Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima
1st U.S. printing: Knopf, 1972
400 pages / Amazon
At the heart of Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow is one fundamental truth: love can easily be mistaken for loathing. The protagonist, Kiyoaki, a young man growing up in an old samurai family of recent wealth, first experiences this when he sees the higher-born Satoko strolling through the garden of his Shibuya estate. She’s accompanied by his mother, a Buddhist Abbess, and several other women of high society. Their procession is a colorful one of patterned fabrics decorated with intricate motifs dyed in vibrant hues, including Satoko’s aquamarine, whose sheen reflects the hot October sun, immediately catching the eye of Kiyoaki and his friend Honda. The two boys relax on a hill nearby, lying in the brittle stocks of autumn grass that crunch under their weight when they rise to the sound of the women’s chatter.
Beneath them, the women carefully check their footing on the irregular stepping stones of a twin waterfall-fed stream colored red by fallen maple leaves. Honda is immediately drawn to Satoko, and says she’s beautiful. Kiyoaki silently agrees, but is too proud to admit it, believing anyone associated with him must be beautiful; he’s very much aware of his own good looks, and how she complements them. He’s well aware of how his pale cheeks, easily flushed crimson when exited, sharply defined brows, and wide, long-lashed eyes that glint seductively, fit so perfectly with Satoko’s calm, affectionate gaze, creamy white neck, and delicate features that embody the lofty rank of her family.
Indeed, her beauty, in the Japanese tradition, is more than just a force of external appeal that seizes the attention of all onlookers. It’s a reflection of her sharp wit and compassion and venerable ancestry, the result of generation upon generation of noble upbringing and court education. She’s a prize that eventually attracts the attention of the prince himself despite her being considered past her prime at age twenty. But she’s not interested in him or in any other suitable suitor—and there are many. She’s humbly interested in Kiyoaki alone, and she’s not shy to show him this: “What would you do if all of a sudden I weren’t here anymore?” she asks him, when he and Honda descend the hill to greet the women.
It’s abundantly clear that Kiyoaki and Satoko are destined for one another. With the exception of Honda, she’s the only one who isn’t rebuffed by his pride and disdain for anyone who shows him even the slightest bit of affection, a habit he acquired when people first started fussing over his handsomeness. Beyond her looks, her elegance is also equal to his, which he feels is a poisonous thorn in the side of his workmanlike family. She can pull that thorn free, place him somewhere he belongs, away from his coarse father, away from the Kendo Club jocks at school he despises, who amuse themselves with their war cries and the slap of their bamboo swords against lacquered armor. Most of all, she loves him, and he knows it. He has but to reciprocate, to reveal his own love for her, which brims beneath his beautiful façade, an impenetrable mask molded from his frigid elegance (elegance is, after all, frigid, the poet Saitō
Ryokuu tells us). But he can’t, not yet, and is simply reminded “why he hated her,” as his love lies still undefined, smothered by his naiveté and above all else, his fear.
Fear is what makes him feel disconcerted by her flirtatious words, rather than euphoric. Fear is what causes his mistake, forcing them into their doomed affair that ends like a Greek tragedy: she becomes a nun in the care of the Abbess for having dishonored the imperial family. He falls victim to a fever in his last desperate attempt to pry her free from her shame, and his own. And like a Greek tragedy, their story offers us a useful lesson amplified in hyperbole: fear is what prevents us all from fulfilling our romantic destinies, feeding our constant longing and dissatisfaction, making love so seemingly unattainable. Because love tears us open, Rumi might remind us, exposing us for who we truly are, complete with our vulnerabilities and instabilities. Love illuminates our faces with the harsh brightness of electric floodlamps, dispelling the shadows Jun’ichirō Tanizaki favors, which conceal all of our imperfections. In reaction, in a misguided effort of self-preservation, we hide ourselves behind our many masks and repulse with apathy and hate, just like Kiyoaki.
Indeed, Kiyoaki prizes his mask above all else, even his intellectual pursuits. Only when peeking through its narrow, shadowed orbits does he find himself able to safely navigate the conservative, militaristic world of Taisho Japan in which he feels so terribly misplaced. Because beneath it is a delicate core most of his peers would see as weak or feminine, a maelstrom of fluctuating emotions that rarely give way to joy or humor, instead predominately swirling to the adagio of melancholy. Satoko knows this—she and Kiyoaki grew up together, so she remembers him as a child and young adolescent, before he learned how to hide himself away. Kiyoaki fears such knowledge, sees it as a crack in his mask, one which will quickly expand and shatter its surface should he succumb to her. Because with love and the open-eyed nights it brings, such knowledge will only deepen and become more intimate. Already, with a mere twinkling glance and a single flirtatious phrase, she “plunge[s] him into nameless anxieties.”
