Feels like the culmination of American interest in the late Japanese writer’s cinematic work and representations.
The English-language translation and publication of Yukio Mishima’s Star feels like the culmination of American interest in the late Japanese writer’s cinematic work and representations. Films adapted from his extensive oeuvre (Thirst for Love), directed by the writer himself (Patriotism) and based on the dramatic events of his life and death (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) have all recently received the Criterion Collection treatment. These prestigious releases have further fueled fascination with the images of a man whose tempestuous obsession with carefully cultivating both body and mind eventually led him to commit suicide via seppuku in 1970 at the age of 45.
Star, a five-part novella originally published in 1960, tells the story of a young movie star named Rikio Mizuno (Richie for short) as he acts in a generic yet elegant yakuza film. Richie doesn’t show much interest in the plot of the film. Instead, he ponders the psychological effects of filming and stardom – how it feels to spend so much time in the artificial space of movie sets, to exist out of order (in accordance with the director’s arrangement of time), to be more like a screen onto which the public projects its ideas than like a human being in the flesh.
These psychological effects don’t lead to total breakdown, as in thematically related films like Mulholland Drive and Berberian Sound Studio. Instead, we end up with something more like Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria: the weight of performance, artifice and the aging body slowly settles in to calmly consume as it pleases. For those familiar with the biographical details of Mishima’s life, it’s tempting to read Star as a cipher that helps us decode his own relationship to celebrity and to performance more generally. Mishima was extremely famous in Japan, and the combination of this fame and pressure from his family caused him to lead a life that seemed one way on the surface (married, militaristically muscled, talented) and another deep below (gay, insecure, craving more from life than it had to offer).
But there’s also plenty in Star for readers who have little or no previous exposure to biographical details from Mishima’s life. The book excels at embedding micro-narratives, which unspool dramatically when you least expect them, within Richie’s riveting observations. One such narrative involves an aspiring ingénue who walks onto set in the middle of a shot to disorienting effect; another involves a chance meeting with a middle-aged studio head who was once a famous actor himself. These micro-narratives provide Richie with opportunities to further reflect on his fame and engage with his own image. Mirrors – both literal and metaphorical – abound, ready to refract unexpected characteristics: arrogance, admiration, terror.
One such mirror is Richie’s assistant and secret lover, Kayo, who also acts as a sounding board and intuitively understands more about Richie’s life than he does. Kayo’s character allows Mishima to consider the concept of invisibility: the way that marginalized figures in a glamorous industry can make major artistic contributions without a single speck of acknowledgment from bigwigs or fans. Perhaps because she is his inversion, Kayo is the most significant figure in Richie’s life and the person around whom the book’s beginning and ending points orbit.
Star hearkens back to an earlier moment in cinema history, one in which films were shot on celluloid in enormous, elaborate sets that gave movies – and perhaps the lives of movie stars – a dreamlike quality. But it’s also a book that feels enormously relevant in the contemporary moment, where many of us carefully craft our own peculiar images for mass consumption on social media. In both Mishima’s novella and the current era, the self behind these images remains curiously undefined, as if it were unfurling only in the darkest night.