Yukio Mishima is a writer most known for his intense and lyrical novels and less so for his short stories. After reading this collection, one can see why. Acts of Worship is not a bad book, but rather an erratic arrangement of tales that merely offers glimpses into Mishima’s later greatness as a novelist. The short story form does not seem to suit him, for many of the characters in this collection come across as cardboard cutouts.
Also, the shorter fictive form is at his disadvantage since there is little breathing room for error. To contrast, in the novel form, when Mishima dips into heavy-handedness and moments of melodrama, the length of the work often leaves more room for forgiveness and his weaker moments are not as obvious. Also, the homoeroticism, coupled with violence, is presented as self-indulgent within this collection and seems more like Mishima is acting out his personal fantasies than higher acts of art.
For those unfamiliar with the writer and legend that is Yukio Mishima, he lived a sensationalized life and underwent an even a more sensationalized death. Allegedly it was only eight hours after he finished The Decay of the Angel (the final novel in his Sea of Fertility four book series) that Mishima performed a public act of seppuku.
Homoeroticism, violence and destruction are recurring themes throughout his work, though in his novels, such as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Forbidden Colors, and to a lesser extent, Confessions of a Mask, Mishima is able to express these themes with great beauty and skill. These stories, however, do not offer the same level of quality.
The first story, “Fountains in the Rain”, is one of the best stories in the collection. The opening is strong and the observations are insightful. The tale ultimately expresses a brief moment about a breakup, where the boy tells the girl he needs to end things, but she does not hear him. When they are forced to share an umbrella in the rain, the narrator notes: “She had no umbrella herself, he had no choice but to let her share his. It reminded him of the way older people, for the benefit of the outside world, went on pretending even after they’d stopped feeling anything.”
The second story, “Raisin Bread”, is rather forgettable although it dips into the occasional cliché. The lead character is a failed suicide and offers all the standard clichés for the depressed personality. None of the characters involved are memorable and it is a significant drop-off in quality as compared to the first tale.
The third story, “Sword”, involves a college fencing club and the characters are once again fairly forgettable and cardboard cutouts. Much of the tale is mere description of plot and little observation. Also, scenes come across as heavy-handed and melodramatic, ultimately resulting in death. This is a story Mishima has written many times, albeit much better in his later novels. A reviewer named Justin Isis sums up my opinion of the tale rather well in his blog, SwiftyWriting (9 November 2006):
“Jiro is a clear precursor to Isao in Runaway Horses, virtually the same character in fact – even his conflict of subconscious preoccupation with his father is carried over in the later novel. The difference is that, given a full-length novel to work with, Mishima is able to explore Isao’s contradictions and flaws in greater detail, rounding him into a three-dimensional character. In contrast, ‘Sword’ just feels like a demo or dry run.”
Amen. In fact, most of these tales feel like demos or practice runs, with exception to the last story, which is novella length. Both the tales “Sea and Sunset” and “Cigarette” have their moments, such as a wonderful description in “Cigarette” where the narrator is describing stillness by way of observing a leaf in a pond.
“Martyrdom” is arguably the weakest tale in the book. Two young males fight and then engage in sex, only to end in death. Readers feel nothing for the characters and once again, are merely echoes of what one will find in his more polished works.
“Acts of Worship” is the final tale and it has length working in its favor. Because it is technically a novella, Mishima is able to flesh out the characters more. In addition, this tale is actually tender and laced with pathos, and one of the few times Mishima expresses empathy for a type of character that otherwise he would overlook. Both characters are old and physically unattractive.
Mishima tends to not grant much favor to those who are without beauty (since one of the themes in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is the idea that with beauty comes power and thus this power must be carried out only by destruction of such beauty). “Acts of Worship” is not a great story, but it does show moments of potential and the range for which Mishima is capable.