Set in Tokyo in 1912, this is the story of Kiyoaki, an 18-year-old member of the upper class, his best friend Honda, and the aristocratic Satoko who invokes feelings in him that he struggles greatly with. Tragedy begins to take its course when she becomes engaged to a royal prince.
Ostensibly a rather conventional story about the hardships of an impossible love, underneath the surface, the nuance and finesse Mishima brings to his reflections on the faults and failures of human existence and the inevitability of change is startling. He takes a long time to set the stage and introduce the characters but the second half of the book is so gripping that it is almost impossible to put it down. His language is so poetic and beautiful as to make even the most dreadful events palatable without diminishing their impact, and his characterisation is impeccable.
Set at the beginning of the Taishō era that brought a liberal movement and further Western influence to Japan, there is a definite yearning for the perceived glory of the preceding Meiji era and its wars. People still cling to traditions and societal obligations but the old ways are not set in stone anymore or have already been abandoned to some extent. It is implied that in these current bloodless times the passion of a young man has to find a different outlet, and that these new battles are fought with emotions and not with guns. These emotions are so powerful, they can upset the well-ordered structure of society and destroy people as surely as guns.
The central emotion in this instance is love in all its incarnations, the, often flawed, love between parents and their children, between best friends, but first and foremost, of course, romantic love. This is, however, no sanitized and pure version; it is a destructive and selfish force that wrecks everything in its way. Kiyoaki goes between loving and hating Satoko for the longest time, and only when he is informed about her engagement, he is suddenly sure of his love and goes to great lengths to get her back. By choosing this path, he sets terrible events in motion but he does not care. As it becomes more and more difficult to see her, his desire overwhelms him to the point of uncontrollability.
Therein lies the crux of the matter; he would not love her like this, or, better said, be obsessed with her, if she was attainable. Kiyoaki is in love with the pain and the heroics of being in this state of secrecy and illicitness. He glorifies this struggle the same as others who glorify the wars and the aristocratic hegemony of the Meiji era, or who champion the traditional Buddhist beliefs in the face of the upcoming rational school of thought. All this does, however, is leading them all to a doomed existence; change has already arrived, the old ways are dying, and they are not coming back. On the other hand, does it matter that Kiyoaki’s love is not unselfish but rather inspired by some antiquated noble idea of suffering? In light of the pain he also inflicts on everyone else involved, it probably should. Mishima, in any case, does not go easy on his protagonist, he depicts and dissects him unflinchingly, exposing all his weaknesses and flaws.
This is a terrific book, and one that will stay with me for a long time because there is so much to think about, and so much to discover. This is the first book of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, which is Mishima’s magnum opus and his final work, and I am already looking forward to reading the next one.