Once asked by his close friend Donald Keene to explain why he choose to call his four volume set The Sea of Fertility Mishima gave this explanation : "...The title The Sea of Fertility is intended to suggest the arid sea of the moon that belies its name. Or I might say the image of cosmic nihilism on that of the fertile sea. "
At the time of his death on November 25 1970 , Yukio Mishima was at the height of his literary celebrity both in Japan and around the world. With the publication of the "Sea of Fertility"novels, Mishima was regaining his reputation as Japan's premier writer. During the early 1960's, his books were not selling as well as they had been during the previous decade. Many critics felt that his literary reputation was starting to slip.
His works which for many years appeared in English translations only sporadically were now appearing in English at a rate of about one book a year.
The dramatic and controversial nature of his death raised many questions about the nature of some of Mishima's attitudes, both political and otherwise. He was very well read in western literature and was generally regarded as the most accessible Japanese writer to western audiences. His death was an open criticism of his country about the westernized direction that they were taking. It is unclear exactly what he wanted his country to do. He has been quoted as saying that Japan should return to the customs of its past, particularly a cultural identity influenced heavily by what he called "Bushido" or " way of the warrior ". But how does this philosophy meet the challenges of the twentieth century? That part of his thinking still remains unclear.
By the time Yukio Mishima committed suicide, Japan was well on its way to becoming a world class economic power. Mishima was critical of what he saw as an unhealthy preoccupation that the Japanese people were having with money and western values. He was very concerned with the fact that western ideas and culture seemed to be replacing the traditional values of Japan.
Mishima's life spanned the period of time when Japan would emerge from being an insular nation, to being a military power, to their defeat and occupation during the Second World War, and finally to their reemergence as an economic power during the later quarter of the twentieth century. Mishima wrote a great deal about this metemorphosis that was taking place in Japan. The consistent theme of his writing was the lives of otherwise modern Japanese and the underlying idea that they were not as far removed from their traditional past as they would like to believe. This is an idea which surfaces very blatantly in his collection of short stories "Death in Midsummer", especially in the short story entitled "Patriotism" in which a modern day army officer and his wife plan out their own violent, ritual suicide as a way of vindicating their beliefs.
Despite his public persona and his radical rhetoric, Mishima was not an admirer of the militarists of the 1930's, who he felt were very corrupt and their existence was inconsistent with the spirit of Japan's traditional values. His greatest contribution to literature was that he provoked his readers to think. Not just about where they were at a given moment, but also where they were going in the future. He challenged his country to think about the direction that they were headed in a way that no other writer ever has. Thirty years after his death, opinions about both his writing and his life are still able to generate controversy and heated debate.
Since his death in 1970, Mishima's literary reputation has come under attack from writers both in Japan and abroad. In the early 1970's, shortly after his suicide, the American writer Gore Vidal voiced the opinion that Mishima was a not as important a writer as other Japaneses writers of his time and this same view was later put forward by the author Kazuo Ishiguro. In Tokyo at the time of his death, the writer Junichiro Tanizaki, author of "The Makioka Sisters" was considered to be a much better author than Mishima. Irregardless of these sentiments by other writers and whether one agrees or disagrees with either his life or his ideas, Yukio Mishima still continues to be a one of the most fascinating writers of the twentieth century.