Title: Spring Snow
Author: Yukio Mishima
Translator: Michael Gallagher
ISBN: 0-679-72241-6
Pages: 389

Not only is Spring Snow one of the ultimate classics in Japanese literature, but it also marks the beginning of the end of one of Japan’s most classic authors, Yukio Mishima. Spring Snow is the first novel in The Sea Of Fertility, the four part story that would ultimately be the end of Mishima, as he stated that when he finished it’s last installment, The Decay Of The Angel, he would commit suicide.

Because of the books grave importance to Yukio Mishima he made its content extra personal. Within its binding he including his personal philosphy on life, which came through the protagonist Kiyoaki, who very closely resembles Mishima himself. Also with held in the novel is Mishima's commentary on the state of Japan, something which Mishima felt very stronly about and would later kill himself over.

Spring Snow was also considered the "comeback" for Yukio Mishima by critics because it brought back a lot of credibility that he had lost. His book sales had steadily declined over the years leading up to Spring Snow’s release, so much so that Mishima felt the need to apologize to his publishers over it. Mishima had also just posed for erotic pictures, and many people thought he was losing his mind. But once Spring Snow was released all of that was forgotten and Mishima was back on the top of his game.

Spring Snow takes place just after the Russo-Japanese War, circa 1912, when rich, aristocratic families are pushing aside ancient Japanese tradition and trying to take over the country for themselves. One of these families trying to cash in on the new Japan are the Matsugae’s, of which the main character, Kiyoaki, is apart of.

Kiyoaki is just finishing up with high school, as the novel beings, and he is beginning to study for his college entrance exams. He curbs all of his studies to the side, however, after a chance meeting with Satoko, a daughter in the traditional Ayakura family. Satoko and Kiyoaki had known each other since childhood, since Marquis Matsugae had sent Kiyoaki to the Ayakura household for early education.

At another meeting Satoko tries to confess her feelings for Kiyoaki, by saying asking him, "What would you do if I was no longer around?" Kiyoaki gets angry at this question because he feels that it is Satoko trying to trick him into a false sense of security, or something of the like. Needless to say, Kiyoaki gets angry with Satoko and lashes out at her.

Later on he feels massive regret for his temper and invites Satoko on a rickshaw ride one snowy morning. During the ride the two embrace each other and have a brief sexual encounter. With that move the two become lovers but are unable to tell their families about it.

A few days afterward the rickshaw incident a letter arrives at the Ayakura home asking for Satoko’s hand in marriage. Unfortunately the letter has come from the Emperor himself, asking Satoko to marry his son. This causes deep heartbreak in Kiyoaki, but the two continue to see each other in secret anyway.

Because of these secret meetings Satoko becomes pregnant with Kiyoaki’s child. Satoko then decides to run away to a temple and join the convent. Without her family knowing, Satoko takes the sacred vows and becomes a member of the temple.

When Kiyoaki discovers where Satoko has gone he takes a trip to the temple with hopes of meeting with Satoko and convincing her to leave Japan with him. Unfortunately when he arrives at the temple the abbess will not allow him to see Satoko. Kiyoaki comes back for many days and waits outside of the temple, but to no avail: he eventually becomes sick from exhaustion and waiting in the cold. Shortly after becoming sick, Kiyoaki dies.

Kiyoaki’s noble death, in a way, symbolizes Yukio Mishima’s desire to die as a hero. If you look at Satoko as resembling Japan it’s even more relevant, as Yukio would die in honor of Japan. And just as Kiyoaki’s dead doesn’t change anything in the story, Mishima’s death would not change the condition of Japan either.

