Life for Sale (1968): Yukio Mishima


Yukio Mishima’s name has been appearing on my recommendation lists ever since I started reading Japanese fiction, but this is the first of his books that I’ve read. Newly published by Penguin Modern Classics, in a fresh translation by Stephen Dodd, it tells the story of Hanio Yamada, who is thoroughly disillusioned by the world around him. Having failed in a suicide attempt, feeling crippled by the sheer meaninglessness of existence, Hanio comes up with a plan. He places an ad in the paper: ‘Life for Sale. Use me as you wish. I am a twenty-seven-year-old male. Discretion guaranteed. Will cause no bother at all.’ He simply doesn’t care any more. Let someone else make the decisions for him! He’s prepared to relinquish his entire existence to the whims of another person. His offer leads him into a series of bizarre adventures which foreshadow Murakami’s surreal worldview, and which force Hanio to confront how he really feels about life.

It’s 1968 and so the world in which Hanio moves is poised on the brink between tradition and modernity. His escapades bring him into contact with wealthy old-fashioned families in elegantly faded houses, but also, more frequently, with gangsters, fantasists and an unexpectedly high proportion of women whom he manages to get into bed. I discovered, to my slight annoyance, that the Japanese approach to characterising women – which I like to call ‘characterisation by breast’ – is not unique to Murakami; indeed, we see it in an embryonic form here, all the more irritating because Mishima was gay and you’d have thought he might have embraced a more generous range of characteristics. But ’tis not so. Hanio’s life for sale gets him into bed with voluptuous sex-kittens, psychologically vulnerable young gentlewomen and, if the book is to be believed, an ailing vampire. But as his adventures continue – and as he, quite against his expectations, continues to survive them – he begins to realise that things aren’t quite as simple as they seem. Many of his escapades seem to have some kind of connection to one another. And why does someone seem to be following him? It is not a particularly successful novel by Western standards, but I’ve increasingly come to realise that (as you’d expect) the Japanese approach to fiction can be rather different. And I’m still trying to adjust to its conventions.

I was surprised to find that all of Hanio’s clients expect him to die in the course of fulfilling their commissions. They’re essentially buying his death, not his life. And I thought, several times, that anyone who wants to sell their life would be far better off doing so in the UK rather than Japan, if Mishima’s work is any judge. In the UK you’d be more likely to be asked to spend a month wearing a mascot’s costume, or going to work without your trousers on, or wearing your pants on your head, because we are the people who came up with Boaty McBoatface and, quite frankly, the dark streak in the Japanese psyche is utterly foreign to us. No matter how much we grumble about the world going to hell in a handcart, our first instinct when given power over someone would probably be to make fun of them rather than force them into almost certain death. (I hasten to add that I’m comparing our national sense of silliness to Mishima’s dour characters, rather than to the Japanese people more generally.) It is most odd.

Although I was vaguely aware of Mishima, I didn’t get around to reading anything about him until after I’d finished this novella, which is probably a good thing, because he sounds like a rather unpleasant person, according to what I have now read. Self-absorbed and extremely right-wing, he was obsessed with the idea of Japan’s golden past and loathed the signs of modern progress all around him – especially the hippy culture that’s referenced in this book (Hanio is complimented on being an upstanding, smart young man, not at all like the shameful hippies of Shinjuku). The Evening Standard‘s review of Life for Sale describes Mishima rather memorably as ‘a body-building homosexual narcissist’ and reproduces one of multiple photographic portraits in which he insisted on being represented as St Sebastian, complete with piercing arrows. Although Hanio is clearly some form of veiled self-portrait, as the Standard suggests, Mishima doesn’t seem to have shared the hint of redemption that his young hero finds at the end of the novella. On the contrary, his own misanthropy and contempt for the world only escalated and, two years after this novella was published, in 1970, he committed suicide in the public and dramatic seppuku fashion.

