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Death in Midsummer and Other Stories

Death in Midsummer and Other Stories is a 1953 collection of stories by Yukio Mishima that was translated into English in the 1960s. I've read a few Mishima novels and I still can't decide whether or not I like his work. I suppose some of it I do, and other stuff I haven't gotten much out of. I feel the same about this collection, in which the nine stories and one play are so dissimilar they seem to have all been written by different people. Most of them, including Mishima's modern Nō play "Dōjōji", won't leave a lasting impression, but three stick out for me:

"Death in Midsummer"—A mother, her three children and her sister are staying at a hotel near the beach. While the mother is resting in her room, the sister watches the children swim in the sea. When one of the kids disappears, she runs to help but dies of a sudden heart attack at the shoreline. Two children drown, one survives. The mother must send word to her husband of the deaths, and he comes at once, sorting out train tickets along the way and unsure as to whether he's understood his wife's telegram accurately. The rest of the story describes mostly the mother's grief over the following year and the family's subsequent return to the same hotel and beach, with a new child. It's gripping not so much because of it's themes of death and grief but because of the ice-cold way Mishima tells it. Mishima performed seppuku in 1970 (died a few minutes' walk from where I worked for years in Akebonobashi; born a few blocks from where I work now in Yotsuya), and I see him as a self-tortured individual with too many dark thoughts. In this and other stories in the collection, that side of Mishima darkens their telling, and he consistently comes across as a cold-hearted reporter of life's misfortunes and misery, and duty as well, leaving the reader with little to no feeling of hope. But his writing works very, very well. He is exceptionally descriptive, and he certainly knows what buttons to push to get reactions out of his readers.

"Three Million Yen"—Much shorter than the others, this one follows a young, naive couple through an amusement park as they kill time before they have to meet with some woman who will take them somewhere to do something. By the end, we kind of realize the woman is selling the couple, who have lofty Disney-sized dreams of babies and money and a big house, to wealthy middle-aged women for a sex show. Mishima is evasive in revealing details of the seediness these young lovers have fallen prey to and rather focuses on the innocence and hopes of the couple, thereby building empathy in the reader and leaving it up to us to decide if they are victims of some evil or somehow willing partners to it. I got the feeling too that Mishima was trying to shine a light at the decay of traditional values, especially that among the wealthy.

"Patriotism"—Apparently Mishima failed to disembowel himself cleanly during his suicide, and so his cohort had a tough time chopping his master's head off because his hands were shaking so much. Mishima died agonizingly, nothing like the idealized way Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama commits the act in this short story. Shinji and his wife, Reiko, make preparations for their suicide in their home in Yotsuya after the Ni Ni Roku Incident, an attempted coup d'état in the Empire of Japan in 1936. It's cold outside, so Reiko will leave the front door open, knowing that their neighbors will think something's up in the morning and find their dead bodies sooner. Mishima clearly wants us to see some honor in suicide through his story, an unsettling enough view without all the blood and gore the man and woman's blades ultimately give us at the end. The imagery from this one will be hard to forget, not least because of Mishima's detached storytelling style and the fact that he would kill himself years later.

Would I recommend this collection of short stories? No. Or at least not to anyone who hasn't read Mishima before. Once you've read his other works and know what you're getting into, then Death in Midsummer and Other Stories is all right.


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