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Book Review: Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

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Spring Snow is the first book in Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, and it begins at the end of the Meiji Era in 1912, when Japan is faced with new Western influence. Among the characters are two young men named Kiyoaki Matsugae and Shigekuni Honda.

Just like previous Mishima protagonists, Matsugae is a bit of a pill, for he is eternally pessimistic, dour and you can’t help but wish someone would smack him in the face just so he would shut up. Matsugae is from an old aristocracy that does not hold the power it once did. He has the sense of entitlement typical of rich kids who have been handed everything they want. Thus, it should come as no surprise that he does not take it well when things with his love interest (Satoko Ayakura) don’t work out.

Honda, on the other hand, is a bit more complex and interesting a character, and ultimately it is he who will continue as the protagonist of this series. The most interesting aspects of Spring Snow are, in fact, those involving the two young males and their friendship. Even though they are friends, they are also at odds, for there are certain unspoken limits to their friendship, of which both are aware but don’t mention.

Matsugae is determined not to allow Honda to know all that exists behind his “mental agony,” for he believes it would be an “unforgivable violation” if Honda came to know everything about him. Likewise, Honda is well aware of his friend’s touchiness, and so thus he has to “treat him as warily as one would a freshly painted wall, on which the slightest careless touch would leave an indelible fingerprint.” Honda, in turn, has to pretend not to notice certain things about his friend, such as his “mortal agony.”

If you’ve not already caught on to the melodrama of such situations, the inevitable doom that occurs between the emotionally high maintenance Matsugae with that of his love interest Satoko will certainly add to it. Yet having said that, the melodrama isn’t really a flaw per se, since such emotional extremes tend to be typical of young people, especially immature ones with a sense of entitlement.

There are several instances where Matsugae can’t decide if he loves Satoko or if he hates her, but ultimately the love he chooses to feel for her cannot be carried out in the way he would like, for she becomes engaged to the royal prince. This of course means bad news for Matsugae, and oh, what are young lovers to do?

Ironically, (or tragically, or fortunately, however you wish to view it) it is only after Matsugae learns of her engagement that he decides to actually make a move, and lo and behold, it is a little too late. Or is it? Eventually, Satoko comes to learn of her pregnancy and thus needs an abortion to be carried out in secret. “…the only thing of his that had entered Satoko and become part of her had to be a child. Soon, however, this part would be torn from her and their flesh would become separate once again.”

After the abortion, Satoko ends up in a convent, and Matsugae still can’t have her, even though he tries to visit her. Yet even so, Satoko herself is not a particularly likeable character, for she comes across as a bit sanctimonious in her condescension towards Matsugae, believing he is childish, which even though this happens to be true, she’s not that much better herself. Thus, we don’t feel terribly sorry for her when we learn she’s ended up insane.

Spring Snow isn’t so much about a love story as it is a lust story, since the characters involved are too immature to even know what love is. They simply want what they think they should have. These aspects of the tale give Spring Snow a very Shakespearian quality, putting one in mind of Romeo and Juliet. Overall, Spring Snow is a more complex work, and isn’t quite as cringe worthy as certain moments within Shakespeare’s play.

Translated by Michael Gallagher, Spring Snow is full of memorable lines and passages, and engages in moments of deep, philosophical rumination while capturing the friendship between the two young men well. The title is perfect, for it combines the newness or birth of something (spring) with that from the previous season (snow), so throughout the work there is this struggle between the old and new, young and old.

Even the suicide of General Nogi is brought up again, (which followed the death of Emperor Meiji) and fact that his suicide has since been addressed by numerous writers shows what a symbolic impact his suicide had — possibly even more impact than his accomplishments during the Russo-Japanese War. This theme has been tackled in other Japanese works, such as Soseki’s Kokoro and isolation and the lack of human connection is ever present in Kawabata’s Snow Country.

I will say, however, that Spring Snow has a bit more fat than Kokoro or Snow Country, and even compared to Mishima’s other novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Weaker parts in the novel involve the characterizations of the princes who come across nothing more than stereotypes, and seem to be expounded on only for political reasons, rather than artistic.

Spring Snow is overall a more ambitious novel than Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, but despite attempting more, there are also more flaws. By the end of the novel, Matsugae gets sick and it is Honda who is there with him during these last hours. Although some readers accuse Honda of living a “passionless” life, he is the only consistent one throughout the tale, and probably the most mature. It is no surprise then, to learn that he is the one who will be continuing The Sea of Fertility Series, rather than the obsessive Matsugae who in reality ends up as doomed as his fantasy.

Despite these flaws, Spring Snow is definitely worth the read, for the moments of philosophical rumination greatly outweigh any political intention (and baggage) Mishima might have had. Extreme as these moments are, they impress their beauty, and ultimately add to the complexity of the narrative, in addition to enhancing the dilemmas the characters undergo with regard to their own happiness. Mishima has succeeded in taking a rather simple, classic tale and has managed to materialize the most good he can from it. So now what awaits us? Runaway Horses.

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