November 25, 2020 - 9:49am

Fifty years ago this morning a still relatively young writer completed the final chapter of his novel and sent it off to the publisher. A few hours later he would be dead, his head separated from his body with a gaping wound carved into his abdomen. At one point the Japanese author Yukio Mishima had been earmarked for a Nobel prize. His sudden and shocking death shook post-war Japan.

Growing up as a sickly child under an authoritarian father, Mishima took up weightlifting, carving out a chiselled physique at a time when bodybuilding was still a fringe pursuit. Mishima was a playwright, actor, film director, poet and supremely gifted author. He was also a political extremist who echoed the concerns of the contemporary nationalist Right while embodying a homoerotic aesthetic. His political activism would encompass themes including anti-materialism, spiritual renewal, militarism and imperialism.

For Mishima’s final act on the morning of the 25th November 1970 he stormed the headquarters of the Japanese defence forces in Tokyo with a small band of men wearing paramilitary uniforms. Mishima ascended to the balcony and spent 10 minutes haranguing the Japanese soldiers gathered on the parade ground below. His three shouts of ‘Long Live the Emperor’ were poorly received, however, and Mishima turned into the commander’s office, disembowelled himself with a sword, and had a follower behead him in a ritual suicide.

At the time of Mishima’s death, Japan was undergoing rapid economic development and modernisation. But as in parts of western Europe during the post-war period, there were those who were repelled by what they viewed as the shallow materialism of the post-war capitalist boom, which — in Japan’s case — Mishima viewed as a betrayal of the proud samurai tradition.

Mishima’s final speech from the balcony, a prelude to the brutal and shocking end to the life of Japan’s greatest post-war talent, was laced with rhetoric that would not be out of place in today’s alt-Right: a narrative of spiritual malaise along with deep and long-standing traditions being swept aside by modernity, with corruption and greed replacing honour and duty. Mourning Mishima’s death, his political sympathiser Fusao Hayashi accused the country’s politicians of turning Japan into “an ugly pit of economic animals and free riders”.

The point of a political suicide can seem odd to those steeped in western traditions. But in taking his own life, Mishima sought to re-enact the sacrificial death carried out for the emperor during the war, a figure Mishima really did view as a god (though Mishima had criticised the Emperor for renouncing his divinity following the war’s end). Suicide was a way for Mishima to remind his fellow countrymen of what they had believed during the war.

This is one of the more persuasive explanations for Mishima’s shocking act in the years. Another was articulated by Mishima himself, who just weeks before his death echoed the fascist cult of action for action’s sake. “Literature is impotent,” Mishima told the boss of the Seibu Department Store, “in the end you have to act”.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.