Book Review: Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima

This story has no inciting incident and no climax, and the goals of its protagonist are lofty and often contradictory. It may, like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, be accused of being a largely plotless tale of a neurotic individual. This may be true, but it does not make Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask a worthless story.

Like Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Mishima’s protagonist is an outcast. He is alienated from the world around him. But his alienation is not from a longing for innocence in a phone world. It comes from his homosexuality. What Salinger takes Holden through in a day, Mishima subjects his protagonist to over several years, as he tries to understand and come to terms with his sexuality, and the mask he must adopt to hide it. The story is a collection of confessions (notice the plural in the title, Confessions, not Confession), a series of episodes united by the protagonist who lives them in his unique, complex, and often perverted way.

Mishima’s protagonist is a complex, tormented, and often evil specimen. What makes him evil is not his homosexuality, but his deception of both himself and others to conceal and evade the truth of his sexuality. Mishima does not excuse this evil. Even the protagonist acknowledges it. But Mishima does not allows judgement without understanding. Switching between narration and action seamlessly in the middle of scenes, Mishima shows the thoughts pulsing through the protagonist’s head, from the philosophical to the erotic, as he confronts his first crush, prostitutes, and the death cult of Japan in World War II. While this gives the prose a degree of unreality, dwelling more in the protagonist’s mind than in the real world, it allows for a full understanding of him to be built as we observe incident after incident, and reaction after reaction, varying from the sublime to the grotesque. No one may claim after finishing this story that Mishima has neglected any corner of his protagonist’s soul.

The clarity with which the protagonist, and through him the theme, is communicated is due to Mishima’s lucid and sensuous style. The violent emotions of the human soul, which “have no liking for fixed order” and “fly about freely, float haphazardly, and prefer to be forever wandering” (Page 161), Mishima grasps like a butterfly caught in his clenched fist that is then nailed to the wall.

Like a spider, Mishima weaves a glistening web with his words. At the centre of this web is the protagonist. The final shape of that web I will leave you to discover for yourself when you read Confessions of a Mask, as you should.

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