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Yukio Mishima - Spring Snow Legolas Send a noteboard - 01/01/2011 09:33:55 PM
Spring Snow is the first of four books in the Sea of Fertility series by Japanese author Yukio Mishima. Mishima is considered one of the greatest modern Japanese authors, and notable not only for his writing but also for his rather turbulent personal life, which ended in 1970 when he committed seppuku, the traditional Japanese ritual suicide - on the same day he had given his publisher the manuscript of the final Sea of Fertility book.

The protagonist of the novel is Kiyoaki Matsugae, a Japanese teenager in the early 1910s, born in a "nouveau riche" family but brought up for a good part of his childhood in the impoverished but high-ranking Ayakura family. Satoko, the only daughter of the Ayakura's and two years his senior, is in love with him, initially to Kiyoaki's great annoyance. Despite his emotional immaturity and capricious behaviour towards her, they start a secret relationship, but then Satoko gets a marriage proposal from a prince of the Imperial family, and things get a great deal more complicated. As the seasons progress and Kiyoaki's classmates, among them his best friend Shigekuni Honda (the protagonist of the series as a whole), feverishly study for the crucial final exam in the early spring, his romance with Satoko, now inevitably linked to matters of state, heads towards a dramatic climax.

Mishima does a great job at writing credible characters, with the sort of seeming contradictions and oddities that one might expect in a society like that of Japan in this period, fifty years after the Meiji Restoration and just a few years after Japan showed the West how well it had learned its lessons by trouncing Russia in the Russo-Japanese war. The mix of modern Western ideas and traditional Japanese ones is present just about everywhere in the novel, often with interesting and unexpected results (to me, at least, but then I don't know very much about Japan). The romantic plot of the book is simple enough, well-written as it is; it's this background that makes the book particularly noteworthy. I was reminded at times of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, which has similar contrasts between a traditional feudal society and the new ideas from the West, though obviously for Turgenev's Russian characters the gap is less big.

Mishima is also a great stylist, as far as one can judge that in a translation (translation of a translation, actually; apparently my Dutch translation was based on the English translation, rather than on the original). Japanese nature and the passage of the seasons are described beautifully and, as one might suspect from the title, the plot reflects the seasons to some extent, but in a way that feels entirely natural and not forced. I've discovered that Marguerite Yourcenar, the author whose book I reviewed prior to this one, has published an essay on Mishima (and no, that's not how I decided to read this book, it's quite coincidental), and indeed, I can imagine that Mishima in the original Japanese must have a grace and beauty in his style that is quite like Yourcenar's.

One of the few points of criticism I could make - though this could have to do either with the translation, or simply with Japanese culture being different from the Western one - is the way Mishima occasionally inserts short, unsubtle explanations or summaries of his characters' emotions, in sharp contrast with his normal writing. An example (apologies for the crude translation back into English):

"In a single circle of yellowish light, the lamp above their heads caught the core symbols of the two diametrically opposite worlds to which the two boys had surrendered themselves. One of them was seriously ill for the sake of love. The other prepared for the heavy demands made by reality."

A violation of the "show, don't tell" rule which is made all the stranger by the masterful way in which Mishima does in fact "show, not tell" most of the time. Other than that, while it is not a real point of criticism, I feel I owe it to the readers of this review to warn them that Kiyoaki's character really is very annoying at times in the first half of the book. Those who find it difficult to read books with antipathetic or whiny protagonists may find that a rather big obstacle, even if he fortunately does grow up later on.

On the whole, Spring Snow is a superb description of early twentieth-century Japan and a moving love story, once Kiyoaki grows up a bit. I highly recommend it, and I dare say it's a must-read for those interested in Japan. I will definitely read the remaining three books in the series, about Honda's later life and Japanese society up to 1970, though I understand that in later books the philosophical and religious themes, particularly that of reincarnation, have a stronger presence and perhaps overshadow the plot a bit. Then again, since Honda is a rather more mature and less emotional personality than Kiyoaki, the later books presumably don't have quite as many scenes in which one wants to slap some sense into the protagonist.
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Yukio Mishima - Spring Snow - 01/01/2011 09:33:55 PM 7626 Views
Re: Yukio Mishima - Spring Snow - 01/01/2011 10:18:03 PM 2109 Views
Re: Yukio Mishima - Spring Snow - 01/01/2011 10:32:44 PM 1772 Views
Re: Yukio Mishima - Spring Snow - 02/01/2011 11:52:30 PM 1514 Views
That really does sound interesting. *NM* - 02/01/2011 11:54:42 PM 773 Views
As is the case with many writer's and artists. . . - 03/01/2011 12:00:32 AM 1379 Views
Re: That really does sound interesting. - 03/01/2011 05:54:56 PM 1431 Views
Yeah, I didn't care for it much, but is interesting. *NM* - 04/01/2011 05:34:53 AM 720 Views
Re: Yukio Mishima - Spring Snow - 03/01/2011 06:46:59 PM 1544 Views
Nice clarification. - 04/01/2011 05:37:03 AM 1367 Views
I really liked this book and mentioned it some time ago. - 02/01/2011 11:30:14 PM 1602 Views
Re: Yukio Mishima - Spring Snow - 03/01/2011 07:29:06 PM 1533 Views
Interesting. I suppose that makes sense, in a way. - 03/01/2011 07:51:41 PM 1519 Views

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