The Sea of Fertility
Here :: Forward

Sometimes when I am reading (and reviewing) a book, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of wishing I knew either more or less about it. To open a book with no knowledge of who the author is gives a reader one perspective. To be a student of literature, and to know with critical depth the context from which the book came is another. And then you can do what I did when reading this book: be halfway through, and idly flip to the rear dust jacket cover, and find out that the author, Yukio Mishima committed sepekku after completing the book, which was the first of four volumes, detailing Japanese life in the 20th century. I also read, in fragments, that Mishima was considered both a rightist and a critic of Japan's militarist and autocratic governments. Someone who knew more about Japanese culture, Japanese literature, or the biography of Yukio Mishima could parse exactly what that means. Someone who wasn't given those crumbles of information could just read the book as is. For me, I was stuck in the middle. Reading this book, I kept on wanting to ask questions of someone who I thought was familiar with Mishima's work, and the fact that this wasn't possible might have prejudiced me against the book.

"Spring Snow" is both a comedy of manners and a work of social realism, as well as being a bit of a melodrama. To discuss this book fully, I will have to give some information about the way the plot develops. The book follows Kiyoaki Matsugae, the scion of an aristocratic house, whose sensitive nature drives a wedge between him and his parents. He has a friend, Shigekuni Honda, of a less aristocratic but still very established family. There is also another allied family living in the same compound as the Mastugaes, the Ayakuras, whose daughter Satoko has been Kiyoaki's friend since childhood. The two have a relationship that is friendly and familial, but the romantic tension between them is something they can not navigate. Kiyaoki rebuffs Satoko's desires for a relationship, but when Satoko gets engaged to an Imperial Prince, he starts an affair with her, an affair that leads to a pregnancy, an abortion, and her becoming a Buddhist nun. Kiyaoki tries to persuade her to leave the convent for him, but in the process becomes sick and dies. Given the strict and duty-based mortality of the Japanese aristocracy, the entire affair turns into a mortifying scandal.

While reading this, I did realize it had some parallels to The Red Chamber Dream: the sensitive scion of a wealthy family raised in a compound with a female friend who he has mixed feelings of romance towards, with the ideas of romance and mortality underlined by references to Buddhist cosmology. This is another place where my knowledge is too much and too little: I couldn't read the book as someone naive of The Red Chamber Dream, considered to be the greatest Chinese novel of all time, but I also don't know if Japanese writers in the 20th century would be so conversant as to base a book off of it.

There were many parts of "Spring Snow" that I liked, but I found myself wondering how I was supposed to like them. The book has many things that to a Westerner would be considered stereotypically Japanese: there is at least Cherry Blossom Viewing party in the book. Architecture, art and the natural world are described in poetic and elegant terms. There are many conversations where overly formal and polite speech masks subterfuge. I am not sure whether Mishima is using these elements as a natural part of his milieu, or whether he is purposely using them to mock a society that he sees as corrupt. One of my favorite passages in the book comes when the two families try to find a way to "rescue" Satoko from her life as a nun: by making a wig.

"The truth of the matter was that this wig as yet only existed in their imaginations and was totally irrelevant to Satoko's intentions. However, once they succeeded in dressing her in a wig, they would be able to construct a flawless picture from the pieces of a shattered jigsaw puzzle."
Mishima seems to know that things that happen in his story are ridiculous, but I was unsure whether he was aware of the lack of scope of his story. The book seems to take the fact that the affairs of the aristocracy as the only affairs worth writing about for granted: the common people and servants that provide subsidiary roles in the book are dismissed outside of the roles they play to support the main characters. One of my main questions in the book is whether Kiyaoki is meant to be treated as a tragic hero, or as a petulant child. My own reading was mostly the second: his death is caused by his immaturity, selfishness, inherited sense of entitlement, and outright poor communication skills. But given my cursory knowledge of Mishima's own life and death, I think that for him Kiyaoki was more of a tragic hero.

Books, in a way, are a dialog between the author and the reader. This book, indeed, drew me into a dialog, as evidenced by the fact that I have managed to write so much about it. But it is a dialog that is incomplete, and where I find myself filling words in for the author. This is, I suppose, part of the puzzle of literature.

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