Yukio Mishima is one of the great Japanese writers of fiction. He ended his own life by committing ritual suicide, seppuku. Runaway Horses, written in 1973, is the second book in the tetrology The Sea of Fertility. The Eastern philosophy of the purity of the Samurai ritual of suicide is at the center of this novel. While this is the second book of a series, you do not have to have read the first to understand or enjoy this novel. The story in the first book, Spring Snow, is about a young man of 20, an idealist and romantic who falls in love with a woman who is promised in marriage to a prince. In the end this fragile young man pines away his life through the loss of his love. Runaway Horses is about his best friend, Honda who is now 38 years old, a judge in Osaka. The story takes place in 1932 and 33, an era in which the seeds of the fanaticism, which led to Japan's role in World War II, are planted.
Honda looks back on his youth and friendship with Kendo as an ideal that he cannot recapture. Early in the book he states, "How oddly situated a man is apt to find himself at age thirty-eight! His youth belongs to the distant past. Yet the period of memory beginning with the end of youth and extending to the present has left him not a single vivid impression. And therefore he persists in feeling that nothing more than a fragile barrier separates him from his youth. He is forever hearing with the utmost clarity the sounds of this neighboring domain, but there is no way to penetrate the barrier." This melancholic mood of Honda causes him to become involved in the life of the young hero of this book, Isao, who at first appears to be a reincarnation of his beloved friend. Isao even has three moles on the side of his body exactly as did Kendo.
The Buddhist idea of rebirth is quite different than the Indian doctrine. Isao, rather than being Kendo, is carrying the moral burden of the past that has remained unresolved. Isao is rigid and idealistic and obsessed with the Shinto doctrine of the purity of motive. During this time in history, Japan was open to Western ideas of capitalism and big business. The captains of industry and commerce were amassing great fortunes, while the poor farmers and workers were on the brink of starvation. Japan was slipping further into debt and carrying huge deficits, not so different than the situation many countries today are dealing with.
Isao, enamoured with Emperor worship and the purity of the Japanese race sees in these oligarchs of industry the end of the Japanese traditional way of life. After reading a treatise, League of the Divine Wind, he gathers a group of 20 young men (students at his father's school) in a secret club to ideally bring awareness to the Japanese citizens and nobility of the dangers of corrupt Western ideas. His plan is to assassinate the most influential industrial leaders and then to commit ritual suicide. The plan fails through a double betrayal. Honda's life becomes entwined with Isao's, as he gives up his judgeship, to act as Isao's lawyer.
Mishima is a beautiful writer and it is a credit to his translator, Michael Gallagher, that the beauty of the language is preserved in the translation. Integral to the book is an understanding of Japan's place in the world at that time in history, and the state of the weakened monarchy, along with the rise in popularity of the Shinto religion as a counterweight to Buddhist philosophy. There are wonderful descriptions of a way of life soon to be lost, and the importance of ritual in Japanese thinking. It is interesting that the history of that era mirrors much that is happening in the world today including out-of-control national debts and financial crisis. While Isao is considered a hero with pure ideals, the West may be inclined to consider him a terrorist akin to today's suicide bombers. Isao appears to be a reflection of the author's philosophy, given his subsequent suicide.
Readers may find this book a grim reminder of the dangers of inflexibility, just as Honda warns Isao when they meet for a second time, after Isao had given the League of Divine Wind to Honda to read, hoping he had found a kindred soul in an older mentor. I was taken with the insight into a period of Japan's history that is not much discussed, and its lead-up to ideas that influenced Japan's entry into World War II. It is a skillfully written account of a young man's coming of age at a time when the frustrations of idealism were pitted against a reality marching into the modern world.