55 – ‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima

There’s something about Japanese writers. They have such an elegant way with words and paint amazing pictures with their prose, sweeping the reader into a world of the author’s making, making them see what the writer sees in his imagination, setting a measured yet engrossing pace (either that, or they all have really, really good translators). And among these writers, one of the masters of the art is Yukio Mishima; and ‘Spring Snow’ must be among his best works.

In this novel, set in 1912-13, Mishima lays out a tragic love affair between Kiyoaki Matsugae, the son of a well-to-do family, and Satoko Ayakura, the daughter of members of the Japanese aristocracy. Through Kiyoaki’s stubbornness and Satoko’s teasing of the younger boy, the pair circle each other without penetrating the layers of reserve until Satoko has already been promised in marriage; the subsequent events lead them into a downward spiral resulting in their disappearance, in different ways, from Tokyo society.

That’s basically it – 400 pages of star-crossed lovers. What makes it more than just a Mills and Boon romance, however, is Mishima’s ability to paint the background of the story, and the principal actors, with such vividness that they seem to burst into technicolour in your mind (actually, technicolour would be too bright and garish – let’s say watercolours instead). The Japanese are fond of reminding foreigners about their four seasons (and can be confused when those same foreigners seem particularly underwhelmed by this astounding piece of information), but it is true that the country does mark its seasons very distinctly, something that Mishima draws out in this book. From the famed cherry blossoms of spring, through the typhoon season to the sprouting greenery of a humid summer, the seasons march on with the multi-coloured mountains of Maple trees in the autumn giving way to the bare trees and swirling snow of winter and early spring (which, as you would guess from the title, marks some important events in the novel).

As well as being able to describe the natural world, Mishima is extremely adept at portraying the state of Japanese society at the time, just half-a-century after the forced end to the country’s self-imposed seclusion (and only a few years after Japan became the first Asian country to defeat a major European power in battle in the Russo-Japanese war). Houses now have Japanese and Western rooms; students smoke cigarettes; the upper classes provide private screenings of the latest western films or play recordings of classical music. Despite this superficial move towards westernisation though, the traditional culture remains almost untouched. We are treated to views of private ceremonies celebrating traditional holidays, cherry-blossom-viewing parties and New Year’s imperial poetry competitions; let us not forget that the Emperor was still regarded as a god at this time.

This shift from Japanese to Western cultures has also not extended to the morals the characters display over the course of the story. While the Christian west is motivated by guilt and may be prevented from acting by the thought that they are doing wrong, Asian cultures can be motivated more by shame and the possibility of people outside the family group finding out their secrets. Of course, as long as everyone keeps their silence, this will not happen, and everyone is happy. This behaviour, so contrary to many western beliefs (although strangely similar to the way the English upper classes often deal with scandals…), allows Kiyoaki and Satoko to continue with their affair, and helps the two families to cover it up once they have discovered the truth.

The third major character of the book, Kiyoaki’s friend Shunsuke Honda, is also part of the web of cover ups and intrigues. Very different from his effete and uninterested friend, Honda, a hard-working student and future lawyer, is happy to be of service to Kiyoaki in his adventures, helping him several times to arrange illicit rendez-vous with Satoko. Eventually though, his conscience starts to prick him, and he has to face up to a dilemma familiar to anyone who has been asked to help a friend do things which they really shouldn’t have: does he do what his friend wants, or what his friend actually needs? Honda’s response to this problem shapes the way the plot eventually unfolds.

What really differentiates the book from similar western novels, however, is its central theme of Buddhism and, in particular, reincarnation. Throughout the tale, we see references to the religion, often in the shape of the Thai princes who have come to Japan to broaden their horizons (which mainly seems to consist of smoking and messing around with local girls). Honda’s discussions about the nature of reincarnation with the princes and his study of Buddhism-based ancient Asian law lead us nicely through the ideas which will be explored later on, namely is it really reincarnation if the reborn soul is unaware of past lives?

And now, dear reader, I can hear you asking yourself ‘Later on? What’s he talking about?’, and, yes, it may seem a little odd until you hear that ‘Spring Snow’ is merely the first in Mishima’s quadrilogy of books making up ‘The Sea of Fertility’ cycle. Before his untimely death (which I mentioned briefly in my earlier post on ‘Forbidden Colours’), Mishima wrote one last set of novels, with (as far as I’m aware) the theme of reincarnation at the heart of them. What does that mean? That after finishing a truly wonderful book, I’m still only a quarter of the way through the story. Now that’s something to be very happy about.

