Of Love and Politics
Japanese literature is one of the vastest and most diverse in the world of literature. Its influence extends beyond Japan and has been in existence for centuries. Lady Murasakami Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji is recognized as one of the earliest published novels. Two Japanese writers – Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburō Ōe – has also brought home the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature. For sure, any devout reader has come across at least one Japanese work in his or her reading journey.
Whilst contemporary Japanese writers like Haruku Murakami and Yoko Ogawa are currently in vogue, classical writers still remain relevant. One of these Japanese classic writers is Kimitake Hiraoka, more popularly known for his pseudonym Yukio Mishima. In his prolific writing career, Utage no Ato (After the Banquet) is one of his most renowned work, both for the subject it dealt with and also for the scandal it has inspired after its publication in 1960.
After the Banquet relates the story of Kazu Fukazawa, the successful proprietress of Tokyo’s upscale Setsugoan – the After-the-Snow retreat. She caters to powerful politicians and diplomats. To an ordinary spectator, her life resonates with success and opulence. At fifty years old, she was never married, a strong, independent woman by today’s standards. She never gave marriage and love a second thought as she basks in reaping the fruits of her labor. As fate would have it, the Kagen Club, a renowned group of dignified older men, mostly politicians and diplomats, walked into her restaurant.
“Young people get the foolish idea that what is new for them must be new for everybody else too. No matter how unconventional they get, they’re just repeating what others before them have done.”~ Yukio Mishima, After the Banquet
After the banquet, Tamaki, a former ambassador to Germany, collapsed in the toilet, causing a commotion. Through this commotion, Kazu’s path intersected with that of Yuken Noguchi. At that moment, Noguchi seemed to radiate dignity above the others, making Kazu fall in admiration for his composure, eventually leading to a marriage. Devoting her time to her husband, Kazu renounced Setsugoan. With nothing to occupy her mind, she decided to help resurrect her husband’s waning political career.
Two subjects permeated all throughout the narrative. The first seminal element is romance and love. Although writing in the traditional Japanese manner where the background details are deemed more important than emotions, Mishima managed to remind the readers about the proverbial butterflies in the stomach when one is falling in love. We’ve all fallen in the same hole that Kazu has fallen. Our natural reflexes make us sacrifice the things we love and alter our natural schedules to fulfill our marital duties, all the while thinking that these are all done in love.
The second essential element that characterize the story is politics. Kazu and Noguchi’s marital life was defined by Noguchi’s political ambitions. He is a popular and respected member of the Radical Party. Through his wife’s prodding, he decided to run as a mayor of Tokyo. This was where the main conflict percolated. Noguchi is introverted and his approach to politics resonated with that passivity. Meanwhile, his wife’s approach is more dynamic, pouring in her energy to support her husband’s political ambition.
There were palpable differences between Kazu and Noguchi. Their incompatibility makes After the Banquet a great character study. The political campaign exposes the glaring differences in the two characters’ personalities. Noguchi projected lofty ideals and political integrity, belying the self-centered and callous man underneath the façade. After Noguchi discovered Kazu’s clandestine efforts to support his campaign, he turned to her in fury. All throughout, subtle details underlined the truth that he never understood his wife, nor did he try to do so.
“An animated life, every day wildly busy, many people coming and going – something like a perpetually blazing fire called her. That world held no resignation or abandoned hopes, no complicated principles; it was insincere and all its inhabitants fickle, but in return, drink and laughter bubbled up lightheartedly. That world seen from here looked like the torchlight of dancers scorching the night sky on a hilltop beyond dark meadows.“~ Yukio Mishima, After the Banquet
One of the key elements that defined the narrative is Kazu, herself. In the contemporary context, she is a strong-willed and independent woman who can be daunting. She is a complex character who exudes both charm and power. She possesses an innate understanding of ordinary people which her husband was bereft of. Whilst her husband was introverted and passive, she is extroverted and dynamic. She is a go-getter who knows where and when to realign her focus and energies to achieve what she has set to do.
