On 25 November 1970, the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) committed seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment; in the Western world better known as hara-kiri) after a failed coup d’état. Together with four young members of the Tatenokai (Shield Society), the private militia he had founded in 1968, Mishima had entered and occupied the headquarters of a branch of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (Jieitai), where they took a high-ranking officer hostage. When the Jieitai soldiers did not respond to Mishima’s appeal for an uprising, the world-famous writer and one of his disciples killed themselves by seppuku, a form of suicide closely linked to samurai culture.
Having anticipated failure, Mishima had carefully prepared his spectacular suicide, well aware that death was a way to become immortalized. Seppuku also provides a link to Mishima’s literary work and is at the core of Yukoku, the short story (English title: “Patriotism”), published in Japan in 1961, and also the film. In 1966, Mishima adapted the short story to the screen. Yukoku (English title: Yukoku or The Rite of Love and Death), is a 28-minute film that he also produced and in which he plays one of the two characters.
It deals with the suicides of Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama, played by Mishima, and his wife Reiko (Yoshiko Tsuruoka). The story and the film were inspired by the real-life double suicide of Lieutenant Aoshima and his wife, following the rebellion of a group of young officers which had started on 26 February 1936 and which is widely known as the 26 February Incident. In the film, Takeyama, an officer of the Imperial Guard, chooses death rather than being obliged to kill his rebellious comrades, comrades who did not want to implicate him in the uprising because he had recently married. Loyalty to the emperor would have meant killing his friends, and for Takeyama, the descendant of a samurai family, seppuku was the only way to preserve his honour and his moral integrity. He is caught in a conflict between loyalty and human feelings, the kind of conflict depicted in so many Japanese period films.
The irony of the historical parallel is that the young insurgents of February 1936, who wanted to strengthen the power of the Japanese emperor against a parliamentary system that they saw as corrupt, were condemned to death by this same emperor. Three decades later, in a period of social upheaval, student riots and protestations, Mishima held similar views, expressing doubts about the state of Japanese society and dreaming of the restoration of the emperor’s authority.
Yukoku is a film without dialogue, shot in black and white and divided into five acts, each preceded by a title. The first three of five intertitles gives information on the rebellion by the young officers and on the thoughts and feelings of the two characters. However, it is not a silent film and music from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is predominant on the soundtrack. Mishima’s choice of a recording dating from 1936 in which the Philadelphia Orchestra is conducted by Leopold Stokowski, is a subtle reference to the historical setting that the film is based on.
Music from the opera links the tragedy of the Japanese couple to a love tragedy from European culture, but the action, taking place on a Noh stage, is deeply anchored in Japanese tradition. This meeting of the two cultures is a reminder that Japan is a country in which its own traditions exist alongside elements imported from the West. It is also evidence that Mishima was a well-educated writer whose work is inspired by a great variety of sources, both Japanese and European. The opulence of the music contrasts starkly with the austerity of the almost empty stage, which is divided into two parts. Most of the action takes place on the right-hand side in an empty room with just a scroll hanging on the wall. On the left-hand side of the stage, two small bushes covered with snow suggest that this space is the house’s inner garden.
The handwritten text in one of the intertitles gives a clue to the reasons for Reiko’s behaviour when she gathers together a small collection of keepsakes – figurines of animals that she intends to leave for her family and friends. It also refers to the innermost feelings of the young woman, who is resolved to follow her husband into death. However, it is Tsuruoka’s acting that convincingly reveals her thoughts and emotions – a mixture of sadness and happiness before she and her husband put an end to their lives.
Mishima’s short story contains dialogue, but in the film, the conversation between the couple is inaudible, the viewer being allowed to see only the movement of their lips. It is through evocative gestures – Takeyama moving his hand as if cutting his belly, Reiko’s hand suggesting she is cutting her throat – that reveal the topic of the conversation between husband and wife as they discuss their chosen way to die.
No comment is necessary for the shots in which Reiko applies make-up to her face just before she kills herself – she intends to meet death in utmost beauty and serenity. Despite his use of the written word in the intertitles, Mishima relies strongly on cinematic devices, frequently employing visual effects to reveal the inner feelings of his characters through close-ups, dissolves and editing. Takeyama’s translucent hands are superimposed on Reiko’s face when, alone at home, she is remembering their short marital life. Her closed eyes in this sequence underline the fondness of these memories. In other shots, husband and wife are seen embracing each other next to a close-up of Reiko’s face, and in several shots, the two characters are framed in front of a black screen. This may have been due to budget restrictions, but it corresponds to the Noh taste for emptiness and is a challenge to mainstream conventions. The blackness of the background, in contrast with the Noh stage dominated by white, creates an impression of duality that marks the whole film.
