One of the qualities about Japanese literature to admire is the brevity. So often readers are presented with contemporary novels that are needlessly long, and endlessly describe boringly with a lack of insight. Forbidden Colors still has quite a bit going for it, in that it has Mishima’s stamp of skilled wording and numerous passages that are both lyrical and philosophical. Yet, what works against Forbidden Colors is the fact that the book, unlike many other Japanese novels of Mishima’s era, happens to be a bit verbose. Finishing at over 400 pages, this novel felt unnecessarily long, especially if comparing it to James Baldwin’s thin gem Giovanni’s Room, which is only a fraction of the length yet still seems to have characters more resonant than in Mishima’s similarly themed Forbidden Colors.
Yuichi is a young man trapped within a loveless marriage. He pretty much hates women, is repulsed by the thought of his wife bearing his child, and so he frequents gay bars and meets many a men while engaging in sex with them. Oh yes, there is sex and lots of it. Pretty much all man on man sex, however, though if a heterosexual, erotic scene slipped in, I must have missed it because while there are some mentionings of Yuichi getting it on with his wife, the scene is in no way ‘erotic’ but rather, we are presented with his repulsion. At one point he even concludes that he is unable to engage with her unless there is a mirror in front of him.
Forbidden Colors has all the classic Mishima elements: beauty and the power it holds, and the misery one feels from such beauty and a bunch of other ideas that either failed to resonate or have been expressed better in other novels of his. The women are all one-dimensional and useless, while the men are those who matter. Add to that they’re not very likeable characters.
I have to admit it took me a long time to read this novel—far longer than I would have liked. I even read another book midway through, that’s how long it took. I guess, judging by that, it is safe for me to say that I did not emotionally like this book, yet I still can recognize it is a book with merits, even though this is far from the best Mishima I’ve read.
At one point the narrator notes: “The homosexual’s hell and the woman’s hell are the same—namely, old age.” If you know anything about Mishima, you know that he associates old age with ugliness and thus is why he killed himself before his angel could fully decay, so to speak. One could argue this insightful remark is actually a criticism of men and their shallowness, implying that men, regardless of sexual orientation, are continually obsessed with beauty, so to be homosexual then is to share this same dilemma with women. Obviously other qualities like intelligence, kindness and talent don’t matter.
While homosexuality is a main element to Forbidden Colors, it is not the only element. Conformity, manipulation, shallowness, infidelity, and revenge are some of the other themes present. The characters throughout are, for the most part, miserable, with the gay characters the most miserable of all. While the women are thinly crafted, the men come across as narcissistic, nasty and self-destructive. None of this is a criticism, for it works well for the tale, albeit it doesn’t always make for the most pleasurable reading material.
Another interesting aspect is the relationship between Yuichi, the young man, and an aging writer named Shunsuke, who is a miserable misogynist and likes to use the younger man as revenge on the women of his past. While their relationship is some of the force behind the novel (which also ties back to Mishima’s recurring themes of the young versus old and how they play off one another) Shunsuke is not a very likeable guy. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.
For example, consider the following: “Shunsuke took the anger of the present and used it to inflate all the more his unyielding resentment against the vagina.”
If Mishima actually possessed a sense of humor, I might be tempted to believe he was trying to be funny, but nevertheless, the statement made me laugh.
In addition, here’s a bit of the narration regarding the relationship between the young man and old writer: “Yuichi’s existence, like a work in process of creation, never left the thoughts of the writer. It had got so that a day that went by when he didn’t hear that clear, youthful voice, if only over the phone, was an unhappy, cloudy day. Yuichi’s voice, filled with clarity and golden grace, was like a brilliant ray filtering through the clouds. It poured into the desolate soil of his genius. It brightened the configurations of those stones, that overgrown vegetation. It made it a slightly less unbearable place to reside in.”
This is not one of Mishima’s better passages. Note the handful of clichés and predictable modifiers. This is what I mean when I state that the book feels too long, for much of the added length is mere padding of melodrama and clichéd hyperbole that would have been better had it been left out.
Later, Yuichi seems to have some hope, for he grows a bit more sympathetic towards women and doesn’t hate them in the end, but comes to discover that he is capable of loving them. I should also note that there are moments of lyricism and depth within the book, and there are passages within that are much better than the last one quoted.
Forbidden Colors is not without value, but other Mishima novels, such as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, express a number of these similar themes (such as beauty and how it relates to youth and aging) better. Forbidden Colors is worth the read, certainly, though when thinking of Mishima, this won’t be the immediate book of his that comes to my mind.