Cam's Blog

December 13, 2009

Runaway Horses

Filed under: Books — cfranc @ 3:19 pm

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.



  1. Where can I get this book ? In bookstore or online ?

    Comment by Horseville Dogs — December 14, 2009 @ 4:25 am

  2. (2nd try after the first one to post an answer didn’t work): I found that colume of the novel series interestingt too. Conc. Mishima: Do you know about number theorist’s E. Frenkel’s film on math, based on the famous film by Mishima where he anticipates his suicide? And M. Yourcenar’s great book on Mishima? As Yourcenar was a great writer, here is a nice New Yorker article on her and her work. I esp. like this of her novels, which gives a masterfull insight into the mentality of renaissance pre-scientists. When I wrote a summary of impressions of talks with contemporary mathematicians on their mindset related to their ways of working, which seemed to me much like an unexpected continuation of renaissance mentality.

    Comment by Thomas — May 17, 2011 @ 1:48 am

    • I haven’t heard of most of the movies, books and articles which you mention. They sound interesting though, so thanks!

      Comment by cfranc — May 19, 2011 @ 10:45 pm

      • The website of E. Frenkel’s film is here, Mishima’s film here (youtube copy), Yourcenar’s book on Mishima here.

        At that occasion here the link to a short description of a strange Borges-like encyclopedia I just found (more). And here a piece out of a film version of a russian novel I found interesting. Because the film maker’s description of the novel seems not to bee online any more, below a copy from their former website:

        “The script for «The Ugly Swans» is based on the story about so called ghost town where the boarding school for gifted children was located. A young and frightfully strange generation was growing up there, infinite number of commissions and special services scrutinizing closely this anomaly were chasing around. A hero, who had to carry out
        his own investigation, appeared against these events. But that was only his excuse. He arrived to this town just to save his child. The fight between the characters arose not for the certain children but for the form of the Future that had to be chosen by the mankind.

        The story «The Ugly Swans» tells us about a man colliding with a Mystery and touching the Future, the brave new world in which neither the hero of the story nor his contemporaries have a place anymore. There existed so-called ghost towns in the Soviet Union. They were sealed and carefully guarded towns, where top-secret research, military in its nature, were conducted. The action unfolds in a town like those, some Tashlinsk-20 lost in the vast space of Asiatic Russia. In all the turmoil and shifts of the first years of reforms, it suddenly found sponsors. Media even hunted at Tashlinsk having good chances of becoming the new though unofficial Eurasian capital. Riding on the wave of this euphoria, a boarding school for gifted children got founded in the town. Immediately after weird things started to happen. At first, the climate changed drastically and literally overnight: unending month-long outpours kept flooding the town. Later, there began rumors about a strange genetic disease, the inhabitants called it «wet leprosy», about some creatures, called «wetters» who started to keep the town under control. The town was quarantined, and sanitary outposts emerged on all roads. Only the boarding school with its teachers and pupils stayed behind. Besides, there stayed, or rather arrived to stay, numerous international committees investigating the anomaly of lit square holes and of fear generator. Everyone who tried to find a clue to these anomalies died violently.

        Such were the facts by the moment a hero, named Victor Banev arrived to this town. His aim was to begin his own unprofessional investigation, to get involved in a fight against obscure and invisible forces hiding the very existence of a mystery. He had no
        right to lose that fight, as his only twelve-years-old daughter Irina studied at that mysterious boarding school. Victor’s close friend from Boston, an American scientist Malcolm Golemba, co-chaired the UNO committee on the Tashlinsk issue. Victor met his daughter in his former apartment, deserted for a long time. While they were talking to each other he understood that his daughter had been «infected» by this strange disease.
        At the UNO committee session Victor got acquainted with a very beautiful young woman called Diana Glumova, who did psychological and biological research for the committee. Victor and Diana got passionately drawn to each other. Victor also met another committee
        member who had skipped the session, Pavel Semin, whose aim was to clue the «wetters» at any price. He is opposed to the main hero.

        Victor was invited as a writer to this school for meeting with the pupils. He already understood that everything underway in the town was somehow related with those impossible children, his daughter among them. The intellectual superiority of the kids was too evident and cruel. They seemed to have already won the right to forget about those who they outgrew so quickly and so obviously. The future was certainly theirs.
        There followed another session of the committee where the decision of the immediate climatic attack which would result in the death of all wetters and children genius. At night, there started urgent evacuation, and it became clear that the forces carried out an independent verdict. Victor went in search of Diana and children, left in the dying town….

        The epilog was short and symbolic. All wetters had died. The fate of the kids remained unknown; we only see Victor”s daughter, exhausted and seemingly recalling nothing of the past Victor went out for a moment; when he was back, the compartment was full of his daughter”s friends. The audience gets led to understand that the weird future has not been prevented by the fearsome present. For them, there is still hope…”

        Other, simultaneously sad and satiric short novels by the authors are this and this. (The former is (as far as I remember) a satire version of Well’s story, where this time, the Marsians try it a further time with their deadliest weapon: buerocracy.)

        Comment by Thomas — May 21, 2011 @ 4:51 am

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