It’s unavoidable for an author to embed themselves in their work in some shape or form, and Kiyoaki is in many ways a reflection of Yukio Mishima. He too had concealed himself behind a beautiful mask as explicitly detailed in his semi-autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask, one carved from an uninterrupted routine of weightlifting and martial arts practice and the confidence of an international celebrity; on the exterior he was a model, both literally and figuratively, the ideal Japanese man with a proud family whose success glinted with the sheen of every prestigious literary award except for the Nobel Prize (which would be granted to his less controversial competitor and friend Yasunari Kawabata). And he too was afraid that this mask might shatter should his most intimate secrets be revealed, spelling his downfall. Because beneath his chiseled features and body was a torrent of frustration revealed within the shade of fiction. This frustration was partially rooted in his desire and inability to reconcile what he considered his two most important principles, physical action and intellectual adventure, as elucidated in his essay Sun and Steel. However, perhaps less abstract and more pressing was the fear of coming out as a homosexual in a society that would never accept it.
Already he’d managed to emerge from the shadow of his traditionalist father who saw his writing as effeminate and tore up many of his manuscripts when still a child. In adulthood, he found his intellectual tendencies accepted. However, the conservatisms of the day—and Japanese culture in general—coupled with his own contradictory views of the ideal Japanese man, whose role involves upholding a paradigm of samurai masculinity, forced him live like an actor in Kabuki theater; as Tanizaki notes, Kabuki is ultimately just a beautiful world of sham.
Mishima’s family still rejects his homosexuality, and as recently as 2000, his son and daughter won a lawsuit against Jiro Fukushima, banning the further publication of Yukio Mishima—Sword and Winter Red, which uncovers the romantic relationship between the two authors, reproducing letters written by Mishima himself. Mishima’s reaction was to loathe when he felt love was denied him—loath his society and attempt to change it in the most drastic of ways: by attempting a coup in 1970. And, to a certain extent, loathe himself as well, knowing he could never reconcile his homosexuality with his own traditionalist beliefs: when the coup failed the very same day it began, he ended his life in similarly Greek tragedian fashion, committing ritual suicide with an ancient blade in the final culmination of his frustration, and in a final statement of protest he hoped few would forget.
Mishima therefore doesn’t similarly mistake love for loathing, as Kiyoaki does. By the time he wrote Spring Snow a year before his death, he had the maturity and experience necessary to avoid such a blunder, something his young protagonist lacked. Indeed, he had a grasp on life’s subtleties and contrasts that few could rival. Perhaps only Kawabata compares in this respect, and no doubt their intellectual understanding was the source of their powerful friendship, which Kawabata could neither replace nor live without (his own suicide shortly followed Mishima’s). Instead, Mishima uses Kiyoaki to meditate on the chance he never had: to accept love when presented with it, ignoring the potential dangers lurking within its passionate embrace, and find happiness—or at least attempt to find happiness—with such acceptance.
He furthermore warns us against forsaking love as he did, fearful of emerging as a hypocrite and destroying his reputation, along with all he represented, and as Kiyoaki initially did. This is something so many of us find ourselves willingly doing: we hide behind our increasingly thick, elaborate masks that keep us at increasingly greater distances both physically and emotionally (thanks, in part, to modern technology), creating our own worlds of sham in which we choose to exist. He warns us to not guard ourselves and fight back against what will illuminate us and crack us open and expose our delicate insides, as this will only lead to what we are attempting to prevent: a painful demise. He uses his own life as much as Kiyoaki’s to demonstrate this. It’s better to swallow that fear and simply dive into the tumultuous, murky tides of love where the possibility of being dashed against the rocks may indeed be great. But so too the possibility of embarking on the most fascinating, fulfilling journey life can offer. To do otherwise is to deny our humanity, our inherent proclivity for adventure and discovery.
Mishima begins Confessions of a Mask by quoting Dostoyevsky: “A man’s heart wants to speak only of its own ache.” He was able to speak of his heartache through his work, one echoed in Kiyoaki who, in his final moments consumed with fever, feels as if he’s being stabbed in the chest. But although Mishima’s readership extended across the globe, and some would hear such heartache as his own, they’d never listen to him as he wished, exacerbating the pain he was enduring. In his work and his life, in his death which he no doubt saw as an act of martyrdom premediated in self-portraits posing as St. Sebastian, he tells us to let his sacrifice be the final one, the one that teaches us to undo our fear regardless of the consequences, and always choose to love rather than loathe.
Christopher Impiglia is a New York-based writer, art book editor, and Adjunct Professor of Writing. He received an MFA in Fiction from The New School and an MA in Medieval History and Archaeology from the University of St Andrews. His review of Kawabata’s “House of the Sleeping Beauties” also appears in Entropy Magazine. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has otherwise been published in Allegory Ridge, Columbia Journal, EuropeNow Journal, and Kyoto Journal, among others.