Time and Tradition in Mishima’s Spring Snow

All of this caused Kiyoaki constant pain. In comparison with  Satoko’s public humiliation, however, he did not have a slighting remark to contend with. And however acute his private agony, it was, after all, the torment of a coward.”

― Yukio MishimaSpring Snow

Perhaps nothing could start Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetratology more beautifully than Spring Snow. Mishima put a painstaking work in detailing  Taishō period Japan, a post-war era marked with political instabilities and cultural confusion.

Indeed, Mishima’s characters were caught up in this lush milieu, innocent youths who were enchanted by innocent passion. Spring Snow is a story of the pleasantries of transient youth, a melodrama of deep nostalgic power.

As with Mishima’s other tales that I have read (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Confessions of a Mask,  the short story “Death in Midsummer”), the seasons played a huge part in the development of the characters and the narrative. I assume the title itself gave this generously, the beauty of which lying on its ambiguity. Is this a hopeful symbol (the radiant signs of spring in the transition from winter) or an ironic prolonging of danger (the persistence of snow even during the spring)? This ambiguity it seems is the very essence of the nature, the painful acceptance of the perpetual coexistence of happiness and hardship.

We are introduced to Kiyoaki Matsuage, the son of a prominent Marquis of Kagoshima, a samurai clan which is slowly losing its bureaucratic power because of the shake-ups in the Japanese nobility. He has a friend named Shigekuni Honda, a calm and calculating young man who has a distaste for radical optimism. The story revolves around Kiyoaki’s romantic relations with Satoko Ayakura, daughter of a Count. Kiyoaki, of course, is a typical Mishima character; his latent machismo often complicates his relationship with Satoko. This conceited young man is a proud assuming bitch. Due to his lack of control and unpredictable spurts of waywardness, Honda’s patient role is always to bring some sense into him when it is needed. Satoko, on the other hand, is Kiyoaki’s exact opposite. The tension escalates as the love angle between this two adolescents become more engulfing and self-destructive.  Needless to say, these kinds of stories are always meant to be doomed.

“Because all those people around you and Miss Satoko are moving slowly but inexorably toward a dénouement. You don’t think the two of you can hover forever in mid-air like two dragonflies making love?”

It just seems fitting, for this matter, that Mishima would introduce another plot of this theme with Kiyoaki’s personal servant. His servant Iinuma developed a love affair with one of the Marquis’ mistresses. In a masterful juxtaposition, Mishima underlined the essential similarties of every love affair, regardless of class, age, and romantic dispositions.

There is of course no need to explicate the predictable trajectories of romantic affairs, fictional or otherwise, of course fictional for this matter. As with the predictable changing of the seasons, the couples  are also aware that their passions have a threshold, and it is only a matter of time till a dramatic change or two will blow the flames of love. Since Satoko’s family is of a socially-mobile middle class origin, Satoko was obligated by his parents to marry the Crown Prince Harunori Toin.

In a breath-taking fabric of narrative layers, Mishima illustrated how the decay of traditional Japan, with its values and culture, have reflected the lives of his characters. Like the manic-depressive and decadent Kiyoaki, Japan  has been unhinged from its placid traditional past and was thrown into the fray of the world’s tumultuous affairs. Honda, on the other hand, traditional and fogey as he is, remained to be the disengaged, macho and rational embodiment of Japan’s tradition spirit. Yet it is interesting that Honda, despite his personal disapproval of Kiyoaki’s character, watched his friend’s back, in puzzlement and admiration  for Kiyoaki’s brave attempt to risk his public image in the name of pure passion. In a lengthy and endangered moment of self-reflection, Honda questioned his own conservative beliefs, faced with the radical sense of fatal conviction that his friend Kiyoaki displayed:

In all their friendship, Honda had never been more aware than he was now of the utter impossibility of seeing into Kiyoaki’s thoughts…But Honda knew that there was no way for him to reach that essence. Here before him, he thought, was passion in its truest sense. The kind of thing that would never take possession of him. But more than that, he thought, wasn’t it true that no passion whatever would succeed in sweeping him away? For he realized that his nature seemed to be lacking in the quality that made this possible. It would never assent to such an invasion. His affection for his friend was deep, he was willing enough to weep when required—but as for feelings, he was lacking in something there. Why did he instinctively channel all his energies into the maintaining of a suitable inner and outer decorum? Why, unlike Kiyoaki, had he been somehow unable to open his soul to the four great inchoate elements of fire, wind, water, and earth?

For Mishima, who is always known to be a stalwart traditionalist, this flow of thought is somehow revealing of his own philosophy. It seems as if for Mishima, time and tradition are only conditions of existence, mere materials for the creation of a conviction. It is conviction itself that is radical and transcendent; questions of what, how and for whom are only matters of theory and abstraction. This is quintessential Mishima: purity in thought and action. To quote,“Perfect purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.”

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2 thoughts on “Time and Tradition in Mishima’s Spring Snow”

  1. This book still (literally) brings tears to my eyes when I remember it. It is by far the best that I have read from him. Man you gotta read this, haha! I read this one on pdf, and i’m still searching for material copies on the net. I can lend you one if ever I find one, haha

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