Peter Wolfe asks in the opening of his Yukio Mishima why a reader should bother to read this book, but for the first thirty-eight pages one may wonder why Wolfe wrote it, for his attitude toward Mishima is so negative as to become annoying. Wolfe seems to go along with Gore Vidal and Jiro Kawamura in seeing Mishima as "a minor writer because his only subject was himself," a judgment I find totally erroneous merely from the viewpoint of the brilliant cast of characters Mishima created. Wolfe further blunders into such irrationalities as the following: "Rather than promoting slum clearance, clean air, or educational reform, Mishima disemboweled himself"; Mishima "has forgotten that one of his goals is providing some integrated, holistic picture of human nature." When Wolfe occasionally praises Mishima, a negative note intrudes: "Mishima has some of Dickens's vitality. But unlike those of Dickens, [Mishima's] people are not joined by benign affection or loyalties." And finally, to cite only one more in a long catalogue of negative reflections on Mishima, Wolfe writes in relation to Mishima's public and private suicide, "Showing off to himself as always, he staged his last clown act as a media event and accepted the consequences." After John Nathan's brilliantly objective and moving report of this culminating event in Mishima's life in Mishima: A Biography (1974), Wolfe's words are shallow and insensitive, influenced as they are by Japan's embarrassed critical evaluation of the suicide.
Yet even Wolfe refers to Kawabata's pronouncement that a writer like Mishima appears only once in five hundred years. Mishima, furthermore, was apparently considered one of three Nobel Prize possibilities among Japanese writers. The fact remains that Mishima continues to fascinate us and Wolfe as well. Almost as if Wolfe is himself caught within the contradictory impulses of a Mishima character, he proceeds to give a fascinating analysis of twelve of Mishima's novels translated into English. This criticism carries us from Mishima's apprenticeship in Confessions of a Mask (1949) and Thirst for Love (1950) to the magnificent tetralogy, Sea of Fertility, whose Spring Snow (1968), Runaway Horses (1969), The Temple of Dawn (1970), and The Decay of the Angel (1971) take up the last fifty pages of Wolfe's short but remarkable critical study. Wolfe concludes that Spring Snow is Mishima's greatest novel, but the second book in the tetralogy, Runaway Horses, he finds flawed by the unresolved tensions between reincarnation and samurai codes as well as other problems, all of which "sabotage the remaining works in the Sea of Fertility cycle." [End Page 656]
Possibly Wolfe was trying to be faithful to the complexity of the Japanese view toward Mishima, a mixture of admiration and derision and embarrassment, for it continues to do tricks with Wolfe's judgments. His analysis of each novel aids the Western reader, and certainly his comments are essential in helping us see into the complexities of Forbidden Colors (1951), The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956), After the Banquet (1960) (the editors have left this novel out of the chronological listing on page 8), and the Sea of Fertility tetralogy. Yet even in Mishima's most joyous novel, The Sound of Waves (1954), Wolfe finds in the last two paragraphs of the novel an assertion of male supremacy that "both cheapens [Mishima's] earlier affirmations and smears the luster of what had been, up to now, his most lyrical novel." To continue this positive/negative admixture, Wolfe sees Confessions of a Mask as "sketchy, fragmentary, and puzzling," but he almost grudgingly notes "the work defies one to forget it." Of the controversial Forbidden Colors, Wolfe affirms that the novel "questions our root values with painful concentration." His fine analysis of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1963) concludes with the insight that Sailor "light[s] the dark currents that flow within us all" and that the book's "echoes extend our humanity."
For a long time I have felt that Mishima critics, Wolfe among them, make too much of the biographical approach. The...