Spring Snow is the first novel in Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility cycle – which is the last thing he did before he committed seppuku, clearly considering his life’s work complete. Quite a bold statement, but then I never expect the Japanese to make a lot of sense.
It’s a classic tragic love story, although unlike quite a few of the ones I’ve read (not that many, admittedly) the fatal problem is not solely down to society, or forces beyond the control of either of the two young lovers, but a fairly serious character flaw in young Kiyoaki, who believes himself to be too elegant and beautiful for the world. Sometimes you just want to kick him in the arse (which would be difficult, since he’s a fictional character in a novel set 96 years ago on the other side of the world) but I recognise too much of his behaviour in myself to wish him that much harm.
Although he clearly is, Kiyo pretends to himself that he’s not in love with the most beautiful girl in Japan, right up to the point when she gets engaged to someone else. And that’s when he makes his move. Well, it’s not exactly like that, but it is kind of. And things progress in the way things do in tragic love stories, with misunderstandings and miscommunications between all sorts of people, and then comes the inevitable heartbreaking denouement, which I’m not going to spoil, but you can probably guess. And it is heartbreaking, because no matter how much of a fool Kiyo is (and he is one of the biggest fools in the world), he really cares about Satoko, and is well enough drawn to make us (well, me, anyway) care about him. And want to kick his arse.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say the prose is exquisite – it’s very well crafted, certainly, but nothing really struck me as a breath-taking phrasing, which I was for some reason expecting. Some of the characters are a little bit odd – and not odd in a “aren’t the Japanese quirky?” way, but just a “what has that got to do with anything?” way. I’m thinking about Iinuma, Kiyoaki’s tutor, who falls in love with a maid, takes her roughly in the library, then elopes only to appear briefly later in some kind of attempt to blackmail Kiyo’s father. Or Honda (couldn’t help thinking a bit of E. Honda, from Street Fighter II), the taciturn and fiercely loyal best friend, who is very serious, but given to page long investigations of western philosophy that don’t make much sense.
All of which leads me to believe that there’s a lot of allegory that I’m missing. It’s set in post-Meiji-era Japan, just after the end of the Russo-Japanese war (1912). About which I know nothing. I can’t help but think that Kiyo (who is the son of an industrialist with a lot of cash, but brought up in a relatively poor nobleman’s house to learn elegance) must represent an aspect of the new Japan that was emerging. But given that I wanted to kick him in the arse, what does that mean?
Perhaps when I read the other books in the cycle, I will understand. Maybe I have to read some more Japanese history. Probably both, to be honest.
Romeo and Juliet. Obvious.
Ronin. For the car chases, mostly.