Excerpt

The Frolic of the Beasts

Yukio Mishima, trans. Andrew Clare

November 28, 2018 
The following is from Yukio Mishima's novel, The Frolic of the Beasts. Set in rural Japan after World War II, the novels tells the story of a love triangle between a former university student, Kōji, his would-be mentor Ippei Kusakado, and Kusakado's beautiful, enigmatic wife, Yūko. Yukio Mishima was born in Tokyo in 1925. He was the author of several prominent novels, short stories, and plays, including the Sea of Fertility Tetralogy. Mishima died in 1970.

Prologue

It’s hard to believe this photo was taken a few days before the final wretched incident. The three of them looked really happy, at ease with one another, as if there was a bond of mutual trust among them. The photo had been sent right away to the chief priest of Taisenji temple, who cherishes it even now.

Ippei Kusakado, dressed in a white yukata with black abstract patterns, Yūko, in a white dress, and Kōji, wearing white trousers and a white polo shirt, stood on the harbor wall by the shipyard warehouse under the strong summer sunlight, which was reflected back on them off the sea below. Only their suntanned faces stood out in relief against the even whiteness of the scene; and while the picture was sharp, a faint agitation filled the frame, making it seem a little out of focus. That wasn’t surprising, since they had given the camera to the boatman and had him photograph them from the small boat; a certain amount of camera shake was unavoidable, no matter how calm the water.

They were in a small fishing port in West Izu called Iro, which was on the east side of a deep inlet. To the west, abutting the mountains, the inlet stretched out a number of feelers, each of which was cradled by the valley. There was a shipyard, albeit small in scale, oil storage tanks, and two or three warehouses storing netting and other equipment used by the fishermen.

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The inland road didn’t reach that far, so the locals had to come and go by boat from the shipyard to the oil storage tanks, and again from the oil storage tanks to the warehouses.

Only their suntanned faces stood out in relief against the even whiteness of the scene; and while the picture was sharp, a faint agitation filled the frame, making it seem a little out of focus.

The three had put out from the harbor in a small boat, and the harbor wall they climbed for the photograph belonged to the warehouse.

“Over there looks perfect. Let’s take it over there!”

Yūko, who was standing in the boat resting a parasol against her shoulder, had already indicated the spot and called out instructions from a distance. The August fishing season holiday was almost at an end; many fishermen had already begun setting off toward Hokkaido and the Sanriku coast to fish for Pacific saury, so there were far fewer boats in port than the previous week and the surface of the small inlet suddenly appeared larger than before.

It wasn’t only the fishermen who had departed. Both Kiyoshi, who had been on leave from the Self-Defense Forces, and Kimi, who worked in the factory of Imperial Instruments, like Matsukichi—who had gone Pacific saury fishing—left their hometowns and returned to Hamamatsu. The short summer romances had come to an end and the new ukulele, inscribed with English lettering, was probably right at this moment resting on Kiyoshi’s knees in his barracks room.

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Kōji gave Ippei a helping hand up, and as the three ascended the harbor wall, this corner of concrete, which had been exposed to the harsh lingering heat of the day, appeared to lose in an instant—through the agency of this human intrusion—the delicate order, the poetic arrangement of its inert solidity, which it had so far preserved.

In front of the warehouse, nets had been hung carelessly on bamboo drying racks, forming a suitable picture frame for the surrounding scenery. A mast, now lying on its side; coiled lengths of stern rope. The whole scene implicitly related in its stillness memories of a voyage and of rest following hard work. The quiet breathing of the gentle breeze in the still sunlight, the great warehouse door painted sky blue, summer grasses growing thick and lofty between the warehouses, spiderwebs suspended between the grass stems, and the white flowers of wild chrysanthemum growing resplendent from among the cracks in the concrete. Pieces of red rail, rusty wire, the lid of a live-box, and a small ladder . . .