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28 thoughts on “55 – ‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima

  1. I've not read anything by Mishima, yet, so I'm glad for this review and what you'll bring to the Japanese Literature Challenge 3. Thanks for joining! If you'd like to email me your email address (bellezza.mjs@gmail.com) I'll add you to my contact list for the announcement of prizes, etc. You don't have to, of course. In any case, welcome!

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  2. Thanks for that! I'm a big fan of Mishima, and I will be reading the rest of this set once I get around to ordering them. The only problem is fitting my Japanese literature reading in with the Russian, German, Victorian, Indian, Latin-American…

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  3. I'm trying to fit in a variety of books each month: Japanese, Russian, classical English, foreign language (German or French), long (500 pages +)…My current book takes in two of these categories, so it'll be a while before I finish it!

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  4. This book sounds beautiful and I had it on my wishlist anyway but now I will be definitely reading it, hopefully in the near future.I love your opening paragraph. Sometimes I wonder if the lyrical nature of Japanese literature is just down to the translators but I tend more to believe that it is the writing and the culture that lends itself to surreal description.

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  5. I agree that it must be the nature of Japanese culture, the need to approach matters obliquely, the emphasis of natural over spiritual beauty, that produces such an inspiring style of writing.Of course, it could also be argued that it leads the books to be a little on the negative side (but what's wrong with a little schadenfreude anyway!).

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  6. It may seem odd but the thing I enjoyed most about your review of the book was where you talk about how the Japanese, and particularly this book, emphasizes their seasons. I love that. The change in seasons has a profound effect on me and is something I tend to blog about often, or at least work into blog posts, so that is certainly one part of this book that I would find very fascinating.

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  7. Carl, while it is aesthetically pleasing, it really gets on your nerves after a while when the Japanese go on about their four seasons; yopu find yourself saying things like "Really? We only have three in England!".Of course, this is useless as the chance of a Japanese language student understanding sarcasm in an ESL class is pretty close to zero…

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  8. What a great review. – I'm intrigued by this and going to add it to my ever growing TBR list. Suspect there is a whole new world awaiting me through Japanese literature. The only lonely book I've read so far is South of the Border, West of the Sun by Murakami (couldn't put it down!)

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  9. Thanks :)I haven't read all that much myself (mainly Murakami, Mishima and Banana Yoshimoto), so I'm hoping to add a few more names to the list over the next six months!

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  10. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed Spring Snow. I highly recommend reading the entire Sea of Fertility tetralogy, but my favourite is the second, Runaway Horses.Incidentally, glad to see we're both doing the Japanese Literature Challenge 3! I'm almost done my first book for the event and I plan to read some Mishima myself.How many books do you plan to read for it?

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  11. In my latest post, 'Stream of Semi-Conciousness' (!), I've laid out my monthly reading goals, one of which is to read at least one Japanese novel per month. Hopefully more :)Of course, I may cheat and link some reviews from the last few months too!

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  12. What a wonderful review! I agree that it seems we are swept away with beautiful prose when reading Japanese Literature! That's why I joined in on this challenge! I look forward to reading more reviews from you!Suz

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  13. Thanks! I do plan to read the whole thing, but was thinking if the first one would work for a book group. I'd feel guilty having them read 4 books all at one time.

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  14. I think I said it after one of my other posts, but I think one a month would be a good way to read this series: long enough to whet the appetite, but not so long that the details become hazy!

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  15. I hate to say it, but I couldn't get into this book. The only Mishima book I've genuinely enjoyed has been “The Sound of the Waves” which is a truly beautiful story. I suppose Mishima just isn't for everyone… my favourite J-Lit writers are Shusaku Endo, Junichiro Tanizaki, Natsume Soseki, Haruki Murakami, and Osamu Dazai to list a bunch.

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  16. Jeff – All good writers, but I do like a bit of Mishima too. If you couldn't get into this one, then I don't think you'll like the rest of the series (especially the third one which contains vast amounts of Buddhist musings…).

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  17. I just finished Spring Snow, and feel a bit restless, wanting to read more about it (blog posts especially). I like how you pointed out the importance of seasons in the book, which I’m more aware of on reflection. And the importance of the title Spring Snow too. I was thinking it sounds a bit generic and doesn’t exactly stand out, but you find it fits in very nicely only after you finish the book.

    ps: Saw at the beginning of the comment thread that you read this for Japanese lit 3. How time has passed! I read this for Japanese lit 9 this year 🙂

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  18. Hi Tony, a wonderful review again. On your recommendation I read “Spring snow” and I liked it very much. My Dutch translation is a trasnslation from the English. I’ll continue with parts 2 till 4. Greetings, Erik

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    1. Erik – Glad you enjoyed it 🙂 The second part is very different, fiery and aggressive where the first was calm and elegant.

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