Confessions of a Mask” apparently reflects author Mishima’s own coming of age around the time of Second World War Japan. He was born Kimitake Hiraoka in 1925 – the same year as his protagonist in this book – and adopted the pen name Yukio Mishima to write some 40 novels, plus plays, short stories and essays. He acted in and directed several films.

Many of his works were translated into English and he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature three times. He is probably the most well-known Japanese writer of the 20th century. Confessions of a Mask” was first published in Japan in 1949, then in English in 1958, apparently drawing praise from such as Gore Vidal, Christopher Isherwood and James Baldwin.

It was a controversial career that plumbed his tortured psyche and the contradictions he perceived in Japan’s national identity. His life came to a shocking end on November 25, 1970, when from a balcony he exhorted some 1000 Japanese servicemen to rise up against Japan’s post-war Constitution, which, in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, prohibits the country from having an army and prohibits war.

Mishima was a believer in bushido, or the samurai way”, and after his address to the men he retreated to a barricaded room and performed hara-kiri, the ritual Japanese suicide. He drove a sword into his stomach and then had his head sliced off by a friend.

He had become increasingly concerned with what he saw as the empty materialistic values of his country’s post-war society. He felt the need to promote the discipline and principles of medieval Japan, such as restoring the divinity of the emperor and following the samurai tradition.

Mishima believed that because of Japan’s defeat in 1945 and its occupation by the United States, the country had been cowed into adopting Western values and this had stunted the basic Japanese character. The country had learned mental disease and shame from the West.

On the day of his suicide he had given to his publisher the final pages of Tennin Gosui” (The Sea of Fertility), his account of the Japanese experience in the 20th century.

Which brings us to “Confessions of a Mask”, the story of Kochan, a meek and sickly child born in 1925 (as was Mishima, as mentioned) whose periodic illnesses exclude him from the more athletic activities of his classmates. He thus misses out on close personal relationships with his peers and grows up with limited understanding of what normal boys are like.

Kochan is latently homosexual and becomes aware of his burgeoning attraction for other males at the very early age of four when, out on a walk, he feels a strange sensation on the approach of a youthful male dirty night-soil collector.

He has another seismic moment over a picture he thinks is a knight, and then is “knocked flat” when he discovers it is actually a woman, the Maid of Orleans. The sweaty odour of soldiers is another revelatory moment for him.

Kochan goes on to be attracted by boys in his school and particularly the pubescent body of his friend Omi. He starts to get erections and figures out how to masturbate, becoming an “enthusiastic practitioner” of this “bad habit”. He is enchanted by the photogravures of Grecian sculptures and becomes obsessed with a picture of St. Sebastian.

He attempts, nonetheless, to be “normal” like those around him, and hides his homosexuality by going so far as to convince himself that he is in love with a woman, Sonoko, but this only heightens his feelings for men.

Throughout, Kochan subjects himself to merciless self-analysis, weaving endless circles of introspection in his head, all the while masquerading as a “normal” person behind his mask. What is the real meaning of himself as a human being?

This is written in the first-person as Kochan struggles with his anguish. It is deep and meditative, and presumably draws much from Mishima’s own life. Mishima apparently tussled between the masculine and feminine sides of his character all his life. A feminine, erotic disposition is to the fore in this early work that brought the young author international recognition.

Mention should be made of the translation by Meredith Weatherby, which maintains a wonderful fluidity throughout.

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