Unearthly study of life and death

Yukio Mishima concealed his poignant political commentary in a run-of-the-mill science fiction novel


This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When Yukio Mishima’s novel Beautiful Star was published in 1962, it was a complete flop. Although a few critics made polite noises out of respect for Mishima’s reputation as Japan’s foremost man of letters, most panned it. Fewer than 20,000 copies were sold; and his American publishers turned down the translation rights.

It is easy to see why. Unlike his earlier works, which had made a virtue of realism, Beautiful Star seems little more than a stilted piece of science fiction. Its protagonists, the Ōsugi, are a prosperous, if eccentric, family from a provincial town, who have realised that they are extra-terrestrials. Each comes from a different planet: Jūichirō, the father, from Mars; his wife from Jupiter; their daughter from Venus; and their son from Mercury.

As aliens go, they are a well-meaning bunch

As aliens go, they are a well-meaning bunch. They visit local hilltops in search of UFOs; they talk about astronomical conjunctions like family reunions; and they try their best to appear human. But Jūichirō is terrified by nuclear weapons.

Convinced that it is his job to save humanity, he pleads with Khrushchev to stop the Soviet testing program and travels Japan promoting world peace — even after his daughter falls pregnant. Another group of extra-terrestrials is determined to stop him, however. Hailing from “the binary star system 61 Cygni”, they are bent on destruction — and it is the cosmic struggle between the two that provides the novel with its narrative drive.

Beautiful Star, Yukio Mishima (Penguin Modern Classics, £12.99)

All this is pretty humdrum stuff. If you’re looking for a struggle between alien races over the fate of the earth, there are plenty of other sci-fi novels to choose from, and most will be a good deal more dramatic. Indeed, it would be hard to think of a more “domestic” space drama. The characters are tweedy, the dialogue leaden. That a key scene takes place between a bespectacled 50-year-old in a kimono and a pasty-faced law professor over tea gives some indication of its style. But there is more to Beautiful Star than meets the eye — and good reason why Mishima regarded it as his masterpiece.

At the time of its publication, Japan was in ferment. Tensions between the US and the Soviet Union were rising fast. Following a stand-off in Berlin, the USSR had already begun shipping nuclear warheads to Cuba. War seemed imminent. For Japan, this posed a particular danger. Back in 1951 it had signed a treaty allowing America to station troops on its territory. This had provoked violent unrest; and, by 1957, the US had to agree to renegotiate. But the new settlement only inflamed tempers further. Now, Japan and the US were bound to come to each other’s defence if either was attacked on Japanese soil.

This meant that, if war did break out, Japan itself — rather than just the American bases — would be a Soviet target. It was a terrifying prospect. With Hiroshima and Nagasaki still fresh in the memory, many questioned whether Japan’s relationship with the West had gone too far — and whether it had shed its traditional identity at the cost of its survival.

Since the end of the Second World War, Mishima had carefully avoided getting mixed up in politics. But in the febrile atmosphere stirred up by the new treaty, he felt he had no choice. He penned a story about patriotism; and after arranging for the publication of another by Shichirōō Fukazawa criticising the emperor, he began receiving death threats.

As yet, he had no clear idea of how (or even if) Japan could be “saved”. He was still a long way from the ultra-nationalism which would lead him to his death in a botched coup eight years later. But he was a man in search of answers — and Beautiful Star was a way of working through his uncertainties.

Mishima cuts through the debate then convulsing Japan

It was no accident that Mishima chose to experiment with science fiction. It was a genre he had long admired. He adored Arthur C. Clarke, and lavished praise on Godzilla. Though rooted in ideas of technological progress, it had many parallels with Noh, a traditional form of Japanese theatre, for which he had already written several plays. “True” identities were concealed; spirits from “higher” realms came down to Earth; and monstrous threats hung over the world. This made it a perfect vehicle for social criticism — and an ideal lens through which to view Japan’s dilemma.

As aliens, Mishima’s characters can view humanity from outside; and the clash between their viewpoints transforms the novel into a kind of trial. This reaches its culmination in a confrontation between Jūichirō and the visitors from Cygnus. In a testy exchange, each side lays out its case: the one defending humanity, the other demanding its annihilation.

Of the two, Jūichirō is perhaps the weakest. Like his opponents, he accepts that human beings are materialistic, self-obsessed, and hopelessly incapable either of attaining the eternal or of embracing the void. They seem to yearn for their own destruction. Yet he also maintains that some have virtues worth preserving: they are artfully fickle, they give flowers out of joy and despair, they keep small birds, they spite time with lateness; and they laugh often.

Remarkably, he carries the day. As his opponents slink away, however, he is taken gravely ill. Diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer, he realises that he cannot save humanity after all — and fears that it will perish as a result. In a flash, Mishima now pulls the whole book inside out. Faced with death, Jūichirō realises for the first time that life is lived, not for the hereafter, but in the moment.

The threat of destruction, which had previously consumed his thoughts, now recedes from his mind. For the first time, he glimpses the fleeting wonders found in human frailty. Mankind, he now sees, will go on without him, just as it always has. Able at last to let go, he sneaks out of the hospital with his family’s help; and on a nearby hill, goes to meet the long-awaited UFO.

With consummate skill, Mishima cuts through the debate then convulsing Japan. There is no doubt that humanity is prone to wickedness. It is inevitable that one day, someone will push the button. Peace is a noble, but fruitless, cause. As such, the choice between Western modernity and traditional isolationism was a false dichotomy. The question is not whether we should be saved or destroyed, but what we do with our lives right now. For, as Mishima argues, the essence of humanity lies in its fragility — and its beauty between death and the infinite.

Sixty years on, Beautiful Star has lost none of its poignancy — and in Stephen Dodd’s masterful translation, the sharpness of Mishima’s critical eye shines through with startling immediacy. Its challenge is pointed. Today, the threat of nuclear war is perhaps greater than at any point since it was written; and calls for peace are still as vocal as they are hopeless. All that we can do is search for the “beautiful star” within.

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