In the summer of 1965 Yukio Mishima began working on what would become his life's major literary work , a four volume masterpiece entitled "The Sea of Fertility". "Spring Snow" is the first book of this series. First published in Japan in 1966 the novel sold 200,00 copies. "Spring Snow" introduces the narratives two central characters. Kiyoaki Matsugae is the son of an aristocratic family and his best friend is Shigekuni Honda, who is a fellow student at the school that Kiyoaki attends.
The story takes place in the period just after the Russo-Japanese War. Kiyoaki and Honda are both about to finish high school and go off to college. Honda is rigorously preparing for college while Kiyoaki who has been born into a family of wealth and privilege is lost in his own internal life, that revolves around his ambivalent feelings for a young woman named Satoko Ayakura, the daughter of an aristocrat.
The Matsugae family came to prominence as a result of the Meiji Restoration.They are members of the new ruling class in Japan created by money and power and as a result their claims to aristocracy are seen as being not legitimate by the more established members of the Japanese ruling class whose aristocratic bloodlines can be traced back several centuries. In an attempt to give his family's heir more refinement and polish, Marquis Matsugae, Kiyoaki's father, has Kiyoaki educated at the court of Count Ayakura, a distinguished nobleman whose family has enjoyed the favor of the emperor for 23 generations. Even though the Marquis feels pride in the education that his son is receiving there is something disconcerting about what his son is turning into, as if the heritage of his military ancestors is somehow being diluted by the "elegance" of Count Ayakura's education.
While at the court of Count Ayakura, Kiyoaki meets the Count's daughter Satoko. He first meets Satoko when they are both children, but by the time the story takes place the two are teenagers. Kiyoaki has grown into a very handsome young man whose attractive looks are the topic of conversation among all the women that he comes in contact with. Satoko as well has grown into a very beautiful woman.
Early in the story Satoko tries to confess her true feelings to Kiyoaki.They are at a party when Satoko says to him in passing what he would do if she were not here anymore. The remark disturbs Kiyoaki, He feels that Satoko is just trying to send him into a panic and vex his state of mind. Kiyoaki lashes out at her by writing her an insulting letter and mailing it to her. Immediately after mailing the letter Kiyoaki has reservations about what he did. He calls the Ayakura household and tells Satoko not to read the letter and destroy it.Satoko agrees.The next time that he sees Satoko is at a family function at his home and he wonders if she really kept her word and destroyed the letter. Satoko seems very happy to see Kiyoaki and he feels at least for the moment that his relationship with Satoko is secure once again.
Eventually Satoko is offered a marriage proposal from the Imperial household. Kiyoaki is having dinner with his parents one evening when his father brings the topic up. His father tells Kiyoaki that the emperor's son wishes to marry Satoko. He suspects that his son has romantic feelings for Satoko and asks him what he thinks of the marriage proposal and if he has any objections.Kiyoaki tells his father that he has no objections whatsoever and continues eating his dinner.
After Satoko has become engaged Kiyoaki pursues her once again enlisting the help of Satoko's maid Tadeshina. Tadeshina arranges meetings between the two young lovers. Eventually, Satoko stops seeing Kiyoaki after she discovers that she is pregnant. When her pregnancy is disclosed Satoko agrees to have an abortion. While on her way home from the abortion, both she and her mother stop to visit her aunt who is an abbess at a prominent temple. Satoko tells her aunt of her desire not to marry the prince and decides instead to become a member of the convent. Her aunt keeps Satoko with her so that she may think her decision over, but eventually the abbess lets Satoko take her religious vows and become a member of the temple without telling her parents. Before taking her final vows, the abbess tells Satoko that after she will never again be able to see Kiyoaki. Satoko agrees and begins her life as a member of the temple.
Later, Kiyoaki discovers where Satoko is and goes to the temple to try to persuade the abbess to let him see her. The abbess refuses and sends Kiyoaki away. Kiyoaki returns several more times. Each time the abbess once again sends him away. Kiyoaki becomes ill from the cold and Honda eventually comes to try and take him home. Kiyoaki persuades Honda to go to the temple and try to convince the abbess to let him see Satoko one last time. Honda goes hoping that his going will pacify his friend and afterward he will agree to come back to Tokyo with him. The abbess refuses Honda as well. On the train back to Tokyo, Kiyoaki tells Honda that he has had a dream. He tells Honda that he will see him again under the waterfalls. Honda takes Kiyoaki home where he dies three days later.Kiyoaki is ninteen years old. This is where the novel "Spring Snow" ends.
