Yukio Mishima’s Confessions Of A Mask

Published in 1949 in Japan but translated into English only in 1958, Confessions Of A Mask, Mishima’s second novel, both captivated and scandalized international audiences. The book is entirely dominated by the opinions and perceptions of Kochan, its narrator-protagonist, who describes his early alienation from society as a gay, sickly child growing up in Imperial Japan, when strength and physicality were fetishized. This is an intensely psychological novel, a detailed and engrossing portrait of a troubled mind, and Mishima – like Dostoevsky and Kafka and Knut Hamsun before him – manages to secure his reader’s sympathy almost against our wishes, drawing us into deeper and deeper alignment with Kochan, until we share his visceral experience of isolation and estrangement.

The troubles begin early for young Kochan. Just 49 days after his birth, his aristocratic and domineering grandmother “snatches” him from his parents, “on the pretext that it was hazardous to raise a child on an upper floor,” and he is forced to sleep in his sickly grandmother’s bedroom, in close proximity to the stifling “odors of sickness and old age.” At three years of age, he is beset by an unknown illness and given up for dead. “A shroud was made ready, my favorite toys collected, and all the relatives gathered.” Undersized and pallid, he surprises his family by surviving, but the disease continues to stalk him for years after its initial attack. “It struck about once a month, now lightly, now seriously. I encountered many crises. By the sound of the disease’s footsteps as it drew near I came to be able to sense whether an attack was likely to approach death or not.” In consequence of his illness, he is forbidden to play with children his own age, and so to death and disease we may add the premature experience of loneliness and isolation as well. It is, to put it mildly, an inauspicious beginning. “I had been handed what might be called a full menu of all the troubles in my life,” Kochan tells us, “while still too young to read it.” But in addition to these objective events, we also glimpse some of the stranger, more subjective developments affecting Kochan’s psyche. One of his most powerful memories is of a troop of soldiers passing outside his home, though his description of it surpasses anything we might expect to captivate a young child:

The soldiers’ odor of sweat – that odor like a sea breeze, like the air, burned to gold, above the seashore – struck my nostrils and intoxicated me. This was probably my earliest memory of odors. Needless to say, the odor could not, at that time, have had any direct relationship with sexual sensations, but it did gradually and tenaciously arouse within me a sensuous craving for such things as the destiny of soldiers, the tragic nature of their calling, the distant countries they would see, the ways they would die …

He will similarly become infatuated with a picture of a medieval knight, in silver armor with sword drawn, whom he imagines as being on a collision path with death. But when his caretaker, upon seeing the picture, explains that it is not, in fact, a male knight, but Joan of Arc, a woman in male clothing, he becomes despondent. “This was the first ‘revenge by reality’ that I had met in life, and it seemed a cruel one, particularly upon the sweet fantasies I had cherished concerning his death.” From the earliest age, it seems, Kochan’s sexual or quasi-sexual desires are closely associated with death.

As an adolescent, he becomes fatalistic, adopting what he describes as an “Augustinian theory of predetermination,” while he gradually builds for himself a persona, his “mask,” by which he can navigate the world. As he awakens into a fuller awareness of his own homosexuality, as his own fatalism grows, so too does his understanding that there is no place for him in Imperial Japanese society, that his very being is somehow unacceptable. He begins to affect a persona not his own, one designed to please his adolescent friends and judgmental family, and though he becomes increasingly adept at saying and doing what is expected of him, there are occasional slip-ups, whereupon he experiences the double tragedy of having his authentic self misunderstood and his inauthentic self praised. “I was beginning to understand that what people regarded as a pose on my part was actually an expression of my need to assert my true nature, and that it was precisely what people regarded as my true self which was a masquerade.” This precarious balancing act reaches new depths when he tries to convince himself he can love a woman, a virginal teenager of 17, the sister of one of his good friends, whose feelings for him are far more genuine and less convoluted. He is, in other words, attempting to live a lie, and in Mishima’s hands, this becomes an exploration of the corrosive impact dishonesty has on the human soul. “I’m becoming the sort of person who can’t believe in anything except the counterfeit,” he tells us, and we witness the calamitous results of such an outlook in painful detail.

All of this is set against the backdrop of the waning years of World War II, as Japan’s military defeat is becoming more undeniable by the day. Younger and younger boys are pressed into service, and Kochan himself is eventually employed in a factory making the stripped-down Zero planes used by kamikaze pilots.

I have never seen such a strange factory. In it all the techniques of modern science and management, together with the exact and rational thinking of many superior brains, were dedicated to a single end – Death. Producing the Zero-model combat plane used by the suicide squadrons, this great factory resembled a secret cult that operated thunderously – groaning, shrieking, roaring. I did not see how such a colossal organization could exist without some religious grandiloquence. And it did in fact possess religious grandeur, even to the way the priestly directors fattened their own stomachs.

Part of what made Mishima prophetic in his day, and direly relevant today, was his suspicion of our modern pretence to rationality, perfectly encapsulated in the above paragraph. Airplanes provide perhaps the 20th century’s single most iconic image of the achievements of science, defying mankind’s terrestrial origins with greater ease than Daedalus himself could manage, and yet amidst all this technological innovation and achievement Mishima sees a temple consecrated to death.

This is only my second Mishima novel, and yet in those two books alone he has demonstrated not only a technical mastery that distinguishes him from all but the most illustrious of 20th century novelists, but a comprehensive, convincing and beautifully rendered vision of humanity that has rightly earned him comparisons with Dostoevsky. At this point in my life, as a person and a reader, I can offer him no higher praise.