20 years after the death of Kiyoaki, Honda, who has become a judge in Osaka and lives a quiet and uneventful life, meets the 19-year-old Isao and believes him to be the reincarnation of his old friend. When he finds out that Isao, possessed by the desire to save Japan from the ever-growing Western and capitalist influence, is on a path of self-destruction he tries to save him from suffering the same untimely fate as Kiyoaki.
In the first book of the tetralogy, Japan had just entered the Taishō era with its liberal movements, but in 1932, the year in which most of this book takes place, the first years of the Shōwa period have already seen the suppression of left-wing groups and the rise of radical right-wing movements driven by nationalism and fascist ideas. Under Isao’s leadership, a few students form such a movement, with their goal being the assassination of twelve of the most influential economic leaders in the country who they blame for the plight of the poor and unemployed during the ongoing economic crisis and for the demise of Japan as a great nation. It is easily explained how they arrived at this point; their plans are fueled by a mix of youthful idealism, grand ideas of honour and duty, and the glorification of dying a hero’s death, and are further aided by the allure of antiquated ideals and a political climate that supports violent interventions like assassinations and coups.
Isao is of course given a more in-depth examination than that. In the beginning of the book, it is not very clear how he can be a reincarnation of Kiyoaki because aside from the glorification of the past and the youthful passion they seem quite different. This however plays into the whole idea of the transmigration of the soul that was explained in detail in the first book, and Honda ruminates on this at one point. He thinks that the only extraordinary one of Kiyoaki’s traits had been his beauty while all the others had been underdeveloped and thus needed another life in order to find fulfillment, so the perceived difference arises out of the fact that some traits that were weak in Kiyoaki appear much stronger in Isao. Eventually, Mishima masterfully peels back the layers to reveal what stifles the development of a well-rounded personality. Isao is willing to die for love; the love for an ideal, or, as he later becomes aware of, only an illusion, and in this he is the same as Kiyoaki. Their love is inspired by suffering and aimed at something that they have constructed in their mind. To them it does not matter whether this construct is based on reality, and they do not care much for the impact on those around them. A dark passion that can only lead to self-destructive and selfish behaviour drives them which means that they can never be happy, and trying to save them is a futile endeavour. In the end, this incarnation is as doomed as its predecessor because they both are not able to overcome this compulsion to sacrifice themselves for their twisted love.
Runaway Horses may not be as psychologically astute as Spring Snow, but I don’t think it matters much as the groundwork was already laid and Isao is an expansion on Kiyoaki’s character. As for Honda, he has progressed as one would have expected; a rational and calm teenager has become a responsible and rather dull adult who can never truly understand the emotional upheavals of the people dear to him but tries his best to aid them. He is a manifestation of those who easily move with the times without getting caught up in ideologies or yearnings for the past, and thus a perfect anchor for the narrative.
At first glance, this book differs a lot from the first one because it has a broader scope and seems more political and less intimate, but I think that this very much reflects the time each book is respectively set in. The early years of the Shōwa period lend themselves to a story that focuses more on the bigger picture because the ultranationalism and totalitarianism that emerged in those years nurtured Japanese expansionism. Otherwise, I feel that it is a direct continuation of the ideas and themes of the first book which also provided insight into the social and political realities of Japan at that time, only in a less obvious way. What absolutely has remained the same is Mishima’s mastery of language and the poetic and unforgettable images he manages to create in a reader’s mind, and this is what truly makes this a stunning read.