On a business trip to Thailand, 6 years after Isao’s death and shortly before Japan enters WWII, Honda encounters the young princess Ying Chan who claims to be the reincarnation of a Japanese man. 12 years later, in 1952, he meets her again, but is unsure whether she really is the reborn Kiyoaki or not.
After focussing on Kiyoaki in the first book, and his reincarnation into Isao in the second one, the third book surprisingly shifts its gaze to Honda instead of the next reincarnation. In the first part of the novel, which takes place in 1940, he is much as we have come to know him: a scholar, striving to learn more about Buddhist and Hinduist beliefs and philosophies on death and rebirth, and also an observer, who watches from the sidelines as others live out their lives governed by passion and sometimes overwhelming emotion. In general, things have been going well for him, and he is successful and respected.
In the second part of the novel, which covers the years from 1952 to 1967, everything has changed. Honda has retired a wealthy man, but one who incessantly questions his life and its meaning or the lack thereof. When he meets Ying Chan again, who has come to Japan as a student, he becomes obsessed with her in an inappropriate and unhealthy way. Ying Chan herself drifts in and out of the picture, and what we see of her is only what Honda sees, so because he doesn’t really get to know her, we don’t either. At first, I was a little dissatisfied that she is not much more than a blank slate used to project Honda’s desires on, but over the course of the book it becomes clear that it would take away from the story to expand on her character.
The spotlight is firmly on Honda and the evolution his character has undergone in the 12 years that were skipped after the first part. When the changes in him slowly become obvious, they are startling and inexplicable at first, but when he recognizes his own corruption in someone else, we can finally identify it, too. That scene is a gut punch, and by far not the only one in the book, and reveals an irredeemable perversion brought on by a combination of complacency, decadence, and nihilism. Since the tetralogy as a whole is also a commentary on Japan as a whole, it stands to reason that in Mishima’s eyes, the country that emerged after WWII had become as morally corrupt as Honda.
This third installment, too, is a terrific book overall, even though I am not entirely convinced by its first half. There is a lot of philosophical discussion going on which at times can become tedious. On the other hand, parts of it are overwhelming in their beauty. Mishima is a master of the memorable and poetic description, and when Honda visits Benares in India or a palace in Thailand, he creates amazingly vivid and wondrous pictures of these events. The second half, however, is riveting throughout. The previous ethereal beauty is abandoned for a sobering examination of the ordinary human experience, which is an unsettling but exciting change. If the first half is a conversation with the gods, the second is a look into the abyss; it’s still dazzling in some ways, but twisted and ugly in many others.