- Counter-Currents - https://counter-currents.com -

Yukio Mishima & Richard Wagner:
Art & Politics, or Love & Death


The platform of this year’s “Yukoku-Ki,” November 25th, 2012, Tokyo

3,668 words

The Keynote Speech at the 42nd Yukoku-Ki in Tokyo, November 25, 2012

Translated by Riki Rei

Translator’s Note:

November 25th of this year marked the 42-year anniversary of the ritual suicide of Japanese nationalist and literary giant Yukio Mishima. Ever since his death in 1970, countless contemporary Japanese, for whom his literary works and political and philosophic thoughts resonate deeply, have commemorated this day by holding an annual gathering. The name “Yukoku-Ki” literally means the “death day of the patriot” in Japanese. This year’s event featured two keynote speakers, Mrs. Emi Mann Kawaguchi, a Japanese expatriate and freelance writer living in Stuttgart, Germany, and Mr. Tadao Takemoto, a Japanese scholar and longtime expatriate living in Paris. It is both an honor and a meaningful task to introduce parts of their speeches to the readers of Counter-Currents.

I will first translate Part Two of Mrs. Kawaguchi’s speech, as it is more pertinent to Counter-Currents. Part One is devoted mainly to historical facts on Richard Wagner and the complexities of his personal life and artistic works. It is intended to provide a detailed background for a Japanese audience supposedly not too familiar with the aforementioned aspects and also to provide needed historical and cultural background for the more compelling and weighty analysis and examination in Part Two. Starting from the famous Bayreuth Festival which has attracted a large following of Japanese annually, the author outlines major events of Wagner’s life and talks about Wagner’s foibles, his flamboyant and contentious second wife Cosima, his anti-Semitism, and highlights one of his masterpieces, Tristan und Isolde, which happened to be Mishima’s favorite Wagner opera and is also widely employed in Part Two in comparison with the works of Mishima in terms of both their artistic value and political-philosophic ideas.

The Similarities between Tristan und Isolde and Patriotism[1]

Today I would like to attempt to compare Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Mishima’s Patriotism. I don’t think I need to talk about the plot of Patriotism to everyone seated here. Mishima made the novel into a film of the same name and played the protagonist himself, and he uses Tristan und Isolde as the background music of the film. Although this observation is nothing new, isn’t Mishima’s adoption of this particular work of Wagner’s indicative of something common or congenial between the two?

These two great works, Tristan und Isolde and Patriotism, share a variety of similar features. Let me start with the obvious and superficial, which is that the protagonists are all beautiful. In Patriotism, this point is very much emphasized.

At the very beginning of the story, it is said: “Needless to say, those who have participated in the wedding ceremony of lieutenant Takeyama and his wife, even those who could only look at the picture of the two, could not stop marveling at the beauty of the bride and bridegroom.” And throughout the novel, we see here and there minute and exquisite descriptions of how and where they are beautiful. The beauty of the two young protagonists is also the premise of the Tristan und Isolde.

The reason for this is simple: Both Mishima and Wagner are perfectionists, and for them protagonists of a romantic story must be beauties without a single blemish, or the story simply cannot carry on. It is that simple.

The Night and the Impulse of Death

The next similarity is that both works are stories of the night, night that is seemingly endless, night that the moment of daybreak will never visit. And perhaps no bright and beautiful moonlight either. Even if there might be a moon hanging in the sky, its light will be dim and faint, barely visible in a shrouding darkness, which produces an even more frightening effect.

The central part of Patriotism is set on a single night from the beginning to the end. The story develops in a particularly created stage environment, which is conducive to the description that “the night in this neighborhood is so quiet, not even a remote sound of traffic can be heard.”

In Tristan und Isolde, the scene of felicity, i.e. the Second Act, also happens at night. Isolde is resentful of the daylight and describes it with exclamations like “Alas, you soulless servant!” and phrases like “fake illumination,” while Tristan also states “we are the offering to the night” and “we are the ones receiving the deep secrets of the night,” by which he manifests their belonging to the night. Then, both of them, in a state of trance, start singing loudly in duet “Alas, the eternal night, the joyous night, the night of lofty and noble love.”

But what on earth does this symbol of “night” mean?

It means death. To be precise, it means that the night is the route from the world of the living to the afterlife. The day does not relate to death, at least not to the beautiful world of death and the afterlife that the protagonists of both stories have pursued so fervently. Thus the centrality of the fervent yearning for death and night is the most important and notable similarity of the two stories.

In both stories, the energy driving at death is a steadily flowing undercurrent. It sends out an unmistakable message that death is the purpose, and only in death can we find absolute beauty and perfect love. Moreover, death is portrayed in an extremely sensual way.

