“Death in Midsummer” – “The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love” – “The Pearl”
Yukio Mishima conveyed his stories through the use of vivid sentences. He masterfully weaved together simple sentences that came together into a complex harmony. A brilliant example of this can be seen in the opening paragraphs of “Death in Midsummer.” He gave A. Beach a beautiful description, then described Tomoko Ikuta in depth through sentences that, on their own, appeared mediocre, but when strung together, created an imaginative scene that was meticulously crafted through sensory perceptions. Tomoko’s wearing a dress of “light salmon-pink linen,” and has a “girl-like freshness” in her “plump arms,” “unworn face,” and “slightly curled lips” (9). Here, the sight is registered, but Mishima delved in further. He mentioned how exactly the sweat coats her face, the sound of flies buzzing around, and the way the hot, summer air feels “like the inside of a heated metal dome” (10). In just a few sentences, Mishima touched upon the sensory experiences of sight, sound, and touch, and in doing so, paints a vivid mental picture of what exactly is transpiring.
Mishima’s sentences were also sharply poetic in the sense that one does not get lost in abstractions, but rather the abstractions are made digestible. This can be seen in his story concerning the Shiga priest, who sees the world in a state of complete repose, and likens it to “a mere picture on a piece of paper” (71). With this one sentence, Mishima showcased the priest’s apathy in a metaphorical way that is easy to grasp. It is an abstract concept, yet he made it clear that the priest is truly detached from the physical world, and in laying this foundation, Mishima highlighted the change the priest later goes through after falling in love with the emperor’s concubine. The priest, having been so detached, then has his universe “imprisoned within the confines of a small circle” that contains only him and the concubine (73).
Mishima’s sentences shine because of his rich diction. A notable scene that comes to mind is the opening descriptions of the Pure Land (Heaven) in “The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love.” Descriptors such as gold, silver, and coral pop up repeatedly, along with other jewels that bedazzle the Pure Land. There are numerous mentions of “gold and emerald ponds” and trees with “golden stems and silver branches and coral blossoms” (68). With these choice words, Mishima suffused the Pure Land with unimaginable wealth and beauty, and played on this divine vibe by mixing in a lyrical undertone. He spoke of “hundred-jeweled birds” with “melodious voices,” and “jeweled cords” decorated with ringing treasure bells, as well as instruments that play by themselves (68). This mixture of musical and rich diction helped Mishima fully convey the beauty of the Pure Land.
Great diction and sentences often segue into a powerful tone for a story, and this is true for Mishima. “Death in Midsummer” has a particularly somber tone as it depicts married couple Tomoko and Marasu Ikuta’s foray into grief after the death of their two children. Mishima brought this sorrowful tone to life by recounting specific events. He did not shy away from how grief could twist and damage the mind; how it may trigger detestable behaviors and thoughts. So he freely described Tomoko’s relief when she momentarily forgets about her dead children; and he reminded us how trauma lingers when Tomoko tries to go back on a departing train, thinking she left her dead children behind. All of these specific elements built up this somber tone by making the trauma feel real and constantly present. The grief never quite leaves Tomoko, and Mishima does not allow us to forget it.
However, Mishima was also capable of setting up a humorous tone, as seen in “The Pearl,” which revolves around a misunderstanding about a missing pearl. Mrs. Sasaki’s pearl falls from her ring and disappears during her birthday party. Her close friends, Yamamoto, Matsumura, Azuma, and Kasuga blame each other over the matter. The story’s amusing tone arises from cheeky mentions such as Mishima calling the party members the “Keep-Our-Ages-Secret Society” (168); the light transitions to different characters by means of, “To return to Mrs. Matsumura” or “To return to the other ladies” (174); as well as biting remarks such as Yamamoto calling Matsumura an “insufferable hypocrite” (173). The humorous tone was further augmented by the roundabout methods the women take to prove their innocence. Matsumura’s reasoning was particularly funny, as she decides to buy Mrs. Sasaki a new pearl that is too big for her ring, leading the birthday woman to realize, somehow, that Matsumura is trying to cover up for someone and is thus not guilty. After all, “whoever heard of a thief stealing something and then replacing it with a similar article of greater value?” (174). These leaps in logic, snarky remarks, and Mishima’s light transitions and jokes excelled in setting up a humorous tone that carried throughout the story.
