Yukio Mishima’s 1960 novel After the Banquet was a new venture for me into the unknown territory of Japanese literature. With the exception of Kazuo Ishiguro, I’ve read very little by authors from this part of the world but an unexpected trip to Japan late in 2013 gave me the impetus to fill that gap in my experience. I could easily have gone for some thing by Haruki Murakami but I didn’t want to have to carry anything huge around with me and anyway I wasn’t in the mood for surrealism. I went in search of something rather more in line with my preference for realism and that could be considered one of the classics of Japanese literature.
Mishima, considered one of Japan’s most important 20th century writers, fitted the need perfectly. Although it’s not the work considered his greatest achievement – the four-volume epic The Sea of Fertility – it’s still considered one of his best. The New Yorker called the “the most profound thing Mishima has done so far in an already distinguished career” when it became available in English in 1963.
After the Banquet is a portrait of a marriage between two people whose needs and desires are so diametrically opposed, that it’s hard to see how it could be successful.
Kazu, the 50-year-old owner of a fashionable Tokyo restaurant, is a passionate single woman who once had many admirers but has long buried her hopes of future love and instead given herself over to becoming a successful businesswoman.
When she meets the former cabinet minister Noguchi, it is his quiet and intelligent nature that first impress her. Within a short time however she discovers long-held dreams and desires have been awakened; the dream of achieving respect through a relationship with a distinguished man of aristocratic lineage and the desire to belong to someone who will mourn her when she dies. The marriage gives her strength and the feeling she can achieve anything.
Her chance comes when Noguchi is approached by a section of his old political party who want him to run in the upcoming election for the Governor of Tokyo. Noguchi had really wanted to spend the remainder of his days quietly but had not bargained for the persuasive and fearless powers of his wife. Kazu throws herself completely into the campaign on his behalf, giving public speeches on his behalf, rallying the troops, planning and scheming how she can get him more votes.
She came to think that the election was her Heaven-appointed task. It was a game in which one used one’s energies agains a virtual vacuum for an adversary, a constant wager directed against something whose existence could not be verified. She felt that however excited she because, she could never be excited enough, that however dispassionate she acted, she could never be dispassionate enough ….Kazu was exempt from one worry, that she might be going too far.
Her patient and quiet husband just about tolerates her speechmaking but when she secretly plots with party workers to print and distribute 500,000 calendars bearing her husband’s picture, Noguchi’s patience is eroded. The dignity of this man with noble ideals cannot tolerate a wife who exposes him in such an uncivilised manner.
You’ve smeared mud on your husband’s face. Just the kind of thing I would expect of you. You’ve done a wonderful job of besmirching my career…. Does it make you happy that your husband’s become a public laughing stock.
The quiet man, the man of high principles, turns violent in the face of his wife’s ambition and betrayal.
Through her ill-judged action, both Kazu and Noguchi are compelled to delve into their inner natures and to understand themselves more deeply but they achieve only limited success in reaching a deeper understanding of the other partner’s point of view. Noguchi sees his wife’s act as akin to adultery and anathema to to his view of a world governed by fixed laws of morality. What he fails to comprehend is that the depth of her passion and the essence of her vitality make it impossible she will ever comply with his demand that she obey his principles and join with him in a life of secluded retirement. Kazu knows that such a life would represent the very emptiness she abhors. For she has come to understand that
…. she could never again bear any form of emptiness. Full, if tragic circumstances were preferable to a void. Kazu far preferred the north wind tearing her body to a vacuum.
The stress of dismay and disappointment over ideals that seem now beyond attainment, at the loss of everything they held dear, eat into the relationship, forming a gulf that cannot be repaired.
The slow passage from first hope of mature love and success to the shattering of ideals and the collapse of a marriage makes reading After the Banquet an emotional experience. Mishima gives a wonderfully sensitive portrayal of the points of view of each party, showing how the spheres within which they operate cannot come together to form a new whole. Kazu is intended as the main point of interest; she is the one through whom most of the events are focalised. I loved the portrait of this woman who has to choose whether to settle for a life as a married woman with the respectability endowed on that position in Japanese culture, or to follow where her passion wants her to go.
Along the way we get some fascinating perspectives of different aspects of Japanese rituals such as the prescribed order in which dishes at a banquet should be served and some tantalising descriptions of kimonos and a silk cloak inscribed with characters from an ancient poem. It’s a thoughtful novel of domestic conflict that comes wrapped with a strong sense of a place and of a way of life. One of my best reads so far on my travels in world literature.