Yukio Mishima’s The Frolic of the Beasts revolves around a love triangle between a married couple and a university student. However, the somewhat twisted circumstances of this affair lend themselves to a heavy, curious study of morality and the kind of pain people are capable of meting out to achieve their desires.

Koji is first introduced to the couple as an employee at the husband’s ceramics shop. A scholar and critic of German literature, Ippei is painted as a cold, callous intellectual, bored with life’s trivialities and frustrated by his wife Yuko’s seemingly steadfast love for him and impassiveness towards his extramarital trysts. Koji falls in love with Yuko right then despite not having met her yet—an emotion born out of disgust and vengeance rather than genuine care for her. Sometime later, after a dinner spent discussing why she’s chosen to do nothing about Ippei’s infidelity, Koji and Yuko come home to Ippei with his mistress. Finally, Yuko breaks, and Koji beats Ippei with a wrench. The crime lands Koji in jail and leaves Ippei physically and mentally impaired and in Yuko’s constant care.

In another story, the love triangle would have culminated with Koji’s punishing act. Instead, it’s the foundation of the relationship that’s formed between himself and the couple, peculiarly prompting Yuko to take him in to work at her greenhouse upon his release. With the two of them so intimately present in each other’s lives, temptations fester within themselves and between Koji and Yuko. In separate scenes, they kiss in front of Ippei in Yuko’s show of defiance and superiority, but despite wanting her with him, Koji refuses to let Yuko into his bed for her husband to discover them in an implicating position. They realize his persistent presence is the very reason why they can’t consummate their feelings despite Ippei being unable to retaliate in his debilitated state. Just as he sparked their interest in each other through his extramarital affairs before the attack, he puppeteers their torment through their crises of conscience even now as he’s incapacitated.

The novel actually starts with one of Koji and the couple’s final moments together, then fast-forwards to their collective gravesite. Though chronologically these scenes happen much later in the story, as the prologue they foreshadow the manipulation, deception and violence to follow. This approach, and Mishima’s tendency to philosophically navel-gaze during events either experienced or perceived by the characters, lends The Frolic of the Beasts a heavy-handed, almost soap-operatic flair. The main characters’ “net of sin” is symbolized in the last photo they take together alongside shipyard fishing nets. Yuko smiles as Koji interacts with another young woman—in her own romantic entanglement with two childhood friends to parallel and amplify the main affair—then pulls a pin from her hair to stab the girl’s hand. Koji contemplates at length throughout the novel if it was happenstance or will of fate that he found the wrench he wielded against Ippei, and if, by ambushing the man, he righted a wrong for them in a sickening way or simply complicated their lives further.

In his translator’s notes, Andrew Clare explains that the book was inspired by Japanese Noh theater, known for the decorative masks the actors wore, and was written as a parody of the 14th-century play Motomezuka about the tragic result of its own love triangle. The former’s influence is referenced in the many “faces” the characters put on to fit in with the people they interact with while fully aware of how they’re secretly—or not—wronging them. The parody is evident in the complicated scheming and abrupt actions and reactions that, after the initial shock, feel properly in line with the characters’ questionable morals.

The Frolic of the Beasts’s slow first half fails to grab the reader, as it skips forward and backward confusingly before settling into a linear timeline. Koji, Yuko and Ippei aren’t readily sympathetic characters either. However, Mishima stacks the romantic tension, suspense and guilt between them thickly enough that readers will be enticed to see the trio’s story to the end. Few readers will feel compelled to root for any part of the trio, but these players are like a literary car wreck one can’t help but rubberneck while feeling a little guilty doing so. And, just maybe, that kind of forced reflection upon one’s own virtues was Mishima’s plan all along.

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