Another one of Mishima’s strongest traits was characterization. He had a gift in developing complex, multi-faceted characters. None of the characters were wholly bad or good, but rather realistic and haunting. He utilized a mixture of “show” and “tell” by showing a character’s personality and traits through actions, thoughts, or dialogue, but also explicitly “told” readers how exactly a character felt. It is an interesting blend that worked fairly well, as the “telling” portion of his characterization rooted characters down more firmly in places where the “show” portions became ambiguous. This can be seen in “Death in Midsummer,” where characterization was deeply felt but sometimes difficult to comprehend. Through a mixture of “shown” and “told” characterization, one could grasp how Tomoko’s mind reflected the grief from her children’s death.
Every night, the narrative states that Tomoko is “in despair at the poverty of human emotions,” that she is numbed to everything (21). This piece of “told” characterization is supplemented by a “shown” characterization of her guilt in the words that she whispers to herself: “I was wrong. It was my fault” (21). When she later sees a boy playing by a pond, her distaste is shown through her thoughts: “I hope he falls in. I hope he falls in and drowns,” and the explicit reason for this is because she feels spiteful that the child is “making fun of her” for being happy and alive (23). Her suicidal mindset is emphasized when she sews and pricks her finger. It states that “she was frightened” by the sight of blood as “pain was associated with death,” but that explicit characterization is once again augmented by finer subtlety as Tomoko decides to spend more time by the sewing machine as it would be “an answer to a prayer” (31). Through these characterizations, one can see just how unstable, fragile, and confusing Tomoko’s mind is.
Mishima also valued the settings of his stories. For “Death in Midsummer,” he began by giving the name of the beach, A. Beach, and where it was geographically located. He also described the lack of refreshment stands, the islands that were nearby, and even the way the sea bottom was “pitted and uneven” (9). However, Mishima did not describe the beach for the sake of describing it. A. Beach was described so extensively because it is significant to the couple. It is ingrained with meaning, serving as a cyclic setting where the story begins and ends. It is the root of Tomoko and Marasu’s trauma, where their lives are irrevocably changed, and where they finally return to after overcoming the worst of their depression.
A similar phenomenon happened in “The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love,” where a sense of place is integral to the development of the story and characters. To better understand why the priest and concubine seek the Pure Land, it must be seen as desirable. So Mishima decorated the afterlife with savory wealth and beauty, emphasizing it as a place where one could fulfill all their desires. In doing so, the motivations of the priest and concubine were made clear, despite their reasons for pursuing the Pure Land being fundamentally different.
In regards to point of view, nearly all of Mishima’s stories were told from a third-person omniscient perspective. This was particularly helpful as it provided a more rounded, complete view of the overall narratives. For “Death in Midsummer,” the shifting perspective between Tomoko and her husband, Marasu, highlighted how different people may process grief, and how they may be similar in handling it. Tomoko stays home all day, where her depression is ever present, whereas Marasu distracts himself with work and comes home late to mitigate his own sorrows (23). Both also feel morbidly special from the deaths of their children, as Marasu briefly considers himself to be “someone special” as none were “so unfortunate as he” (17). Similarly, Tomoko often feels dissatisfied for not being treated as “a woman of sorrows” (29). If this story had been told in first-person, these intimate similarities and differences between Tomoko and Marasu may not have been nearly as fleshed out.
This third-person omniscient perspective was also particularly helpful when it came to more humorous scenarios as seen in “The Pearl,” where the humor was derived from the misunderstandings that can only be understood from dipping into each characters’ perspectives. Seeing the misunderstandings about the pearl unfold step by step helped clarify the peculiar thoughts that each character went through, and made it easier to see why things ended up the way they did. If the perspective had been restricted to Mrs. Sasaki or any singular character, it would have been difficult to follow along with the story. One would scratch their head at seeing Matsumura discover Mrs. Sasaki’s pearl in her bag, unaware that it was Yamamoto who planted it there out of spite.
The dialogue in Mishima’s stories were crisp and short. The conversations were rather formal, though one could attribute that to cultural and linguistic differences. In “Death in Midsummer,” Mishima used dialogue to set up the tone for the story. The first bit of dialogue is from Tomoko’s son, Kiyoo: “Like someone’s pulling,” he says to his sister, Keiko, as they stand in the sea (11). This line can be seen as foreshadowing, as a few paragraphs later, both siblings drown. Their fate is revealed through dialogue by means of Katsuo, the surviving son, who says that both children had turned to “all bubbles” (14). In conjunction with Kiyoo’s words, Katsuo’s metaphorical statement turns morbid—especially coming from a child—which effectively triggers the somber tone that then pervades the rest of the story.
