Barrelhouse Reviews: STAR by Yukio Mishima, trans. Sam Bett

Review by Sean Gill


New Directions / April, 2019 / 80 pp

In 1961, when Yukio Mishima wrote the novella Star—skillfully translated into English this year for the very first time by Sam Bett—he was fresh off of a leading role in Yasuzô Masumura’s yakuza film Afraid to Die, and six years into a regimen of body-building and obsessive self-analysis. It is clear that being on set of a film, defined by long, arduous days and the pursuit of visual perfection, resonated deeply with Mishima. By participating in this flawless alignment (of blocking, performance, line delivery, lighting, focus, etc.), he was putting into tangible practice many of his philosophies. What better outlet for a flame burning twice as bright and half as long than immortality on the silver screen?

I can’t imagine I was ever more susceptible to reactionary ideas than when I was first introduced to Yukio Mishima, at eighteen, while studying Japanese literature with a professor who had known him personally. Though only one title was assigned (Runaway Horses), I soon found myself devouring the rest of Mishima’s available work, which hammered at me with relentless poetry and power. His prose felt dark, Romantic, electric—even dangerous. It seemed that with Mishima, all roads led to aesthetics: every thing, every idea, and every human life was defined by them. Only in beauty could one find purpose, and this was why he believed that once a person’s body began to decay (around the age of forty), they ought to commit suicide.

After years of international celebrity, critical success, and social provocation (he counted David Bowie as a passionate fan), Mishima began to raise a bushido-obsessed, pro-Emperor private militia. On November 25, 1970, at the age of forty-five, he staged a coup on a military base, addressed the troops, and, as was always the plan, committed seppuku.

Though I disagreed with Mishima’s ur-nationalistic ideologies, I was a teenager with grand and sweeping feelings, and a part of me respected that Mishima knew words were not enough, that he acted on what he believed in, and, in a world where many of the artists I admired had lived but a life of the mind, that had to mean something. My feelings have since evolved, but I’ve retained a certain attachment to Mishima’s work. Behind an occasionally authoritarian mask, he presents true vulnerability, writhing against the pain of living. That he identifies this pain and chooses to scrutinize it—thoughtfully and self-deprecatingly—appears the antithesis of fascism, which denies an inner life.

In this sense, Mishima is rife with contradiction: yes, he was an image-controlling, narcissistic fusion of modern samurai and ancient Greek statue. But he was also a sickly boy, prevented by his grandmother from playing at war, hiding behind masks and masculine roleplay and a pen-name, trying to find a worthy outlet for his strength of feeling.

In Star, our narrator is Rikio Mizuno—a younger, James Dean-ified version of Mishima himself—and we briefly follow him through a series of day-in-the-life episodes while he films an uninspired yakuza movie. Beneath his calm, teenybopper-idol exterior rages an existential ocean who wishes his fans would march “into the mouth of an incinerator” and seeks whatever dark beauty can stave off the mediocrity always nipping at his heels. He sees filming scenes out of order as akin to using a time machine, and regular life begins to feel boring and stale in comparison. When an autograph-seeker with a birthmark on her hand brushes against his cheek, he wishes he could die on the spot. He finds comfort in living alongside a life-sized cardboard cut-out of himself. His only confidant is his assistant and secret lover, Kayo, a young woman whose appearance (and life itself) is a carefully curated piece of performance art designed to make her look hideous, old, and simpleminded to the outside world (“To be honest, she was probably the better actor”).

Briskly paced and performatively arrogant in tone, Mishima’s narrative is punctuated by suicidal thoughts, the shrewd application of artifice, garish dips into theatrical misogyny, and a protagonist tortured by his own contradictions. One particular incident, halfway through the novella, stands out as the perfect illustration of Mishima’s fascinations: while Rikio films a scene, a failed starlet/stalker wanders into the frame. With wild eyes, she embraces him and calls him by his real name. The director is struck by her frightening sincerity and immediately writes her into the scene. However, on the second take, she tightens up, unable to “regain the fluid liberty of that moment… that sense of living realness, felt only once, was gone for good.” She is promptly dismissed by the director, having committed a sin of mediocrity. Afterward, she sneaks into a dressing room, overdoses, and, as the crew gathers around her, “even those who’d spent the day fighting each other now seemed congenial in the presence of this dying girl, as if her body were exuding sensuality.”

In Mishima’s world, an outpouring of sincerity is only good once, and the value of a moment correlates with its proximity to beauty or death. To him, human lives, like strips of celluloid, shouldn’t be wasted on bad takes, or anything less than absolute perfection. Occasionally this plays as satire (and could easily be misidentified as such if this were one’s first encounter with Mishima) but it’s his truth, told painfully, the only way he knows how.

In the finale of the film Afraid to Die, Mishima’s character is shot in the back and expires after a lengthy struggle to go down on an “up” escalator. It’s a death that feels oddly poetic, allegorically reactionary, inappropriately comic, and painfully sincere. One could easily say the same about Mishima himself.

Sean Gill is a writer and filmmaker who won Pleiades’ 2019 Gail B. Crump Prize and The Cincinnati Review's 2018 Robert and Adele Schiff Award. Other recent work may be found in The Iowa Review, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Michigan Quarterly Review.