In his book titled Self-Selected Short Stories published by Shinsho-Sha Press, Mishima made the following remarks in the postscript: “the scenes of love and death, and the consummate fusion of erotism and the righteous cause and their mutually reinforcing effect as depicted here can be said of to be the first and foremost felicity to which I have aspired my whole life.” In a word, death is the utmost felicity and the ultimate purpose. This also fits Tristan und Isolde perfectly.

In Tristan und Isolde, “death” and other words with the same meaning appear 45 times. The impulse of death in this work is something of great intensity. In the scene where Tristan and Isolde sing loudly in duet in an entranced state, “. . . So we die, become One forever and never part each other, never wake up, without fear and have no name, wrapped in love and become our own completely, just to live in love . . . ,” it indicates that half of their hearts have already gone to the afterworld.

Again, this is the same in the case of Patriotism. Waiting for her husband, who has not been home for two days in the aftermath of the 2.26 Incident,[2] the newlywed Reiko has already had a premonition of death and entered a mental state of trance.

Thus when she hears the determination of her husband to die after he finally comes home, she simply says crisply, “Please let me go with you.”

After that, “great joy naturally surfaces in their hearts, and smiles naturally emerge on their faces.” And the husband starts to shave in the bathroom, which implies “facing imminent death, he is now full of certain sort of delightful expectation.”

And then, “In the connection of the bright, cheerful, and healthy faces with death, we can say there is a certain smartness.” After that, sitting in front of her husband who is conducting the ritual suicide of seppuku, the wife carefully dresses herself up, “an act of dressing up for this world which will not remain long.” In fact, half of her has already gone to the afterworld, just like Isolde.

The common feature distinctly depicted here is the longing for death, a strong and intense urge. It may look like a dark urge at first sight, but to the protagonists in possession of such an urge, they are filled with an ultimate felicity, happiness without bound. Furthermore, it is a purification which removes all vices and ugliness into a sublimation of ultimate purity and authenticity.

And death and erotism have merged inseparably into one whole, a single entity. In other words, death marks the culmination of erotism and the consummation of happiness.

Mishima’s Art and Political Thought

One opinion is that death as portrayed in Patriotism is death for the sake of a righteous cause, which is reflected in and proved by the very title of this work, i.e. Patriotism. This is, of course, a tenable point as evidenced by the act of the protagonist, lieutenant Takeyama, who left a written note, “Kogun Banzai” (Long Live the Emperor’s Army), before committing suicide, and also by the very fact that the backdrop of the whole story is nothing other than the 2.26 Incident.

But it is also clear that the work itself does not mention the Incident. In fact, it is my opinion that the work itself contains little political meaning or any intent to make a political appeal in the first place.

It just focuses on the depiction of death. It is about the striving for artistic perfection in pursuing and depicting the perfectly beautiful. What then is the perfectly beautiful? It refers to humans who are beautiful physically, who hold beautiful ideas in mind, who engage in beautiful deeds for beautiful purposes, and who die beautifully.

Beautiful deeds, of course, must be righteous deeds. They must accord with a righteous cause and righteous purposes. In this sense, the perfectly beautiful also means humans who are physically beautiful, who hold righteous ideas in mind, who engage in righteous deeds for righteous purposes, and who die for such purposes.

In a nutshell, the works of Mishima are written from an entirely aesthetic perspective to depict beautiful and righteous deeds. What is beautiful, what is ugly; what is righteous, what is vile; what is perfect, what is imperfect; all these can be traced or perceived in Mishima’s works. The pursuit of such perfect and consummate beauty, a virtuous and pure world based on the unique Japanese Monarchy and the beautiful men and women who sacrificed their lives in realizing this noble aim, were to Mishima’s mind the embodiment of unique and ultimate beauty.

Thus this ultimate beauty, as the result, is completely congruent with the dedication of one’s life to a righteous cause. But, to repeat myself, I believe Mishima treats this topic not from a political perspective, but as a symbol of consummate beauty and from an artistic perspective.

This is not to deny the fact that during the later years of his life, Mishima’s thought and action took on decidedly political colors, and finally he chose to commit suicide for his political beliefs. However, this is different from his literary works, which are shaped by his artistic and aesthetic feeling not his political thoughts. Yet it is also true that in each and every one of Mishima’s works, the beautiful and the righteous exist in identical form, and Mishima’s righteous convictions flow through and set the thematic tone of all his works. And the death that comes out of such works, while being a death dedicated to a righteous cause, is also a necessary and indispensable instrument for reaching the ultimate beauty.

The Art of Wagner

As far as beauty is concerned, Wagner was no less sensitive a perfectionist than Mishima.

