‘(Ross's) digressive reflections on his quest are personal, pertinent and philosophical: he gives a vivid picture of a Japan still haunted by nostalgia and nationalism.' The Times
'Entertaining, deftly written and wise…a very good book. Its achievement is that not only does it make the reader learn, it makes the reader think.' Daily Telegraph
'An engaging patchwork of a book, a blend of cultural history, memoir, travelogue and philosophical rumination.' Hari Kunzru, Sunday Telegraph
‘“Mishima's Sword” resembles a bento, those beautiful lacquered lunch boxes in which delicacies nestle side by side in separate compartments, each a feast in miniature.' New Statesman
'A fascinating read.' Arena Magazine
From the Author
Q: Why Mishima?
A: In writing about Mishima I realized I could explore issues that matter to me. He was a great writer, disciplined and committed to his ideas about art. Yet he was also a Japanese nihilist struggling to find a way out from under the crush of a meaningless universe and the particular rapid decay of his own national culture under relentless assault from the West.
Q: And did he succeed?
A: He believed that reality was fluid and that the overlap between imagination and the world was an illusion, that no real distinction need be made. He sort of went along with Nietzsches solution, the idea of self-becoming, willing yourself into a persona, revealing your own qualities, helping you lead a life characterized by strength and creativity. But this is only one way of looking at it. He was also keen to avoid the physical decay of aging he told Nagisa Oshima the film director that he was terrified of cancer - and therefore his suicide seems inevitable.
Q: All this seems, well, a bit humourless.
A: Yes, it is not a bundle of laughs. Although in my book there are plenty of funny moments and I too adopted a writing persona. One reviewer called me a nerds nerd. I am not really. I felt obliged to enter into character in working on this book, and I hope a closer reading will reveal that I do not take that many of Mishimas notions all that seriously. I am being ironic. I feel I may have expressed this a little bit too subtly though.
Q: The book is written in short paragraphs.
A: Yes. I had in mind a Japanese essay style called zuihitsu, which means to follow the (writing) brush. The idea is that each section is in some way triggered by something previously written. It might be a word, an idea, a colour, a noise; but the link, like an echo, is there. This sort of free association was thought to be an honest and non-contrived way of writing. It resembles a cinemagraphic jump cut technique with an extra element. Some readers will get it, others will find it disorientating. But I wanted to structure the book according to Japanese aesthetics, as a kind of tribute to Mishima.
Q: Many biographers, having spent time with their subject, end up hating or at least disliking their quarry. Do you?
A: I found myself going through stages. I suspect that I am one of very few people who have read everything Mishima wrote and just about every biography and memoir about him. In Japan there is a mini Mishima industry and new titles are published every year, so it was a struggle to wade through this stuff. The human mind is a simplifying mechanism and tries to take instant positions. Hence the reaction to a life which ended so dramatically is often extreme. Dismissing Mishima as a madman. Or a grotesque. Or a mad misogynist. Or a self hating homosexual masochist. I found myself trying on each of these snap-shot positions as I worked. But now, having stopped writing (you never finish a book) I have arrived at a more considered opinion.
Q: And how would you sum Mishima up then?
A: He was a great writer. I would advise anyone new to Mishima in English translation to start with his short stories. I particularly like Acts of Worship, the title story is a masterpiece of concision and characterization. He set an example of how to work hard. He was largely uninterested in the world, other than as a means to understand his primary subject, himself. Indeed, he was so self-focused that it is possible to make a strong case that he was a narcissist in a pathological sense. We can only speculate why. He had a dysfunctional childhood and was fought over by his dominant grandmother and his mother. This kind of emotional tug of war is probably highly damaging to a sensitive child. He also had the courage of his convictions. Many people, including some of my reviewers, point out in a spirit of criticism that Mishimas seppuku (formal suicide by cutting his stomach) was botched. That it took four hacks to behead him etc. Well the facts are undeniable, but it is worth pointing out that he did cut his own stomach, something none of his critics could manage, I would guess. It is a mark of strength as well as hinting at a position, for modern minds, on the madness spectrum.
Q: The book is about more than Mishima?
A: Yes. I have used Mishimas end as a frame story to investigate other related topics. I have explained about bushido, the Japanese samurai code; about the processes by which a Japanese sword is manufactured; about michi, or Ways, the idea of a craft or martial discipline being a means to self development or at least self revelation. I hope too that I have shown something of contemporary Japanese life.