Discover more from Becoming Noble
In search of a glorious death
Did Mishima pass through the Gate of Life?
I found that the Way of the Samurai is death.
— Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure (1716)
I respect Yukio Mishima as a man who lived and died as his ideology demanded. Today I wish to examine his death.
What is the line between suicide and martyrdom? How do we give meaning to that act which divides this world and the next? Is a holy death still possible?
In A.D. 203, Saint Perpetua had a vision on the eve of her martyrdom.
A Carthaginian noblewoman of the Vibii family, she had refused to renounce Christianity, and was sentenced to death under the edict of Septimius Severus. Imprisoned with her newborn child, she was to die in the arena, facing gladiators and beasts.
But her spirit was not crushed. On the contrary - strong of spirit - she rejoiced in her coming death, knowing that it was the prelude to her meeting with God.
As she waited in prison, she was given a vision:
And I went up to the master of gladiators and received the branch. And he kissed me and said to me: Daughter, peace be with thee. And I began to go with glory to the gate called the Gate of Life.
And I awoke; and I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory.
— St. Perpetua, The Passion of SS. Perpetua and Felicity (trans. W. Shewring)
Here the ‘Gate of Life’ refers to the Porta Sanavivaria - the gate through which, after gladiatorial combat, the victors returned. At the opposite end of the arena was the Porta Libitinensis - the Gate of Death - through which the bodies of the fallen were carried.
Perpetua knew that she was to join in that great Christian contradiction of martyrdom - the defeat that brings victory; the death that brings life.
And so, along with her slave Felicity, she went to her death.
Now dawned the day of their victory, and they went forth from the prison into the amphitheater as if it were into heaven, cheerful and bright of countenance; if they trembled at all, it was for joy, not for fear. Perpetua followed behind, glorious of presence, as a true spouse of Christ and darling of God; at whose piercing look all cast down their eyes. Felicity likewise, rejoicing that she had borne a child in safety, that she might fight with the beasts, came now from blood to blood, from the midwife to the gladiator, to wash after her travail in a second baptism.
And from their deaths, to their glory.
…being adorned with the crowns of martyrdom, did achieve the flower of perpetual felicity; bearing in the battle the name of Christ, and in the prize of battle finding their own.
— St. Augustine, Sermon upon the feast of SS. Perpetua & Felicity
My question today, then, is: did Mishima pass through the Gate of Life or the Gate of Death?
Mishima - Japanese novelist and nationalist - was a man obsessed with death. He recounted that, from the time of his adolescence during the war, “all that my teenage friends and I could think about was how and when we would die”.
The work that brought structure and depth to this obsession was Hagakure, or ‘Hidden by the Leaves’. This is a practical and spiritual guide for the samurai, drawn from the commentaries of the samurai Buddhist monastic Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the early 18th Century.
I have devoted my passions and energy to living Hagakure, to practicing Hagakure ever since. In short, I have come to be more and more deeply possessed by Hagakure.
— Yukio Mishima, Mishima on Hagakure: The Samurai Ethic and Modern Japan
The central theme of Hagakure is the righteous death of the samurai. The proper death is the point around which commentary of other matters revolves; the willingness of the warrior to commit unwaveringly to death when it is demanded of him is the ultimate expression of his devotion to his lord.
A samurai… must have the supreme resolution to die a fanatic’s death.
— Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure
But Mishima’s possession by Hagakure brought with it a problem: what was he to be fanatical about? What was left to die for?
We live in an age in which there is no heroic death…
To die for a noble cause was thought the most glorious, heroic, or honorable way to die. But there are no noble causes today. Democratic governments obviously have no need for noble causes. Yet if one cannot find a value that transcends oneself, life itself, in a spiritual sense, is rendered meaningless.
— Yukio Mishima, 1966 interview with NHK Television
The book alone could not give this to him. Hagakure describes righteous conduct within the social system in which it was devised. Its logic was inextricably bound to a social order that had long since disappeared.
This book is brimming with the exuberance and freedom of people who lived under the restrictions of a rigid social morality. This morality lived in the very fabric of the society and its economic system. It was the one premise to their existence…
— Yukio Mishima, Mishima on Hagakure: The Samurai Ethic and Modern Japan
Mishima stood outside that system, after its death. It died as all contingent systems must. His task was thus to take what spiritual aspects of the book could be revived, and tie them into a new logic of death within his own time.
We can begin to understand the standard that he set for his seppuku through a reading of his 1960 short story Patriotism, a idealistic account of the ritual suicide of a young couple in the interwar years.
Patriotism is a tale of duty. It tells the story of an officer in the Imperial Army who is commanded to fight his fellow officers upon their mutiny. Unable to betray either his emperor or his friends, he resolves to end his life. His newlywed wife, devoted and pure, unquestioningly considers it her duty to join him in death.
…she gazed up into the distance at the great sunlike principle which her husband embodied. She was ready, and happy, to be hurtled along to her destruction in that gleaming sun chariot…
She was not in the least afraid of the death hovering in her mind. Waiting alone at home, Reiko firmly believed that everything her husband was feeling or thinking now, his anguish and distress, was leading her - just as surely as the power in his flesh - to a welcome death. She felt as if her body could melt away with ease and be transformed to the merest fraction of her husband's thought.
Yukio Mishima, Patriotism
They make love for the last time - the experience heightened by the knowledge that their end is near - groom themselves, and kill themselves. He commits harakiri - ritual disembowlment - before driving his katana through his spine; she takes a tantō to the arteries of her neck.
