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Manoa 13.1 (2001) 51-54
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"Peonies" ("Botan," 1955) may come as a surprise to readers who are familiar with the later writings of Mishima Yukio (1925-1970) and with his reputation for right-wing political leanings. Though the story is typical of Mishima in some ways--the crisp, precise language; the tone of ironic detachment--it is unexpected in others.
Japan was just beginning to recover from World War ii when "Peonies" was written. Reminders of the disaster were everywhere; memories were vivid. The Allied Occupation had ended only a few years before. Mishima had earned enthusiastic notices for Kamen no kokuhaku (Confessions of a mask, 1949), with its memorable descriptions of wartime Tokyo, but his career was still young, his political and paramilitary activities still in the future. The implied antiwar, antimilitary message of "Peonies" and its acknowledgement of the realities of war (even today, some members of the Japanese Right deny that the "Rape of Nanking" occurred) come from a youthful Mishima who had not yet assumed the role and persona for which he is most clearly remembered today.--A. H. C.
An unexpected friend came to invite me to an unexpected place. He suggested that we go to see a peony garden. I did not know my friend Kusada's occupation or where he lived; he was rumored to be involved in some political movement or other, but I was not sure. He was small, had sharp eyes and a fine sense of humor, and he knew everything.
We left the house at about two o'clock in the afternoon and, after twice changing trains, boarded a suburban train that I had never ridden before. It was a sunny holiday at the beginning of May.
In front of a small suburban station waited a large bus that would connect passengers to a port city in Kanagawa Prefecture. The bus took a new concrete road, far more splendid than the streets in the city.
"It was built for military use. Just completed," my knowledgeable friend explained tersely. At a pond by the side of the road, a row of picnicking children scooped for tadpoles without a glance at our bus. Their shirts had come untucked from the backs of their little trousers.
At one of the stops we alighted from the bus. A large sign pointed the [End Page 51] way to the peony garden. The road meandered between the fields, and, the hour being late, we frequently had to step aside for groups of people on their way home.
Eggplant seedbeds. Onion heads. On the other side of the road was a marsh, where tadpoles, clearly visible as they caught the sunlight, dove through the algae, and last year's frogs, invisible, were croaking here and there. One corner was sectioned off as a place to wash summer radishes. Two farmers in rubber boots that came up to their thighs were energetically washing radishes and stacking them in alternation on a plank to one side.
"This freshly washed whiteness is strangely erotic, isn't it," I said.
"Yes," Kusada replied indifferently as he rushed along the road. He was walking so fast that I lost sight of him in the crowd several times.
The road ascended to a dense grove in which stood a gate. The words KATSURA HILL PEONY GARDEN came into view. Paying our entrance fees, we passed through the gate. The field of vision opened abruptly--sunny beds of peonies lay before us, with a multitude of visitors passing among them in clusters.
Paths separated the flower beds, each of which was bounded with anemone, azalea, or iris. Each peony bush was provided with a label, on which was written an imposing name in Chinese characters.
UNICORN AND PHOENIX
OFFICIAL OF JAPAN
Unicorn and Phoenix had a big, reddish-purple, velvet blossom. The pale peach of Eternal Pleasure graduated to a deep scarlet in the center. Most luxurious of all was the large, white Moon...