​A Modern Classic: Forbidden Colours by Yukio Mishima 

TW: There will be mention of suicide.


A while back I started to read up on Japanese literature for my World Tour of Books post series. Eventually I picked a book by Kenzaburo Oe but there was another writer I could not get off my mind: Yukio Mishima. 

This beloved Japanese writer became infamous in 1970. Seeing that Japanese Traditionalism was being replaced by Western values with all its empty materialism, he attempted to incite a coup d’état along with his own private militia. But the attempt failed miserably and, dishonoured, he killed himself by seppuku.

Many believed his motives to have been genuine. But others saw in his actions a sign of psychosis. Yet others believed that Mishima had always planned for the coup to fail so that he could end his own life, this due to his disgust with the idea of getting old. Which reminds me of a quote that stood out to me in Forbidden Colours:

“What is the death of the body, after all, compared with the unbearable death of youth?”

But whatever his motivations were, there is so much more to Mishima than him being “that Japanese writer who killed himself like a samurai”. Three times he was nominated to the Nobel Prize in literature and during his career he would publish 25 novels and write 80 plays. He also starred in movies, became a skilled martial artist and a bodybuilder and even directed his own film. 

Seeing what a fascinating man this Yukio Mishima was, I felt I had to read something of him. I picked the novel Forbidden Colours, I must confess mainly due to its gay theme. 

In retrospect I should have started my journey into Mishima’s literature with the semi-autobriographical Confessions of a Mask but Forbidden Colours was still an amazing read.

Telling the story of Yuichi Minami (notice the resemblance with the author’s own name) it is believe to be also somewhat autobiographical. One summer he meets an elderly writer by the name of Shunsuké who in his books praises women but in reality despises them. His hatred stems from his numerous failed relationships and in his bitterness he wishes to punish women. 

In Yuichi he finds the perfect tool for this. The young man’s unusual beauty catches the opposite sex’s attention without effort and his homosexuality ensures that he will never reciprocate any woman’s feelings. Under the guidance/manipulation of Shunsuké he marries a woman, trapping her in a loveless marriage. He also charms two other women, making them fall in love with him but never loving them back.

But Yuichi will grow weary of being Shunsuké’s puppet and will realise his own power, much to the elderly writer’s dismay. 

What can I say about this book? Because it is not simply a story written down, it is a work of art. Filled with meaning boiling below the surface, it grabs your mind and demands attention. It is both beautiful and sort of ugly in its descriptions. The way the author writes about the characters’ inner life is moving but also disturbing at times. 

Shunsuké especially is a quite dislikable personality, with all his selfishness and bitterness. Yuichi is more sympathetic but he too grows cold with time. Melancholy is the word that springs to mind when I think about the spirit of the book. Hopelessness also. But somehow Mishima knew how to make the tragic beautiful. 

Forbidden Colours is considered to be one of Yukio Mishima’s lesser works and if it is then I can’t wait to read those books of his that are seen as masterpieces. Either way, I am definitely not done with his literature. 

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