PRINT February 1983


AT THE EPICENTER OF THE Hiroshima explosion a man was painting a wall. Perched on a ladder with arm outstretched he disintegrated. Like a comic strip figure who has been hurled through bricks, his outline was imprinted on the wall. The silhouette remains. The man was severed from his shadow as the atom was split. The shadow continues to paint the wall which, inconceivably, still stands. There are myths of shadowless men, like ghosts, who permanently accuse their murderers.

The inadequacy of language is evident in the face of such events. After the first atomic test at Los Alamos, New Mexico, J. Robert Oppenheimer referred to “the sun brighter than a thousand suns,” reflecting a phrase from the Bhagavad-Gita. A vocabulary of archetypal myth is required to accommodate such a concept, which eludes language. Words trail reality as an approximate shadow of truth. Certain events defy language that attempts their description. The year 1945 marks a definitive point. For Japan it is the full stop toward which or away from which everything must be measured. The same nation, nurtured on myth, now stretches into a postindustrial phase. At a time when internationalism implies bland uniformity, myth is a vehicle through which a native identity can be asserted. That identity for Japan includes the trauma of 1945. Myth can bridge the cleavage between language and the event.

In 1968 the graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo produced a poster which announced the exhibition of a series of photographs by Eikoh Hosoe called “Kamaitachi,” and the publication of a book under the same title. The photograph that was reproduced and colored on the poster revealed a dancer perched on a high fence overlooking rice fields beneath an ominous sky. The dancer had dipped his hands in gold ink and stamped each poster with his palm prints. Every stage of the production was ritualized. “Kamaitachi” was not only a series of photographs within a two-dimensional convention, but a dance drama as well. The dancer, Tatsumi Hijikata, founder of the Ankoku Buto-Ha (Black Dance Theater), danced within the space of the photographs when the exhibition opened at the Nikon Salon in Tokyo.

Hosoe was 12 years old when Tokyo was firebombed. In 1944 he was evacuated to a small village where his early adolescent imagination was impressed by the story of Kamaitachi, a weasellike demon which haunted the rice fields, slashing its victims as if with razors. After his return to the village in the late 1960s he developed a narrative that was both mythical and autobiographical. The events depicted in the resulting series of photographs follow each other like incidents on a scroll. The 35 pictures in the series depart from existing photographic tradition—they are cinematic, bleached, and intensely dramatic. The drama is one of possession, not exorcism. At the start the dancer appears in the village as the Fool, the innocent, but at the end carries off a small child. The possession is allied to the force of adolescent sexuality, and Kamaitachi is linked to the spirit of the soil and fertility. Throughout the series a dramatic black line of cloud is lowered like a backdrop. There is a landscape of rice fields across which a figure is running as the sky descends. A popular Japanese encyclopedia defines Kamaitachi as “a lacerated wound caused by a state of vacuum which is produced partially in the air, owing to a small whirlwind.” The theatrical conventions of the dance, employing strands of folk myth, have been developed by Hosoe here as an autobiography of fear. The terror of the demon is merged with the falling sky. Kamaitachi is the first breeze of a nuclear age.

The use of the photograph as an intrinsic part of a drama arose in the particularly fertile cultural climate of Tokyo in the late 1960s. The pendulum motion of Japanese interest had swung away from the Americanization of the Occupation. A generation fed on the foreign influences of American TV and French cinema witnessed an abrasive Japanese style in the under-ground theater of Terayama, who had cooperated with Tadanori Yokoo on the film Throw Away the Books and Get Out in the Streets (1971). The riots in Paris in 1968 were matched by ferocious anti-American student demonstrations in Tokyo and a yearlong siege at the university there. Economic recovery was paralleled by a rebellion of disenchanted youth. The target was common to every capital city in the Western world. With an untenable war in Asia, the American military machine had become a monster breeding a morbid technology. The response in Japan was accentuated not only by the physical presence of American bases, but by the immediate memory of the demonic nature of that military expertise. While the Zengakuren, the radical-left student union, were most overt in their anti-American stance, a counter momentum of nationalist movements Theatre, where a false blood runs in the floodlights, can perhaps move and enrich people with much more forceful and profound experiences than anything in real life. As in music and architecture, I find the beauty of the theatre in its abstract and theoretical structure, and this particular beauty never ceases to be the very image of what I have always held in the depth of my heart as Ideal in Art affiliated with the political right arose in reaction to foreign influence as well.