Mishima also used dialogue as a tool for characterization. In particular, he used it to showcase Tomoko’s guilt. Upon seeing her husband at the beach, Tomoko’s first words were, “It was all my fault,” which she ends up repeating to herself every night (14). When people call to offer their condolences, Tomoko’s guilt is again evident as she brushes them off, saying that they didn’t need to cheer her up as “it makes no difference whether [she’s] alive or dead” (21). Marasu tries to alleviate her spirits by taking her to dinner, but Tomoko counters his gesture as pointless as she didn’t deserve to be a mother (23). Each snippet of dialogue hammers a single point: that Tomoko could not forgive herself for what has happened, and believes she is better off dead.
Dialogue as a means for characterization was also effective for “The Pearl.” It is the cause of misunderstandings at times, such as the scene where Azuma jokes that Kasuga ate the pearl, to which the latter takes great offense to. However, this misunderstanding (as well as others) also lead to additional characterization, for it showed that Azuma has a teasing personality, whereas Kasuga was timid and susceptible to misinterpreting jokes. Most notably, however, Mishima used dialogue to emphasize Yamamoto’s wit. When she is corned by Matsumura, Yamamoto strengthens her façade of innocence by shedding tears, while also pointing out that Matsumura had no concrete evidence, and was likely biased from their strained relationship. Yamamoto surmises that it is a poor reflection of Matsumura’s character to readily suspect her of committing “a petty trick,” and at this, Matsumura’s accusations lose their fire (179). The matter is then neatly resolved as Yamamoto, free from suspicions due to her quick words and sharp wit—and having succeeded in her revenge over Matsumura by getting her worked up—swallows the pearl and seals her perceived innocence.
In short, Mishima had a versatile repertoire in creating his stories. His meticulousness helped his sentences flow clearly even in the face of abstractions, and was supplemented by his rich diction that brought his story to life in imaginative ways. He also excelled at maintaining a story’s tone. In “Death in Midsummer,” Mishima sustained a somber tone as he recounted specific, heart-breaking experiences for Tomoko that echoed the reality of grief and trauma. Mishima also presented a playful tone as seen in “The Pearl,” where a group of friends play outlandish mind games as they attempt to clear their own innocence over a missing pearl.
Mishima’s characterization was also masterful, as every character in the stories were distinct and multilayered. For example, Tomoko is prone to unsavory thoughts like wishing for a boy to drown for having fun, but she ends up maturing into a woman who is able to shoulder all the pain and forgive herself. Then there is the priest and concubine who both wish to enter the Pure Land for completely different reasons; the former wishes to ascend out of pure devotion to Buddha, whereas the latter wishes to experience something new as she is bored of getting everything she wanted in the physical world. Then there is Yamamoto, who pulls a prank on Matsumura that goes out of control, but is apt enough to rein it all in and conserve her innocence in the matter.
These characterizations were aided by Mishima’s use of sense of place, point of view, and dialogue. He established a sense of place very early on in his stories, which became a root of characterization. For Tomoko and her husband, A. Beach was the root of everything; it’s where their kids perished, and where their struggles revolved around. It was also the place they returned to after conquering the worst of their trauma. The dialogue that ensued between Tomoko and anyone else highlighted the extent of her grief that plagued her to the point of being suicidal. The third-person omniscient perspective revealed not only Tomoko’s thoughts, but also her husband’s, Marasu, who suffered alongside her.
For the priest and the concubine, they were linked through their interest in the Pure Land. They were able to meet because the priest believed that his affections would be curbed upon seeing her, which would allow him to return to an austere life. Through the third-person omniscient perspective, however, it is revealed that their interests in pursuing the Pure Land were not the same. The priest seeks it out of devotion to Buddha, whereas the concubine seeks it to curb her boredom. There was a lack of dialogue between the two, though that is fitting as they did not seek a genuine relationship with each other.
Lastly, with “The Pearl,” a sense of place was relatively absent as it was not inherently meaningful to the narrative, but the third-person omniscient perspective truly shone to highlight the absurdity in each characters’ thinking as they struggle to clear their names through elaborate schemes. The conversation between Yamamoto and Matsumura near the end brilliantly showcased the former’s wit, and the graceful way in which she ended the debacle without revealing that she was the perpetrator.