I read a fair bit of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima’s work in the early years of this blog, but it wasn’t until this year that I got around to trying some of those books again, in particular his magnficent four-book The Sea of Fertility cycle. Of course, what jogged my memory was the release of several new books in English, with at least three appearing recently, and while I haven’t got them all yet, today’s review looks at one of those new publications. This is a nice one for anyone wanting to dip their toes into Mishima’s work – it has a taste of his trademark style, and (perhaps more importantly for the wary newcomer) it’s rather short, too 😉
Star (translated by Sam Bett, published in the Penguin Mini-Modern Classics range) is a novella-length story first published in 1961, with Mishima turning his attention to one of his passions outside literature, namely the movies, drawing on his own acting experiences. The star in question here is Rikio ‘Richie’ Mizuno, a teen idol working on his latest film while adoring fans throng the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of him in action, but this is a Mishima story, and the young man’s dashing exterior covers a rather cynical, world-weary soul.
Mizuno is at the height of his success, with the kind of looks that drive young girls to write lovestruck fan letters and swipe cardbord cut-outs of their idol, yet he’s surprisingly down about his life:
Here I was at twenty-three, an age when nothing is impossible. Yet I knew for certain that the last six months of working days on end with barely any sleep would be the farewell to my youth.
pp.8/9 (Penguin Mini-Modern Classics, 2019)
There is one thing, though, that keeps him going, the actual process of acting, with Richie drifting into another world once the cameras roll. Even this, however, doesn’t seem to be enough to compensate him for his dreary, exhausting existence.
The premise of Star is fairly simple. We begin with the young actor preparing for a scene on location as part of the movie he’s currently making, in which he plays a former Yakuza gangster looking to exact revenge on those who murdered a friend (and getting closer to that friend’s sister in the process). In truth, the writer is more concerned with Richie’s thoughts, using his character to outline a sort of cynic’s guide to stardom, in which he discusses his thoughts on the pathos of sentimental, saccharine movies, explaining why they never go out of style.
While Richie’s star-status doesn’t define him, it amuses him to play up to expectations at times. When reminded of a dinner he has agreed to attend with old friends in honour of his birthday, he reveals a surprising truth to the reader:
If anticipating my arrival was a part of the festivities, then surely my absence was part of the feast. That’s right. It’s better for a star to be completely absent. No matter how serious the obligation, a star is more of a star if he never arrives. Absence is his forte. The question of whether he’ll show up gives the event a ceaseless undercurrent of suspense. But a true star never arrives. Showing up is for second-rate actors who need to seek attention. (p.33)
You sense, though, that this pleasure in thwarting expectations has just as much to do with his perverse nature as with living up to his role as a star. Certainly, in his secret relationship with his personal assistant, Kayo, an older woman described mostly in terms of her bodily ‘flaws’, the actor seems to be secretly laughing at all the beautiful women who desire him.
This slightly unpleasant attitude towards women is a common Mishima trope, and there are several examples here for such a short book. In the middle of filming a scene, a desperate wannabe actor pounces on Richie, but when the director surprisingly writes her into the shot, Richie is amused by her failure to take her big chance. Later, in a bedroom scene, our ‘hero’ deliberately plays on the nerves of another inexperienced actress, concentrating on his own actions and failing to help her in her moment of need.
But let’s face it, it wouldn’t be a Mishima work if the central protagonist was nice, and his lack of heart is clear early on when he reflects on the women he sees at fan meetings:
The farmer’s daughters in the fan clubs were always asking me,”What’s it like to be a star?” It amazed me how these clubs managed to attract so many ugly girls. Sometimes they even had cripples. You’d have a real hard time going out on the streets and rounding up a group of girls that ugly. (p.9)
Yes, Richie is another of those Mishima men (c.f. Yuichi Minami in Forbidden Colours), the adonis-like youths who know how to entrance women while secretly despising them and leading them to their destruction.
Perhaps the most interesting parts of the story, though, are Richie’s musings on life as an actor. He compares life in front of the cameras with the real thing, finding it hard to adjust to the latter. After spending his days skipping back and forth in time, filming scenes out of sequence and thus going from a first meeting to a bedroom scene in a matter of minutes, the strict chronological nature of real life bores him. If only he could skip the boring bits, or rewind to when he was happier.
It would be overstating things to compare Star with Mishima’s best-known work, but it’s an excellent look at a subject close to the writer’s heart, and in Betts’ steady translation it’s an enjoyable, intriguing read, one that’s probably just about made for a single sitting. This is a story that peeks behind the curtain separating the ordinary from the famous and tells us the downsides of fame, as well as the rush felt when the actor is alone in the moment, immersed in a new reality. It ends on another typically Mishima note, with our dashing idol suddenly confronted with an unexpected glimpse of his future – one the writer, of course, decided to do without…