Yukio Mishima: Forbidden Colours

So I finally finished my second Yukio Mishima novel: Forbidden Colours. It took me a month to read it.

It’s a novel of bold ambitions, dealing with a single theme: Beauty. This subject is represented by Yuichi, a youth whose beauty is so larger than life that I can only compare it to Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Everyone falls in love with Yuichi, but the ageing author Shunsuké takes it a step further by using Yuichi and his beauty in various naughty schemes, thus taking part in the creation of the piece of art that this boy is/becomes to him. To continue the Wilde analogy, Shunsuké would be Basil Hallward, or why not the narrator in Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornografia, where two older men conspire to make ideal beauty happen. There’s also a Lord Henry Wotton in Forbidden Colours: Mr Kaburagi, who despite his age manages to get Yuichi into bed by appealing to his narcissism. Yes, he “takes in” the boy in a way that only an aesthete can – some examples will follow.

Needless to say, I was captivated by the theme. (Yes, I fell in love with Yuichi too!) Mishima is so wise; I keep underlining sentences and writing remarks in the margins. Here’s one quote from the beginning (even from the chapter The Beginning), where Shunsuké first lays eyes on Yuichi. The quote could have been straight out of The Picture of Dorian Gray:

The spring-time of intellect, the time when it begins to grow – that was the poison, he felt, that caused the young man to lose his youth even as he watched. (p. 28)

I turn the page and read Shunsuké’s cynical attempt to convince Yuichi to marry his girlfriend Yasuko:

Don’t take marriage as being anything more than a triviality. It’s trivial – that’s why they call it sacred. (p. 30)

He keeps delivering tasty oneliners:

‘Everybody’s the same. People are all the same.’ Shunsuké raised his voice: ‘But it’s the prerogative of youth to think it’s not so.’ (p. 35)

How very true. In a way.

Mishima both hails and satirizes the common people. The love with which he renders the “common” characters of the book is a way of hailing. When it comes to being critical, he let’s Shunsuké do the talking – and I love it:

The head of the family was insistently filling Shunsuké’s beer glass and repeating: ‘How about that? My family could be made into a novel, couldn’t it? If you took it and described it just as it is – as you can see, beginning with my wife we’re a fine set of characters.’

Shunsuké smiled faintly and looked around at this run-of-the-mill family. Unfortunately, the father’s pride was misguided. There are many such families – families so much alike that there is nothing they can do but read detective stories avidly in order to cure themselves of the sickness of humdrum health. (p. 87)

The book contains extensive reports from the 1940’s gay scene in Tokyo. This description of a gay bar shows how timeless the concept is – this is still true:

Whenever a man entered, all guests would look up. The man coming in would instantly be bathed in glances. Who could guarantee that the ideal sought for for so long would not suddenly take shape and appear through that glass door? Much of the time, however, the light in those glances suddenly faded and went out in disappointment. Appraisal ended in the first moment. When a young guest who knew nothing about the place entered he would be startled to hear, if the jukebox happened to be silent, appraisals of his person murmured at every table. ‘What’s he? Not much,’ they would say, or, ‘That one; he’s been rolled everywhere,’ or, ‘His nose is small; probably his tool is too,’ or, ‘I don’t like the way his lower lip sticks out,’ or, ‘He has good taste in neckties,’ or ‘His sex appeal, though, is in short, zero.’ (p. 93-94)

Hahaha. Or rather: Hah. Hah. Hah.

Then have your laugh stuck in your throat as Mishima analyzes the Homosexual:

Someone once said that homosexuals have on their faces a certain loneliness that will not come off. Besides, in their glances flirtatiousness and the cold stare of appraisal are combined. Although the coquettish looks that women direct at the opposite sex and the appraising glances they direct at their own sex have quite separate functions, with the homosexual both are directed at one and the same person. (p. 96)


Across this world of men only, however, a tremendous female shadow lay. All tossed in nightmare under this unseen feminine umbra. Some defied it; some resigned themselves to it; some resisted and in the end were defeated; some worshipped it from the beginning. Yuichi believed he was an exception. Then he prayed that he was an exception. Then he strove that he might be an exception. (p. 103)


In this passage, Yuichi does some cruising in a park, and experiences the timeless attempt of gay men to look like teenagers:

Silently, Yuichi handed him his cigarette. The youth turned his oval face. Seeing that face more distinctly Yuichi shuddered. The veins in the man’s hand, the deep wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, were those of a person well past forty. The eyebrows were meticulously blackened; the ageing skin lay masked beneath the theatrical make-up. His unnaturally long eyelashes, too, could not possibly be genuine. (p. 64)

Thomas Mann’s fop in Death in Venice comes to mind.

