Saturday, July 13, 2013


Japanese film-still of the fictional Kiyoaki Matsugae from Spring Snow, 2006

Now again (like Cavafy) an author I first read in the 70s returns to me (Yukio Mishima this time), along with vivid, unbidden memories of what it felt like to discover such commanding work. Mishima's last great project was a cycle of four novels, called (in translation) The Sea of Fertility. He started writing this baroque sequence in 1964 and finished the last page, according to the story, in 1970 on the same day he killed himself, at age 45, by mutual ritual suicide with the man pictured below, Masakatsu Morita, who died at 25.

Masakatsu Morita, shortly before his double suicide with Mishima in 1970

The four novels came out in English between 1972 and 1974. At the time, they seemed to me about as good as anything I had ever read. Re-immersing myself in their world, I discovered that the earliest of the four, Spring Snow, set in 1912, had been filmed in Japan in 2006. The still-image I located of the actor cast as Kiyoaki Matsugae (hero of the first book, and in some sense the hero of them all) startled me, because the movie makers had clearly cultivated a resemblance to the single famous formal portrait photograph of Masakatsu Morita.

The viewpoint character throughout the books is Shigekuni Honda, a cautious cerebral conformist. At the end of Spring Snow, Honda witnesses Kiyoaki's death at age 20 from a fever brought on by unrequited love (the woman he loves is betrothed to a Royal Prince, but then instead escapes into a Buddhist nunnery, rendering her doubly inaccessible to the hero).

The second novel, Runaway Horses, is set 20 years later, in 1932. I looked up the passage where the big surprise is sprung and Honda discovers that his dead friend the beautiful Kiyoaki has been literally reincarnated 

"When one of the young men noticed Honda, he nudged his companions, and they stepped back, bowing politely as they yielded the falls to him. It was then that he recognized young Iinuma among them.

Honda moved forward beneath the falls. But the water struck the upper part of his body with such clubbing force that he hastily drew back. Young Iinuma, laughing pleasantly, came up beside him, raised both hands high to demonstrate how to break the force of the falling water, and plunged himself beneath it. He stood there for a few moments, catching the violently tumbling water upon his palms and outspread fingers as if bearing a heavy flower basket aloft. Then he turned to Honda and smiled. 

Honda was about to follow his example, when he happened to glance at young Iinuma's left side. There, back from the nipple, at a place ordinarily hidden by the arm, he clearly saw a cluster of three small moles. 

A shiver ran through Honda. He stared at the gallant features of the boy who looked back laughingly from beneath the falls, brows contracted against the water, eyes blinking. 

Honda remembered Kiyoaki's dying words: "I'll see you again. I know it. Beneath the falls."

Kiyoaki is reincarnated again in the third novel (as a woman) and then again in the final book. In each of the four books the reincarnated Kiyoaki dies at age 20. Marguerite Yourcenar explains this as "youth successively incarnated in the most ardent, the hardest, or the most seductive forms."

Thus, in one lifetime, Honda knows his friend in four incarnations. Each new version of Kiyoaki turns out to be more shallow and vicious than the previous one. At the very end, Honda wonders (in spite of the consistently reappearing constellation of small moles) whether there has really been any reincarnation going on at all, or if he hasn't just made it all up out of need.