Confessions of a Mask, a post war autobiographical novel, subverts the conventions of the traditional and dominant Japanese “I” novel of the 20th century. This book, Yukio Mishima’s (1925–70) first commercial success, received praise from the Japanese literary elite and paved the way for the author’s prolific literary career spanning more than 20 years.
The novel’s narrator, Kochan, begins by claiming that he witnessed his own birth and proceeds to detail his anomalous existence in a household tainted by illness, familial power struggles, and financial distress. Sequestered in his ill grandmother’s stench-filled room, Kochan submits to the feminine domination his paternal grandmother imposes upon him and his entire family. His homosexual fantasies begin at the age of four when he sees a common laborer carrying buckets of excrement on his shoulders through the streets. The laborer’s thigh-hugging pants and the occupation itself of transporting excrement, a symbol of the Earth Mother and a world fraught with pain and tragedy, function as a catalyst for the young boy’s sexual awareness. Kochan desires to become this tragic figure.
Also at the age of four, Kochan recalls his discovery of a picture of a knight on a white horse, whose inevitably tragic end provokes his anticipation. He wishes for the knight’s death and hopes to find it in the following pages in the book he is looking through. When the young boy’s sick nurse informs him that the knight is in fact a woman named Joan of Arc, his world becomes destabilized. He explains this realization as a form of revenge thrust upon him by reality. Kochan puts the book aside forever.
Vivid memories—of the sweat of soldiers; his transvestism to express adoration of two melancholy women, Cleopatra and the female magician Tenkatsu; and fairy-tale stories of the death of princes—affect Kochan’s early life. He concludes that his thirst for the tragic and for the bodies of young men is predetermined. This deterministic worldview threads together the chapters of the autobiography and ultimately lays the novel’s philosophical groundwork. The youth’s desire for death, night, and blood follows a trajectory traced by some malevolent force with no hope of being derailed.
The novel also probes the distinction between reality and illusion, making “mask” a fitting component of the book’s title. Even as a boy, the narrator understands his social obligation to exert a certain masculinity, even with his female playmates. During a game of war, Kochan relishes the thought of his own death. His sadomasochistic fantasies increase in intricacy. He masturbates not only to magazine pictures he has altered, which show the bloody deaths of young men, but also to Guido Reni’s depiction of Saint Sebastian. The focus of these fantasies eventually shifts from print media to a real-life acquaintance, a classmate named Omi.
The narrator falls in love with Omi, an older boy with primitive intellect and reputedly more sexual experience than Kochan’s other classmates. Jealousy follows Kochan’s first glimpse of Omi’s body, an event for which he had longed for some time. The jealousy is of such potency that Kochan renounces his love and pursues his sickly, pensive adolescence. He philosophically considers the implications of attraction to the opposite sex and makes an effort to think, in amorous terms, of women such as bus conductresses, his second cousin Sumiko, and an anemic young woman he sees on a bus. His feelings, instead, remain amorphous. Any attraction he feels toward women is ill-defined and nonsexual.
The adolescent takes an interest in drinking, smoking, and kissing. He also begins to appreciate younger boys and continues to fantasize about his own death, this time as a soldier against the Allies during World War II. This glorious death never comes to fruition, as the war soon ends. He finally meets the sister of a friend whose piano playing has haunted him for years. The beauty of the girl Sonoko moves him, and he immediately acknowledges that he is not worthy of her. In any case, Kochan and Sonoko grow closer, with the young man fully aware that he is wearing a mask of normality, and that he is pretending to have the same desires as those he perceives in other young men of his age. The two stumble toward their predetermined fate.
The novel culminates in a congested, sweaty dance hall after a year of only occasional meetings between the two would-be lovers. Kochan notices a shirtless youth in his early 20s with a peony tattooed on his oiled, muscular chest. The narrator forgets Sonoko as sexual desire inundates him, and he imagines a dagger in the hand of a rival gang member slicing through the young man’s torso. Sonoko’s voice recenters him, and his world is subsequently split in two as he realizes that his neatly structured mask has crumbled into nothingness.
Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask emphasizes the deterministic nature of the human condition. The text leaves the reader with a young man whose shadowy, ambiguous future is nothing if not chained to destiny. Mishima weaves darkness, violence, and sexual perversion throughout his autobiographical novel, the first rung on the ladder of his literary success.
Abelsen, Peter. “Irony and Purity: Mishima.” Modern Asian Studies 30, no. 3 (July 1996): 651–679.
Rhine, Marjorie. “Glossing Scripts and Scripting Pleasure in Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask.” Studies in the Novel 31, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 222–234.
Wagenaar, Dick, and Yoshio Iwamoto. “Yukio Mishima: Dialectics of Mind and Body.” Contemporary Literature 16, no. 1 (Winter 1975): 41–60.
Categories: Japanese Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis
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