Mishima: The Aesthetics of Fascism

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters-Kyoto 's House-Paul Schrader 1985
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters-Kyoto ‘s House-Paul Schrader 1985

While watching Paul Schrader’s excellent, and underrated biopic of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,  I was struck by how contemporary and up to date a figure Mishima seems, in fact far more relevant today than when the movie was first released.  Of course certain individuals tend to be ahead of their time, however, as Mishima was a narcissistic nihilist who espoused a highly individualistic form of extreme right-wing nationalism for the most dubious of reasons, this is more of a reflection on the perilous state of current affairs than an inspirational story of a heroic touch bearer from the past lighting the path to a better world for present and future generations. Regardless of this disturbing fact, Mishima remains one of the better of the twentieth century’s right-wing writers (not exactly a crowded field, but still) with a lucid self awareness, fanatical determination and fatalistic steeliness that warrants a closer look through the glass, however darkly.

A sickly and isolated child who wasn’t permitted by his grandmother to play with other boys or even go outside in the sunlight, Mishima became aware of his sado-masochistic and homosexual tendencies at an early age while leafing through a book and discovering a reproduction of a Renaissance painting of St Sebastian. In his first, breakthrough novel Confessions of a Mask, Mishima describes the occasion for his first orgasm in decadent prose,’The arrows have eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh, and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy,’ and he would later pose as St Sebastian for a photograph, one of a series of aggressively stylised portraits published in the book Torture By Roses.

This strain of theatrical narcissism and exhibitionism that Mishima displayed time and time again shows a profound lack of a core identity. He would pose as St Sebastian, a yakuza gangster, a bodybuilder, a samurai and as a soldier. Particularly as a soldier. Along with this addiction to his own image adopting various roles, he obsessively cultivated a cult of the body. One of the requirements placed for his arranged marriage was that his wife couldn’t encroach on the time he spent either writing or body-building.

Along with the inherent masochism required to achieve the perfect body, body-building enabled Mishima to indulge his fixations on virility, health and purity, but also conversely on their opposites, sterility, decay and perversion. In a particularly convoluted example of self-loathing (a speciality of his, and one that he undoubtedly derived a perverse pleasure from) Mishima adopted a fierce anti-intellectualism but which was defended purely on intellectual grounds.

Given Mishima’s inveterate ability to aestheticize every facet or experience in his life, not only experiences that are typically aestheticised like art and the body, but also action, violence and death itself, perhaps it is no surprise that Mishima adopted fascism* as his ideology. After all, as Walter Benjamin shrewdly noted, one of the hallmarks of fascism is that it is the aestheticization of politics. It’s theatricality, militarism and not so coded homo-eroticism and rituals of dominance and submission seem tailor-made for Mishima, with the added bonuses that its nihilistic emphasis on ‘blood, fire and the night’ gave him the opportunity to write the perfect ending to his life, achieving his desired aim of writing a line of poetry with a splash of blood.

During the last years of his life Mishima became increasingly pre-occupied with politics. He published essays about fascism, wrote a play called My Friend Hitler and founded a private militia called Takenokai (English: Shield Society-or the SS-as Mishima was fluent in both English and German the coincidence doesn’t seem so coincidental) comprised entirely of handsome university students, with the express purpose of defending the abstract ideal of the Emperor’s dignity. Mishima increasingly desired to be seen as a man of action, noting that both Lord Byron and the Italian decadent writer and one of acknowledged originators of Fascism, Gabriele D’Annunzio had both commanded their own private armies.

Mishima is most famous for his spectacular suicide in 1970 by seppuku after the failed coup d’etat,, which Schrader rightly centres his movie around. This act was the culmination of Mishima’s solipsistic vision; a fusion of life, art and action and a expression of fascistic aesthetics: Mishima’s Gesamtkunstwerk.

When this movie was first released, fascism seemed spent as a living force, rightly confided to the trash heap of history. Subsequent events have proved how wrong this assumption is with virulent nationalist movements sweeping across the world. Although Mishima nationalism was a somewhat idiosyncratic affair, it does highlight certain aspects of fascist aesthetics and  the appeal it may possibly possess beyond the merely economic factors that are always tepidly cited as its chief cause of its spread.

Fascism is a purely reactionary force, and is best viewed in the light of everything it opposes and seeks to cure; namely modernity. Tradition is seen as a bastion of lost greatness, with gender roles set in stone, rigid conformity and static hierarchy. With its cult of the strongman who personifies the state, its staged presentation of might and the quasi-mystical emphasis on symbolic talismans (the flag, uniforms, anthem, rallies and parades) fascism is in itself a decadent response to decadence and in a certain respect the very essence of the modernity that it rejects so vehemently.

*  I use the term fascism with caution. Please note that in the above article I am not labelling Mishima a fascist in the lazy pejorative sense, of say, a leftist from the 80’s towards anyone who was slightly centre-right, or indeed present day hard right apologists who indulge in verbal gymnastics by claiming  that it is, in fact the liberals who are the actual fascists; but in the sense that fascism is understood as a term in classical political philosophy.

36 thoughts on “Mishima: The Aesthetics of Fascism

    1. That shows you what a lovely person you are, because Mishima, while interesting wasn’t a good person at all. The perils of turning your life into art is that you will always aim for drama and intensity over contentment and happiness. I do not think his suicide was down to depression, he looked forward with a morbid relish, it was his life’s work. Am I stretching analogies here Kindra?

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  1. So now I’m curious as to which version of St. Sebastian got him all worked up. This was a very interesting post. How relevant indeed. Obsession with image, virility and power. Sounds familiar. How ironic that the term fascism gets applied to the left when in fact this describes so acutely the Donald. There is an eerie parallel to the Nixon administration as well.

