A dying youth wakes up from his brief slumber. He is suddenly wide awake and alert. He turns to his best friend as if he has seen a ghost.
“Just now I had a dream. I’ll see you again. I know it. Beneath the falls.”
And so ends the first installment of Yukio Mishima’s greatest and final work.
The Sea of Fertility is about a pursuit for youth and all its vivacious proclivities. Adolescence is a common motif in Mishima’s novels (Sound of Waves, Temple of the Golden Pavilion), but his tetralogy is his strongest depiction of his deep rooted pessimism of the future of Japan. As the oncoming tide of modernity threatens to wash away the rich traditions and values that Mishima prized so dearly, Mishima laments the death of an ideal youth, a beautiful existence that satiates the essence of life that has been warped by the forces of Japan’s changing cultural landscape. His main protagonist, Shigekuni Honda, finds himself lost in a lifelong journey in search of this youth and nearly destroys himself in the process.
This obsession over youth is nothing new and had persisted for decades. Jun’ichiro Tanazaki claimed that Modern Japanese literature was only sought out by a certain “literary youth” that ranged between eighteen and thirty years old. Hideo Kobayashi references Dostoevsky’s protagonist of The Raw Youth and describes him as “a youth whose mind is in turmoil because of Western ideas and who, in the midst of this intellectual agitation, has utterly lost his home.”
“How close he resembles us,” Kobayashi writes. “Indeed, I repeatedly ran into scenes that made me feel the author was describing me, that he had me firmly in his grasp.”
Mishima echoed many of the sentiments of his contemporaries. Honda himself is assailed by Western ideas while taking on the characteristics of a passive observer and complacent citizen, tossed to and fro along the sea of Westernization. As the novels progresses, Honda begins to reflect the numerous Japanese who, following his footsteps, have slowly dissolved their old culture in favor of a new modern way of life. His old age is both superficially the slow decay of a particular Japanese spirit and also an appropriate contrast to the numerous jubilant souls that restore Honda’s faith in a beautiful existence.
“Like the majority of Japanese he ignored it, behaving as though it did not exist and surviving by escaping from it. All his life he had dodged things fundamental and artless: white silk, clear cold water, the zigzag white paper of the exorciser’s staff fluttering in the breeze, the sacred precinct marked by a tori, the gods’ dwelling in the sea, the mountains, the vast ocean, the Japanese sword with its glistening blade so pure and sharp. Not only Honda, but the vast majority of Westernized Japanese, could no longer stand such intensely native elements.”
Honda demonstrates few passions of his own and remains focused on a career for the sole purpose of financial gain. It is only in the reincarnations of his best friend that Honda feels his youth is restored, “just as the first rays of dawn brighten one branch of a tree and the next.” Honda’s changes throughout the tetralogy, both physical and mental, take on and reflect aging and dying Japanese traditions. In Honda’s darkest hours in The Temple of Dawn, he not only begins to act more liberal and magnanimously, discarding his old aristocratic heritage, his turn to voyeurism reflects a sort of social decadence. It is here, in the tetralogy’s most spiritual novel, where Mishima most accurately describes Honda’s plight.
“He knew that he was powerlessness to arrest events which went storming on like rain squalls, drenching every insignificant person, beating indiscriminately upon the individual pebbles of fortune. But it was not clear to him whether all fortunes were ultimately pathetic.”
This dilemma reaches its peak in The Decay of the Angel, where Honda’s last hopes for youthful rejuvenation are nearly dashed and his entire quest for beauty and youth are thrown into question.
These youths that Mishima present are innocent and tragically beautiful. There is Kiyoaki Matsugae, whose duplicitous affair with the striking Satoko Ayakura leads to the unraveling of the families involved. What the strong willed and revolutionary Isao Iinuma lacks in Kiyoaki’s liveliness and romantic flare, he makes up for in sheer physical strength and ideological purity. The seductive Thai princess Ying Chan is a mesmerizing beauty, whose femininity and mystique present a challenge for Honda’s search for spiritual enlightenment.
Honda, who wishes “he were a man approaching the end of life, someone with properties and totally complacent,” cannot help but be fascinated by the beauty of the youths that he meets, cannot help but involve himself in their affairs and struggle to prevent their timely ends. The only beauty he fears to meet is Satoko, whose life of self-imposed exile has largely shielded her from the effects of modernity.
It is only in The Decay of the Angel where Honda meets Satoko again. Honda, now an old and dying man, adopts a final young orphan, in the hopes that he is like Kiyoaki, Isao, and Ying Chan. However, the orphan’s outer beauty obfuscates his evil and tarnished soul. Abused and nearly ruined by his choice, Honda finally finds himself face to face with the beautiful young woman who set off the events of the tetralogy, where a confession from her threatens to shatter the foundations and purpose of Honda’s entire life. Mishima’s women are as beautiful as they are complex, as aloof as they are treacherous, and as cunning as they are jubilant. Satoko remains the goddess of them all, an angel so distant yet so close, whose decay is of a different sort than the rest.
“The bloom of youth had in a jump of sixty years become the extreme of age, Satoko had escaped the journey through the gloomy world.”
As a result, the ending of The Sea of Fertility is enthralling. There is a haunting silence to it, an unpleasant stillness that chills as one wonders if the beauties of Honda’s past are mere phantoms embellished by nostalgia and reverie. Honda’s final conversation concerns that very uncertainty of memory and the tenuous nature of the past, while the novel’s final lines reveal Mishima’s profound worry that our inability to ascertain the past will doom the present to a tepid and insipid future.
“[Memory] sometimes shows things too distant to be seen, and sometimes it shows them as if they were here.”
The Sea of Fertility refers to one of many lunar mares on the surface of the moon created by ancient lava flows and mistaken by early astronomers as actual seas. At first, the title The Sea of Fertility speaks to the many subjects in the novels: youthful innocence, blissful romance, and rebirth. Yet beneath this façade, Mishima uncovers the barren nature of it all and presents the timely deaths that await the beauties of Honda’s life.
In 1956, Donald Keene, a well-known American scholar and translator of Japanese literature, published an anthology of modern Japanese literature. The anthology featured everything from poetry to literary criticism to prose from major authors such as Ryuunosuke Akutagawa and Natsume Soseki. The anthology closed with an excerpt from a novel by one Yukio Mishima. Mishima was only 31, and few would have expected that less than fifteen years later, Mishima would die by his own hand, having committed ritual seppuku during the course of a bizarre coup d’état, shortly after having sent The Sea of Fertility to his editor.
Keene described Mishima as “a remarkably gifted young writer whose varied production augurs well for the future of Japanese literature.”