Mishima is not concerned with the reasons for the revolt nor with its historical consequences. He is mainly interested in the innermost feelings of his characters and in the values related to bushido, the “way of the warrior”, in particular the moral principles a samurai was expected to follow. His view on bushido was influenced mainly by Hagakure, a collection of reflections published in the early 18th century and the work of Jocho Yamamoto, a retainer of the lord of the Nabeshima clan. In his essay On Hagakure: The Samurai Ethic and Modern Japan (Hagakure niyumon, 1967), Mishima offers a personal interpretation of Jocho’s guide written for the samurai of his clan, an interpretation with a critical approach to Japanese society in the early 1960s.
The two swords of a samurai – the katana (long sword) and the wakizashi (short sword) and in the film heirlooms of the Takeyama family – are filmed in close-ups and medium shots as visual clues to reinforce that the film is anchored in samurai culture, interpreted by Mishima in martial terms and imbued with nostalgia. There is one sentence in Hagakure that is of central importance for him: “The Way of the Samurai is found in death”. Not unlike Jocho, he asks how to face death and how to die for a legitimate cause. As in other works of his such as the novels The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) and Runaway Horses (1967-1968), Mishima links beauty with death, pain and purity. The motto in kanji on the scroll in Jukoku can be translated as “utmost sincerity”, a constant reminder of an officer’s moral integrity. The virtues of sincerity and purity, which can also be found in Hagakure, connect Mishima’s short story and film with the ideals of the rebellious young officers in February 1936, considered by their admirers – including Mishima – as an embodiment of moral integrity.
In both the short story and its cinematic adaptation, Mishima insists on the strong link between purity and death. It is in front of the scroll that Takeyama and Reiko make love for the last time, and that is also where they die. The lovemaking is beautifully described in the short story, the reader feeling the intensity and joy of the moment. In the film, Mishima uses high fragmentation, the camera gliding along the two naked bodies and revealing only parts of them. Shots of a navel, a nipple, Reiko’s hand and her hair, now dishevelled by her husband, are framed in close-ups, with Wagner’s music reinforcing the sensuality of this stylized representation.
The link to purity is established by a sentence in one of the intertitles: “This is as pure and passionate as a ritual conducted before the gods.” The reference to rites and religion is highlighted several times in the film by the appearance of a miniature shrine in the upper part of a shot, with Takeyama and his wife bowing deeply in front of it. The short story refers to a votive plaque from the Ise Grand Shrine on the god-shelf in the Takeyama household, and this shrine, one of the holiest sites of Shintoism, is closely linked to the Imperial family. However, this aspect is not made explicit in the film.
The shrine could be a reference to the wedding of Takeyama and Reiko as Shinto weddings have a strong emphasis on the idea of purification. The short story as well as the intertitles stress that Reiko experiences the same feeling of happiness when facing death that she experienced at her wedding. To meet death, she puts on a white silk kimono and outer robe, and although white is associated with death in Japanese culture, it is also the colour of purity, and Reiko’s garment recalls that of a bride.
Death by seppuku is presented as the ultimate gesture of beauty, imbued with purity, with Reiko a symbol of these virtues. However, Mishima does not shrink from a highly graphic representation of gruesome death by disembowelment, dwelling on the blood gushing from Takeyama’s belly and the sweat covering his chest. His contorted face, a mask of pain, reveals his agony. Moreover, and in contrast to the short story, Mishima presents his very personal view on manhood in the film, a view revealed in a well-known homosexual iconography to which he contributed, having posed for a series of photographs that were published in magazines and books, for example in Ordeal by Roses (Bakarei, 1963), the work of photographer Eiko Hosoe. In Yukoku, Mishima’s muscular body – that of a bodybuilder – is displayed when Takeyama stands erect in in front of the scroll, wearing only a fundoshi (a loincloth, the traditional undergarment of Japanese men) and his officer’s cap and holding his katana.
Both the film and the short story rely on the ideal of strong masculinity, with the woman resolved to follow her husband’s wishes. Reiko has more screen presence than Takeyama, but she nevertheless also transmits the film’s ideal of strong masculinity. As his companion, she has internalized the values of the past that he cherishes and which culminate in seppuku. She does what the wife of a samurai would have done and opens her carotid artery after her husband’s death.
The short story finishes with Reiko pushing the dagger into her throat. In the film, a shot of the dead couple, lying together and now outside on the raked sand of a Zen garden, suggests their necessary complementarity, pointing to the importance of harmony in Japanese culture. In the shot before this, the gush of blood from Reiko’s throat is filmed like a negative of Takeyama’s blood, which spills onto a white background. Reiko’s blood is shown as a white spray on a black background, implying difference and at the same time complementarity between man and woman and evoking once more the purity of death, signaled by the colour white.