Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend by Christopher Ross

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Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend by Christopher Ross

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Perhaps not a book for those who like their narrative linear, but Bookbag loved this patchwork of travel, autobiography and detective story. Ross reveals as much about himself as he does about the anachronistic suicide of Yukio Mishima.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: November 2006
Publisher: HarperPerennial
ISBN: 0007135092

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In 1970, Japanese novelist and playwright Yukio Mishima committed suicide in public, in the way of the samurai. He drove a knife into his stomach and was beheaded by a second who then killed himself in the same way. Mishima's death, gruesome to Western sensibilities, has become a source of morbid fascination for many, not least Christopher Ross. Mishima's Sword is a montage of travel writing and autobiographical musing tied together by the author's search for the samurai sword used in the Mishima seppuku. I found it absolutely delightful. It is by turns turns painfully self-conscious, obsessive and even creepy, but also thoughtful, non-judgemental and on occasion, touching on true profundity.

I had read a previous book by Ross, Tunnel Visions: Journeys of an Underground Philosopher about the sixteen months he spent working and observing at Oxford Circus tube station and loved it. He's such a trainspotter. It seems to me that it is this obsessive, internalised type of person who is most attracted to those elements of the east that require deep introspection, such as the martial arts and the challenging work of writers such as Mishima. Most angsty adolescents go through a Mishima period, I certainly did. Most leave him behind again fairly quickly though, as I did. Maturity and experience tends to blur the "nobility" of the suicide. Mishima becomes a closeted, married gay man who obsessively fantasises about death and sex and allies himself with pretty dodgy politics. One also realises that his precise and arcane writing is the ultimate piece of lost in translation if one isn't prepared to put in years of kenji study, and one moves on.

Those who do not move on are as interesting as Mishima could ever be. Ross is a student of iaido, Japanese swordsmanship. He practises martial arts. He has lived in Japan. At first sight, he appears as the typical obsessive westerner, seasoning every sentence with some obscure reference or other, staring so deeply at his navel you wonder if he'll ever make it out alive. But the running counterpoint of curiosity and humour soon hook you. Sometimes Ross is intentionally funny - there is a description of a Tokyo bondage club that had tears of laughter rolling down my face. Sometimes perhaps he is unintentionally funny - I really didn't need to know that a £900 samurai doll sold by Paul Smith in London had a sword with hilt engravings on the wrong side, but I couldn't help but enjoy being told, at length.

There are some profound moments too. When Ross talks about the difference between craftsmanship and the throwaway culture of fashion, when he talks about technology and the proliferation of arms, you can see a keen brain working and thinking and concluding. The search for the sword is bathetic, but the book is not. I really did enjoy Mishima's Sword. It is not a book for those who like linear narrative or a definite conclusion, but those who can open their minds to a different way will find it tremendously attractive.

As for Mishima's suicide, I think the saddest thing about it was that it all went so horribly wrong. It wasn't a beautiful death. Mishima was jeered at by the soldiers when he made his speech. He didn't set off a coup. He sank the knife into his stomach too far, causing his body to pitch forward and his second to botch the beheading. Perhaps I'm too much of a westerner, but I don't see glory, or beauty, or purity, I see a gruesome and ultimately ludicrous end. According to Ross, it seems that most Japanese see it in pretty much the same way. And that is just sad.

Thanks to HarperPerennial for sending me this attractive and original book.

Buy Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend by Christopher Ross at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend by Christopher Ross at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend by Christopher Ross at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend by Christopher Ross at Amazon.com.


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Magda said:

I have never heard of Ross nor Mishima before (dear, a Ciao comment here...), I think I would start with the tube book though...

nostrand said:

Worshipping at the cult of the exotic Saint, glossary included. Only a westerner would write this kind of book.