Sunday, 3 May 2009

33 - 'Forbidden Colours' by Yukio Mishima

A promise is a promise. Back in February (book 12a - yes, 12a...), I related a tale of getting lost in the city and the purchases that resulted but only reviewed one of the two books I picked up. So now, ever true to my word, here's the second of my chance purchases.

'Forbidden Colours', set in post-war Japan, centres on the life of Yuichi Minami, an attractive young man who sets pulses racing (of both genders) wherever he goes. A chance encounter with a famous novelist and poet, Shunsuke Hinoki, who discovers the secret of Yuichis's homosexuality, is the catalyst for a series of gay flings and longer love affairs, both sexual and merely teasing. Shunsuke, after giving Yuichi 500,000 yen, persuades the young man to marry Yasuko, the woman arranged for him by both sets of parents.

This is, however, no act of generosity. The author is using Yuichi to get back at someone who has hurt him in love; he also manages to get the young man to start affairs with two married women where he is to drive them to distraction and then hurt them (one by sleeping with her husband...). Although Shunsuke is initially in control of the naive young man, Yuichi soon becomes emboldened by his success with both men and women and starts to play his own games. Eventually, Shunsuke begins to feel that he is falling for Yuichi's beauty himself...

In all the affairs and deception, the reader is made to observe the life of the outsider. Mishima depicts the life of gay society in the Tokyo of the time, with young men waiting in coffee shops to be picked up by captains of industry or one of the many rich foreigners occupying Japan. The sense of desperation at being forced underground and having to hide their true feelings from the 'normal' society feeds into the hedonistic behaviour seen at the cafes and parties the men frequent.

However, it is not only the men who feel excluded from society. The three main female characters, Yasuko (Yuichi's wife), Kyoko (a young society wife) and Mrs. Kaburagi (who falls for Yuichi only to find that her husband has gone slightly further with him than she has) also struggle to find a purpose in life. Yasuko continues to love her husband despite the months of abandonment and her suspicions of affairs with other women. It is only when Mrs. Kaburagi lies to her about being Yuichi's mistress (in order to deflect suspicion from his homosexuality) that she loses her attachment to him; ironically, it is at this time that Yuichi seems to be ready to become a good husband.

The hatred of women is one of the central themes of this book. In the homosexual world of the story, women are excluded and do not exist for most of the men. Yuichi is quite happy to help out with Shunsuke's revenge on his former mistresses; the writer insists that women are a waste of space and deserve no love, indeed cannot be loved. At this point, no doubt, most readers would be thinking that this sounds like a very painful book to read..

On the contrary, it's a very enjoyable novel. Despite the misogynous behaviour detailed above, the female characters give as good as they get, and Yuichi does not have things all his own way. Although seeming to fall on his feet again at the end of the book with the inheritance of 10 million yen, it is difficult to see where his life will go from here (although, considering that the last thing he does is to get his shoes shined, perhaps his breath-taking vanity is still intact!). His wife no longer loves him, and he gets no real satisfaction any more from his casual flings with men.

Of course, with Mishima, part of the value of reading is deciding how much comes from the author's own life. He was a bit of a misogynist (and a little xenophobic, just like Yuichi, who sleeps with hundreds of men, all of them Japanese), he allegedly had affairs with men, and (and there is no getting around this) he comitted seppuku, ritual suicide, in his mid-forties. Yes, he disembowelled himself and then had one of his retainers slice off his head. I'll just let that sink in for a moment.

On knowing this, it is only too tempting to look for traces of Mishima in his characters. Is he Shunsuke, the ageing death-obsessed, woman-hating writer who takes his own life? Is he Yuichi, the young, attractive woman-hating homosexual who has a sham married life? It certainly makes for interesting sub-text. In the end though, it is best to read and enjoy the book without trying to look for traces of the author; there is enough to ponder on without that.

In the end, the main theme which comes to mind is happiness. Is it possible to be happy in life? What do we need to be happy? Perhaps the most important requirement is to be yourself. None of the major characters in 'Forbidden Colours' seem to open up and let their true thoughts be known (which may have something to do with both the time and the place the novel is set in), and this may be the reason for their unhappiness. Whether Mishima was happy or not is another question entirely.