There is only one thing on which I really stock up while in Europe: Books.
Everything else, albeit at ludicrous prices, can be found in Tokyo.
All right, maybe not exactly everything else, but I keep a wild ferret and two gerbils on crack sitting by my computer, specially trained to go straight for the groin and bite off my nuts in a split second, were I ever to stoop low enough to make a single joke on the size of Japanese prophylactics on this blog, so we’ll leave it at that.
In fact, even foreign languages books are easy to come by in Tokyo. Some for less that Japanese ones; as German, French, Italian and Spanish books can all be borrowed freely at their respective cultural embassies. Ironically, most of the books I buy here are by Japanese authors.
If you think about it, it’s easy to see why: my current level of written Japanese barely allows me to decrypt my emails (painfully so, when the witch sending them has drawn some evil glee from purposely using utterly rare kanji forms wherever english katakanas would have done just fine). On the other hand, attempting to read Mishima and his astronomical kanji vocabulary would be as entertaining as taking on the dictionary in alphabetical order.
I have peculiar taste in translations. I have noticed that, when it comes to Japanese, English translations are rather weak and often inferior to French ones. I don’t think this is primarily a matter of translators, although there are probably much more people with a passable knowledge in both English and Japanese asked to do a job they do not have particular talents for, while French translators are more likely to have actual professional skills in the matter. Odd as it may sound: the more bilingual speakers you can find between two languages, the lower you should expect your average translator to be.
I also think there is something that makes French a much more natural fit to Japanese. If you know all three languages, you might see what I mean. But do not ask me to back up this claim with any scientific evidence or anything more than a gut feeling; and we all know how biased I can be when it comes to languages.
My latest brush with the classics has finally brought me to one Mishima book I really liked. Something I was about to give up on, after a string of mediocre ones: unable as I was to see any appeal in the bouts of nostalgic lyricism and considerations on the loss of honour that have brought him worldwide fame.
「肉体の学校」 (nikutai no gakko: “School of Flesh”) is hardly a lyrical book: cynicism dominates the story and the characters, and its faint nostalgia of a certain ancient Japan is tempered by a merciless caricature of that older aristocracy still drifting pointlessly through the modernity of post-war Japan, where the action takes place.
Mishima was not only a fervent right-winger, he was also rather openly gay, which makes this cruel romance an interesting read. I personally couldn’t help wondering all along how much was observation, how much was projection and overall what value could be granted to his interpretation of such a typical straight relationship. To make matters even more complex, male homosexuality plays an important role in the story, yet is treated with the traditional attitude taken by Japanese society toward it: mild disgust and contempt toward what is mostly considered an embarrassing weakness (as opposed to the notion of a religiously wrong and sinful behaviour that pervades western culture).
I don’t know enough of his life to quite figure out the key to it, but it is really fascinating to compare the Japanese conception of a twisted self-destructive relationship with what can be found in western literature of a similar style or era. The not-so-tragic ending is also startling for such a book.
While his life and death has certainly enthralled generations of readers, especially western ones, I cannot help noticing a profoundly pathetic, nearly comical aspect, to it. I guess seing the bearers of his political legacy, driving these tiresome little black vans, blaring military marches like they are selling yaki-imo, doesn’t help preserve the seriousness of his cause.
Even his death really can be recounted in two radically opposed ways:
The common, awe-inspiring, version tells us of an uncompromising man, still fairly young, committing seppuku in objection to the westernisation of his country.
Others will tell you that it was more like a very poorly prepared attempt at sparking a reactionary revolution that utterly failed and left him with few other options than skip directly to the last step of the plan: a gruesome, slightly grotesque, double-suicide.
What is known: on November 25, 1970, aided by his personal militia, Mishima Yukio takes over the Tokyo headquarters of the Self Defense Force (post-war Japan’s euphemism of an army), and holding the commander at the threat of his katana, orders that all men in the division be gathered in front of the building where he is to address them formally. His speech, supposed to rouse their enthusiasm and possibly start some sort of nationalistic coup, is received with a mix of hostility and heckles. He cuts it short after seven painful minutes, goes back in and starts disemboweling himself the way only real samurais know how to do…
Unfortunately, his closest disciple (and presumably lover) is either too shaken or not skilled enough to proceed with the second step correctly: the part where he is supposed to neatly cut the head off in one swift blow of his katana. Instead, he misses two times, and I have to assume the whole thing is quite painful for the half-disemboweled, yet likely still alive, Mishima. At this point, another disciple takes the sword from the hands of the first, finishes the job, then helps out the first disciple who has proceeded to take care of himself in the same fashion.
Something tells me the whole bloody scene did lack the zen serenity of good old executions of yore and was not quite what these young modern-day samurais had in mind…
As for me, I think I’d rather go with poison, guns or some other equally efficient, yet substantially less painful, option. Tradition be damned.