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Runaway Horses - Yukio Mishima

It is in the nature of authority to fear purity more than any sort of corruption.

This review (more like random musings and thoughts) will contain spoilers.

His ideal was drawn upon pure white paper in fresh black ink. Its text was mysterious, and it excluded not only translation but also every critique and commentary.

Runaway Horses is the second book in Mishima's magnum opus, the Sea of Fertility. In the first book, Mishima explored the role of a lover. The young aristocrat Kiyoaki Matsugae, in the pursuit of a forbidden affair, commits himself to an early death. In Runaway Horses, he is reincarnated as a very different man - as the son of Kiyoaki's stern teacher Iinuma, Isao Iinuma pursues a path of self-denial, first as a kendoist, then as a radical Japanese nationalist. Disgusted by the corruption of Japanese society, he seeks what he describes as a pure death - to strike at the materialist elites and then commit suicide, and by his pure example to invoke wider change in the country. Gathering others, he is eventually betrayed to the authorities by his own family, who profess the same disgust with society, but are compromised by their own positions. The senior Iinuma is shamed by Isao's dedication, while his romantic interest Makiko seeks to control him, Lieutenant Hori seeks to maintain his own career, and Honda, a friend of Kiyoaki, cannot comprehend him. Worse than punishment, he is shamed by them. After the trial, Isao goes through with his plan anyway, but alone. He murders a prominent businessman, then takes his own life in a cave - but not before dropping a hint as to his next reincarnation.

The characters in Sea of Fertility are prisoners in their own time. A scene of great importance in Spring Snow explains the struggle - whether the characters rebel against the spirit of their era makes no difference. In the end, they are coopted by history, and will simply be absorbed into whatever generalization future generations choose to make - which could be anything. Kiyoaki rebels against the decadence of his own time by pursuing the one thing forbidden to him. But in the end, Kiyoaki is remembered as just another decadent aristocrat - another disappointing scion of another declining clan. Isao is forced into the same predicament. He seeks to preserve the glory and harmony of Japan against predatory capitalism, militarism, and westernisation. But historically, his nationalism and devotion to the Emperor was recruited by those same corrupt forces. Yukio Mishima could hardly have been unaware of the contradictions of the era - how state Shintoism was deliberately built by the government, of the conflict between Shinto and Buddhist traditions, of how nationalism came to serve militarism that led to the total defeat of Japan. Parallels to our own time are apparent. America Firsters have no interest in foreign adventurism or empire-building, but their values of strength and honor are frequently manipulated into serving neoconservative policy. Further on the right, we find widespread disgust with modern society, but without outlet. Is it really conceivable that such individuals could really alter the course of events, or will history just remember them as antagonists and foils?

One might ask to what degree Isao's beliefs are really his own. The senior Iinuma, after being manipulated and dismissed by Kiyoaki in Spring Snow, formed the Academy of Patriotism to disseminate his own notion of traditional Japanese values - in many ways, an open reaction to his former employer. Raised in such society, Isao could hardly fail to inherit those values, any more than Kiyoaki could avoid inheriting the same values of his own father, the venal, adulterous Marquis Matsugae. But unlike their fathers, who hold those values lightly, Isao and Kiyoaki took them seriously. Kiyoaki dies to satisfy his own romantic desire - Isao can barely think of anything other than to die nobly. The question is posed - how can we transcend the values of the time in which we live, propagated as they are by hypocrites? Both the Marquis and senior Iinuma, in the eleventh hour, attempt to check their sons, but in doing so only push them further down their paths. The senior Iinuma is eventually revealed to be paid off by the very forces of corruption he preaches against. The discovery disillusions Isao - not with his cause, but with the corruption of the world around him.

Isao's ultimate target is Busuke Kurahara, described vaguely as a influential financier. Though many targets among the elite are mentioned, only Kurahara is described with any prominence, but he cuts a familiar figure - a modernist thinker who sees the world in terms of economics and who eloquently talks of sacrificing the tenth to save the nine, and who weeps crocodile tears for those being sacrificed. To Isao, and to perhaps Mishima too, Kurahara is the epitome of the corruption in Japan - a materialism that affects both sentimentality and ruthlessness according to the needs of the moment. Even in his slovenly figure and adoption of Western customs, Kurahara rejects that immaculate Japanese aesthetic.

The inspiration for Isao comes from a pamphlet he reads about the Shinpuren rebellion, a real event when in the early Meiji period, a group of patriots sought to overthrow the government and to put, uh, patriots back in control. A few hundred maniacs with swords fighting against thousands of troops with guns, they predictably lost, and the survivors commit suicide, in what seems to be implausibly romantic circumstances, evoking the same desire in Isao. But Isao is led astray - the booklet also describes the wives of some of the rebels, with ink no less rose-tinted. The wives are totally supportive of their husbands' death wishes and even want to join in. Enter Makiko, Isao's own love interest, an older, divorced woman who gives every appearance of supporting Isao's values, but at the last moment betrays him, then testifies in his defense at court, humiliating him in front of his fellow conspirators. I'm not sure what to make of her beyond an entertaining artifact of Mishima's misogyny - Eternal Woman popping up to frustrate and emasculate Isao's masculine ideals.

