Synopsis: Dilettante son of a nouveau-riche family seeking societal acceptance meets the refined daughter of an aristocratic family struggling to adjust to the changes in Japanese society brought on by the Meiji Restoration. A deeply intense and culturally significant story of forbidden love.
My Take: “Spring Snow” is generally regarded to be Yukio Mishima’s greatest masterpiece. The first instalment in his epic Sea of Fertility tetraology, an allegorical examination of the Westernisation of Japanese society between 1912 and 1975, “Spring Snow” was a best seller on its release despite Mishima’s political unpalatability.
At the most basic level, “Spring Snow” tells the story of star crossed lovers, Kiyoaki Matsugae and Satoko Ayakura, as narrated by Kiyoaki’s stoic best friend Shigekuni Honda. While the financial prosperity of Kiyoaki’s family and the aristocratic standing Satoko’s family made the couple a mutually beneficial pairing, Kiyoaki’s initial equivocation about their relationship allowed Satoko to be betrothed to a member of the Imperial household. However, once Satoko’s matrimonial commitment makes her unattainable, Kiyoaki’s feelings for her crystallise and the pair are set on a course for self-destruction.
While “Spring Snow” starts slowly, dwelling on the characteristics of the alien and hermetically sealed Japanese aristocratic society, as Kiyoaki and Satoko’s relationship builds momentum towards its inevitable conclusion the story develops a gut wrenching intensity. It really does have an emotional weight that leaves you physically weak upon completion.
However, this novel is more than just a Japanese “Romeo and Juliet”. Like all of Mishima’s works, the real emotional impetus for “Spring Snow” flows from the deep internal conflicts within the author and the broader Japanese society. I’ve written before about the contradictions inherent in Mishima’s life as a homosexual fascist bodybuilder/writer but the force of these conflicting desires is writ large in “Spring Snow”.
While societal pressure plays a role in heightening the tension of “Spring Snow”, the fundamental conflict in the novel is internal to Kiyoaki. The protagonist’s alternating ambivalence, hostility and obsessive love for Satoko is the main source of tension in the book and mirrors Mishima’s love/hate relationship for the changing Japan. Kiyoaki doesn’t know whether to welcome the opening up of Japanese society or resist its Westernisation and as such is conflicted about how to deal with this contradiction within Satoko who, by virtue of her position as the daughter of an aristocratic family, is at the forefront of these changes. “Spring Snow” is much more than a simple story of obsessive or forbidden love.
“Spring Snow” isn’t an easily accessible novel and Mishima doesn’t make any concessions to the reader in terms of exposition. It’s literary fiction in its purest form and as with all Mishima novels, it’s prose is jaw-droppingly beautiful. It’s not airport reading, if you’re willing to put the effort in, it’s a rich and rewarding work.
“Just now I had a dream. I’ll see you again. I know it. Beneath the falls.”