Synchronicity, the Unexpected and Yukio Mishima

The unusual parallels between the Japanese author and pandemic life

Yukio Mishima posing as Saint Sebastian, photography Toru Yamanaka 

In my best efforts, I’d describe synchronicity as the alignment of otherwise discordant identities, specifically to produce the effect of a continuation of force. Like watching dominoes collide and perceiving the motions of cause and effect, the moment of synchronicity, not unlike that of déjà vu, suggests a continuation of momentum between objects, and the emergence of a pattern that one cannot explain, but simply materialises before them, not unlike any other object in the world. However, to do so in this manner would be likewise to ignore the direct quality of its lived-experience, and what I assume has engendered its proliferation across modern culture.

In my own account, I would have to start with the novelist Yukio Mishima, and the uncanny resonances and patterns which have seemed to spread and proliferate in my experience of the last year, after deciphering his own book of essays across one of the pre-lockdown summers. Neurotic to the extreme, and idiosyncratic, his writing details the development and final conclusions of his fatal obsession with sunbathing; from shunning the outside world altogether, to flinging himself headlong into the celestial body, both metaphorically and literally in the backseat of a F104 jet plane. Most people who write about Mishima focus on his nationalism, which of course is an unavoidable component to his story – the mechanistic narrative self-consciously developed throughout his life – but I think that the sunbathing is the root of the problem. It would be a mistake to treat his post-war political idealism as more real than the metaphysics at his heart, simply because one was more tangible than the other.

Yukio Mishima, Tokyo, 1970. Photography Elliott Erwitt, Magnum Photos

Sun and Steel is the work in question, and it ends with the aforementioned fighter jet. As his military vehicle raises him to ever greater heights and drains the oxygen from his brain, Mishima catches a ride into his ideological stratosphere; some violent fusion of a warrior’s death and the beauty of his body exposed to raw sunlight. The results are heart-breaking to read, and despite all personal distaste for his politics, I found myself deeply moved by the lines that he inscribes before crest of this moment: “What is there, then, at the outermost edge? Nothing, perhaps, save for a few ribbons, dangling down into the void.” In the final lines Mishima recites a poem he has written. It is called Icarus. He killed himself two years later, in a ritualistic failed attempt at a military coup d’état aimed at the Japanese government of the time. What I find so moving about Mishima is his awareness of what he was doing, of the story he was trying to write into the world. For all of the violence that he fetishised, and his fascist tendencies, as an artist he truly did push off into the void; walking those ribbons which he described, all the way into the night.

Mishima addresses members of the Self-Defense Forces in Tokyo shortly before his suicide on Nov. 25, 1970. Photography Nikkei

Returning to the matter at hand, to synchronicity, I can only assume that it was the violence of the Covid-19 pandemic that brought Mishima sharply back into my mind. It is April, at the time of writing, and like most people living in the UK I’ve lived the best part of the last year inside. I spent it reading analytic philosophy in preparation for an upcoming paper I wanted to publish, on the limits of idealism and metaphysics in general. Over that time, again like the vast majority of us, I grew fatter, and certainly paler. In the mirror, I found myself gradually coming to resemble a vampire, under the locks of uncut hair and the deep bags beneath my eyes. It was a downward motion to say the least, hair lunging towards the floor like the nation’s gut and bruised features, and like a bog in which the world had been immersed, I began to feel as I could only continue to sink. Of course, I am fortunate enough to write with hindsight. Things have begun to open up, and with the uncomfortable use of an atrophied national discourse, so too has the country. There was a ghost of the author that seems to linger between the acts, but as the thought emerged during a daring venture through Piccadilly Circus, I likewise brought a hand to my face to waft it away; it smelt like the novelty of bus fumes.

I find now that I have less time for reading; the luxury and freedoms of the outside world have rendered it somewhat two-dimensional. Each morning, when I’m not working, I sit in the footrest chair in my garden and try to soak up the alien blue sky through its sunlight. Like some strange realisation of the Clark Kent mythos, it seems to charge me up, like I’m photosynthesising the words and internet research to which I’ve grown so accustomed. I’ve made the uneasy shift from couch-potato to windowsill tomato plant, and it’s become hard to imagine when 2021’s inevitable autumn will roll around, and I’ll be shut up to be whitewashed all over again. In recent reflection, I became certain that Mishima wrote about the corrosive nature of words as opposed to the warmth of the sun, but once more I dismissed the comparison; nobody wants to be like somebody else. At least, this is what I had assumed. However, as more time passes the patterns keep cropping up; like the meanings and words that sustained me through winter have left little imprints on my mind. The mid-afternoon compulsion to do push-ups – inspired out of the realisation that I’d start meeting people face to face again – and the embarrassing sucking in before the mirror suddenly begin to ring with an eerie tone. A short trip to google confirms my suspicions. Though uploaded and popularised long before Covid-19 entered the scene, there has been a real resurgence of Mishima coverage online. His Wikipedia page seems longer than it used to be, dozens of YouTube videos ‘explaining’ his life and literature have been uploaded, along with documentaries from the 1970’s dredged up for their rare English-speaking interviews with the man himself. Even the odd influencer can be found lurking amongst the search results, proselytising about their new favourite author…

Yukio Mishima

Mishima was a man who lived for his stories. He fed off his fictions, the realities he created between the pages of his books and those devoured as a sickly child. His whole life, indeed the very nature and significance of his death, was an attempt to become one with this world of fiction, to freeze himself in the timelessness of a perfect state of things. Is it not a similar experience that has been reported in response to the lockdowns? With little else to do, and embargoed from meeting with the world as it is, the vast majority of people have turned to entertainment; to fictions and imagined characters, and intricately tuned systems of meaning and thought, where the tendrils of the pandemic cannot reach. To the people in this state it feels like time has stopped, because there are so few interruptions in the routine, or narratives of their lives. Like Mishima, our favourite films, literature and the relentless onslaught of advertisements have formed the walls of our pale and artificially lit reality, and in emerging from such an environment, synchronicity becomes the normal condition of our experience. In the same manner as picking patterns out of television static, I’ve found myself drawing Mishima out of everything; seeing him in places I would never expect, embodied in writers, musicians and even some of our late politicians. The world feels almost fictionalised, as the momentum from a certain Mishima-esque ideology is carried between the key characters of a wider narrative. In some ways it feels like madness, but it might also be an opportunity for understanding, and producing new ways to elucidate these figures and their impact on society.

Archive photo taken from Toyoshima Keisuke’s film Mishima: The Last Debate

As a model for interpretation, this synchronicity-induced collision of Mishima and the immediate present reveals a preservation of his brand of creative idealism, as people dream new and dramatic preferences in the ways in which history and society has been constructed. It also shows the ends of this process. From the myth of the samurai, to the Apollonian masculinity and even the suntan; Mishima’s desire shaped his body as it did his whole life; in ways totally unbounded by any regard for his surroundings, before coming into inexorable conflict with them. From even his early twenties, Mishima was haunted by a paranoia that one day he would grow old. His ideals couldn’t accommodate such an existence, where he would lose his youth and self-diagnosed beauty. In light of this, his act of suicide became the ultimate pause, the embalming of his dreams and wants, and the ultimate expression of his solitude. Balanced on the barest threads at the edge of space, he watched the sun rise and set on his radical pursuit of idealism, on the changes he made to the world through his writing and actions, and his own loneliness and need for company. I can’t help but imagine the modern world as precariously dangling in the same position. Between our fictionalised dreams and the hunger for real human connection.