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Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima (1995)

by Naoki Inose

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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392635,353 (3.75)5
A critical biography of a modern Japanese literary giant, whose brilliant career ended in a spectacular ritual suicide.

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This expanded English translation of Naoki Inose’s 1995 biography of Yukio Mishima is not only an excellent resource for English language fans of Mishima’s work, but it also succeeds in its deconstruction of the myth or the personas of Mishima—who Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata believed was the kind of literary talent that only appears once every 300-years—back into Yukio Mishima, the human being.

Admittedly, we—English language readers of Mishima, don’t have a lot of biographies to work with—just John Nathan and Henry Scott-Stokes. In fact, even the Mishima novels available in English are fewer than those that are available in French or Italian. So, Naoki’s biography is a refreshing shot of adrenaline to a once stagnant field. And whereas Scott-Stokes was rather personal, bitter, and ham-handed in his investigation of Mishima and while Nathan was perhaps too willing to play into the myth of a tragic artist for his thesis, Naoki did not partake in these distractions.

Naoki’s Persona is written in very readable, persuasive, journalistic prose—translated by Sato Hiroaki, and it was structured as such, in a simple chronological format with countless interviews and in-depth analyses of pretty much every artist, artistic work, event, or philosophical idea that was cited or referred of in Mishima’s life.

It is refreshing that Naoki, who probably never met Mishima, never got bogged down into the predictable first-hand questions of Nathan and Scott-Stokes, “How did Mishima’s death affect me” or “How could I have stopped his death?” And whereas Nathan would cite French psychological novels and formulaic abstraction, tempered by childhood trauma, as the source of Mishima’s artistic work, Naoki did his research.

Occam’s razor tells us that the simplest explanation, the one with the fewest assumptions, is often the correct hypothesis. The easiest explanation for the sources of Mishima’s stories, his characters, and most critically his female protagonists, is given solely by Naoki: his life. That is, Mishima was a typical novelist, though one endowed with tremendous energy, who basically rewrote elements of his life and his encounters with people into his stories; his female protagonists being more often than not veiled references to his many girlfriends.

In addition, a further virtue of Naoki’s chosen style and structure, over that of Nathan and Scott-Stokes, is that through 729-pages and thirty-one chapters (plus the prologue) Mishima is still alive. While Nathan and Scott-Stokes’ biographies were essentially elegiacs, Mishima is alive, at least in the pages of Naoki though his character and enthusiasms, and the words spoken of him. Sometimes, Mishima does jump off the page and straight into reality in the midst of brutal late-1960s student-police riots not too dissimilar from those happening today in Brazil.

Overall, I believe that English fans of Mishima will delight in the detailed translated passages of the novels we didn’t get in English: The Snow-White Night, The Blue Age, Shizumeru taki (The Submerged Waterfall), Nagasugita haro (The Spring That Was Too Long), Bitoku no yoromeki (Virtue Falters/The Misstepping of Virtue), Kyoko’s House, Kemono no tawamure (Beastly Entanglements), Ai no shisso (The City of Love), and The Beautiful Star.

Furthermore, though the book is long—a good 200 pages longer than both Nathan and Scott-Stokes’ biographies combined, it’s a page turner as it was written in an uncomplicated journalistic style that minces few words and cuts to the chase. In fact, a few days ago I read 120-odd pages in a single sitting and today, just to finish the book off, I read 230-pages—bam! However, the book is not without it’s flaws, no matter how minor; no matter how few.

The book, as it seeks to deconstruct Mishima, necessarily, as with Nathan and Scott-Stokes, plays into the great man myth of Yukio Mishima. This is a necessary and minor flaw because for all intents and purposes Yukio Mishima was as fascinating, dynamic, and as rarefied an individual as everybody who knew and remember him, both friend and enemy. Mishima would have to be a unique and great personality since he dominated not only the Japanese literary, theatrical, and intellectual scene from 1950 to the mid-1960s, but as he captured the imaginations of ordinary Japanese even as he rode a Tokyo streetcar disguised with a handlebar moustache.

Also, as opposed to Nathan and Scott-Stokes biographies of Mishima, there is no bibliography of Mishima’s writings in Persona. I believe this is because in Japan—remember this is a translated Japanese work—complete and definitive bibliographies of Mishima’s entire oeuvre are available care of Shinchosha (which publishes the Mishima Yukio Zenshu).

Likewise, the index of the book was poorly crafted and was incomplete, compared to even biographies of modest Canadian personalities in books of similar size, price, and heft.

Finally, despite Sato’s good work and dedication with the translation of Naoki’s book for a decade, the work is littered with careless copy-editing in at least three of the thirty-one/thirty-four chapters. For instance, in the “Sun and Steel” chapter, the word “to” has been replaced instead with a “do,” perhaps due to the pronunciation of English words via Japanese phonology.

Regardless of these minor flaws, this book and its translation, are great biographies worthy not only of the bookshelves of the converted but for those who want the deal about an interesting man who captured his the zeitgeist of his age—the spiritual hemorrhaging of his nation—without unnecessary drama.

Two thumbs up!
2 vote GYKM | Jun 23, 2013 |
My introduction to Japanese literature was through Yukio Mishima's tetralogy The Sea of Fertility. Ever since, I have been fascinated by his life and works. It has been nearly forty years since a major biography on Mishima has been released in English. I was very excited when I learned that Stone Bridge Press would be releasing Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima by Naoki Inose and Hiroaki Sato at the end of 2012. The English-language edition is actually an updated and expanded version of Inose's 1995 Japanese Mishima biography Persona: Mishima Yukio den. Sato was primarily responsible for the adaptation, expansion, and translation of the English-language edition of Persona. It is a mighty tome. With over 850 pages, Persona promised to be the most comprehensive and complete biography of Mishima available in English.

