In the late 1960s, Honda, now 76 years old, encounters a 16-year-old orphan, Toru, whom he believes to be the next reincarnation of Kiyoaki. He decides to adopt him and take him into his home as his heir, offering an education, wealth, and status, all the while wondering and waiting whether Toru will die at twenty years of age like his predecessors did.
I did not know what to expect after the surprising turn the story took in the third book, and it would have been impossible to predict what happens in this fourth book, but what is utterly amazing is that at the end, everything comes full circle and fits together in a devastatingly perfect way. Toru is as far from Kiyoaki as one can imagine; he is ice-cold and malicious, as if Kiyoaki’s passion has been burned to a crisp, and his warring and overwhelming emotions are reduced to only the basest of desires. Honda, on the other hand, has further descended into egoism and callousness, trying to play wicked games himself, but finding his master in Toru. This evolution of Honda, which was first exposed in the third book, has now reached its natural conclusion, and he has become an ill-natured husk of a man. In his case, all the characteristics that made him so likable in the beginning have been distorted into a caricature of his younger self.
Japan, meanwhile, has lost its traditions, and is besieged by Western desires and attitudes in all areas. It is a swan song to the country Mishima idealized, and whose perceived downturn he could no longer endure. The day he finished The Decay of the Angel, he and a group of followers attempted a coup d’etat in order to defend and restore traditional Japanese values and the power of the emperor, and when it failed, Mishima committed ritual suicide. While reading the four books I always found his observations and dissections of the human existence enviably clear-sighted and precise, but after finishing the cycle and in light of what I know about Mishima, I wonder about my perception of especially Kiyoaki and later Isao, or rather the conclusion I drew about the impact of their respective character. I focused on their extraordinary but ultimately detrimental nature and identified it as the cause of their inevitable demise, but in hindsight, I certainly missed or at least underestimated the intended effect of the outside on them, namely the corrupt and decaying environment Mishima presented, an outer world that would and could not let them live. In retrospect, Kiyoaki was the ideal, the exceptional one with a destiny, a throwback to a glorious past, but who was not built to flourish in a crude and deteriorating version of Japan. Each reincarnation brought changes until he was finally distorted beyond recognition in Toru and clearly reflected the decay of the outside on the inside. The nihilism that tears down the characters and, in the end, even the premise of the whole work is hard to take, but it incorporates the world as Mishima saw it.
This is the kind of book that, after you have finished it, manages to occupy your thoughts for a long time, and that makes you wonder where you will find another one that will measure up to it in terms of artistry and emotional impact. The meticulous construction of the story over the four books, its interweaving with Buddhist philosophy, and its unexpected but nonetheless organic progression is startling, and its melancholy beauty and evocative imagery unforgettable. On top of that, the ending has to be one of the most memorable ones in all of literature. The fate of Honda and Kiyoaki’s wandering soul is entirely unpredictable, but strangely inevitable, which is fitting for a series that likes to keep its readers on their toes throughout.