It was frighteningly still, and from where they stood gazing down, images of clouds and mountains were calmly reflected in the sea. The water close to the wall was especially pellucid and clearly revealed a shoal of small fish as they passed pale clumps of weeds. The white reflection of summer clouds broke into a thousand pieces close to the shore.

As she walked over the nets laid out to dry on the ground, Yūko stopped suddenly, having noticed what appeared to be droplets of blood scattered on the dazzlingly reflective surface of the concrete.

Realizing straightaway what it was, Kōji explained, “It’s iron oxide. Probably spilled while they were painting something.”

As the trembling shadow of Yūko’s parasol moved over the splotches of paint, they turned a blackish red.

As she walked over the nets laid out to dry on the ground, Yūko stopped suddenly, having noticed what appeared to be droplets of blood scattered on the dazzlingly reflective surface of the concrete.

“Over there would be good,” said the youthful Kōji, as he took charge and positioned Ippei and Yūko in front of the first warehouse; Yūko complained that the fishing nets would conceal their lower halves.

“That’s perfect,” cut in Kōji shortly. “It’s more artistic that way. Like we’re three fish caught up in a net,” he added, and began adjusting the camera he’d taken down from his shoulder.

It was exactly as Kōji had said, thought Yūko. The three of them—three fish caught in a net of sin . . .

*

As he was being positioned, Ippei, as always, did as he was told, as always, with a smile. Ippei was forty years old. He had a lean though regular face with a very rosy complexion. He walked with a limp on his right side, and his movements appeared somewhat sluggish, which at times actually made him look elegantly refined. He had the diligence of his wife to thank for his personal cleanliness, which was thorough, to say the least. It was also plain to see on closer inspection that he wore that interminable smile reluctantly, as though he were constantly perplexed with something. His yukata and sash, despite Yūko’s careful attentions, always looked as if they were about to slip and drag down by his knees, not simply because he appeared unaccustomed to wearing the garment; rather, body and clothing gave the impression of moving away from each other entirely of their own accord.

Supporting her husband, Yūko turned to face the glaring direction of the camera. Struck directly by the sunlight, her face lost its relief and became like the vacant clear surface of a mirror. She was round-faced, and despite her generously proportioned good looks, her lips were thin. And while she seemed able to hide any amount of suffering with a slight application of makeup, panting in the heat, it also appeared that her mouth was emitting silent and invisible flames of anguish. In short, Yūko wasn’t made to conceal her suffering. Her large, misty eyes, ample cheeks, soft earlobes, and even her smile, which displayed a certain ennui when she responded to Kōji, were all evidence of the anguish she experienced within. Yet Yūko did not appear tired, and this spoke volumes about her stubborn resistance to suffering.

“How much longer do we have to wait?” She folded her parasol, asking the question in her typically sensuous voice, which conjured up the image of a small, stifling room filled with fetid flowers.

Kōji reached out from the wall and, explaining the shutter action as he did so, passed the camera to Teijirō, the old boatman, who was standing on top of his vessel. Clad only in short pants, revealing his dark nakedness, Teijirō positioned his towel-wrapped head above the camera’s viewfinder, like he was searching for a fish in a glass tank. Kōji’s deportment in leaping over to the couple, who were now in front of the warehouse, was truly agile. The single unbroken line formed by his white trousers and white polo shirt flexed and snapped as if it were steel wire. He sidled over to where Yūko was standing and, in a completely natural manner, slid his arm around her smooth shoulder. At which point Yūko, out of natural consideration, took her husband’s right arm from the left side, where he was standing, and placed it around her own shoulder.

Yūko wasn’t made to conceal her suffering. Her large, misty eyes, ample cheeks, soft earlobes, and even her smile, which displayed a certain ennui when she responded to Kōji, were all evidence of the anguish she experienced within.

“It’s bright, isn’t it?” said Kōji.

“Just a little longer.”

“Yes, just a little longer.”

