Now that the holidays are here I’ve taken off from Montreal to visit Jenna. During the bus trip to Ithaca I had a chance to catch up on some recreation. I read Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima a year ago and enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s the first in a sequence of four books, the Sea of Fertility tetralogy. A month ago I picked up the second volume, Runaway Horses, and have just finished it. I’d like to record some thoughts about it while they’re still fresh in my mind. What follows contains some spoilers, so you may want to skip it if you intend to read this book and don’t want anything revealed beforehand.
First some remarks about the Sea of Fertility tetralogy. Mishima wrote these novels at the end of his career and then committed suicide upon their completion, on November 25, 1970. To describe his death in this blase manner does not do it justice — Mishima in fact attempted to initiate a military coup and restore Imperial rule in Japan. When the military scoffed at his pleas, Mishima committed ritual suicide (seppuku). From these facts alone you might be tempted to guess that the Sea of Fertility focuses on topics such as aging, the role of the Emperor in then modern Japan, and death, and you would be correct.
Spring Snow and Runaway Horses are both dark novels which examine the lives of young men bound for tragedy in Japan, between 1910 and 1935. The main character of Spring Snow is the privileged Kiyoaki, whose youthful indecision causes him to lose the hand of his childhood love, Satoko. This leads to an affair with tragic consequences, as Satoko’s new suitor is part of the Imperial family. Kiyoaki dies at the age of twenty of flu and apparent heartache.
The second novel of the tetralogy, Runaway Horse, picks up following the life of Kiyoaki’s friend, Honda. The reader catches up to him as a successful judge nearing the age of 40, haunted by feelings of guilt for having been incapable of protecting Kiyoaki. A chance encounter between Honda and a youth, Isao Iinuma, brings Honda to believe that Isao could be the reincarnation of Kiyoaki. From this point forward the novel focuses on Isao and his plot to expunge Western influence from Japanese politics.
Runaway Horses is a more ideological book than Spring Snow. I felt that it lost momentum while explaining Isao’s worldview in the middle third of the book, although it did pick up again near the end. The themes in this second novel seemed darker than the first; I suppose this is because Mishima meant Isao to represent the middle stages of a man’s life, around the age of 40, which is how old Kiyoaki would have been if he had not died in the first novel. As Mishima himself chose not to live beyond 45, I imagine that much of the darkness present in Runaway Horses is a reflection of his belief that aging is decay, and his own frustrations with Japanese culture.
Although I wouldn’t recommend Runaway Horses as highly as Spring Snow, I would like to draw attention to two parts of the book that I particularly enjoyed. For me, the most interesting scenes in this novel were those where characters were directly in conflict. In particular, near the beginning when Honda first sees Isao at a Kendo tournament, Mishima describes the tension so precisely that one can’t help but share in the excitement of the spectators:
Though he knew almost nothing of Kendo, Honda grasped that there was something like a coiled spring within this young boy that gave off a dark blue glow. The vigor of his spirit manifested itself without a trace of disorder, and, whatever the resistance, created a vacuum within his opponent’s resolve, if but for an instant. And the usual result was that, just as air is drawn into a vacuum, so this weak spot of his opponent drew Iinuma’s stave. Thrust with perfect form, that stave, Honda thought, would no doubt pierce the guard of any opponent as easily as one enters through an unlocked door.
— Runaway Horses, chapter 4, page 31 of Vintage International edition
Another great scene occurs two-thirds of the way through when a man, Sawa, attempts to steer Isao away from the path of self-destruction that he is intent upon following. After Sawa makes a cryptic remark to Isao that he hopes will sabotage Isao’s plans, the two have the following exchange:
“Mr. Sawa, only cowards beat around the bush. I want to get at the truth. I want to confront it as it is.”
“Why? Could the truth shake that strong faith of yours? Have you been following some kind of mirage all this time? If your dedication is so weak, then you’re well rid of it. I just thought I’d put a little doubt into your world of faith. If that makes the whole thing start to shake, there’s something missing in your dedication. Where is that indomitable conviction that a man should have? Do you really have it? If you do, speak up right here and now.”
Isao found himself once more at a loss for words.
Sawa no longer seemed to be the man who read nothing but [the juvenile adventure magazine] Kodan Club. He was attacking Isao; he was twisting his arm to make him spew up the burning lump lodged in his throat. Isao felt the blood rush to his cheeks, but, with an effort, he suppressed his emotions as he replied: “I’m going to stay here until Mr. Sawa tells me the truth.”
— Runaway Horses, chapter 20, page 232 of Vintage International edition
In this short chapter Sawa transforms from an incompetent old man into a shrewd and cautious individual, experienced enough to parry with the indomitable Isao.
It’s hard for me to come to a conclusive opinion about Runaway Horses since I haven’t read the entire tetralogy. Anyone interested in Mishima and the circumstances of his death should definitely read this book, as there are certain parallels between Isao and Mishima that are too strong to ignore. Others able to cope with a bit of darkness may still want to give the book a chance, as I found that it’s interesting overall, and the prose is often beautiful. But certainly read Spring Snow first, and don’t expect Runaway Horses to stand quite as tall as Mishima’s earlier masterpiece.