Now the gay theme was more of a curiosity to me. What really caught me was the theme of beauty. Shunsuké elaborates on it in long monologues almost every time he enters – which makes me cherish him! Here is a passage from a speech he held, in which he criticized criticism:

‘Beauty has become a stimulus to garrulity. It has gotten so that on confronting the beautiful one feels duty-bound to say something in a great hurry. It has gotten so we feel we must convert beauty right away. If we don’t convert it, it’s dangerous. Like explosives, beauty has become a difficult thing to own. The power of possessing beauty through silence, this majestic power for which one would lay down his life, has been lost. (p. 112)

On the next page, at the gay bar again, he’s being more concrete:

How beautiful Yuichi is! the old author thought, watching him from a distance when he left his seat again. Among these four or five beautiful boys, he alone stands out. Beauty is something that burns the hand when you touch it. (p. 113-114)

Or even more so here, where he describes beauty’s short passage as a true connoisseur:

Shunsuké got into the habit of appearing with young homosexuals in various teahouses and Western restaurants here and there. He became aware of the subtle shift in years from adolescence to maturity, with momentary changes in colour like the evening sky. Maturity was the sunset of beauty. From eighteen to twenty-five years the beauty of him who is loved subtly alters its form. The first glow of sunset, when every cloud in the sky takes on the colour of sweet fresh fruit, symbolizes the colour of the cheeks of the boy between eighteen and twenty, the soft nape of his neck, the fresh blueness of his shaved collar line and his lips like a girl’s. When the sunset glow reaches its peak and the clouds blaze many-coloured and the sky goes mad with an expression of joy, one thinks of the blossom time of youth, from twenty to twenty-three. Then his look is somewhat fierce, his cheeks are taut, his mouth is gradually making plain the will of the man. At the same time, in the colour still glowing shyly in his cheek, and in the soft streamlining of his brows, traces of the evanescent moment of a boy’s beauty can be seen. Finally, the time when the burnt-out clouds take on a grave complexion and the setting sun tosses its remaining beams like hair is comparable to age twenty-four or twenty-five when, though his eyes are replete with pure gleams, in his cheeks are seen a beauty transcending the severity of its stern masculine will. (p. 147-148)

Another theme that appeals to me is the contrast between the “real” life and the “representation” of real life. Real, as in the ordinary life that most people live, its representation as the way artists depicts it and the way homosexuals imitates it. It’s ironic, how each side admires the other. The homosexual, for whom the “real” life is out of reach, becomes obsessed with it. And the ordinary “real” person instead admires the representation, since it’s purer and more beautiful, not realising it’s the representation of the life they already lead without thinking about it. That’s how I interpret it anyway, and this is how Shunsuké puts it:

Compared with representation, reality is tremendously abstract. In the real world, mankind, men, women, lovers, the home, and so on live higgledy-piggledy and that is all. The world of representation, on the contrary, presents humanity, manhood, womanhood, lovers that are worthy of being lovers, homes that have been made homelike, and the like. Representation seizes the nucleus of reality, but it is not carried away by reality. Representation reflects its image in the surface of the water like a dragonfly; it skims that surface. Before one knows, it has laid eggs on the water. Those larvae are brought up in the water in preparation for the day they will fly about in the sky. They become conversant with the secrets of the water, but they hold the world of the water in contempt. (p. 152-153)

How about that, artists, homosexuals and other outcasts as dragonfly larvae?

The novel contains several references to other texts, and I was happy to have read several of them, for example Plato’s Phaedrus, which is quoted extensively, and Strato’s Musa Paidica, which I recently read in Daryl Hine’s interpretation, called Puerilities. So let’s compare the one verse that is quoted by Mishima (through Shunsuké) with Hine’s version. In Forbidden Colours, Strato’s verse is translated this way (p. 419):

Let the cheek be fair
Or dipped in honey shades,
Of flaxen hue the hair
Or black with every grace;
Let the eyes be brown
Or let me disappear
Into those flashing pools
Of deepest black.

Now Hine’s interpretation (p. 5 in Puerilities):

Pale skins I like, but honey-coloured more,
And blond and brunette boys I both adore.
I never blackball brown eyes, but above
All, eyes of scintillating black I love.

And what would this book be without a reference to the celebrated 17th century poet Ihara Saikaku?

Nobutaka Kaburagi was a master of seduction. Until today, in his forty-third year, he had been intimate with about a thousand boys. What was it that attracted him? It cannot be said that it was beauty that excited him and drove him to debauchery. Rather, it was fear – trembling fear – that held him captive. In the pleasures of that street, everywhere a kind of sweet corruption followed one. As Saikaku said so eloquently: ‘Making love to boys is like the sleep of a wolf under a flower whose petals are falling.’ That is the charm of it. (p. 164)

Hah. Hah. Hah. Charming indeed, Mr Kaburagi. Anyway, my point is that it adds tremendously to the reading experience to be familiar with many of the references. One I wasn’t familiar with but should read: Euripides’ Hippolytus.

