WRITINGS  

 

Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow:
A Novel of Conflicted Japan

Yukio Mishima was a revolutionary author. His dramatic public suicide is the perfect capstone to a life full of turmoil and unrest. Mishima himself was as conflicted as his many stories and plays, which tend to play out the problem of which direction is Japan heading, and should the nation be developing that way. Mishima romanticized the samurai and nurtured a lifelong affair with traditional Japanese theater. At the same time, he admired the West and studied Western art and literature avidly. The influence is evident, from the decidedly 19th Century British feel of his novel, Spring Snow, to the many references therein to Western art, literature, film, and philosophy. Mishima was not the only Japanese citizen to feel their country was in danger of becoming too Westernized, and his novels reflect the conflicted state of Japan’s national consciousness during the Meiji era.

Before the Meiji Restoration the idea of blending Japanese and Western culture was prevalent in the land of the rising sun. It was generally thought that Japanese ideology was superior to its Western counterpart, but that Western technology would be essential to Japan’s success as a modern nation. While the pros and cons of the differing ideologies are almost impossible to get to the bottom of, Japan could not succeed in an industrial global society without adopting Western technology. But along with steam engines and steel mills came Western food, fashion, and customs, threatening long-established Japanese tradition. The Shishi samurai ushered in the Meiji Restoration, and they preached the motto, "Japanese thought, Western technology." Mishima identified with this philosophy, and does his best to support it in his writing.

Spring Snow revolves around Kiyoaki, a sort of Japanese "everyman" who is at once within and outside of mainstream Japanese society. Kiyoaki is he son of the Marquis Matsugae, a sort of nouveau-riche during the reign of the Meiji Emperor. Kiyoaki, a beautiful young man on the path to success in the new Japan, is in love with his childhood friend, Satoko, the beautiful daughter of the Ayakura family. The Ayakuras are very prominent, of higher aristocratic class than even Kiyoaki’s family, and the Matsugaes view the closeness of the families as a fortune. Kiyoaki is a moody, pensive boy who gets a thrill out of alternately rejecting and accepting Satoko’s demure advances. Eventually the Ayakuras will wait no more for Kiyoaki to make his approach for Satoko’s hand in marriage, and, faced with another offer from an impressive suitor, Satoko becomes engaged to be married. Kiyoaki realizes only as the situation escalates beyond any reparation that he truly loves Satoko. With the help of his friend, Honda, the son of a judge in the Japanese court system, Kiyoaki begins an affair with her. The two meet cladestinely for sex, and Satoko eventually becomes pregnant. Having violated multiple social barriers, and after the realization of Satoko’s pregnancy, the couple are found out. Satoko is sent to a nunnery, and Kiyoaki dies, presumably of heartache and the flu, at the age of 20.

The tragic story follows an arc not at all unlike British literature of the 19th Century. It makes since that Mishima would use that style to write this novel; after all, given the variety of styles in which he wrote, he must have consciously chosen to make this book seem Western. It fits the delimma that Japan faces. Britain of the 19th Century was also in an age of turmoil, and the question on various authors’ minds was, "What to do about the state of the nation?" This is the same question that Mishima works with. What has happened to Japan since the injection of Western technology, culture, fashion, and ideas? And how does Japan regain a sense of direction and purity in the face of such severe pressure from the West? Mishima uses the characters in Spring Snow to play out different approaches to these questions, but arrives at very few answers.

The Matsugae clan represents the new era of aristocracy ushered in with the Meiji Constitution. At one point in time the Matsugaes were a mid-level samurai family. Now, they are a shadow of their former selves. They possess no warrior spirit. Kiyoaki is probably the best example of this decline. He is continually described as a "beautiful" young man, and his handsome looks win him praise and special treatment. His features are delicate, and he is a fragile creature. He comments that he would never spill blood. He is incredibly arrogant. His father, the Marquis Matsugae, is also a shell of former samurai glory. He is concerned with business, extremely fond of Western food and films, and subservient to the aristocrats who rank higher than he. The Marquis maintains a mistress, which is presented as a sad relic of a bygone era. When the Marquis offers to take Kiyoaki to a geisha house, the boy refuses, unable to stomach the thought. Kiyoaki is not a warrior, and his father has not trained him as such. The Matsugaes are a mere shadow of the samurai class – they are not the rebirth/reconfiguration of the samurai ideal, rather they are a romantacization and dilution of that ideal.