Yūko cooed like a pigeon and suppressed her laughter, working hard not to ruin her expression for the camera as she said through partially open thin lips, “How marvelous it would be to erect a tomb like this—the three of us lined up together . . .”

Maybe the two men didn’t catch what she said, for they didn’t reply. Below them on the boat, Teijirō was still carefully getting the camera ready. He fought to resist the boat’s swaying, bracing his legs firmly against the deck, the exertion of which caused the muscles on the old fisherman’s shoulders to bulge and shine in the brilliant sunlight. Despite the quiet, the noise of the water was minutely woven in with the air, and the sound of the shutter didn’t reach the ears of those being photographed.

*

While Iro is the archetypal fishing village, several fields and rice paddies extend close to the mountains in the east. If one travels awhile past the post office, the row of houses peters out and the road goes straight in the direction of the village shrine, running through the rice fields. Turning right along the way, a single road joins the slope and gradually rises up to the new graveyard, which lies on the mountainside.

A stream flows at the base of the mountain by the graveyard, and from alongside the stream, the graves begin, lying on top of one another, maze like, reaching halfway up the slope. The farther down the mountainside one goes, the bigger and more magnificent the tombstones. From there the road becomes a narrow path made of pebbles and meanders up the hill, zigzagging its way in front of each row of tombs. The stone wall in front of the tombs has begun to crumble, and stout summer grasses have rooted themselves firmly between the gaps in the collapsed stone. A dragonfly spreads its dry wings and lies still, like a preserved specimen, on the hot stone. A medicine-like smell is in the air, the water in the vases having turned rank. In this region, the inhabitants use not bamboo or stone for vases but sake and beer bottles half buried in the ground, many of which are now filled with the withered branches of the Shikimi tree. If one climbs to this spot before the summer sunset—provided one can tolerate the vast number of striped mosquitoes—the view of Iro Village is superb. Taisenji temple can be clearly seen below, beyond the green rice fields. Farther in the distance, toward the south-facing mountainside, the broken glass windows of the abandoned Kusakado greenhouses twinkle as they catch the light. By the side of the greenhouses, the tiled roof of the now uninhabited Kusakado family house is visible. To the west, a black cargo ship glides past the lighthouse and slips into the port of Iro bay. Maybe it’s a small cargo vessel from Osaka, laden with ore from the mines of Toi, on its way to anchor for a while in Iro harbor. The ship’s mast comes silently past the rooftops, and the surface of the evening sea, faintly brighter than the beacon from the lighthouse, appears only as a narrow band from here.

A stream flows at the base of the mountain by the graveyard, and from alongside the stream, the graves begin, lying on top of one another, maze like, reaching halfway up the slope.

A television can be heard clearly from a house somewhere in the village. The hail of a loudspeaker, belonging to the fishing cooperative, echoes around the surrounding mountainside: “To all crew members of the Kokura Maru. Assemble here tomorrow after breakfast. We are preparing to sail!

One can discern the onset of night by the beam of the lighthouse, increasing in brightness hour after hour. The light is failing fast, so that the inscriptions on the gravestones become barely visible. It’s difficult to locate the Kusakado grave, hidden in a corner among many other intricate tombstones. In spite of opposition from the majority of the villagers, the chief priest of Taisenji temple had erected the graves as requested, using the money entrusted to him. Three small new gravestones stand huddled together in a shallow depression in the hillside. To the right is Ippei’s grave. To the left of that, Kōji’s, and in the center lies Yūko’s. That Yūko’s grave appears charming and somewhat brilliant even in the twilight is because only hers is a living monument—a reserved burial plot—with her posthumous Buddhist name painted in bright vermilion. The vermilion is still fresh, and when it grows dark around the cluster of white gravestones, only the inscription is visible, appearing like the thick lipstick she always wore on those thin lips.

__________________________________

From The Frolic of the Beasts. Used with permission of Vintage. Copyright © 1961 by Yukio Mishima. English translation copyright © 2018 by Andrew Clare.




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