Just after author Yukio Mishima finished the final novel in his "Sea of Fertility" tetralogy on November 25, 1970, he disemboweled himself in a ritual suicide--seppuku. Mishima, aged forty-five, believed whole-heartedly in the strengths of the old Japanese emperors and in the strong, aristocratic culture that had evolved from the samurai. Spring Snow, written in 1966, is the first of the four novels of what is generally regarded as his masterpiece, a series which explores the essence of life, the spiritual beliefs which make that life meaningful, the obligations of man to a wider society, the relationship of chance to free will, and the glory of dying for one's beliefs. By using a historical approach, with each of these novels taking place later than the previous one, and by repeating his characters, Mishima allows the reader to see Japanese cultural and social history change over a fifty-year period.
Spring Snow begins in 1912. The Meiji dynasty has ended, and Kiyoake Matsugae is a schoolboy at the exclusive, but rigidly spartan, Peers School. By age fifteen, Kiyoake, schooled in courtly manners, appears ready to make his mark within the court. He does, however, hate the militant atmosphere and prefers a more artistic, emotional life. Satoko Ayakura, two years older, is the daughter of the family where Kiyoake grew up, and when he begins to have romantic feelings for her, he is caught in the philosophical no-man's-land between the harshly rigid values of his school (and much of his culture) and his own feelings of need for warmth and communication. Though she is also attracted to him, he refuses to admit that he needs anyone or anything to be a man, and he alternately encourages and rejects any future relationship.
The novel uses this relationship to illustrate Mishima's themes of change. Though Satoko has virtually no importance because she is a woman, the reader cannot help but identify with her, and Kiyoake, at eighteen, is so conflicted that many contemporary western readers will despair of his achieving any enlightenment at all. The reaction of his friend, Shigekuni Honda, a fellow-student, and of Iinuma, his personal tutor, both of whom are repeating characters in the tetralogy, keep the conflicts in focus and guide the reader to an understanding of the author's purpose. Mishima's several forays into philosophical analysis, in the course of the novel, provide wider perspective into his own attitudes toward life, love, and death, and though they do sometimes feel intrusive and not quite integrated, but they counteract the melodrama and romance which might otherwise overwhelm the narrative.
Mishima describes the houses, clothing, rituals, and even hairstyles of the period in detail, adding to the epic sweep of the novel. The need for a character's real feelings to be hidden, as the required patterns for communication are observed, is both frustrating and enlightening, and his use of symbols from nature add to the atmosphere and the novel's meanings. Despite Mishima's awesome reputation and his notoriety as a result of his ritual suicide, his writing is not esoteric. Instead, he writes in an accessible, descriptive style which graphically conveys the culture of Japan in the days leading up to World War I. Mary Whipple