Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

30 September, 2015

Spring Snow

The Shinkawas were both irritated and flattered by the Matsugae’s invitation to the blossom viewing. Irritated because they realized how bored they would be. Flattered because it would give them an opportunity to display their authentically European manners in public. The Shinkawas were an old and wealthy merchant family and while it was, of course, essential to maintain the mutually profitable relationship established with the men from Satsuma and Choshu who had riesen to such power within the government, the Baron and his wife held them in secret contempt because of their peasant origins. This was an attitude inherited from their parents, and one that was at the very heart of their newly acquired but unshakable elegance.

Reading a novel by Yukio Mishima is rather a daunting prospect as he comes with a lot of baggage, from his highly sensationalised life and death to very divided opinions on his work amongst his Japanese readers. However, what can’t be disputed is his place in Japanese literature. He missed getting the Nobel Prize to Yasunari Kawabata, one he felt was unfair but perhaps inevitable in Japan’s strict hierarchical society even in literary circles, and some say this may have led to his inevitable foray into nationalism and death. But my mother told me many years ago that Mishima’s writing was beautiful and that I must read him. And so I chose him for my book group this summer.

Spring Snow is the first volume in Mishima’s Sea of Fertility quartet detailing the bittersweet love story between Kiyoaki Matsugae, son of a recently elevated Marquis at the Emperor’s court and coming from a long line of Satsuma samurai, and Satoko Ayakura, daughter of a waning aristocratic family, and how it reflects the seismic changes within Japanese society at the beginning of the 20th century. Following the Meiji Restoration, the power structure shifted from the samurai families back to the aristocracy once peace was established. The Marquis Matsugae had sent Kiyoaki to be educated in the Ayakura household and as a result, they no longer have anything in common, Kiyoaki having grown into a rarefied and refined gentleman studying at the Peers School until he is given a position at Court unlike his friend Honda, who has no privileged family connections and is studying to become a lawyer like his father. Into this friendship comes Satoko, Kiyoaki’s childhood friend, a beautiful and self-assured young woman, a few years older than Kiyoaki, who is in love with him. But Kiyoaki has been trained to contain all displays of emotions, fooling everyone around him and ultimately himself.

When Satoko’s engagement to an Imperial Prince is announced, Kiyoaki suddenly realises his love for her and is desperate to see her. With the help of Iinuma, his servant, and Tadeshina, Satoko’s maid who has worked for the Ayakuras since before Satoko’s birth, Kiyoaki sets in motion events which will have severe repercussions for both families.

This sounds rather grim and there are echoes of Romeo and Juliet here, however, it is Mishima’s style and his beautiful writing that elevates and transforms this tale into something so much more. Here is a microcosm of aristocratic Japanese society, still reverberating from the Meiji Restoration. Satoko, however spirited and intelligent and emotionally so much more mature that Kiyoaki is nevertheless bound by her family and society’s rules and makes the only choice available to her. We see her living, loving and finally realising the true metal of her lover, and although harsh, the choices she makes are the only ones which will set her free. Apart from Satoko, whose only flaw is to fall in love with Kiyoaki, most of the other characters are ineffectual and don’t realise their mistakes until the end. Kiyoaki’s parents are weak and blind to his faults and believe money will solve everything; Honda, Kiyoaki’s friend, tries to help but is too in awe of him; the Ayakuras are living off others and are consequently in a bubble; Iinuma, fanatical and unable to fit into Tokyo life; and Tadeshina, supposedly loyal with a cruel streak inside.

Mishima brilliantly depicts the subtle undercurrents within Satoko and Kiyoaki’s circle. The importance of keeping face as opposed to the often ugly side of reality, the obsession with strict rules and manners when real communication between people are lacking and most importantly, intent over-ridden by duty. Both Satoko and Kiyoaki try to break free from their restraints but their methods differ and ultimately fail. There is a tragic sense of miscommunication leaving the reader feeling, ‘if only he had’ or ‘why didn’t he just say something?’ This puts the onus on Kiyoaki, but it’s by no means only his fault. Satoko, who should have known him best failed too. All in all, it’s a glorious piece of tragic storytelling mixed in with cultural and historical detail. Mishima’s knowledge of history and his curiosity of other cultures are evident too. But what really strikes the reader is his mastery of language. His prose is light, whimsical and exquisite. And yet he delves into such dark themes. I loved this book which is so beautifully translated by Michael Gallagher and am looking forward to reading the other novels in the quartet, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 9. Do also check out the reviews by Kim and Tony.

26 Responses to “Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima”

  1. Mystica Says:

    Thank you for an exquisite review

  2. Tony Says:

    Yeah, it’s great, and the others aren’t bad either – the next one has a much more violent, energetic feel, but is still very good 🙂

    • sakura Says:

      Good to hear Tony. I see that Michael Gallagher translated the next one but not the other two. Did you notice a difference?

