of the over-the-top movies of those times:
     Using the lamplight to locate his wound, he wiped it clean of ointment and touched it with his finger. Then, bending his body, he placed his ear against it. An almost imperceptible vibration was coming from the black splinter left in him. Someone had fired an exquisitely small mini-transceiver into his thigh. Which meant that, wherever he fled, they would find him.
       The novel is a mishmash, seriously engaging with philosophical questions but framing these in a plot that is bright-colorful, fast paced, and very far-fetched. Much here is rooted in the distinctly Japanese, from the ritual-behavior to the tradition of lovers' suicide-pacts, a (not so) romantic notion embraced by several of the characters; awareness of Mishima's own death-wish, so different from Hanio's and manifesting itself in his own elaborately staged theatrical death only two years after he published this novel naturally also colors any reading of this story. The novel is amusingly anchored in its times, too, complete with complaints about hippies and cinematically grand conspiracies, large and small -- a typical larger-than-life 1960s thriller that is, however, also something more, or at least rather different.
       Life for Sale is downright nutty, in many ways, and seems like a more casual work of tossed-off fiction by Mishima, a fun idea he lets snowball into something messier and wilder, like he wanted to write a potboiler rather than the deeply reflective kind of work (Western) audiences are more used to seeing from him. In fact, it's both -- odd though that combination winds up being here. It's not exactly good -- it's too rough and tumble in too many ways -- but it is good 'bad' entertainment while also offering more than just vacuous distraction; even at his wildest Mishima's work is grounded in the seriously substantial. This work careens a bit all over the place, but there's quite a bit to it, too. And it certainly is good -- if peculiar -- fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 October 2019

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Life for Sale: Reviews: 命売ります - the TV mini-series: 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 Author:

       Japanese author Mishima Yukio (三島由紀夫) lived 1925 to 1970.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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