Another interesting character is Sawa. A middle-aged man who leaves his family to come to the Academy of Patriotism, he alone among Isao's comrades is given a thorough treatment in the novel. An avid reader of Kodan Club (I can't find much information about this, but it seems to have been a story magazine, possibly a pre-war antecedent to light novels and manga), he eventually manipulates himself into Isao's conspiracy, but he is always treated differently due to his age. For his own part, Sawa seems to be trying to create a second boyhood for himself. I wonder if Sawa is supposed to be self-depreciation on the part of Mishima, who surrounded himself with youths in his own middle age. But what does this suggest - that the business of self-sacrifice and pursuit of purity is only a game for young men? Clearly, Isao, the athletic and popular teenager, is an idealisation of Mishima himself, who struggled with a sense of physical inferiority and was bullied as a teenager, but Mishima has enough awareness to poke fun at this image too.

The last character I'll discuss is Shigekuni Honda. Kiyoaki's teenage friend in Spring Snow, in Runaway Horses he is a 39 year old judge, who has devoted himself to legalism and rationalism. When he comes to believe that Isao is the reincarnation of Kiyoaki, Honda's carefully constructed worldview is crippled. He abandons his position to defend Isao in court, not realizing that his rationalist attitude is at odds with Isao's death wish. Much as with Kiyoaki, Honda cannot really understand Isao or his motives - clouded by his legalism, he views and interacts with the world at a rationalist distance.

Other notes:

In a scene, later in the book, Isao is imprisoned and hears a communist being tortured. His reaction is envious from shame. The right-sympathetic authorities do not conceive of Isao as being a threat to society, but Marxism is. But more than that, Isao's values are a sterile relic. The future struggle will be among the materialists, capitalist and communist. But there is also the creeping suspicion that the materialists are right, or at least, that they are on the right side of history. As a result, Isao's final act feels less like an act of purity and hope, and more like a nihilistic and impotent reaction. Isao is dismissed by everyone, in the end - by allies and comrade, friends and family.

The prose throughout is beautiful. Mishima creates startling and evocative metaphors throughout - of particular note is a kendo match early in the novel, and later on a night-time scene. But even during abstruse philosophical discussion, the words compel the reader to continue. The only down note is the inclusion of the entire text of League of the Divine Wind, the pamphlet that inspires Isao. Feel free to skip to the suicides.

Runaway Horses, more than anything else, sketches out the manner of Mishima's death. Given that Isao fails to inspire change, can it not be determined that Mishima also knew that his 'coup' was doomed to failure? And though he surely knew that many such attempts had come before, did Mishima know that his attempt to revive Vieille Japan was going to be the last such attempt? Much to think on going into the third and fourth books.

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Thanks for the summary. I read sun and steel (and felt like a lot got glossed over in the TL), but never touched his novels. Is this series the one to start with?

Other than these two and Forbidden Colours (which I did not like), I have not read anything by Mishima - I know that the Sea of Fertility quadrilogy was more or less the culmination of his work, and he committed suicide after finishing it.

I can't read your post because I'm currently reading Spring Snow but I'm not making much progress because the book seems to be entirely occupied with the inner workings of an aristocratic twit. Does it get better later on? Is it worth forcing oneself through the first book to get at the second?

I love Spring Snow too - I don't know if I could say it gets better because I liked it the whole way through! I would say that Mishima isn't gonna be your guy if you want likable characters. But what really hooked me are the themes and the language.

Kiyoaki is well, an aristocratic twit. But that's the person he was raised to be - he is raised to embody that kind of aristocratic elegance that respects nothing. And part of the recurring theme of the books is the struggle of the characters to transcend or escape the problems of their own era.

No, because then you'll get to the third book where the protagonist is someone you'll likely find even less easy to enjoy empathizing with if book 1 was a slog for you.

If you came to Mishima for the sun and steel right wing pagan coup stuff, realize that he contained multitudes, from his love of suicide to his love of St Sebastien.

I am realizing it but I am also slogging on in search of broadening my horizon. It's just the enjoyment that's lacking there.

I think so. I had the same problem with the first book; the first half was just the boring psychodrama of a self important teenager. Somewhere around the middle it changed and I ended up reading the whole series with enthusiasm. YMMV

I've never read any Mishima, though I enjoyed this post, so I'll just chime in with some nerdery:

Kodan Club (I can't find much information about this, but it seems to have been a story magazine, possibly a pre-war antecedent to light novels and manga)

Wikipedia suggests that the publisher Kodansha had a connection to it, if you didn't already know this. Could very well have been the pre-war ancestor of the company that publishes manga today.

Thank you for writing this up. I think I'm going to crack open my Sea of Fertility set after I finish Plutarch's lives. I'm itching for it now.

Have you read much else of Mishima? His most nakedly autobiographical self insert is probably Confessions of a Mask, I'm curious to know your thoughts on how the different visions of Mishima integrate.

I've read Forbidden Colours, but I disliked it enough that I was apprehensive about reading more Mishima. As a window into the post-war Japanese gay scene it's compelling, but as a novel?