What does Yukio Mishima think patriotism is? Well, if you know anything about his history, you can probably guess.
Knowing that, I have to say, detracted from the reading experience. It’s clear from chapter one what will happen, and I had made a pretty good guess just from the title. Scene by scene, all I could think was, is this what you did too?
That said, the actual scene-by-scene is pretty good. Seppuku is a ritual, and this story is all about ritual. Mishima makes that very clear in his structure. The first chapter, barely a page long, provides a full report of the incident from beginning to end. It’s practically a newspaper report. The date, the name, the circumstance, the location, and most importantly the clinical description:
On the twenty-eighth of February, 1936 (on the third day, that is, of the February 26 Incident), Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama of the Konoe Transport Battalion—profoundly disturbed by the knowledge that his closest colleagues had been with the mutineers from the beginning, and indignant at the imminent prospect of Imperial troops attacking Imperial troops—took his officer’s sword and ceremonially disemboweled himself in the eight-mat room of his private residence in the sixth block of Aoba-cho, in Yotsuya Ward. His wife, Reiko, followed him, stabbing herself to death.
That’s it. That’s the whole story. But after that follow some fifty more (small) pages detailing the ritual, beginning with the couple’s wedding just six months earlier. They’ve anticipated this moment since their wedding night, Reiko just as ready as her husband, and Mishima takes us through slowly and deliberately—just like the movements of the couple. The narration is impressive in its steadiness and unflinching willingness to face the details of the event.
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 will power and courage, which had seemed so robust before he made the incision, had now dwindled to something like a single hairlike thread of steel, and he was assailed by the uneasy feeling that he must advance along this thread, clinging to it with desperation.
Compared with that first page of clinical reportage, the rest of the story makes the reader feel he’s clinging to just that same thread of steel and being dragged along to the finish. It’s a little bit hard to face.
I loved the structure. I loved the language, the control. But it’s impossible to ignore the emotion, the patriotism, and knowing as we do exactly what the author thought of that…I couldn’t help being distracted, disturbed, intrigued, curious…in other words, distracted. But I can’t honestly say it isn’t a good story.