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Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend Paperback – 4 Oct 2010

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Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; New Ed edition (4 Oct. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007135092
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007135097
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 1.8 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 666,141 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

‘(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 Nietzsche’s 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 nerd’s 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 Mishima’s 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 Mishima’s 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 Mishima’s 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.


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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 31 Mar. 2006
Format: Hardcover
I read this after finishing Mishima's Sea of Fertility and feel that anyone unfamiliar with Mishima's work might struggle a bit to get the most out of the distilled understanding of Mishima's idiosyncratical world view found in Ross's fantastic quest book. But there is much more than Mishima here. His approach is matter of fact rather than wide-eyed about Japan and shows a deep knowledge of Japanese culture. I lived in Japan for two years and can see and smell Tokyo in the pages of this book. It is also extremely well written and a page turner. If you have read Mishima, are interested in Japan or especially in samurai culture this book is a must.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 24 Mar. 2006
Format: Hardcover
I read this after finishing Mishima's Sea of Fertility novels and wonder if anyone unfamiliar with Mishima's work might struggle a bit to get the most of the distilled understanding of Mishima's idiosyncratical world view found in Ross's fantastic quest book. But this apart there is much more than Mishima to be found here. The author's position is, I am happy to say, matter of fact rather than wide-eyed about Japan and shows a deep knowledge of Japanese culture. I lived in Japan for two years and can see and smell Tokyo in the pages of this book. It is also extremely well written and a page turner. If you have read Mishima, are interested in Japan or especially in samurai culture this book is a must.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan Coller on 13 Jun. 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book could have been about the search for Mishima's pencil case given the pointlessness of the whole work. This inoffensive book simply did not have anything worthwhile to say. It is flawed by two errors a travel writer can make. Firstly, he makes himself the hero of the piece and as a consequence we discover little about Mishima that has not already been told. How much can somebody write about a nose bleed they suffered?Secondly, in order to create some sort of plot to add an element of excitement to the story there is a suspicion that the whole yakuza episode is made up. The author makes commonplace observations such as our regret over the loss of craftsmanship in the modern age appear as if he had discovered this thought for the first time. Or how about 'life is worth living afterall.' Ho hum...So much for great philosophical insights. Reading this book I felt like the author was one of those people who sit down next to you on a long haul flight and persist in telling you their boring life story when all you want is a bit of a kip. If you want to learn more about Mishima stick to one of the formal biographies. If you are after a good travel book than seek out the works of writers like Dalrymple and Thubron. No doubt some people who are obsessed with the whole Bushido thing will take offense at my review. I am greatly interested in the Samurai culture but there is so much more to Japan that it is an injustice to focus soley on one aspect of their past culture and to make it appear representative of the whole.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 2 Mar. 2006
Format: Hardcover
Yukio Mishima was an oddball. A writer who towards the end of his life ‘lost faith’ in words and fantasized about how he might transform himself into a hero. He was obsessed with death. He was also painfully self conscious and understood himself clearly – and this self knowledge caused him to reject the rapidly Westernizing Japan and to wonder if he might shock society into (he thought) a necessary realization that they were destroying all that was valuable about their own culture. Christopher Ross’s fascinating examination of these themes it seems to me adopts a Japanese aesthetical approach. Instead of analysis and conclusion there is allusion and suggestion. In his small chapters, like Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand stories, he examples something and leaves it to resonate in your mind until, juxtaposed with something else, an echo returns a new insight. He has managed this very artfully, but it is subtle. One review I saw described Mishima’s Sword as a bento, a beautiful lacquered box with small sections separately displaying something delicious. An accurate description of a book that is greater than the sum of its parts. Mishima’s Sword also makes me want to read Mishima again and I shall look into Ross’s earlier work too. Highly recommended.
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By Dr. Delvis Memphistopheles TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 16 July 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A cleverly constructed, but ultimately a shaggy dog story with consecutive rings of inner meaning. The author gradually debunks one component of Mishima mythology, the power of the ever present sword. Revealing the naked man minus the loin cloth who never felt his full corporeality, after reading Stokes and Nathan a masculine dimension emerges.

One star missing, although Ross expounds himself, no connections emerge between "Confessions of a Mask" and its personal perenial impact upon him as it appears a master slave relationship. Ross eludes self confession. Neither does he extrapolate an effect on a wider reading upon a non; Japanese fascist hetero general public. "Confessions" deals with burgeoning alientated Japanese desire, resonating in western societies, transcending the belief in culture.

Is it orientalism, latent sexual identity, alienation or just the emotional honesty that connected Mishima to the wider world? Childhood claustrophobic cupboards are rent asunder his prose, as he runs into himself and exposes his many competing polarities. Vibrating across the literate world as he underscores and promotes heroism, Japan, death, the social act and love. His death, on the surface, is an enigmatic puzzle, suffusing a man of mystery locked within the unfolding of a brutalised childhood script, a boy enacted upon. Mishima was nakedly honest throughout as he disected himself psychologically before he did it physically, but there was a significant chunk he forever held back.

Mishima's reality for the reader, resides not in his body but in his discharged prose. Despite the constant death rehearsals, there is a vitality within his writing. Sexual obsession intertwined with his metal penetrated death.
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