The outward vestiges of myth were dangerously associated with State Shinto, the politicized version of the native religion, which had been dismantled by the occupying forces together with the Emperor’s renunciation after the war of his deified status. However, theater, in both the Kabuki tradition of entertainment and in the sublime refinement of Nō, was permeated by those attitudes that remained peculiarly Japanese and encompassed a mythic past. The conventions of theater were contained in the elusive qualities of the mask. The outer mask of postwar Japan reflected a superficially westernized facade—the teenage pose, the coffee house, and Vogue. Warriorship seemed redirected into economic ambition. It was precisely this condition that encouraged the ephemeral outer mask to be dropped. The impact of what was subsequently revealed has yet to be absorbed. The truth of theater emerges.

Like the Japanese box, which opens to reveal yet another box within, and another and another until the ultimate, minuscule inner box is opened and found to contain nothing, the masks of Japan are multilayered. When one is discarded another is revealed. If one were to reach a final mask it would be the expressionless mask of the Nō theater, which acts like a mirror reflecting whatever emotions you choose to place there. Theater, an artifice of language, and life, the tangible and “real,” are nowhere more interchangeable than in Japan. Buddhist attitudes emphasized the sense of the illusion of life, thus rejecting ideas of empirical reality. Daily social conventions were ritualized and a sense of performance dominated actions both mundane and profound.

The dominant performer in modern Japan was Yukio Mishima, an actor who outraged and who also wrote the scripts with a brilliance frequently eulogized but as yet to be fully appreciated. His precocious autobiographical novel, published in Japan in 1949, was Confessions of a Mask. It seems that no line distinguished theater from the reality of his life. His suicide in 1970 was meticulously staged after a rehearsal that spanned a decade. The idea of ritual death would only have confirmed his sense of theater. It was an exercise in will through which the reality of the flesh was overcome by the historical gesture.

During the final months of the war Mishima worked in an aircraft factory, from which he watched Tokyo ablaze. He remembered how he and his fellow workers had watched the air battles across the sky and cheered when a plane crashed, not knowing if it was the enemy or not. A collective trance seems to have mesmerized the nation, even more so after the atomic explosions while Tokyo awaited total annihilation. At this time, in 1945, he wrote what he assumed would be his final book, Chūsei (The Middle Ages), in which the 15th-century hero dies in battle at the age of 24. Mishima’s reading at the time was dominated by the samurai ethics of Hagakure and the two novels of Jean Cocteau’s protégé, Raymond Radiguet, who died in 1923 at the age of 20. Mishima’s growth as a writer was colored by a rising sun, embodied in a glorious, solar Emperor, whose rays met the sea of blood of the Second World War.

Throughout his last ten years Mishima was astride a fault line between his native tradition, which he asserted vigorously, and a nation moving to a future that threatened to emasculate that tradition. A rising gross national product propagated a neutral, acceptable, and smoothly consumed facade. Warriorship, which sustained his actions, was anachronistic. The formation of his Tate no Kai, or Shield Society, was an extension of his arsenal of dramatic gestures. It may have excited both his esthetic and erotic sensibilities, but it was never strategic. Warriorship survived in the kendo halls and in the national subconscious. It was mockingly reproducible in cinema or the comic strip. Mishima turned to embrace the physical disciplines of the martial arts, not only to recover his point of balance with a kendo sword, but to move in a world of action that would challenge the inadequacy of language. In addition he turned to the Nō theater with a religious veneration.

As early as 1950 Mishima was writing his modern Nō plays. His transposition of traditional themes to contemporary scenarios retained the details of Zeami’s 15th-century theater. A recurring character in them is the ghost who torments the living. Mishima used a Nō stage as the set for his film Yukoku (Patriotism, 1961; released in the U.S. as Rites of Love and Death). Based on the story which contains his most explicit description of ritual suicide, the film caused audiences to faint in Paris and Tokyo on its release in 1966. The story referred to the failure of a military coup, the Ni Ni Roko Incident of 1936, which was an attempt to restore the Emperor as head of the Imperial Army. The ghosts of that incident seemed like a classical chorus in Mishima’s personal drama. Later he was also to write about the ghosts of the kamikaze, who returned to postwar Japan to question the Emperor’s renunciation of his divinity—the divinity which had steered them on their missions. The film had two characters, a young officer and his new wife, whose act of seppuku follows serene love-making. Mishima, wearing only an officer’s cap and a loincloth, posed in front of the single prop, a scroll bearing the calligraphic character for sincerity. The film was punctuated by frames of phrases written in English by Mishima’s own hand. Words float on the surface of the screen, but this man who was supremely fluent with language was preoccupied with the impotence of words, as abstractions. Only actions, which were so balanced and controlled in Nō, could transcend the inadequacy of verbal utterance. Mishima searched for a correspondence between the physical discipline by which he developed his muscles, and his words, which courted ideas of purity and violence. The movement of skin and flesh and the spectrum of their tones incorporated a new language which he needed to merge with the lyricism that his writing pronounced.

