Yukio Mishima’s After the Banquet

Mishima is one of those authors I’ve always intended to read but never quite got around to – all the time I was reading Kawabate and Oe and Murakami he was always there, a figure watching me rather dolefully from the fringes of the spotlight. But somehow I just never managed to make the effort to go buy one of his books / issue one out of the library.

Until now. After the Banquet is a sumptuous feast of a book, rich in subtle flavours and clever, tangy insights. The story revolves around a middle-aged restaurant owner called Kazu who gives up her thriving business to marry an old-fashioned aristocrat in the hope of ensuring for herself an honourable grave in his family plot. A passionate, emotional woman with an unstoppable drive for life, Kazu finds the role of quiet, subservient wife impossible, and throws herself with all the passion and energy at her command into a quixotic attempt to resurrect her husband’s political career. The novel that emerges is a classic conflict between romanticism and classicism, between Kazu’s restless, emotional energy and her husband’s old-world, intellectual calm. Mishima pulls no punches here, and takes no sides – we see both sides of this fundamentally mismatched pair in both their finest glory and their most amusing haplessness. As the novel progresses, the conflict between the husband and wife (which evolves with all the quietness of a chess game – there are few outbursts here – this is not Albee) becomes a metaphor for the changing face of Japanese society, where the old stiff-upper-lip world of values and ideals is rapidly giving way to the more practical, sensuous reign of rich power-brokers.

Two things make this book special. The first is the incredible psychological acuity that Mishima brings to the novel – right through the book he barely takes a single mis-step. The characters he describes are hardly common people – rather they are archetypes – symbols of opposite paradigms, and yet they come across with such an easy naturalness, that you have the constant feeling that you know someone just like them, and will find yourself nodding your head as the book progresses, thinking, “Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly what she would do.”

The other achievement of the book is the character of Kazu. Mishima creates, in Kazu, one of the most incredible female characters I have ever read – a woman part Emma, part (Ibsen’s) Nora, part Molly Bloom and part Roz from Atwood’s Robber Bride. Sensual, driven, passionate, practical, emotional, poetic, uncomplicated, delusional – Kazu is like no one else. Just reading the way her character unfolds and grows in the course of the novel made me want to kick myself for not getting to Mishima sooner.