The Frolic of the Beasts by Yukio Mishima
Translated by Andrew Clare

You might recall me getting a teeny bit over-exited on the Ramblings a while back, when I discovered that some newly-translated Mishima was about to make its debut in pretty Penguin editions. He’s an author I have a history with; as I’ve mentioned before, I went through a serious Japanese lit phase pre blog, and Mishima was something of an obsession. So naturally I picked up the Penguin Modern “Star” and the Modern Classic “The Frolic of the Beasts” as soon as they came out; but I’m having to hold back on the former as I’m reading the Moderns sequentially and it seems wrong to jump ahead… However, “Frolic…” has been sitting there on the shelf looking quizzically at me since it arrived, and as I was in Japanese literature mode recently after reading the Red Circle Minis (more of which later), the time was right for frolicking with Yukio… ;D

With a memory as rubbish as mine, and no proper record of what I read when, I’m going to be hard-pressed to say how this compares to the author’s other works. “Frolic…” is from 1961, so later-period Mishima; his first published novel was 1948, although he wrote short works before that; and he died in 1970. So by the time of “Frolic…” Mishima was an established author, and here he’s definitely at the height of his powers.

“The Frolic of the Beasts” concerns, of course, love and human relations. There are three main protagonists: Koji, a young student madly in love with the older Yuko. She, in turn, is married to the even older Ippei, a literary critic and libertine. The triangle created by these three troubled humans is a complex one, and as the book opens we see the three frozen in time, having their photograph taken by a harbour. There are references to past incidents, and hints of those to come, while Mishima nails his characters to this precise point in their history. It is no secret by the end of that opening that some of the characters are now dead; what follows is a masterly piece of storytelling as the author gradually and beautifully reveals the events which led up to that point.

She folded her parasol, asking the question in her typically sensuous voice, which conjured up the image of a small, stifling room filled with fetid flowers.

We find that Koji has recently returned from a spell in prison, and the reason for this makes his acceptance back into the family of Yuko even more unusual. There was in the past infidelity all round – Ippei had regular mistresses and Yuko had Koji; however, that was not enough for Yuko, and the complex powerplay between her and her husband brought about the first act of violence in the book, for which Koji paid the price. His return to Ippei and Yuko, now living by the coast where Yuko manages a plant nursery, brings tensions to the surface once more. The behaviour of this trio is mirrored by three young people in the town, Kimi and two young men who view for her favours. Kimi is the daughter of Teijiro, who tends the nursery, yet avoids him when she visits the town; here, too, there is baggage. The story unfolds with an inevitability, particularly since we have an inkling of what will happen; and, as the quote on the blurb says, we watch “the three of them – three fish caught in a net of sin“, yet unable to escape.

I’ve deliberately kept my description of events vague, because watching Mishima unfold his tale is mesmerising and too many details would spoil that. As I said, by the time he wrote this book, Mishima was an author totally in control of his characters and story, and the book is quite breathtaking. When I read his “Acts of Worship” for the #1965club I was blown away by his portrayal of the complexities of relationships, and his nuanced rendering here is just as striking. He captures Yuko’s fickleness, cause of so many problems; Koji’s immaturity and obsession with Yuko; Ippei’s arrogance and need to control. And he can completely throw you off balance, as when he drops into the narrative unexpectedly a shocking, almost casual revelation by Kimi’s father.

Koji dreamed of the worlds infiltrated by his dispersed flowers and leaves. He imagined a society of dazzling immensity and grotesque pitch-dark complication where these flowers and leaves hung, as if they were little ribbons secured here and there over its body. The flowers were mere caricatures there. These flowers and leaves would scatter and infiltrate shrewdly, like germs, a variety of entirely useless places in society for the purposes of practical sentimentalism, hypocrisy, peace and order, vanity, death, disease…

But above and beyond his narrative skills, what struck me strongly was his incredibly beautiful prose; it’s marvellously evocative of place, so much so that the setting becomes tangible as you read. The small fishing port of Iro, where much of the book takes place, is vivid and alive; and Mishima’s sense of, and sympathy with, the natural world is powerful and intoxicating.

Via Wikimedia Commons – see here for attribution:

Mishima’s characters are not necessarily particularly *nice* people; they’re flawed and damaged, and yet I felt sympathy for them as I read. The author seems to basically see humanity as being controlled by animal passions; hence, presumably, the title of the book. The narrative is laden with imagery: of death and decay, of beauty and corruption; and the moral corruption of Mishima’s characters is mirrored in much of the natural world which juxtaposes that beauty with squalor.

I’ve left it a little while before writing about this book, because it was a powerful read and I wanted to let it settle a bit before marshalling my thoughts. “Frolic…” is most definitely a book which stays with you; not only for its compelling and ultimately tragic storyline, but also because of the stunning writing and the images left in the mind after finishing it. I’ve no idea why this book hasn’t been translated into English before, because I thought it was outstanding. Maybe it’s regarded as minor Mishima compared with his more famous works; but for the writing alone it deserves its place in his canon, and frankly if there are any more untranslated Mishimas out there to come my way in the near future, I shall be a very happy woman!