Mishima's second novel in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy is set in the early 1930s and follows Isao Iinuma, son of Shigeyuki Iinuma, who served as a tutor for Kiyoaki Matsugae, the protagonist of Spring Snow (published serially, mid-1960s). Kiyoaki offs himself in the first book, and Honda, a childhood friend of Kiyoaki’s who plays a big part in both novels, believes Isao is the reincarnation of Kiyoaki. Both Isao and Kiyoaki are rather unpleasant characters. Kiyoaki is petulant and conniving and Isao is tragically naive.
Isao is also an idealist, nationalist, and wannabe revolutionary who vows, with a bunch of other somewhat sycophantic schoolboys, to emulate “the purity of the League of the Divine Wind, hazard ourselves for the task of purging away all evil deities and perverse spirits.” He plots a coup d’état or, as he calls it, a “Shōwa Restoration,” which seems doomed from the start. Lots of Mishima fantasizing here and perhaps for himself weighing out the merits and virtues, and folly and futility, of such an insurrection.
The narrator (omniscient third-person) tells us: “This was a plan that struck at every great capitalist family in Japan. All the zaibatsu-controlled heavy industries, iron and steel, light metals, shipbuilding—an illustrious name from each of these sectors was on the list. That morning of mass killing would, beyond any doubt, send a severe shock through the economic structure of the nation.”
OK, so there’s that, with a lot of soapy he-feels/she-feels meandering and digression (if he’d cut 200 pages out of this, it’d be more solid, cohesive.) Then there’s the idea that Japan was pure before being polluted by the outside world and outside ideas. Even Buddhism gets a bad rap by characters in this book.
I can’t remember reading a Mishima novel in which seppuku is not romanticized. But in Runaway Horses it comes up again and again and again as a sublime act of purification.
Narrator: “…when Isao felt a guard’s hand touch the moles on his side and squeeze them momentarily, he realized once again that he could never commit suicide out of humiliation. During his sleepless nights in the detention cell he had toyed with the thought of killing himself. But the concept of suicide remained for Isao what it had always been, something extraordinarily bright and luxurious.”
This recurring theme in Mishima novels can make reading his work difficult, considering how the author took his own life. What ended the creator interferes with the art that outlived him. I shouldn’t let his suicide interfere with his fiction, but it does.
I liked this one better than Spring Snow, which more often seems to lack direction and purpose. Runaway Horses isn’t an easy read either. The second half is stronger and more interesting and makes up for some of the long-winded time-wasting in the first half. And it’s a book that makes you want to ask the author a bunch of questions starting with Why…