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    1. I believe it was the Reni Guido which Mishima believed wasn’t spoiled with excessive martyrdom unlike previous versions. I do think Mishima shows certain aspects of the fascist ideology that haven’t received enough attention. I do tend to look at things in a roundabout way. I think the obsession with image, virility and power is the key. Fascism is a crisis of masculinity which projects insecurities regarding emasculation onto the loathed other.

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      1. Oh that is spot on. Build oneself up by tearing another down. Senator John McCain, war hero, prisoner of war. Trump: “I prefer heroes that don’t get captured.”

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      2. Trump also has an obsession with the military though he avoided military service. Fascist leaders and the wannabe fascist leaders tend to have an odd relationship to masculinity, they venerate it but are less than ideal representatives. This appeals to their followers who are also suffering from uncertainties regarding their own masculinity. Cakean cultural commentary, ummm, is it right or just bat shit crazy.

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  2. “Fascism is a purely reactionary force, and is best viewed in the light of everything it opposes and seeks to cure; namely modernity. Tradition is seen as a a bastion of lost greatness, with gender roles set in stone, rigid conformity and static hierarchy”. As freedom erodes and our society regresses, this phenomena moves forward.

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    1. Thank you Heart for the lengthy comment and the quote, which sounds quite good. Yes unbelievably so. When I first saw this movie in the late 80’s I didn’t think much regarding his politics, I was more focused on the all consuming narcissism of the man. It is a great movie but I hadn’t seen it for a few years and I was forcibly struck by the prescient quality of the narcissism, the cult of the body, the over emphasis on masculinity (but purely as body the exhibitionism which seemed just so now…that lead me to reconsider whether fascism and that mentality is linked

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    1. Thank you Ogden… I am not sure if you are saying that you disagree with me or that I disagree with Mishima (which I do). I try to keep an open mind and accept a writer/artist on their own terms, not easy sometimes, but Mishima was at least self aware and I think he reveals something about the world today. Junger would be the other major right wing writer, but although he occasionally came close to fascism (particularly On Pain) he wasn’t a fascist, an aristocratic conservative really.

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      1. Yes, it was Mishima I was disagreeing with too – its strange how some on the extreme right can be so self aware, it seems a contradiction in normal terms, cos one often expects ones intellectual enemies to be merely obscene. I have found that sometimes I’m missing out on some important human qualities and traits by being so dug in to my own ideals I can’t see the bigger picture.

        We have this divide today as discussed above – to much polarisation, its dangerous, but its also romantic and exciting as long as democracy can survive, perhaps looking back it might not seem so bad? I have been watching political debates on tv tonight, which is undoubtably fueling my mood, so much belligerence, anger, stupidity, high and low ideals, its driving my mad!!

        I haven’t heard of Mishima before, I’m sure I haven’t seen this film, so I shall have to look out for it 🙂

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      2. Paul Schrader directed it, he wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull… he is very hit and miss as a director but this is a brilliant movie. Mishima was a mass of contradictions and not a good human being but he pursued his vision to the end. Interestingly Junger who was undoubtedly right wing was friends with everyone. Picasso (communist) Cocteau and loads of other lefty arty types. After the war and there was talk of De-nazification of Junger (though not a Nazi he was definitely politically suspect) Bertoldt Brecht of all people complained to the commission and said hands off Junger. However Junger and Mishima do seem to be on lofty Olympian heights compared to our present crop of nationalists and fascists wannabes. My God I am starting to sound like them, they don’t make fascists like they used to. I am also going to send you a link to a related post about Charlottesville and Taxi Driver. Thanks for the lengthy comment and I can only agree with the disheartening effect of such belligerence. I got accused when I got into a bit of a row on someone’s blog of looking at these matters from a purely intellectual standpoint, but surely a bit of distance is needed.

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  3. Its been a while since I saw Taxi Driver, and I never saw Raging Bull – I’m such a wimp, I just don’t like boxing!! I seem to remember that Taxi Driver was very impressive – I was just thinking how first someone makes a brilliant film about violent psychopaths, then before long, it becomes the norm, I can see why some people object strongly to films like Reservoir Dogs, tho I myself don’t agree with censorship, there’s good art and bad art, and good art that gets misconstrued and bastardised and so on, it can’t be helped, but then sometimes you have to ask yourself where are we now with it all? I’m rambling a bit, Remember that film “If” with Malcolm McDowell, I saw it a couple of times on TV, always enjoyed that one!

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    1. If is a great movie…that seemed to argue the case for armed rebellion in schools…but I am sure it was a metaphor about the hideous hidebound class system that England still hasn’t managed to rid itself of. Taxi Driver is a great movie, Schrader does a good take on the perils of alienated masculinity. Narcissism is also one of his favourite subjects, as it mine. I am obviously against censorship but I do agree, when those floodgates opened who knew that we drown in sex and violence?

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  4. Excellent post, Mr. Cake. It did leave me unsettled. It’s odd, I feel Mishima was riddled with self-loathing, and set his world into orbit to relieve his own anxieties. What a dark existence, with no relief, more and more self-punishment, oh the pain! I won’t soon forget Yukio Mishima, thank you. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. He was certainly complicated and self loathing certainly played a part, though he definitely had an ego as well. I think his nature was perverse and he enjoyed the convoluted thought processes. Also his suicide was something he looked forward to all his life. As regards his politics, he started as your common or garden leftist intellectual, but I think he realised he would get more reaction on the right. Also I think it suited his aesthetics. Maybe I just approach these subjects from a very odd angle, as they never seem that popular. Ah well, too late to change now.

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