Wagner was in love with the wife of one of his patrons, a lady named Mathilde Wesendonck, and the lady was also not completely against it. Wagner was given a cottage to live in on the large Zurich estate of his patron, Herr Otto Wesendonck, where he set to work composing his opera Tristan und Isolde.

It is rumored that Tristan und Isolde was created somehow by the image of Mathilde, but I don’t think so. Once he began to compose a work, Wagner completely immersed himself in it and was carried away by it. Wagner himself had fallen into the entranced or intoxicated state that resembles the mental state of Tristan, the protagonist of his opera, after swallowing a love potion.

Yet Wagner’s surging passion and ardor had no place to go. Although his wife Minna was beside him, they were estranged. Then somehow Mathilde turned up and confusion ensued: Wagner and Tristan, Mathilde and Isolde were conflated and entwined with each other, and the surging passion and ardor of Wagner’s fantasy was directed at Mathilde, like a torrent, I imagine. Did this become a driving force in Wagner’s artistic creation? Of course it did.

When the Prelude of Tristan und Isolde was completed, Wagner sat down at his piano and played it for Mathilde. In playing it, Wagner himself became the tragic protagonist of the opera he created and probably said things like “This is made for you” to Mathilde, who must have wept a bit after hearing this. This is all quite likely. I would be quite delighted if someone created just a tanka[3] for me, and any woman who has the Prelude of so grand, romantic, dramatic, and erotic an opera dedicated to her would certainly be moved to tears.

The subsequent developments are where it gets interesting. The love letters exchanged between Wagner and Mathilde were discovered by Wagner’s then wife Minna, and their affair was exposed. And because of this, Wagner and Minna separated. On the other hand, Mathilde’s husband Otto Wesendonck did not scold or yell at her but forgave her while continuing to give financial support to Wagner, who found himself too uneasy to stay with the Wesendoncks and moved away to Venice. But I think the generous and noble attitude of Herr Wesendonck must have impressed Wagner deeply. The next year, Wagner completed work on Tristan und Isolde.

What’s more interesting is the figure of King Marke in Tristan und Isolde. When Marke comes to know of the affair between his own wife Isolde and his favorite subordinate Tristan, he falls into deep sorrow, but he also displays justice, forgiveness, humanity, intellect, and other virtues. That is the character of King Marke in Tristan und Isolde. It is surely plausible to say that Wagner was moved by Herr Wesendonck’s nobility and projected that image onto the character of King Marke.

As reflected in the figure of Marke, together with the world of erotism and the world of death, the world of an irreproachable morality is also woven into Wagner’s “beauty.” There we see a personality who, while afflicted by distress and anguish, possesses selflessness, self-sacrifice, honesty, and bravery: an excellent man by Bushido standards. Such a man is what captivates Wagner and inspires his work, and this is also a similarity with Mishima in my opinion.

The Differences between Mishima and Wagner on Thinking and Action

I have talked about many similarities between Mishima and Wagner. From now on, I will talk about their fundamental differences.

The most fundamental difference between the two men lies in their actions. I have stressed that their idealistic concept of beauty is very similar. From the common basis of the conceptual perception and pursuit of beauty, Mishima gradually moved toward that ideal of beauty by working hard to build up a beautiful physique and acquire a stout heart. Beyond that, he also tried to take beautiful actions in realization of a righteous cause.

At the same time, Mishima’s political thinking was developing steadily and rapidly. While I have stated that Patriotism is an artistic product whose political motif is extremely thin, the desire to pursue and practice a righteous cause was indeed becoming more and more important in Mishima’s heart, hence his enlistment in the Japanese Self-Defense Force[4] and the formation of the Shield Society.[5] Needless to say, these things had nothing to do with the arts. In other words, practical actions clearly differentiated from the arts steadily increased in importance in Mishima’s life.

However, this heightening of the importance of practical actions connects with the aforementioned idealistic artistic image of “humans who are beautiful physically, who bear in mind righteous ideas, who engage in righteous deeds for righteous purposes, and die for such purposes” in a profound sense. This means that the idealistic image Mishima pursues by means of art increasingly overlapped with his own actions in real life. And finally, he was unable to beat the temptation of enacting that idealistic image.

As for Wagner, while he pursued his artistic ideal, loved righteousness, and produced beautiful and fabulous artistic works, these had nothing to do with his actions and practices in real life. While Wagner conducted himself like the tragic heroes of his operas and reveled in self-satisfaction, he was — to put it bluntly and candidly — quite egocentric and self-righteous and not really “beautiful” as far as his real-life behavior was concerned. He lied to and exploited people who were impressed with him while believing himself to be a person of honesty and integrity, due to his excessive and extraordinary self-preening conceit.

