Yukio Mishima was the pen-name of Kimitake Hiraoka. He was born in Tokyo on 14 January 1925, the eldest son of Azusa and Shizue Kiraoka, who were respectively a bureaucrat and the daughter of a school principal. In his relatively short life he rose to become one of Japan's most distinguished and prolific novelists, as well as the author of many plays, short stories and essays.
In his often closely autobiographical first novel Confessions of a Mask (1949), Mishima gives an account of his childhood and adolescence. He was taken from his mother almost at birth and for the first 12 years of his life was raised by his domineering and embittered grandmother. In the novel he speculates that her bitterness might have been the result of contracting syphilis from her husband. His first sexual experience was that of masturbating in front of a reproduction of Guido Reni's painting of the "Martyrdom of St. Sebastian." He writes, "The arrows have eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy." Here for the first time the erotic connections between male beauty and youth on the one hand and violence and death on the other that mark all his work and culminate in his horrifying death by seppuku are clearly established.
In another crucial incident which took place when the author was four, he used to gaze with intense admiration at a picture of a beautiful knight in armor brandishing a sword and confronting "either Death or, at the very least, some hurtling object full of evil power." One day his nurse revealed to him that the figure was actually Joan of Arc dressed as a man and the narrator observes, "I felt as though I had been knocked flat. The person I had thought a he was a she. If this beautiful knight was a woman and not a man, what was there left? (Even today I feel a repugnance, deep rooted and hard to explain, toward women in male attire.) This was the first `revenge by reality' that I had met in life." The novel also documents Mishima's being forced to play only with girls, his frail physique, his falling in love with an older boy, and the deception he practiced on an examining doctor in order to avoid being drafted near the end of the war.
Mishima had a brilliant school career and was accepted into print with a long story "The Forest in Full Bloom" when he was only 16. He graduated at the top of his class from the elite Gakushuin, or Peers School, receiving a silver watch personally from the Emperor, and followed his father's wishes dutifully if reluctantly by studying law at Tokyo University. He worked briefly for the Ministry of Finance before abandoning his position to write full time. He was very quickly successful, following up Confessions of a Mask with one of his most subtle and psychologically perceptive novels, Thirst for Love (1950), the story of a widow who murders the beautiful, inarticulate peasant with whom she falls in love.
Throughout the 1950s Mishima continued to publish prolifically and sell in large numbers, also producing regular pot-boilers to subsidize the writing of his "real" books. Among his best-known works from this period are Forbidden Colors (1951, 1953), one of his few explicitly homosexual works, The Sound of Waves and the play The Nest of the White Ants (both 1954), The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) and the play Rokumeikan from the same year. He frequented saunas and bars in the fashionable Ginza district of Tokyo, making friends with various kabuki players, and from 1955 began intensive and widely publicized courses in body building. In 1958, he followed his father's wish and married 21-year-old Yoko Sugiyama, the daughter of a well-known painter. The marriage was organized by Mishima's friend Yasunari Kawabata, who was to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 that Mishima himself had been widely tipped for. Their daughter Noriko was born in 1959 and son Ichiro two years later.
Mishima's literary reputation began to decline slightly in the 1960s though in 1963 he published one of his best novels, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. At the same time, beginning with the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty of 1960 and the resultant riots, he began to grow more politically active and concerned with military things, as if to compensate for his earlier evasion of service. In a brilliant short story, "Patriotism" (1960) he predicts his own death with extraordinary prescience and detail. The story concerns a handsome young officer and his beautiful wife. When the lieutenant's colleagues rise up in 1936 in defence of the Emperor but fail to include him, perhaps out of consideration for his recent marriage, he is called upon to fight against them but cannot do it in honor. He decides to kill himself by seppuku, or ritual disembowelment and his devoted wife demands that she be permitted to join him. The story describes their agonizing deaths in excruciating detail. Mishima made a film of it five years later, taking the main role himself.
In much the same way, Mishima began to prepare quite early for his own death. Throughout the last decade of his life he continued to write prolifically, while at the same time attempting to organize a private army, appear in and direct films, and work hard in the theater. He divided his life methodically into four Rivers: Writing, Theater, Body, and Action.
During the final years of his life, writing in enormous haste, he produced the four novels: Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel, of the tetralogy known collectively as The Sea of Fertility. In it he sets out, in a fairly lengthy and tedious form, many of his ideas on what he sees as the progressive corruption of Japan in the twentieth century, its secularization and sacrifice of principle and spirituality for material affluence.
On 25 November 1970 Mishima went with his lover, the 24-year-old Masakatsu Morita, and three other followers to the national army headquarters in Ichigaya, central Tokyo. In a series of moves which had clearly been planned with careful precision they captured the commander of the base and demanded the right for Mishima to address the soldiers in return for the general's life. When the troops jeered and refused to listen to his speech Mishima gave up in resigned despair and disembowelled himself, then leaned forward for Morita to behead him. The terrified young man swung wildly, twice missing his head and cutting open his shoulders and back, before another of the disciples more skilled in sword-play took the sword and completed the job successfully. Morita then cut open his own belly and was beheaded.
Mishima presented his carefully planned death as a political act aimed at resurrecting Japanese militarism and returning power to the Emperor but its aesthetic and erotic sources are transparently clear in both his life and work. Only Morita's fear prevented the beautiful and heroic death of which Mishima had long dreamed.