Confessions of a Mask, by Yukio Mishima

It would be monstrously unfair to compare this book, which is unambiguously literary, with the less artistically ambitious Strings Attached, but having read them in close proximity (purely by accident; I’d been meaning to read Mishima for some time), it’s worth noting that they’re both, at their core, novels of gay self-discovery. That may be where the comparison ends, because Confessions of a Mask is dense and obscure and possibly semi-autobiographical.

There are events and a plot to the book (namely, World War II, as seen from a Japanese civilian point of view) but it’s mostly a psychological and cultural snapshot: a picture of a specific individual in a specific culture. There is an ball of intertwined ideas woven around the sexual kernel of the story: primarily conceptions of virility, as appearing in the culture-at-large and filtered through the consciousness of the narrator, and their expression through military service, athletics, and patriotism, which is where it becomes clear that this story’s not just a character sketch, but also a reflection of the larger culture of the early Showa, where these exact virtues were also given significant prominence.

Our nameless narrator, however, has pretty skin-crawling fantasies built around these notions, with the ideas of sacrifice and martyrdom resolved into a certain degree of sadism, and his explicit fantasies are rather horrific. As far as I can tell, they’re supposed to be distressing (and presumably they are either not autobiographical or Mishima was sufficiently self-aware to know their effect on other people), and present a sour, unhealthy side to the nationalistic fervor of the time. Digging homoeroticism, or even homoerotic sadism, out of virility-worship is pretty easy, really (see also: the American military, American football), and it’s a pretty cheap satire nowadays. But in 1948 Japan, maybe a dark twist of a sexual conception of nation’s military attitudes was what was needed.

On the other hand, Mishima would eventually become infamous (and die) trying to instigate a return to those glory days, so maybe reading it as a condemnation of the pervasive culture isn’t quite right. No matter what the take-home message is, it’s a starkly compelling view of a character whose impulses, desires, and duty drive him apart, and the way he interacts with a culture which expects a particular character and is not equipped to tolerate anything else.

See also: Wikipedia.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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