The great themes of the novella are duty - yes - but also, paradoxically, beauty, immanence, and peace.
In knowing that they are soon to leave this life, they are brought more fully into the present, and into each other. The youth and the beauty that they share remains uncorrupted by age. This intensifies the tragedy of their fate; and this tragedy again brings their beauty into sharper relief.
Reiko felt the roughness of the lieutenant's unshaven skin against her neck. This sensation, more than being just a thing of this world, was for Reiko almost the world itself, but now - with the feeling that it was soon to be lost forever - it had freshness beyond all her experience. Each moment had its own vital strength, and the senses in every corner of her body were reawakened. Accepting her husband's caresses from behind, Reiko raised herself on the tips of her toes, letting the vitality seep through her entire body.
In the acceptance of their fate they find an absolute peace. All worldly contradictions will be resolved in their final act; all sources of concern will be left behind.
With happiness welling almost too abundantly in their hearts, they could not help smiling at each other. Reiko felt as if she had returned to her wedding night.
Before her eyes was neither pain nor death. She seemed to see only a free and limitless expanse opening out into vast distances.
In his commitment to death, the officer is free from the burden of resolving an irresolvable divide between his emperor and his fellow warriors; between his duties to the man above him and the men beside him.
…there was a clarity, like the clarity of a stream fed from melting snows, in the silence which rested between them. Sitting in his own home after the long two-day ordeal, and looking across at the face of his beautiful wife, the lieutenant was for the first time experiencing true peace of mind.
Mishima had the courage to not hide from the brutality of their final moments. Their deaths are described in their completeness and their intensity.
He returned to consciousness. The blade had certainly pierced the wall of the stomach, he thought. His breathing was difficult, his chest thumped violently, and in some far deep region, which he could hardly believe was a part of himself, a fearful and excruciating pain came welling up as if the ground had split open to disgorge a boiling stream of molten rock. The pain came suddenly nearer, with terrifying speed. The lieutenant bit his lower lip and stifled an instinctive moan.
Was this seppuku? - he was thinking. It was a sensation of utter chaos, as if the sky had fallen on his head and the world was reeling drunkenly. His willpower and courage, which had seemed so robust before he made the incision, had now dwindled to something like a single hairlike thread of steel…
Both the man and the woman find the courage to complete their acts. He is left in an ocean of blood but with his handsome face preserved, and the story ends as she plunges her knife into herself.
We are left, then, with the question of whether Mishima’s death met the standard that he dreamed of.
On the 25th of November 1970, Mishima committed suppuku, ritual suicide, at Camp Ichigaya of the Japan Self-Defense Forces.
Was it beautiful? It is hard to say. It was certainly a magnificent act of will, a flaming demonstration of spirit that surpassed the men of his generation.
The beauty described in Mishima’s stories is unselfconscious, natural, undeniable. But with his own death, there is a danger that the theatre was laid on too thick. He wore an outfit styled like a military uniform - but one that he himself had devised, not one that indicated service to a larger entity. He was not in the flower of youth, but in middle age. He did not die in elegant silence, but following a speech that fell upon the dead ears of soldiers, who mocked him.
The final act was inelegant. After Mishima slit his stomach, his aide Morita, who was supposed to behead him in a single strike, was overcome by the weight of the moment and made a butchery of the task, delivering several partial strikes to Mishima’s neck and shoulders. Another man, Furu-Koga, had to step in to finish the execution.
Indignity need not rob the act of its significance, however, if the indignity was suffered in the service of a higher duty. Many saints suffered ignominious but beautiful deaths, like St. Sebastian, who - surviving his initial execution in which “the archers shot at him till he was as full of arrows as an urchin is full of pricks” - was clubbed to death and dumped in the sewers on the orders of Diocletian. Yet how gloriously we remember him!
But Mishima’s duty to die was unclear. It cannot be said he died for his emperor, Hirohito, who had renounced his divinity after the war (the so-called Ningen-sengen, or the ‘Humanity Declaration’). Mishima himself lamented that this act rendered the deaths of the kamikaze meaningless. It is notable that Mishima had to set Patriotism in the past, before the war, for the beliefs of his protagonist to remain coherent.
Perhaps Marguerite Yourcenar was right when she said that Mishima died “for the sake of an Emperor who had no interest in him, for a cause to which he knew he would contribute nothing”.
And yet this is not an indictment of him!
A godless time makes a mockery of the best men; they are the least able to adapt to crushing banality. The greatest warriors, artists, and fanatics must have something to die for. That Mishima - a visionary and a man of tremendous will - had nothing worthwhile to die for is an indictment of his civilization, and not of the man.
But would that great country, with which he was prepared to remonstrate to the extent of destroying himself, take the slightest heed of his death? He did not know; and it did not matter. His was a battlefield without glory, a battlefield where none could display deeds of valor: it was the front line of the spirit.
— Yukio Mishima, Patriotism
But great strength can be wasted. The horror that his death was a suicide, not a martyrdom, must be considered. Mishima wanted to die, and no greater power required that death.
Did he pass through the Gate of Life?
It is, of course, not ours to know. His death was more art than duty, more fiction than truth. And yet in all great art there is a nod towards hidden realities. There was a will to Truth in his act, a desperate cry against a profane world. In his search for absolution, death was the only absolute to which he could turn.
Human life is limited, but I would like to live forever.
— The death note of Yukio Mishima
Please consider supporting this project by leaving a like or upgrading to paid.
Upgrading will also gain you access to exclusive posts for supporters. All revenue goes towards supporting my family, and is truly appreciated.
Sic transit imperium,