And it is really astonishing to hear the otherwise intelligent and discerning Cosima using words like “modesty” to describe Wagner’s character.

Presumably in Wagner’s mind, a genius like him deserves much, much more recognition. He considered himself a victim because of his own debt-ridden status. And I even think he might have regarded his philandering as a right.

Wagner was hiding out in Zurich under the protection of Herr Wesendonck because of his involvement in the Dresden revolutionary tumult, for which he was wanted man in the kingdom of Saxony. During the revolution, he came to believe that modernization was the way toward the liberation of the arts. I venture to suggest that his principal motive was the belief that he would enjoy more fame and recognition in a transformed political situation. This is totally different from Mishima’s pure and selfless nationalistic heart.

Even Wagner’s anti-Semitism is of the same sort. He never had qualms about dealing with Jews when it was in his interest.

Perhaps because of these character traits, Wagner befriended the anarchist revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin during the May Revolution. He said brave things, but his actions amounted to little more than pelting people with gravel. Then he quickly fled.

There is telling anecdote: During the Franco-Prussian War, Wagner was quite excited. He talked like an ardent nationalist and even wrote a poem calling for supporting the Prussian army unreservedly. However, after Siegfried, his son with Cosima, began to grow up, Wagner started vocally opposing so-called German militarism with statements such as, “Do we really need to support an army of 1.2 million men in order to prevent France from stealing our land?” He even went so far as to say things like, “It is no big deal to give those lands to France.” And he made every effort to have his son exempted from military service. In short, one thing is certain: Wagner was never the kind of person who would die for his art or his ideas.

On Nietzsche

The famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was once enamored of Wagner and also very close to Cosima. Nietzsche identified with Wagner, whose belief that art could be the salvation of the world. He thought Wagner was a free spirit shattering the status quo of the existing world.

But later Nietzsche broke with Wagner. Nietzsche assisted in the composition of Wagner’s autobiography and was shocked to speechlessness by the large number of lies in it. He concluded that though Wagner was great as an artist, he was hugely disappointing as a man. Hence their relationship was completely broken.

If I am allowed to indulge myself in a little hypothesis, imagine if Mishima were a contemporary of Wagner’s and they met. They would probably feel very congenial to each other in the field of arts, and they would respect one another quite a bit. But after that, like Nietzsche, Mishima would have felt deeply disappointed in Wagner.

Mishima chose the path of suicide in fidelity with his own thinking, and Nietzsche’s mental illness, although having long been ascribed to brain diseases, has recently been attributed to another cause, which is considered more plausible and probable, i.e., Nietzsche was too faithful and devoted to his own thinking. It makes sense that an unbending and unrelenting faithfulness can lead to certain mental anomaly or deviation.

The End

Tonight I have had the honor of giving a general and crude comparative analysis of Yukio Mishima and Richard Wagner. In fact, I can’t say I have a ready conclusion in hand, but I would certainly be more than satisfied if the only merit of my speech tonight is to give you a fresh desire to start listening to Wagner and reading Patriotism. Thank you all for enduring my long speech. Thank you very much!


1. Patriotism: One of Mishima’s literary works which was also shot as a film featuring Mishima himself as the male protagonist. It has received some good introductory coverage at CC by Trevor Lynch: https://counter-currents.com/2011/01/mishima-a-life-in-four-chapters/ [2]

The book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0811218546?ie=UTF8&tag=thesavdevarc-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0811218546 [3]

The film: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0016AKSOQ?ie=UTF8&tag=thesavdevarc-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0016AKSOQ [4]

2. The 2.26 Incident: The famous failed military coup that occurred in Tokyo on February 26, 1936, launched by a group of patriotic lower-ranking soldiers who were resentful of the corrupt plutocratic capitalist regime and determined to overthrow it before carrying out sweeping revolutionary reforms to build a better Japan on a national socialist model. Mishima has frequently expressed his sympathy with the protagonists of this event and supposedly harbored some deep-seated grievances against the Showa Emperor for his refusal to listen to and decision to clamp down the rebel soldiers who were only against the corrupt plutocrats and firmly loyal to the Emperor himself. The event is said to have inspired Mishima to write Patriotism.

3. Tanka: a form of traditional Japanese poem.

4. Jieitai: the reduced and nondescript Japanese armed forces of the post-World War II era.

5. Tatenokai: the private militia organization led by Yukio Mishima and launched in October, 1968 to combat anti-Japanese Leftist revolutionary forces in Japanese society at that time. It had 100 members, mostly nationalistic college students who conducted military training, group study, and discussions, and other related activities under the guidance of Mishima. Following Mishima’s suicide in November 1970, the organization was formally disbanded in February 1971.