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Was Yukio Mishima, actor, activist, philosopher, poseur and Japan's premier novelist, signaling his intention to commit ceremonial suicide in his last written works? The most careful perusal of the article Testament of a Samurai, beginning on page 24 of this issue, gives little or no evidence to this effect. Yet, nearly all Mishima's writing is heavy with the theme of doom, and Michael Gallagher, the scholar who translated this article for us and who was Mishima's favorite translator, cites impressive indications that the author was putting an implicit "period" to his controversial career in at least one of his latest efforts, a four-novel series called Sea of Fertility. In it the Japanese author describes the horrific act of seppuku that was to be his instrument of self-destruction.
"It was as though he were telling us, 'I've said everything I have to say,'" Gallagher told SI recently. "He seemed to be saying, 'Now let it be done for good.'" Beyond this, friends of Mishima recalled other instances in which he alluded to the possibility of taking his own life.
Testament of a Samurai arrived in our offices only weeks before its author committed suicide in the headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. It had been our hope that in future months Mishima might be persuaded to write an account of Japan's preparations for the 1972 Winter Olympics, and we planned this article as a kind of introduction of the world-famed writer to our readers.
In contrast to Mishima's last fiction works, Testament contains none of the portents of self-destruction that Gallagher mentions. Indeed, in it Mishima seems to be addressing us from behind another of his several masks—that of the vital athlete-artist. It is almost chilling to reach the end of the piece and find there his closing word: "...alive."
As is mentioned in the introduction to the article, Mishima's philosophy of life, and manner of death as well, bear certain resemblances to those of the Western world's own self-dramatizing author, Ernest Hemingway. And, as Hemingway might have observed, Mishima died well, within the context of that philosophy.
Details of Mishima's ceremonial suicide were glossed over in U.S. news dispatches, but Japanese reports told in detail how the author had returned from his balcony harangue to the Self-Defense Forces troops, remarked calmly, "I guess they didn't hear me" and proceeded with his ritual.
Eyewitnesses told how Mishima endured almost unthinkable pain in slashing himself across the lower abdomen with the razor-sharp sword. Though stunned by the act, they reported he made an incision nearly six inches across before the samurai swordsman standing behind him, a member of Mishima's paramilitary Shield Society, severed his head—and not too efficiently, either.
The point of all this is that according to the ideal of seppuku—a highly ritualized affair—the swordsman-friend is required to deliver his coup de grace only when the suicide himself shows visible signs of pain or breaks the rigid kneeling posture. For Mishima to have gone so far in his self-mutilation, say authorities on samurai tradition, puts him into a category almost by himself in stoic endurance of pain.
The tragedy from our Western point of view must be that so beautifully conditioned a human instrument as Yukio Mishima should be discarded so needlessly.