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Book Review: Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima

13 Nov 2017Essay Samples

The long quotation from Dostoevsky that Yukio Mishima uses as the epigraph for Confessions of a Mask is appropriate in two ways. It is appropriate for what it actually says—the notion of two diametrically opposed ideals burning with equal fervour in a man’s heart. It is also appropriate because Dostoevsky was one of the first writers to portray a person who is crippled by his thoughts, unable to move for the mind-forg’d manacles that he himself has shackled himself in. The narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, for example, is a good specimen: totally immobilised by the circular and self-deceptive melancholy that infects his brain.

Mishima’s Kochan is the same sort of character. From an early age, we see him being unable to conduct his life on a frank and honest level; every action he undertakes and every experience he undergoes is filtered through the twisted and inverted stew of his mind. The real world acts only as stimulus for the narrator’s self-deception, and because he is unable to avoid deceiving himself, he necessarily deceives everyone else, from the doctors to whom he lies about his health, to Sonoko, the girl he imagines himself not to love.

Kochan’s inability to relate to the world except after it has been processed by his own eccentric way of perceiving it, is seen early in the novel. Indeed, his first memory is probably a created one: “No matter how they explained, no matter how they laughed me away, I could not but believe I remembered my own birth.” (Mishima 2) Here we see for the first time the attitude which drives the novel: life, the universe, and everything for the narrator are products of his own mind. “Reality” as he perceives it has its roots in real events—he was, in fact, born; his existence is not just his own fantasy—but the event is twisted and mangled until it fits his own concept.

We can see the same sort of modification of reality in his “earliest [unquestionable] memory.” (Mishima 7) He sees “a night-soil man, a ladler of excrement” coming down a hill. (Mishima 8) Reading the novel in English we miss out on some of the cultural context that a Japanese reader would know unthinkingly. Dealers in human waste were at the bottom of Japan’s “untouchable” class, the burakumin, which also included tanners and slaughterers. Even in the late 1990s being of burakumin ancestry can mean prejudice and closed social and employment doors; in pre-war Japan the discrimination was much stronger and more apparent. Mishima’s narrator comes from aristocratic stock; even after a social decline involving “huge debts, foreclosure, and sale of the family estate,” his family would have viewed members of the underclass as almost inhuman. (Mishima 4) Yet Kochan, “in the same way that other children, as soon as they attain the faculty of memory, want to become generals, … became possessed with the ambition to become a night-soil man.” (Mishima 9) Here again, the reality of 1930s Japan is inverted, and Kochan makes his decisions based on the products of his own mind.

At this early stage, Kochan’s perversion of reality, and inability to function except by digesting and rationalising situations in his own mind, is fairly innocuous. But as he grows older, his ability to keep the world from getting in by means of twisted inversions, and his ability to keep himself from revealing his true nature to either the outside world or himself, through layers of self-deception, grows stronger.

An example of this is his warped sexuality. Instead of normal, healthy chasing after girls, or conversely, normal, healthy lusting after young men, Mishima’s narrator creates bizarre blood-soaked fantasies involving torture, mass slaughter and cannibalism: “I thrust the fork upright into the heart. A fountain of blood struck me full in the face. Holding the knife in my hand, I began carving the flesh of the breast, gently, thinly at first….” (Mishima 97) Once again, the narrator’s inner character (his homosexuality) and his external circumstances (the fact that his sexuality can only find expression in his “bad habit”) cannot be reconciled, and he seeks the “middle ground” of complicated, sadistic imagination. And because he is self-aware, even in his self-delusion, he concocts elaborate justifications and explanations for himself, to give some validity to the thoughts that at least part of him knows are strange and terrible.

Like a character from Dostoevsky, Mishima’s narrator thinks himself in circles, locked in a cycle of recrimination and regret from which there seems no escape. Even in his high-school days this is the case. He is incapable of acting naturally. An example can be found in his remark about the bus conductresses’ uniforms: “They fit so tight to their bodies!” (Mishima 102) For all that Kochan proclaims himself entirely uninterested in females of any persuasion, he does go on to fall in love with Sonoko, and there is at least the possibility, in this earlier remark, that he is expressing a genuine, if unconscious, lusty admiration for the bus conductresses. But Kochan will not even entertain the possibility. As soon as he has said it he begins to explain his remark to himself, eventually coming to consider himself “a step ahead of mankind” because he could play the role of a typical adolescent boy while possessing the mind of a character in a Russian novel. (Mishima 105) Once again a perfectly simple remark becomes obscured with layers of thought. Kochan himself recognises this fact, noticing that “the other boys, having no need for self awareness, could dispense with introspection.” (Mishima 105) Introspection, for Kochan, is more important than oxygen.

The tendency to over intellectualise is seen clearly in the narrator’s relationship with Sonoko. Although he seems able to recognise and enjoy the pleasure he gets from his relationship with her—“I was in ecstasy over having received the first love letter of my life.”—he always manages to think himself into unhappiness in short order. (Mishima 181) Even while he goes with her and her family to visit Kusano, he is conscious of “the feeling that was growing deeply within my heart, a feeling like the guilty conscience of a fugitive from justice.” (Mishima 156)

If Kochan had been able to simply accept his feelings for Sonoko, things would have been comparatively simple, but he is unable to go more than an instant without throwing up walls of thought to insulate himself and ensure that his feelings and the real world never touch.

One of the largest problems in the narrator’s relationship with Sonoko is that he is unable to look on women as a class with any sort of sexual desire. But even when the time comes when he can—“Without the slightest feeling of shame … I stared at those white thighs,”—even when the longed-for moment of sexual revelation arrives, Kochan intellectualises it away. (Mishima 229) Instead of saying to himself “Good heavens, so I can look at a woman sexually after all,” he turns his lust into “astringent pain,” thinking: “You’re not human. You’re a being who is incapable of social intercourse. You’re nothing but a creature, non-human and somehow strangely pathetic.” (Mishima 230)

The narrator of Confessions of a Mask remains throughout the novel, a person who simply thinks too much. He is unable to deal forthrightly and directly with any situation: instead he creates justifications and excuses to hide his emotions, and cloaks genuine feeling in swathes of artifice. Simple, honest urges, even something as basic as sexuality, are over intellectualised and entombed in dark cathedrals of thought and perverse fantasy. 

Work cited:

Yukio Mishima, trans. Meredith Weatherby, Confessions of a Mask (New York: New Directions, 1958)

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