Yukio Mishima’s Life for Sale

Yukio Mishima’s death and his politics both remain contentious at best.

By many accounts, Mishima was a man obsessed with the idea of death. Nevertheless, he lied his way into an exemption from military service when he was called up in 1945. He later justified his actions in his semi-autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask, first published in 1949: “I much preferred to think of myself instead as a person who had been forsaken even by Death… I delighted in picturing the curious agonies of a person who wanted to die but had been refused by Death.”

I’ll come back to that idea—that someone could be “refused by Death”—in a minute.

Mishima later formed a paramilitary group called Tatenokai, or “shield society” in English. Reportedly, he liked to refer to it by its English initials. Along with four other would-be soldiers, he briefly held hostage a general of Japan’s National Defense Force. His attempt to harangue the general’s subordinates was not well received. That afternoon, he clumsily committed seppuku—ritual suicide. He was 45 years old.

I wonder whether Life for Sale, published just two years before Mishima’s self-engineered suicide mission, was an attempt to dramatize his fascination with death—specifically that someone might be “refused by death.”

The titular life for sale belongs to Haino Yamada, a twenty-seven-year-old copywriter from Tokyo. With very little provocation, he decides that life his life isn’t worth much. He takes a bottle of sleeping pills, boards the train, and falls asleep. When, to his surprise, he wakes up, he decides to put an advertisement in the newspaper—“Life for sale.”

The novel shares a good deal with G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, published in 1908, which Mishima almost certainly never read. Critics sometimes call it a “metaphysical thriller.” Both involve a bumbling, incoherent crime syndicate with which the erstwhile hero finds himself entangled. In Chesterton’s case, the opaque conclusion reminds the reader of Chesterton’s incarnate, Christian God. Mishima’s metaphysics, on the other hand, are far less hopeful.

For much of the novel, Yamada faces Mafiosi, poisoners, and even a vampire completely without fear. (A woman who tries to marry him, on the other hand…) Each time he takes on a new “client” willing to buy his life, he comes home bemused that he has unexpectedly survived. He has, in effect, been “refused by death.” By my count, he is “refused by death” no fewer than five times.

Finally, Yamada decides he does not wish to die. He wonders if the people around him really know how to value life—they have never come close to losing it. Of course, this epiphany comes at the moment his life is the most threatened. A man, previously wishing for death, now on death’s doorstep—Yamada’s life a setup for the punchline. What would Yamada’s sojourn mean to a man of Mishima’s temperament?

If you Google “Life for Sale,” your front-page results are likely to fall into two categories. Some response to Mishima’s Life for Sale. Or else information on a YouTube series that takes the same title. Life for Sale (the YouTube “reality” show) is about a “400 LB Jewish real estate investor” with “the mouth of Donald Trump, the personality of Larry David, and the presence of Don Corleone” looking for an heir to a $200 million dollar fortune.

What would Mishima make of that?

More by Yukio Mishima: Acts of Worship; After the Banquet; Confessions of a Mask; Death in Midsummer and Other Stories; Forbidden Colors; The Frolic of the Beasts; Patriotism; The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea; The Sea of Fertility series; Silk and Insight; The Sound of Waves; Sun and Steel; Star; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

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