There was one facet of Kazu’s character that never suited the laidback life of being a retired politician’s wife living in a modest suburban home. With plenty of verve for life, she craves interaction with people, and problems to be solved. When she finally realized that one cannot go against one’s true calling, she divorced her husband. Whilst her nature remained intact, she didn’t walk out of the marriage empty-handed. She developed an awareness about herself and life in general. She overcame her lingering fear of being forgotten and dying alone; it was better to die alone than live alone.
In true Japanese literary fashion, Mishima’s narrative largely concerned itself with the details of the background rather than the deeper and more complex emotions and thoughts of the characters. The simple background then slowly transforms into intricate symbols and reflections of the complex psychological landscape of the characters. Kazu’s garden in the Setsugoan turned into an emblem of her growth and development as the story progresses. Noguchi’s austere home, meanwhile, was a reflection of his charmless character. The dichotomy in the way they dress also reflected who they both are.
Setsugoan was also a symbol in itself. It was where Kazu started. She left it in pursuit of a grander narrative but when it wasn’t what she expected it to be, she returned to where she started. Again, one can’t go against one’s true nature. She has finally returned home and in her return, she found the sense of belonging that she craved for at the start. Setsugoan is also Kazu’s freedom. The immersion into politics and gender dynamics was a way for Kazu to reconcile with what she was.
“Just as when you throw laundry into a centrifugal dryer, it rotates so fast that the shirt or underwear you’ve thrown in vanishes before your eyes, what we normally call human nature instantly disappears in the whirlpool of politics. I like its fierce operation. It doesn’t necessarily purify, but it makes you forget what should be forgotten, and overlook what should be overlooked. It works a kind of inorganic intoxication.”~ Yukio Mishima, After the Banquet
The novel has several layers to it – politics, marriage, love, traditions. The reliance on subtle symbols in the background, however, tend to create a distance between the characters and readers. Kazu and Noguchi were both masterfully fleshed out. However, they are always observed from a distance. Nevertheless, the narrative showcased Mishima’s keen understanding on the nature of marriage, women, and politics. His insights were cleverly interwoven into the tapestry of the story.
There are many things After the Banquet can be summed up as. It is a complex character study in one of the toughest arena there is – the political arena. However, it doesn’t reduce itself into a mere commentary on career politics in Japan. These ventures into politics served as a backdrop to a grander narrative involving a courageous woman who overcame her fears to fulfill her true calling. As Yamazaki summed it up in his closing letter to Kazu, “But it now seems to me that the election cannot be said to have been a misfortune in a real sense, for it smashed every kind of counterfeit happiness and resulted in you and Mr. Noguchi showing each other your naked selves.” It took time for the narrative to percolate but when the plot unraveled, it was explosive. However, it was not the plot but rather the rich psychological landscape of the characters that truly defined it.
Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%
After the Banquet was my second Mishima, after The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea. Both are short and quick reads but both are rich in symbolisms, a characteristic, I found, that Japanese literature shares in common. However, After the Banquet is, at the same time, a simple and complex narrative for the story sounded simple but the rich backdrop gave the deeper contexts. The narrative rarely concerns itself with the motivations and emotions of the characters. Rather, Mishima paints a vivid background that reflects their personalities. I guess this is where the fun in reading Japanese literature is – reading deeper into the lines.
Author: Yukio Mishima
Translator: Donald Keene
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: March 1999
Number of Pages: 271
Genre: Novel, Fiction
With vast psychological acuity and an unblinking insight into the nature of political and domestic warfare, Yukio Mishima creates a portrait of a marriage in which lofty principles clash fatally with appetite and ambition. For years Kazu has run her fashionable restaurant with a combination of charm and shrewdness. But when the middle-aged entrepreneur falls in love with one of her clients, an aristocratic retired politician, she renounces her business in order to become his wife.
In time, however, the restless Kazu decides to resurrect her husband’s political career. In doing so, she embarks on a series of compromises and evasions that will force her to choose between her marriage and the demands of her irrepressible vitality. With its subtle ambiguities and its complex, vibrant heroine, After the Banquet is a magnificent novel.
About the Author
To learn more about Kimitake Hiraoka, or more popularly known for his pseudonym Yukio Mishima, click here.