On the other hand, Honda, Kiyoaki’s closest friend, seems to be an example of what the samurai class could and should become. Completely cut out for military school, Honda is self-assured, but not arrogant, and he seems incredibly strong. He is the stable. Mishima remarks that although Honda’s home is, on the surface, more Western than Kiyoaki’s, at heart the Honda residence is entirely Japanese. Still, Honda is not exactly a new Shishi. He studies not just Western philosophy and legal thought, but such subjects from around the world. Honda doesn’t just rely on Japanese thought, but he does resist the glitz and allure of those bits of Western culture that Mishima seems to disapprove of. Honda’s father, who is a judge, especially encourages Honda’s education in German law, which is fitting. Japan’s Meiji Constitution was drafted in large part from the German constitution, and Japan maintained a closer relationship with Germany throughout the second World War. And what might be the most Japanese aspect of his personality is Honda’s undying devotion to his friend. He goes against his own best interests and better judgement to help Kiyoaki, and he does not regret it.

Satoko is a blend of East and West, and that’s what frustrates Kiyoaki. Although Kiyoaki is inextricably involved with the reconfiguration of Japanese culture, he is at the same time witnessing it. As the protagonist, nearly everything Mishima tells us is in some way filtered through Kiyoaki. Mishima gives Kiyoaki a strange ability to observe and comment upon certain things he witnesses that other characters do not have. However, at the same time, Kiyoaki can’t completely grasp what causes his intermittent outbursts of disgust and malaise. He often feels disgust and anger toward Satoko, who toys with his emotions in a decidedly East-West way. On the one hand, Satoko plays the role of kimono-clad, submissive Japanese woman. On the other, she exhibits an undeniably coy streak, which Kiyoaki always interprets as being intended to annoy and upset him. He cannot stand Satoko asserting herself in any way. When she writes to criticize his self-centered, immature attitude (which is incredibly obvious to the reader), he absolutely cannot stand it, and begins a boycott of her company that ultimately causes her to become engaged to someone else.

It is Kiyoaki’s love/hate relationship with all things Western that causes his love/hate relationship with Satoko herself. In a similar way, he recognizes his father’s impotence and the loss of tradition in popular Japanese culture of the time. Although he romanticizes old Japan, just as his father and the new aristocracy does, he has no stomach for the brutality or primitive qualities of it. Likewise, he has a strong distaste for the West because on some immutable, yet inarticulable, level he understands that Western influence has become too much for Japan to handle. His love for Satoko becomes unquenchable and essential only after she is engaged. This is a direct violation of Japanese tradition. Still, it is during these illicit meetings that Satoko acts in the most submissive, demure manner. She does not assert herself or tease Kiyoaki, but submits completely, physically and mentally. She has finally figured out how to make Kiyoaki love her.

During Spring Snow, the Marquis Matsugae shows a British film based on a novel by Charles Dickens. This cannot be an accident. Dickens is known for his depiction of "realistic" British society. In novels such as Oliver and Great Expectations he describes the lives of paupers and aristocrats, and he mulls over questions of class relations and the proper course for English society. But these stories do not exactly fit Mishima’s novel, except for the stylistic similarities. It is Dickens’ great work of cultural upheavel, A Tale of Two Cities, that really pertains to Spring Snow. As with the French revolution, the Meiji Restoration forced a complete restructuring of the class system. Dickens focuses on the chaos caused by such a change. Mishima focuses on similar issues.

It is fitting, too, that Mishima provides us with very few answers. At the time of the novel’s publication, 1972, Japan was on the rebound from American occupation and defeat in WWII. The nation was becoming a true player in the global economy, and facing yet another wave of change. And it is important to remember that Spring Snow is the first of a four-novel cycle, a tetralogy. Mishima has chosen to begin with Japan’s restructuring, the most significant social, political, and economic change in hundreds of years. I am eager to see where he leaves off.

 

 

 

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