Whether or not the dramatic end to Yukio Mishima’s life puts him in the same league as Japan’s other heroic failures is debatable, but the mentions in Ivan Morris’ work were enough to send me off to my shelves for another of his novels as my next January In Japan choice. I actually had two there unread, and after a little agonising, I opted against one I’d had for a while, instead deciding to try one of the several new translations that have appeared over the past few years. A wise choice? Let’s find out…
The Frolic of the Beasts (translated by Andrew Clare, published by Penguin Modern Classics) is a short novel featuring an unusual love triangle. The prologue sets the scene, beginning with a photograph of three people, the married couple Ippei and Yūko, and a younger man, Kōji, who works for them at their gardening nursery in the coastal town of Iro in Izu. Having made their acquaintance, the reader will be disturbed, but probably unsurprised, to be taken to a small graveyard to visit a collection of three graves – with only Yūko’s yet to be filled.
The story proper then begins, taking us back to Tokyo, where we see how Kōji meets the couple and falls for Yūko. When the inevitable happens (albeit, with a little more violence than you might expect), Kōji winds up in prison, but it’s on his release that the story takes a strange twist. Despite the young man’s attack on Ippei, it’s Yūko who acts as guarantor after his sentence ends, and the three are to spend a long, hot summer by the coast together in the same house. This should be interesting…
The Frolic of the Beasts is a fairly late novel and another of the new Mishima releases that have appeared over the past couple of years. At the end of the story, Clare provides a brief note speculating on its origins as a parody of the noh play, Motomezuka, which while interesting, doesn’t really add much for the average reader. At its core, the novel is simply a twisted love triangle, and a story of revenge.
Kōji is another of Mishima’s beautiful, manly men who, having crippled Ippei during his attack, is determined to turn his life around. However, this proves more easily said than done:
Kōji’s irritation was complex; there was some impediment, and he was nettled by his inability to feel any regret. His whole being ought to have been a receptacle filed with remorse. Even before he saw Ippei’s completely changed form, he ought to have dropped to his knees in tears and apologized. Instead, something had intervened, clogging the machinery and stopping this course of events. He couldn’t put his finger on what it was; perhaps it was that unsettling smile that hung about Ippei’s mouth like a spiderweb.
p.54 (Penguin Modern Classics, 2019)
Ippei, formerly a playboy, is now physically and mentally disabled as a result of Kōji’s attack. The younger man is tortured by the sight of his victim, finding the repentance he envisaged more difficult to find than he’d expected.
Of course, matters aren’t helped by the presence of Yūko, and the connection between them. Despite the unspoken attraction, she blows rather hot and cold, at times ignoring him, at others flirting, and as much as he’s tempted, Kōji does his best to hold back, for a variety of reasons. In truth, he’s unsure whether an affair with her would be further revenge on Ippei or just what the older man wants…
It all makes for an erotically charged book, which is very Tanizaki-like in parts. The highlights include a number of intense scenes, such as a sudden kiss by a waterfall and an excellent few moments with Kōji and Yūko in his room, their simmering passion separated by a mosquito net. There’s also a side plot featuring Kōji’s interest in Kimi, a young local back for the summer, where the desire spills over into actual lust, with Mishima allowing his creation to let off some steam (believe me when I tell you that Haruki Murakami is far from the only Japanese writer to have an obsession with breasts…).
But sooner or later, there’s always a twisted side to what’s happening, and one of the features of The Frolic of the Beasts is the frequent mentions of filth and pollution:
The drone of the machine saws had stopped, apparently for the lunch break. The surrounding area had become extremely quiet, save for the insistent wing beat of a greenbottle flying low around the convolvulus flower. Likely as not it had hatched from a discarded rotten fish on the beach, and having eaten its fill and become fat, it was now flying about in something of a faithless manner. It was a splendid combination of silver and dirt, and of cold metallic brilliance and warm putrefaction. (p.23)
In a way, the writing here reminded me a little of Thomas Mann, especially in Death in Venice, where the sexual intimations are blended with dirt, sweat and the stench of decay. This feeling is enhanced by a rather disturbing subplot featuring Kimi and the reason for her move away, just the latest of a string of NQR moments in the novel.
The ingredients for a compelling story are there, then, but in truth it never quite comes together. One reason for this is that the plotting is slightly disjointed. Mishima provides a prologue (and later an epilogue) before dragging us off to Tokyo, and with it taking a fair while for the story to return to where we started, I found it rather frustrating. The story can be a little over the top at times (I can remember several eye-roll moments), and this certainly isn’t helped by some patchy writing. Clare’s work is generally sound, but there are places where the text is fairly wooden, particularly during one pivotal conversation near the end of the book (although that could well be Mishima’s failing). I’d also have to say that having built up the tension, the ending comes as somewhat of an anti-climax, abrupt and disappointing.
As much as readers might want everything by a famous writer to make it into English, there’s usually a good reason why certain works remained untranslated for so long. Admittedly, The Frolic of the Beasts is by no means a terrible book, but it’s more for completists than readers new to Mishima, and I’d certainly be pointing you in the direction of The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion or Forbidden Colours first. However, if you have made your way through most of what Mishima has available in English, you’ll probably get something from this – even if it’s just a reminder to avoid love triangles like the plague…