Now, much of my understanding so far has been drawn from the internet, and from short reviews of Life for Sale, so I’d be the first to admit that I might have a skewed understanding of him as a writer. Fortunately, Marguerite Yourcenar (of Memoirs of Hadrian fame) wrote an essay on Mishima, titled: Mishima: A Vision of the Void, which I imagine might give a rather more nuanced portrayal of him as a man and an artist. (Reviews are mixed, as you’ll see if you follow the link.) If I’m going to read more of his work – and I suppose I am, since I already have some on my Kindle – I should try to understand more about him, too… What does everyone else make of him? The other books I already own are: Star; The Sound of Waves; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion; The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea; Thirst for Love; and Forbidden Colours. Which of those do you think would be most accessible to a newbie?

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6 thoughts on “Life for Sale (1968): Yukio Mishima

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    I read Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy in German translation – that was quite some time ago, though, and to be honest I do not remember much about it. What I do recall is that they were fairly conventional in form and narrative, with a very strong esthetic streak (as in 19th century estheticism, think Bauldelaire or Mallarmé). I think I did enjoy reading them, but apparently not enough to return to Mishima since then, and as far as 20th century Japanese authors are concerned my favourite is Junichiro Tanizaki who I came across some time later.

    And on a sidenote – gay people being particularly understanding of women is a fairly recent cliché, historically they rather have been among the most fierce misogynists; just read up some time what male homosexuals from Plato to Oscar Wilde had to say about women…

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hmm, maybe the longer less ‘pulpy’ works will be more up my street then. As I said in the post, I have masses of them, so I’ll get round to reading them anyway, one way or another 😉

      And perhaps I didn’t express myself clearly enough about what I meant in referring to Mishima’s homosexuality in that context. I certainly *wasn’t* suggesting that he would be more understanding of, or sympathetic to, women than Murakami. He isn’t, in fact – the female characters here are particularly uninspiring. What I meant was that it was surprising to find him fixated on breasts as a woman’s main attribute, in the same eroticised way that Murakami does. This may well not occur in his other works but it struck me as rather odd here. Maybe it’s simply more common in Japanese fiction than I realise, because I haven’t yet read very much. Or maybe it’s a choice that Mishima makes precisely because this is a self-consciously pulpy kind of novella, and so he’s aping the kind of reductionist eroticised treatment of women that readers might expect to find in such books. I guess I won’t be able to judge this until I read more of his work, so watch this space…

      • Heloise Merlin says:

        It really was some time ago since I read Sea of Fertility (three decades at least), so I might be wrong, but I don’t remember them being particularly pulpy, so you might have more luck with those; I will definitely be looking for more from you about Mishima.

        And my apologies for sloppy reading of your review, and you are of course right, that fixation is rather odd, giving the context of his homosexuality. Breast fixation does seem to be a bit of a Japanese thing, though (well, insofar as it’s not a generally male thing anyway), back when I was regularly watching anime I had more than one occasion to wonder about the proliferation of busty female characters in many of those.

  2. Kaorumii says:

    I found your comment on ‘characterisation by breast’ interesting, because the use of anime characters with big breasts as PR figures for public services such as blood donation has recently been a topic of debate. I’m not sure why there is so much fixation on big breasts, but such fixation may suggest a sort of immaturity in the culture.

    With regards to Mishima, I have read “The Sound of Waves” and it was a nice read, not disturbing at all. Also, I am trying to think of a writer that would give you a good sense of the modern Japanese literature. Have you heard of Mieko Kawakami? She is a young female writer that has received attention recently as a young talent, and whom Haruki Murakami has commended, which is uncommon for him. (Her style is totally different from his, but it is unique.)

  3. Nick says:

    Just come across this, as I’m reading Mishima at the moment. I found Life for Sale enjoyable, though as pointed out, somewhat pulpy and cartoonish, which very well may be the point. The pictures in my head were similar to The Man from Uncle or The Persuaders.
    I’m currently reading Confessions of a Mask, which I think has a very different tone, certainly more Black and White than Sales’ late 60s vibe.
    Theres a clue in that, now I think of it, where the narcissism and emotional detachment come into play regarding not only female characters, but other people in general. The boy seems to lack empathy, rendering others as unknowable.

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