In the fertile atmosphere of the end of the 1960s Mishima’s influence touched a diversity of media. He produced calligraphy on the posters designed by Yokoo for Hijikata’s dance theater. In 1969, the year before he died, he worked with Yokoo on the poster for his own adaptation of the Kabuki play, Chinzei Hachiro Tametomo, at Kokuritsu Gekijo (the National Theater). The same poster appeared on the Tokyo subway in black frames following his death. In addition to completing his final cycle of four novels, The Sea of Fertility, he also worked with Yokoo on the production of Eikoh Hosoe’s Ordeal by Roses, a monumental publication which appeared in 1971, after Mishima’s death. For several months in 1961 and 1962 he had worked intimately with Hosoe on a long series of portraits, published originally in 1963 as Killed by Roses, which formed the basis of the later volume. Incorporating elements of Mishima’s rococo extravagance, Yokoo elevated the final book to a form appropriate for the ultimate marriage between the dream of death and the substance of the flesh.

The final paragraph of Mishima’s novel, Runaway Horses, describes the sunrise over a cliff as the hero, facing the sea, plunges a blade into his body. Ordeal by Roses starts where Mishima’s writing ended. Divided into five sections, it begins with “Sea and Eyes,” followed by “Eyes and Sins,” “Sins and Dreams,” “Dreams and Death,” and then finally “Death” itself. The book ends with a description of divine light taken from the Upanishads. The very act of opening the book—wrapped in an outer case of white cloth stamped with red characters—is ritualistic. The case folds out to reveal a full-length nude of Mishima beneath Hindu reincarnation motifs. Roses sprout from his flesh. The book within is bound in black.

Hosoe provided Mishima with a wordless theater. Dark menace lurks in the depths of the contrived pictures. They are fragmented, often superimposed and distorted through reflections and broken mirrors. Mishima balances a promiscuous sensuality with brilliant flashes of light. He lies pinned across the mosaic zodiac in his own garden—a man ensnared by his contradictions. Seated, in a samurai loincloth, he rests his arm on the marble top of a Spanish baroque table. The voluminous muscles of his back glow along an extravagant stone seat, a rose at his head and the label of his Levis at his waist. His dream of Death is established by the myths of the Renaissance paintings through which his body floats, as lost, he confesses in his introduction, as a “shadow in a time-machine.” He stands against a painted tree trunk as Saint Sebastian, and the mysterious silhouette of a hanged man blurs the edge of the frame. He wrote that the martyrdom depicted by Guido Reni elicited his first orgasm. Death and sensuality are merged in the same way that Spanish blood and soil are fused together in the spirit of Duende described by Federico Garcia Lorca. Mishima reenacted the martyrdom on other occasions, just as Egon Schiele had drawn himself as Saint Sebastian in 1915, and was ostracized by the arrows of Vienna for his sensuality. There is the single portrait of Mishima’s face and a rose. Maybe it is the final mask. The fierce black eyes, full of savagery, are perfectly counterpoised by the white of the flower which bleeds into the white of the skin. It is a picture that transcends its time. It is now the face of a ghost with an accusation, and lyricism as pure as a rose or a slice of steel.

Mark Holborn is a writer living in London and the author of The Ocean in the Sand: Japan from Landscape to Garden (London: Gordon Fraser, and Boulder, Colo.: Shambala, 1978).



1. The quotes that appear with this article are taken, in sequence, from the following sources: Yukio Mishima, quoted in Henry Scott-Stokes, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1974), p. 170; Mishima, quoted in Dean McWilliams, “The Ritual Cinema of Yukio Mishima,” Wide Angle vol. I, no. 4 (1977), p. 29; Mishima, Sun and Steel (New York: Grove Press, 1970, translated by John Bester), p. 9; Sun and Steel, pp.18–19; Mutsuo Takahashi, “Rose Love,” quoted in Mishima and Geoffrey Bownas, eds., New Writing in Japan (London: Penguin, 1972).