Analysis of Yukio Mishima’s Forbidden Colors

The third novel by Japanese writer Yukio Mishima (1925–1970) returns to themes earlier explored in his semiautobiographical first novel, Confessions of a Mask. The title, a euphemism for homosexuality roughly equivalent to “forbidden love,” frankly announces the novel’s subject matter and setting: the inner workings of Tokyo’s post–World War II gay subculture. When first published, Forbidden Colors was considered shocking and controversial, not only for its portrayal of gay bars and homosexual relationships but also for its depiction of postwar economic and social corruption.

The novel’s plot revolves around the cruel and perverted mentorship the aging writer Shunsuke offers to the bland, but powerfully attractive male Yuichi. Viciously misogynistic, Shunsuke sees the much younger Yuichi as the perfect weapon with which to revenge himself upon womankind. Not only is Yuichi physically irresistible, but as Shunsuke shrewdly notes, as a gay man he is incapable of heterosexual romance. He forms a deal with Yuichi, offering to make him sole heir of his considerable estate in return for Yuichi’s help. He then proceeds to tutor the younger man in the arts of emotional betrayal, encouraging him to make a loveless marriage while continuing affairs with both women and men of diverse ages and social backgrounds.

At Shunsuke’s urging, Yuichi makes a socially approved marriage to a conventionally naïve young woman. His marriage to Yasuko becomes a kind of laboratory where both Yuichi and Shunsuke experiment with all shades of female suffering: He provokes her jealousy with careless evidence of affairs, he refuses to share her simple domestic pleasures, and he heartlessly rejects her real love and affection on every front. Shunsuke manages affairs for Yuichi with two of his former lovers, the beautiful and sophisticated Kyoko and the older bourgeois socialite, Mrs. Kaburagi. Behind the scenes, he scripts Yuichi’s advances and arranges endless accidental meetings between the rivals, actions designed for maximum female unhappiness and humiliation.

Yuichi’s exploration of Tokyo’s gay underground is also warmly encouraged by Shunsuke. Yuichi pursues liaisons throughout every venue in Tokyo’s homosexual demimonde: public restrooms and parks, bars and tea shops catering to gay clientele, and elaborate and decadent house parties frequented by men from every sector of postwar Japanese society. Because of his beauty, Yuichi rapidly becomes a tea shop star at the popular Ginza rendezvous, Rudon’s, where both men and boys compete for his attention—including, eventually, Mrs. Kaburagi’s husband.

Between lessons in social manners, Shunsuke lectures the youth on classic Western literature and traditional Japanese poetry. Yuichi becomes a sounding board for Shunsuke’s aesthetic theories, as well as an example of the cruelty of perfect beauty at the heart of Shunsuke’s philosophy.

A number of ironic twists threaten the perfect resolution of Shunsuke’s plans. Shunsuke himself becomes jealous of Yuichi’s attention to others, notably the cultured businessman Kawada. Further, Yuichi grows fond of Yasuko, their bond symbolized by Yuichi’s choice to stay by her side and share her pain during the delivery of their child. Even Shunsuke’s grudge against the Kaburagis goes awry. Instead of being devastated by discovering their mutual involvement with Yuichi, the couple becomes closer, united by this shared interest. And the shallow and self-centered Mrs. Kaburagi performs a nearly motherly gesture of selfsacrifice in helping Yuichi mend his relationship with his own mother.

In a final irony at the novel’s close, Yuichi visits Shunsuke to declare his independence. Unwilling to continue as a pawn, Yuichi has come to return all the money Shunsuke has so far lent him and to break with his infl uence completely. But before he can make his intentions known, Shunsuke surreptitiously drinks poison, leaving Yuichi forever in his financial and spiritual debt.

Mishima’s novel would seem to have some parallels with other narratives of fatal beauty and revenge. The contrast between the beautiful young man and the ugly older writer who aesthetically idealizes him is reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Shunsuke and Yuichi’s relationship also alludes to the vengeful mentoring Miss Havisham provides for Estella in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. In terms of Mishima’s own oeuvre, the relationship exemplifies the opposition between the irrational realm of physical beauty and the rational power of intelligence and spiritual maturity, a dialectic never finally synthesized.

The novel contains themes developed in Mishima’s later work such as the incompatibility of perfection and mortal existence and the opposition between morality and aesthetics. It also offers an early example of the careful attention to the ironic nuances of personal and social relationships Mishima later perfected in such short stories as “The Pearl,” “Three Million Yean,” and “Thermos Bottles.” As in all his writing, Mishima makes his social critique through an emphasis on psychology: the shallow and hypocritical inner world of his characters mirrors the larger corruptions of modern Japan. The novel also contains Mishima’s most extensive examination of gay life and culture. His frank and vivid portrayal of postwar gay Tokyo, groundbreaking at the time of its publication, still gives the work an almost sociological interest.

Analysis of Yukio Mishima’s Stories

Analysis of Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask

Mishima Yukio. After the Banquet. Translated by Donald Keene. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.
———. Death in Midsummer and Other Stories. (Manatsu No Shi) Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: New Directions, 1966.
———. The Decay of the Angel Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.
Napier, Susan J. Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Nathan, John. Mishima: A Biography. Boston: Little Brown, 1974.
Scott-Stokes, Henry. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima. New York: Noonday Press, 1995.
Starrs, Roy. Deadly Dialectics: Sex, Violence and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishima. Sandgate, Folkestone, U.K.: Japan Library, 1994.
Wolfe, Peter. Yukio Mishima. New York: Continuum, 1989.

Categories: Japanese Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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