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Turning Japanese stomachs

Confessions of a Mask
by Yukio Mishima

Penguin, 170pp, £8.99

Born two years after the Great Earthquake of 1923, in ‘not too good a section of Tokyo’, Kochan is a sickly child, brought up by stultifying parents and a morbid grandmother.

His first reliable memory is of the ‘night-soil’ man, and he immediately becomes obsessed with tragic lives, particularly in story books: anybody who is ‘fated for death’.

He is furious upon discovering that his favourite doomed knight is actually Joan of Arc. But after seeing a performance by a female magician, he begins to dress up in his mother’s clothing – and by adolescence he is committed to playing his ‘part’ upon life’s stage, ‘without ever once revealing my true self.’

Kochan is a literally and literarily pained young man, quoting Wilde, Huysmans, and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. He edits a Hungarian fairy tale to make the hero’s grisly end more realistic.

He quickly realises his interests are not merely aesthetic. He is aroused by the sight of marauding priests, sweating soldiers, sea-bathers, male in-laws. He stashes away images of (thin-ish) wrestlers and samurai as other boys would hide their porn mags.

Aged 12, he jerks off for the first time – over a picture of Guido Reni’s St Sebastian.

He falls in love with the school jock – ‘because of him I cannot love an intellectual person’ – and falls back out again some pages later, having got an envy-boner at the sight of hairy armpits.

He struggles, naturally enough, to blend in, since he has no idea what other boys are even thinking. (In his defence, mind you, he’s at the sort of pretentious, rigid school where grabbing other boys’ cocks is viewed as a normal playground pastime.)

His anaemia is counterbalanced by a raging blood-thirst. He daydreams, elaborately, of his family being obliterated in an air-raid; of tying a class-mate to a pillar and then stabbing him; of slaughtering ‘many white slaves of Arabia, princes of savage tribes’. He has long-since been enraptured by his own death.

A schoolfriend’s sister appears to provide the social cover that he’s needed. The approach of war looks set to grant him what he wants: ‘some natural, spontaneous suicide’.

A tough and compact piece of literature – in the manner of a JG Ballard, say, or Anthony Burgess – the most surprising thing about Confessions of a Mask is that, for all its euphemistic delicacy (‘inversion’, ‘bad habit’, ‘big thing’), this boundary-pushing novel was published only four years after Japan’s atomic cataclysm.

It is also plainly autobiographical. But as an exercise in personal catharsis, alas, it did not do the trick. Two decades, several dozen books, and three Nobel Prize nominations later, Mishima launched a one-man para-military coup, and wound up disembowelling himself. At least one biographer suggests that this was his intention from the outset.

For The Amorist

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