On the surface "Spring Snow" is a novel about forbidden love and class divisions in a rapidly changing Japan but the story shares many elements of Mishima's other writings. Starting with his novel "Kyoko's House" in 1959 Mishima would contrast certain archetypal characters throughout a story. In "Spring Snow" these two archetypes are the emotions and the intellect. Kiyoaki is a man ruled by his emotions constantly pursuing beauty, while Honda is governed by rationality. Kiyoaki Matsugae is in many ways every bit as decadent and self-absorbed as the narrator of "Confessions of a Mask". Preoccupied with his own internal life, Kiyoaki is oblivious to the world around him. He has no real close friends or relationships. Even Honda is held at a distance. Kiyoaki cannot even feel genuine love for the woman that he desires unless that love is made virtually impossible to obtain by her being engaged to another.
In many ways the character of Kiyoaki is very similar to Mishima himself. Those who knew Mishima during his lifetime would say that he wasn't close to any other person with the sole exception of his mother. Even Yasunari Kawabata his mentor of many years had a very cool and formal relationship with Mishima. Mishima was a very controlled human being. It was not uncommon for him to discard people as soon as they were no longer useful to him.
The idea that "elegance" symbolized by Count Ayakura has somehow corrupted the true cultural spirit of the Japanese is referred to repeatedly throughout the novel. This idea would be discussed extensively in Mishima's book length essay "Sun and Steel". "Elegance" and "refinement" is a disguise for inaction and decadence. This way of life is symbolized by Count Ayakura. The Count is a man who acts on nothing throughout the entire novel. Even the knowlege of his daughter's pregnancy by Kiyoaki after being engaged to the Emperor's son causes him not to stir so much as a muscle. All of the Count's wishes have to be carried out by other people whether it be Kiyoaki's father or his house servant Tadeshina.Throughout the 1960's Mishima would be very committed to becoming what he would refer to as "a man of action".Mishima would later write in "Sun and Steel" about the corrupting power that words had excercised over his life. By the time that he wrote "Spring Snow" Mishima was well on the way to becoming "a man of action". Starting in the mid 1950's Mishima had begun a rigorous program of physical training. He had become a devout bodybuilder, so much so that one of the conditions of his marriage to his wife had been that during their marriage she must never interfere with his bodybuilding routine. Mishima was very committed to the idea of remaking himself over in the image of the hero. In his essay "Sun and Steel" he defines the hero as being an average person, not special in any way, who dies young. This idea stems from Mishima's idea about tragedy. He felt that tragedy is " when a perfectly average sensibility momentarily takes on to itself a privleged nobility that keeps others at a distance and not when a special type of sensibility vaunts its own special claim ".
This definition gives insight into the last years of Mishima's life. If Mishima had intended to ultimately die a heroe's death he had to act soon because by the time that he wrote "Spring Snow" he was already nearing forty. If he waited much longer he would just be another middle aged man who committed suicide , a very unheroic end to someone's life no matter how dramatically he carried that end out. The "Sea of Fertility " novels followed very much in the tradition of "bunburyodo" or "dual way of literature and the sword" Mishima had become very interested in this practice in the last years of his life which can be traced back to the ancient samurais. Samurais were expected to cultivate both the military as well as the literary arts in equal measure. It is doubtful whether Japan's medival soldiers actually did this, but Mishima saw this way of life as the pattern by which he intended to live the last years of his life.
On its publication in Japan in 1966 "Spring Snow" was an immediate success selling over 200,00 copies despite the fact that the Japanese literary establishment choose to ignore the book. Mishima had been falling out of favor with them for some time. Mishima's increasing right-wing views had offended many of Japan's leading writers and intellectuals who during the 1960's tended to lean towards the left in both their political and social views. By the 1960's, only Yusunari Kawabata, Mishima's life long mentor, would continue to support the author through any controversy.
Starting in the late 1950's many had felt that the quality of Mishima's work was starting to slip. His book sales were gradually diminishing year after year. At one point Mishima's books sales were so disappointing that he felt the need to formally apologize to his publisher. The reason for this change of events was that he had been gradually losing the college reading audience to younger writers such as Kobo Abe and Kenzaburo Oe. Also Mishima's increasingly strange public behavior caused him to be the target of gossip among Japan's literary critics. During the mid 1960's Mishima posed for a series of erotic pictures that appeared in a book entitled "Torture by Roses". The book gave Mishima a bad reputation in some quarters and many of his strongest critics began to say that Mishima " had gone off his head at last". The success of "Spring Snow" immediately re-established Mishima's reputation as one of Japan's premier novelists and set the stage for the second volume of the series "Runaway Horses".
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