Ok, time for some more wisdoms and observations:

The homosexual’s hell and the woman’s hell are the same – namely, old age. (p. 167)

A homosexual’s Sunday is pitiful. On that day, all day, no territory is theirs. The daytime world, they feel, takes over completely. (p. 184)

Maybe the book’s most beautiful passage occur when Mr Kaburagi and Yuichi meet alone for the first time, and the old man woos the youth by appealing to his narcissism. The content of what he says, the way it is written, the way you’re surprised by the last word – this is pure beauty and it makes me sigh in awe, over and over again, when I read it. Hold your breath:

Yuichi wasn’t bored. Far from it. Why? Because Nobutaka’s monologue was about Yuichi and nothing else: ‘Your eyebrows are so cold and clear. Your eyebrows are – how shall I put it – they exhibit pure youthful will.’ When he ran out of comparisons, he stared silently for a time at Yuichi’s brows. It was a hypnotic technique. ‘Not only that, there is an exquisite harmony between those brows and these deep, sad eyes. The eyes show your fate. The eyebrows show your will. What lies between those two is struggle. It is the fight that must be fought by every youth. Your brows and your eyes are the eyes and brows of the most beautiful young officer on the battlefield. His name is youth. (p. 171)

Does it never end? No, it doesn’t. You have to read this book with a pencil in one hand. It’s more of a lecture than entertainment, to be honest – you learn for life!

Mishima also elaborates on death, suicide (“in general a suicide in which the subject does not think too much does not exist”, p. 228), the immorality of art (p. 299), and the “illness of perfectionism” (p. 189). Yuichi is also described as cruel and cold (p. 225), yes, a Destroyer – like when he gets out of bed (with Kaburagi) and stirs the coals in the fire: “It sounded as if he were stirring bones.” (p. 219) Mr Kaburagi’s bones, of course.

Here’s another example of the conflict between the homosexual’s and the majority’s life. Yuichi was walking arm in arm with Mr Kaburagi, and they were scorned by a straight couple:

‘Them! Them!’ Yuichi ground his teeth. ‘They who pay three hundred and fifty yen for a lunch hour together in a hotel bed, and have their great love affair in the sight of heaven. They who, if all goes well, build their rat’s-nest love nests. They who, sleepy-eyed, diligently multiply. They who go out on Sundays with all their children to clearance sales at the department stores. They who scheme out one or two stingy infidelities in their lifetimes. They who always show off their healthy homes, their healthy morality, their common sense, their self-satisfaction.’

Victory, however, is always on the side of the commonplace. Yuichi knew that all the scorn he could muster could not combat their natural scorn. (p. 253-254)

Olé! Victory is always on the side of the commonplace!

You still here? Wow. This kind of quote-heavy post I write mostly for myself, in order to remember the highlights of a book and be able to get back to them. It’s a kind of reference post, but if you joined me, it’s great to have you with me.

So did I love this book? You would think I’d give it a 5 out of 5 after reading this post, but I’ll only give it a 3. Why? Because despite the theme of beauty was everything I could ask for, the book at large was too slow for my pace, and I found all the fluff in between the wisdoms boring. I much preferred Mishima’s The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea, because it’s more compressed, more focused on the single theme it deals with: Ideal vs reality.

After I finished Forbidden Colours yesterday, I read a couple of pages in Donald Richie’s The Japan Journals 1947 – 2004. And believe it or not, but I stumbled right upon the diary entry where he meets Mishima for the first time! It’s dated “early winter 1952”, and Richie has been asked by a common friend to guide Mishima in New York:

He wanted to visit every Saint Sebastian hanging in New York, to see the Strauss Salome at the Met, and to experience a real gay bar. He gave as reason for this last that he was halfway through his next novel, Forbidden Colors, which contained scenes in several such locales, and he wished to compare, evaluate, and capture local color.

There were several such in Greenwich Village, I had heard, and so we set out and eventually located one called Mary’s. There we sat over our drinks and watched middle-aged men talk like women. This was something neither of us had expected and it was not very interesting. (p. 47)

Richie continues a bit later:

Next time we met I mentioned our fruitless Greenwich Village quest, ready to smile at the memory, but I discovered that he had already rendered it epic; me as Virgil to his Dante, both dangerously descending into the maelstrom of Sodom. It was no longer a simple single excursion into the pathetic Mary’s, but a perilous quest somehow successfully accomplished. And, indeed, details would be, he told me, incorporated into the continuation of that serious and responsible study, Forbidden Colors. (p. 48)

Aha, so much for the Japanese gay scene … Well, I forgive him.

Okay, let’s end with just one more quote, one of many that displays Shunsuké’s hilarious misogyny. He speaks to Yuichi and says:

‘You’ve forgotten what I said. This is what I told you. You must think of a woman as inanimate matter. Never acknowledge that a woman has a soul. That’s what made me lose out. I refuse to believe you’re going to make the same mistake I made. You, who do not love women! You should have been ready for that when you got married. A woman’s happiness? Nonsense! You feel sorry for her? Nonsense! How can you feel sorry for a bundle of sticks? By looking at her as a bundle of sticks you managed to get married, didn’t you? Listen to me, Yuchan -‘

Yukio Mishima: Forbidden Colours (1951, 1953)
Japanese title: 禁色 (Kinjiki)
Translated by Alfred H. Marks
ISBN: 9780141189567

My edition (in case you want to use my page references) was a Penguin Modern Classics in the same design as my copy of Brideshead Revisited.

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