Tuesday, June 15, 1999

Acts Of Worship: Seven Stories

by Yukio Mishima

1. "Fountains In the Rain."  An arrogant youth dumps his girlfriend; when she won’t stop crying, he takes her to fountains in the rain, hoping her tears will find their match in them.  Instead, he himself becomes fascinated with the sight of the cascading waters.  Good descriptions, and a humorous account of youth coming to terms with its own unimportance.

2. "Raisin Bread."  Jack, an alienated young man, “made of some clear crystalline substance, had as his sole aim to become quite invisible.”  A failed suicide, he remains morbidly detached, even in his social and sexual relations.  Beautiful, powerful with quite subtle prose, but as a whole it lacks the drama that makes a story moving: there is no conflict or change in Jack.  It’s a slice of life scene, but an alien life.

3. "Sword."  53 pages. Jiro, an excessively upright aloof fencing student, the captain of the team, distances himself from what he sees as the shame of the world.  Eventually his disappointment with society, including a young student who hero-worships him, leads him to suicide.  It’s an interesting story as a demonstration of notions of Eastern honor and the pressures of interaction among social unequals, as well as the craft of fencing.  But like the other Mishima stories, there’s something detached about the whole, much as Jiro detaches himself from society.  I never really understood the characters’ actions.  This could also be a cultural or language barrier.

4. "Sea And Sunset."  An old man in Japan, Anri, climbs to the top of a mountain to watch the sunset and tell the story of how he saw a vision as a young boy in France, took part in the children’s crusade, and was sold into slavery.  Now settled in Japan, he has rejected his old Western life, “and never indulged in foolish fantasies of an afterlife or hankered after unseen lands.”  And yet sadness overshadows his view of the sunset and the waves.  It’s a subtle, deep psychological portrait, as well as a nice example of the emphasis on the immediate and acceptance of the East.

5. "Cigarette."  A very delicate tale of a delicate, bookish boy with homoerotic leanings, who shares a cigarette with some boys at school in hopes of being accepted as one of them.  The prose is very poetic, the descriptions of nature clear and elegant, the conflicts raging within the boy subtly understated.  It’s good writing, but I don’t identify with it much.

6. "Martyrdom."  An enigmatic tale of an overdeveloped 14-year-old who develops a homoerotic love-hate thing for another student.  Poetic and strange, ugly and childish, and yet sweet somehow.

7. "Act Of Worship."  60 pages.  A very proper, slightly eccentric bachelor professor of Japanese literature goes on a pilgrimage to the shrines of his birth district.  Unexpectedly, he asks his female living assistant to accompany him, and with an odd ritual, very subtly reveals something to her of himself, as well as what their relationship has become over ten years.  This is a delicate, poetic story, using lyrical descriptions as well as brief lessons in Japanese literature and history to outline the rather sad yet somehow hopeful tale of two alienated people, bound by dictates of society and place.  It’s a beautiful piece, powerful and rich.

three stars