      • Tony Says:

        It’s been so long since I read them that I couldn’t really tell you 🙂 I did think the first two were the better books, but that was more to do with the content than anything…

        • sakura Says:

          Ah, time… I just went back to read your review (I’m saving reading your reviews until I finish the books). Also, I’m getting interested in Korean culture so will be checking out some of the books on your K-list too.

          • Tony Says:

            Lots to have a look at there (probably around fifty over the past year and a half!).

          • sakura Says:

            That’s very impressive. I’ve probably got three titles to start with then hopefully more. At the moment I’m just watching a lot of Korean tv, hahaha.

  3. Tony Says:

    I’ve just started watching some K-Dramas to help with my Korean – I can’t say I’d watch them otherwise 😉 I watched one called ‘Warm and Cosy’, and I’m five episodes into ‘Twenty Again’.

  4. Tony Says:

    By the way, what Korean books do you have?

    • sakura Says:

      I’ve got Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Kyung-Sook Shin’s Look After Mother on my shelf – both with lots of good reviews. I’ve been watching a lot of fantasy period dramas (Scholar Who Walks at Night, Faith, Arrang and the Magstrate. And trendy dramas such as The Heirs…) They are a bit more interesting than the current crop of J-dramas.

  5. I’ve been too intimidated by Mishima to start any of his books, but this lovely review may be just what I needed to read to dive in! Thank you for sharing 🙂

  6. winstonsdad Says:

    I have this on my shelf will be reading in january for Tony’s japanese lit thing , I have read the sailor who .. which I diddn’t really like but was told I may find this one more to my taste in books

  7. I’ve read The Temple of Dawn, not realising that is was part of a tetralogy & haven’t yet got round to the rest.

  8. mee Says:

    I didn’t get the reference that the Matsugae comes from a line of samurai family. I wonder how much else I’ve missed!
    Why was it inevitable that Mishima lost to Kawabata because of “Japan’s strict hierarchical society”? Elaborate please?

    Personally I didn’t think his prose as light and whimsical. I thought it was a bit hard-going and very literary at first, though it did probably get lighter after the second half (or is that just me?). I found the part when the 2 families discuss Satoko’s hair to be very funny 🙂

    I intend to read the rest of the tetralogy but probably at a snail’s pace of one a year 😉

    • sakura Says:

      The Matsugaes are from the Satsuma clan which was a powerful samurai force in the south of Japan (I only know this as my grandad’s family was from Satsuma too). I think there is a lot of social history that is subtly embedded in Mishima’s writing which may not be apparent if you aren’t familiar with that particular era in Japanese history (I got most of my info from Japanese tv and manga throughout the years!)

      From what I know, there’s a very strict hierarchical order in all social areas including those that really should be about merit. I think it was probably much harder back then to become established and win prizes if you were competing with your mentor – age was also a big factor and winning by merit was almost unheard of.

      I think when compared to Shusaku Endo’s novels (which are very dark but incredible), Mishima’s definitely has a lighter touch, not just in content but in his prose – I just found it really exquisite. But because he’s so famous, I think I was expecting something much heavier, the writing more like Tanizaki or Soseki but it was completely different. So it was a pleasant surprise for me. And yes, I intend to read the rest of his work too!

      • mee Says:

        I would think that the Nobel committee as non-Japanese wouldn’t be pressured by Japan’s hierarchical order in order to pick their winners. An event of the past hopefully?
        I haven’t read Shusaku Endo, but I’ve read one Tanizaki and thought it wasn’t heavy reading. Perhaps it was the book selection or the translation? I do think that Mishima’s prose is exquisite. Soseki and Kawabata were both a bit too quiet for me (but I only read one book each).
        Thanks for sharing about your family connection story – sounds awesome! 🙂

        • sakura Says:

          Hopefully things have changed! Which Tanizaki did you read? I really enjoyed The Makioka Sisters which didn’t seem as twisted as his other novels… My mother is also a fan of his modern Japanese translation of The Tale of Genji too, a book I still have to read (I’ve only read the beautiful manga version by Waki Yamato called Asaki Yumemishi).

          • mee Says:

            I read The Key – which is a tiny book, but I quite liked it for its twistiness. I’ve been meaning to read The Makioka Sisters but just haven’t got around it. Didn’t know he translated.
            Oh wow you reminded me I used to read Waki Yamato manga. The one called Haikara-san ga Tōru (translated to Miss Modern in Indonesia) was very popular. I will try to find her Tale of Genji manga somehow (in English :).

          • sakura Says:

            I’ve never read Haikara-san ga Toru although I think I saw a drama based on it – it’s really famous and I didn’t realise she wrote it!

          • mee Says:

            I could tell from the drawing style 🙂

  9. BookerTalk Says:

    This has been on my wish list ever since I read anothe Mishimi novel, After the Banquet. Have you read that?

    • sakura Says:

      Hello! I’m afraid I haven’t read After the Banquet. I have his three other volumes in the Sea of Fire tetralogy and am hoping to read his other titles at some point. Mishima is such a beautiful writer, isn’t he?

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