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Book Review: Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima

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Yukio Mishima is one of those writers who, like Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, is likely more known for his outrageous political beliefs than for his work itself. This is not to say that Mishima’s work is not well known among certain literary circles, but as he came recommended, I was told not only of his cult-like following, but also of his suicide, where he committed the ritual act of seppuku at the age of forty-five.

Confessions of a Mask is a decent, solid book, one with a character that reminds me of The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, that is, if Holden were Japanese and perhaps gay. It reads somewhat quickly, yet comes across as a minor work, even though the subject matter might seem “risque” for its day. (It is Mishima’s first published novel). The protagonist (a young man named Kochan) is unsure with regards to his sexuality, and for at least half of the book, he spends it marveling over the muscular body of a boy his age named Omi. Readers are given glimpses into his mind as Kochan narrates how as a boy he once tried on his mother’s kimono, only to be caught by her in the act. As result, he suffers feelings of shame, and feels the need to hide behind this “mask,” and it is through this narration that readers are sharing in his personal and sexual “confession.” The novel is not so much about blatant homosexuality as one might think a novel today would be (this was, after all, the 1940s) but more the psycho-emotional impacts such feelings can cause amid wartime Japan.

Yet later, as the narrative focus switches, the character becomes fascinated with a girl named Sonoko, and although he has feelings for her, he is not so much attracted to her physically, as in the way he felt towards Omi. There are also moments where Kochan seems a bit pathological, or perhaps he is merely expressing normal anger for his age — but there are moments in the text where he is “craving bloodshed,” and dreaming of it. Very much like in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Kochan has bizarre fantasies of violence, which causes him to feel a “lust for blood.” In one scene, he describes Roman Gladiators “offering up their lives for his amusement,” and how he “delighted in all forms of capital punishment and all implements of execution.” Immediately I was put in mind of Kubrick’s film of A Clockwork Orange, where we see Alex fantasizing similar bloodshed, followed by the feeding of grapes by topless women.

Then there are moments in the novel that seemingly allude to Mishima’s eventual suicide:

“But I would allow no torture devices nor gallows, as they would not have provided a spectacle of outpouring blood. Nor did I like explosive weapons, such as pistols or guns…. I chose primitive and savage weapons — arrows, daggers, spears. And in order to prolong the agony, it was the belly that must be aimed at.”

While readers should always take a fictive work with a grain of salt (even a semi-autobiographical one as this), the biographical imbuing most often cannot be avoided. And while the character does sound disturbed, his “fantasies” are not too terribly far off from most young men that age, especially those who are feeling as an “outcast” for one reason or other, or are just angry. Confessions of a Mask is not a particularly deep work, and nor is it a very compelling one. Mishima also doesn’t seem to have much as far as a sense of humor. The translation by Meredith Weatherby is solid, and the prose is clear with some moments of nice lyricism. Confessions of a Mask is a rather straightforward work, and despite the narrator’s belief in his own individual complexities, what he is experiencing is not unique. In fact, his observations and ruminations are not all that complex either, yet there are moments of observation and moments of rumination that show great potential for Mishima as a writer.

Those in search of gay literature will likely be disappointed with this one, but if you enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye, there’s a good chance that Confessions of a Mask would appeal. Yet if you’re like me, and found Holden Caulfield to be a whiny and petulant brat, chances are you’ll think the same of the narrator in Confessions of a Mask. Aesthetically, Confessions of a Mask is a mixture of many works I’ve read before. It is sort of Salinger’s Catcher mixed with a bit of Burgess’ Clockwork, minus the cool dialogue, and sort of a bit like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, minus the humor. But since all these works were published after Mishima’s book, one can only assume where some might have gotten their influence.

About Jessica Schneider