Wednesday, 16 September 2009

67 - 'Runaway Horses' by Yukio Mishima

Music and literature have always been entwined in my head, even before I started listening to my i-Pod on the train while reading to drown out the obnoxious schoolkids and depressingly loud bogans in the vicinity. I still remember listening to certain CDs (actually, probably tapes) while perusing serious (Dürrenmatt's 'Der Besuch der Alten Dame' to the accompaniment of REM's 'Automatic for the People') and not-so-serious (some Pern dragon books with a background of 'ABBA Gold') literature, so it will come as no surprise to learn that, even during this year's blogfest, certain songs have been going around in my head.

As mentioned in an earlier post, Franz Ferdinand released 'Ulysses' at a very inopportune time for me, and Haruki Murakami's 'Sputnik Sweetheart' will forever inspire a chorus of Doves' 'Satellites' inside my tiny brain. Even in the last two reviews, 'Wuthering Heights' and 'Molly Malone' have come up (not completely logically, but when did that ever stop me?). The point is, as someone who grew up in the eighties, what chance did I have of keeping my head free of music when reading a book entitled 'Runaway Horses'?

Sadly, Belinda Carlisle did not follow the example set by Kate Bush, and her song has no connection with the second of Yukio Mishima's four 'The Sea of Fertility' novels (and has absolutely no mention of seppuku that I'm aware of). Disappointingly, the book has absolutely nothing to do with horses, errant or not, instead reintroducing us to Shigekuni Honda, one of the major characters of 'Spring Snow', who, in the eighteen years separating the two novels, has become a high court judge. During a business trip to a kendo tournament held at a sacred shinto shrine (the kind of business trip I am rarely asked to go on), a young swordsman catches his eye, and his solid, successful life, eighteen years in the making, again becomes caught up in a turbulent whirlwind of intrigue and emotion.

The young Isao Iinuma, the son of the retainer of the first novel's main protagonist, Kiyoake Matsugae, is a young man filled with a longing to reverse the trend of the past decades of foreign-influenced rule. Through a short book relating the (true) exploits of a group of samurai loyal to the emperor, 'The League of the Divine Wind', Isao discovers something worth living, fighting and dying for. His natural energy and his incredible passion attract a group of like-minded students, and together they plan an incredible assault on the pillars of the modern Japanese economy, which they consider to be a corrupt betrayal of the true Japanese spirit.

Where the first book was littered throughout with references to spring flowers, delicate colours and the first stirrings of cherry blossoms, the role of nature and the seasons is very different here. Several important scenes are carried out in the scorching summer sun: Isao's first appearance in the kendo tournament; a parade of soldiers on a visit to the army barracks; the first meeting of the new league. In all these scenes, Isao soaks up the sun, using the energy of the Emperor (the 'Sun God') to fuel his resolve, the intensity of the sunlight only matched by the strength of Isao's faith in his beliefs.

The theme of reincarnation hinted at in 'Spring Snow' is again central to 'Runaway Horses' with Honda gradually beoming convinced of the reality of his friend's rebirth. From Isao's natural grace to his fulfilment of one of the dreams in the diary Honda has inherited, the lawyer sees the return of a character he thought was lost, with a scene from one of those dreams becoming reality. Ironically, one of Isao's dreams, later on in the book, appears to point to the direction of the third book of the tetralogy (but let's not go there today...).

'Runaway Horses', like its predecessor, is a wonderful book to read, although very different in its style. Where 'Spring Snow' was feminine and graceful, conforming more to the kind of Japanese novel most of us are accustomed to read, this novel is more masculine, dangerous and urgent. It is easy to see how the events of this story, set in 1932/3, could lead to Japan's aggression in East Asia, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the brutality of the Pacific War. The passion of aggressive young men, who eventually won the support of the army, allied to a blinding belief in the divinity of the Emperor and the superiority of their homeland, was one of the causes of some of the cruellest behaviour of the Second World War.

However, when reading of the exploits of the original 'League of the Divine Wind' and their utter disregard for their lives when called upon to purify their country, it is another conflict which comes to mind. Just as the samurai did not hesitate to attack the supposed enemy, even in the face of insuperable odds, with the prospect of almost certain death clearly in view, so too have fundamentalist 'freedom fighters' waged war on enemies of their religion. The stories of the suicide bombers of Iraq and Afghanistan, if told sympathetically, would probably differ little in the essentials from the description given by Mishima in the mini-novel inside his book. Not convinced? Try looking up the Japanese for 'divine wind'; ever heard of the word 'kamikaze'...
I did intend to finish here, but there are two more things to say. Firstly, I'm looking forward to the next installment of the tetralogy (off to the book depository again next week!). And finally, I believe the last word really should go to Belinda:
"Whoa-oh, Runaway Horses, whoah-oh, take us through the night,...
You and I on Runaway horses, Ooh-ooh, baby hold on tight..."