:: Article

Modern Art: A Game of Three

By Kyle Coma-Thompson.

St Sebastian

Failure is dishonour, ageing is failure, a career can be dignified by suicide. I’m thinking here of three in particular—Mishima, Kawabata, Kurosawa.


In 1971 after the failure of his most recent film, Kurosawa takes a razor to himself, carves himself up something horrible, but lives. Kawabata dies by gas in 1972. In 1970 Mishima accomplishes the same, in his trademark flamboyant style—disembowelled and beheaded. All three decided to die, many have speculated, due to a pained awareness of their failing creative abilities.


Kawabata was considered by the critics of his time to be the most “authentically” Japanese of the three. He died softly, like falling petals, or like clichéd slow-motion footage of falling petals. The ground called to him, like gravity; but delicately.


Mishima was big on pride and imperial glamour. It wasn’t enough to be Japanese, he had to be Japanese in the old style of overwrought nationalism and militarism. So he seized control of a government building with a homemade militia, chided a gathering crowd of soldiers from the height of its balcony. The soldiers below could barely hear him for the distance, their own laughter, and the lack of a microphone.


Mishima feared not just the loss of his creativity but the loss of his beauty; hence, it was required by fate he be beheaded. To have your head cut off, to make a show of it. To freeze your young handsome face as it exists here, now, in time—even if in bug-eyed horror.


Don’t emperors gain their glory and terrible dignity that way—ageing to the point where it’s impossible to imagine them dying? Since M. couldn’t ever become emperor, it seems he needed to die this way, murdered by tradition. Seppuku, then the sword raised to take his head. But why?


To prove he wasn’t too gaudy in the modern fashion, maybe. All those ridiculous commissioned photos of himself: pretentiously muscle-bound, shot through with arrows as St. Sebastian; done up like Brando in The Wild One, in boots, cap and bikini briefs, leaning on a motorcycle with an air of beefcake arrogance. He’d embarrassed himself before his countrymen. His shows of strength merely cosmetic.


In a retelling of a Japanese folktale, the writer Lafcadio Hearn once phrased it this way: “Yet, after all, to devour one’s own legs for hunger is not the worst that can happen to a being cursed with the gift of song.” In the story a singing insect is left in its cage for a time without being fed; so to sustain itself and keep singing, eats its own legs. Self-murder, of a kind, but for a purpose.


One wonders: what if Kurosawa had gone the way of tradition as well? What if he’d embraced honour through an early death—his suicide attempt successful, unlike his career at the time? He wouldn’t have grown to the ripe old age of eternity, as he did. Twenty-seven more years and a few more movies to show for it, some of them great, Ran especially. So live he did. He kept his scars, made his movies. Not much of the funding for them came from Japan, though. He’d learned that much from his troubles. Why expect different? Tradition has never been much for investing in its critics.


Lives, deaths. The variables. Some come and some go. Then they all go. To the main question. So what if Mishima and Kawabata hadn’t succeeded in killing themselves? What if Kurosawa had been more serious about the razor in his hand? The director dies, the writers live. Which is to say, what if literature had lived but films hadn’t?


There’s that novella attributed to Kawabata which was rumoured to have been ghostwritten by Mishima, The House of Sleeping Beauties. The plot: old men pay for the pleasure of sleeping next to the bodies of drugged and slumbering young women. When they arrive, the women are already unconscious. Before dawn, the men must sneak away, quietly. But for the duration of a night they lie next to them, absorbing their softness and their warmth.


So it was written and remains true. The sword, the razor, the oven. These men sneak away quietly; the legs that do the walking are eaten; reading keeps warm next to watching; these books lie awake all night next to movies.


No wait, not movies. Life itself. People themselves. And think how such a sad thing.


Kyle Coma-Thompson

Kyle Coma-Thompson is the author of two short story collections, The Lucky Body and Night in the Sun.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017.