I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings how excited I am about the recent new translations of Yukio Mishima‘s works which have been appearing in English; I’ve written about “Star, “The Frolic of the Beasts and “Life for Sale, all of which have been marvellous, as well as shifting my view of the author a little. Today sees the publication of another of his books which has never been rendered into English before: it’s “Beautiful Star”, translated by Stephen Dodd, and it’s apparently the work which Mishima considered to be his masterpiece.

“Beautiful Star” was first published in 1962 and tells the story of the Osugi family. As the book opens, the family have discovered that they are all extra-terrestrials, and are setting off to watch out for flying saucers. The father is from Mars, mother from Jupiter, son from Mercury and daughter from Venus. This knowledge is one of the things which helps them to cope with the horrors of the modern world and brings them together as a family. As the residents of Hanno, the local small town in which they live, consider them a bunch of misfits, it’s a good thing they have that solidarity… So they study the stars and watch the heavens, worrying all the time about nuclear war and what the human race is doing to the planet, this ‘beautiful star’.

It was one of those magnificent starry skies never visible in the big city. The stars were embedded in the firmament like spots on a leopard’s fur. The atmosphere was crystal clear, and the arrangement of stars – some distant, some closer – revealed the true depths of the night sky. Light flowed into haze-like clusters, in such a way that those looking on thought they saw nets being cast into a misty expanse of starlight.

Each member of the family tries to tackle the problem in a different way; Juichiro, the father, sets up an organisation for world peace and tries to contact other extra-terrestrials to help save humanity. Initiially, his son Kazuo and daughter Akiko work with him and help with his quest; however, Kazuo is tempted by politics and thinks with the right influence and contacts, he will be able to influence events in a positive way. Akiko, however, makes contact with a young man who claims to be a fellow Venusian and she cannot be persuaded to keep away from him. And unfortunately, Juichiro’s increasingly high public profile will attract extra-terrestrials who are less tolerant of flawed humanity and may have other ideas of how things should progress. It soon becomes clear that aliens are not all benevolent and come in as many types as human beings. A clash is inevitable – but what will be the result?

Of course, this being Mishima, nothing is straightforward in “Beautiful Star”. As the book progresses, the author drops in little hints which make you think, “Aha! they’re not really aliens – they just can’t cope with the modern world.” And once you’ve adjusted to this kind of thinking, he then throws something in which makes you swing back to your original thoughts! This is a very clever, subtle narrative which could be read in a number of ways and I imagine that’s what Mishima was intending.

“Beautiful Star ” could easily have been a trite book with a sweet family of aliens trying to help humanity (think of all manner of daft TV shows since its publication); but it’s actually something much darker. As with “Life for Sale” it’s quite clear that Mishima was extremely disaffected with the society around him, and there are references to Hiroshima, Auschwitz and the Nazis; it shouldn’t be forgotten that WW2 was still very recent, including the destruction wrought upon Japan, and there’s a sense here that Mishima is observing a broken generation in a broken world. The Osugis may be aliens or may just be alienated from modern Japanese society; but the plot is a clever premise which allows Mishima to discuss human characteristics and frailties, as well as decrying the state of the modern world.

Every morning, the newspapers are crammed full of human-interest stories, and on television we see one human after another. When animals do make an occasional appearance, they are ascribed human characteristics to make them palatable. And people only talk about themselves. Even if the subject is natural phenomena like earthquakes, tsunamis or cherry blossoms coming into full bloom, everything is seen in terms of the impact on people. Nothing delights people more than to talk about people dying or being killed.

It has to be said that this *is* a novel of ideas, and there are chapters where the various protagonists debate humanity, the point of life or death, the future of the planet and the threat to it. It’s worth remembering the nuclear tensions in the early 1960s and the underlying thread of the Bomb which hung over the world during the Cold War; this obviously affected Mishima and I would guess this book was very much his response to that.

As well as those conflicts and tensions, though, Mishima is also meditating quite deeply on what it means to be human. The world he portrays is full of people absorbed in consumerism (what would he think about today!!), desperately trying to fill up whatever void they feel within themselves with stuff. The Osugis are looking for something more, but will all be betrayed; and the end of the book was extremely moving and perhaps unexpected. I’m still thinking about it now…

So “Beautiful Star” turned out to be a magnificent read; lyrical, beautiful, sad, funny, thought-provoking and brimming with ideas, I get why Mishima rated it so highly! I’d have to re-read the rest of his work to see where I think this sits, but it’s so interesting and, as you can see from the amount of post-its in my copy, full of beautiful prose and provocative thoughts which I wanted to go back to. I’m not really sure why this (and the other recent new translations) haven’t been made available in English before; as far as I’m concerned, they’re wonderful additions to the range of Mishima’s work now published in English, and I can’t thank the recent translators enough!

“Beautiful Star” is published today by Penguin; many thanks to the publisher for kindly providing the review copies! 😀