Yukio Mishima, the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka was born on January 14, 1925 to Azusa and Shizue Hiraoka. His upbringing was a bit peculiar--his controlling grandmother snatching him away from his parents. As a child he often struggled with health issues, but exhibited an intellectual precociousness and a talent for writing at a young age. Mishima would eventually become one of the preeminent and most visible authors of his day. He was also an extremely prolific writer, responsible for creating thirty-four novels, more than one hundred seventy short stories, close to seventy plays, six hundred sixty poems, and numerous essays, articles, and other works. Many of Mishima's writings have been translated, but only a fraction of his total output is available in English. He was also involved in the film industry, served as a subject and model for photographers, and was active in martial arts and bodybuilding. Later in life, becoming more politically active, he was a vocal supporter of the Tennō system in Japan. Mishima ended it all in a shocking act of ritual suicide on November 25, 1970.

Persona really is the most comprehensive single-volume work on Mishima currently available in English. However, in part due to its length, it is difficult to recommend the biography as a introductory resource. Before attempting to read Persona, it is useful to have a least some basic understanding of Mishima and Japanese history in general. Persona isn't strictly just a biography of Mishima--it places him within a greater context of economic, bureaucratic, political, literary, and cultural Japanese history. While Mishima always remains an important touchstone, frequently Persona uses him a launching point to address other aspects of Japanese history as a whole. Occasionally the authors seem to wander off on tangents that aren't directly related, but Mishima and his enormous personality are always there in the background even when they're not at the forefront of the work.

Although Persona generally follows a chronological progression, beginning with Mishima's family history and background and ending with his suicide and its aftermath, the biography is organized more by subject and theme. The authors do not limit themselves to adhering to a rigid timeline, which allows them to bring together related material more efficiently. In addition to the main text, Persona also includes notes, an extensive bibliography, and a thorough index. Though its length may be daunting and it's not always a particularly easy read, Persona really is an incredibly complete Mishima biography. Addressing both Mishima's public and private personas, it delves into areas of his personal life (including his sexuality) which I haven't seen as thoroughly explored in English before. While not a biography for the casual reader, reading Persona is well worth the effort for someone with an established interest in Mishima and Japanese history.

Experiments in Manga ( )
  PhoenixTerran | Feb 22, 2013 |
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"This is a whale of a book — both unusually massive and extremely informative and stimulating.... Those who are interested in the brilliantly gifted writer of mid-20th century Japan who is its subject will learn much from this volume, and should be stimulated to go back and read, or re-read, what Yukio Mishima has left us."
One thing I can say with the utmost confidence upon completion of this book: any already existing fans of Mishima could do well to have it on your shelf. His entire life, and then some, lies between these covers and you’ll undoubtedly learn something profound while reading... Anyone curious about Japanese literature in general over the past hundred years would also enjoy the book immensely and could do just as well to have it on their shelf, but it’s with the true worshipers of the work of Mishima that I feel most comfortable saying: “Buy this book. Don’t think twice. Everything happens within it you could hope for, and you’ll enjoy yourself completely.”
Ultimately, it is not really just about Mishima. Persona, I would argue, is a book about Japan itself, as filtered through the life of one of its perhaps most important creations. Mishima is Japan in microcosm, a man deeply torn between European enlightenment and patriotic nationalism re: traditionalism. I hate to characterize any argument down to “He’s East-meets-West,” (it has become one of the most annoyingly clichéd characterizations of Japanese culture) but of all Japan’s writers, Mishima encapsulates that beautiful, violent schism most perfectly. If Japan truly represents the Occident and the Orient as so many would have us believe, it’s because of icons like the talented, tragic Mishima.
Prize-winning Japanese author and vice governor of Tokyo Naoki Inose presents Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima (the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka, 1925-1970), superbly translated into English by award-winning translator Hiroaki Sato. Yukio Mishima was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times; he is widely considered to be the most influential Japanese author of the twentieth century. Yet his life was punctuated by an infamous attempted coup in conjunction with his close followers, concluding in his suicide through ritual self-disembowelment. Inose draws upon a gigantic wealth of primary source material to scrutinize the whole of Mishima's life, including his ancestry, psychology, war experience, world travels, physical activities, and more. Mishima's stories and plays are known for emphasizing reactionary tradition, to the point of costing one's life; though he venerated "the Emperor" as an abstract principle, he despised Japan's Emperor Hirohito for choose to publicaly renounce his divinity after Japan's defeat in World War II. Evidence suggests that Mishima planned his suicide for at least a year, yet only his closest co-conspirators knew what he intended until he performed it, and to this day his precise motives are the source of controversy. Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima blends readability with in-depth detail, and is an absolute "must-have" for public and college library literary biography collections.
added by DaveJacobson | editMidwest Book Review (Feb 1, 2013)
"Mishima's life, and his many interests (he also traveled extensively, acted in film, and was active in the production of his many plays) make for fascinating reading, and Persona is a riveting account."

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Naoki Inoseprimary authorall editionscalculated
Sato, HiroakiPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sato, HiroakiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A critical biography of a modern Japanese literary giant, whose brilliant career ended in a spectacular ritual suicide.

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