Confessions of a Mask (New Directions Paperbook) by Yukio Mishima
Reviewed by Andrew Brookins
We remember Yukio Mishima as much for the hundreds of essays, short stories, and novels he wrote as we do for his death, by ritual disembowelment, at the age of 42.
On November 25, 1970, Mishima, by then an internationally renowned author, infiltrated the Tokyo garrison of Japan's Self-Defense Force. With the help of three students dressed in the uniform of his own private army, Mishima took the commanding officer hostage, after which he delivered a speech calling upon the 1,200 assembled troops to stage a coup against Japan's Western-backed government. When the soldiers refused, Mishima barricaded himself and his three followers in a room, withdrew his sword, and plunged the blade into his abdomen.
The Mishima in this picture -- clinging to Japanese tradition, densely muscled (he had trained in martial arts and had become a body-builder), having orchestrated, as part of the seppuku ritual, that a man rumored to be his lover would behead him -- is reflected in the characters of Mishima's fiction, beginning with Confessions of a Mask. Confessions is the account of a narrator, referred to only as "Kochan," who discovers, growing up in conservative pre-war Japan, that he desires men. The narrator's sexuality emerges as a rich tapestry of violent dreams and fantasies, alienation from his peers and family, and unrequited longing. Eventually, he constructs a false persona -- thus the book's title -- and the story follows his attempts to convince the world that he is someone other than himself. While the first half of the book is a string of events recalled from the narrator's childhood, the second half develops into a cold, fraudulent romance set against the backdrop of World War II. The incineration of portions of Tokyo during bombing raids, coupled with the looming threat of national defeat, elicits from Kochan both fear and a sense of responsibility to sacrifice his life for Japan -- all while he courts Sonoko, a woman who produces in him not the usual "artificial mixture of childlike curiosity and feigned sexual desire," but worse, an attack of "unendurable grief." Despite the fact that some aspects of the plot appear semi-autobiographical (Kochan is conscripted into the military in much the same way that Mishima was), we will never know for sure how much of the novel came directly from Mishima's life. The answers to questions about his sexuality, as with his later political relationships, remain veiled. (Who, for example, allowed his private army to train on military property? And, was Masakatsu Morita, decapitated with Mishima at the Self-Defense Force camp, really his lover?) Yet one can enter the world of Confessions without making demands for strict autobiography.
It does not matter if it is Mishima or purely Kochan who, when he receives his draft notice, imagines "the hope of dying an easy death," and feels that "[a]ll in all...everything was as it should be." We need only watch Kochan bury his true identity deep inside himself -- watch as a simulacrum grows up around the boy until, like the enclosing curtains of a Tokyo fire, it threatens to consume his life.