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.