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“Immortal Longings:  Suicide of Honor in Seneca, Shakespeare and Mishima”

 

Lieutenant Takeyama rejoices that in death he can unite the two most important parts of his life, his honor and his love:  “A lonely death on the battlefield, a death beneath the eyes of his beautiful wife...in the sensation that he was now to die in these two dimensions, realizing an impossible union of them both, there was sweetness beyond words.”

 

Reiko, unquestionably devoted to her husband is nonetheless overjoyed that he asks her to be a witness to his suicide and that he trusts her enough to take her own life subsequently; that is, “he did not intend to kill his wife first—he had deferred her death to a time when he would no longer be there to verify it.”  The only qualification to her happiness is that occasionally tears well up in her eyes as she realizes that she will never see her husband again, though the tears are not permitted to develop into sobs.

 

Mishima makes a significant contrast between the private world of Lieutenant Takeyama and Reiko—i.e., their home, where intimacy and warmth predominate—and the outside world where February’s wintry cold and snow are symbolic as well as literal.  When Lieutenant Takeyama returns on the third day, he bolts the door to exclude the outside world from the last private moments he and Reiko will share.  Although he is a soldier and used to performing in public, his self-inflicted death will be private, not viewed by anyone but his wife:  “His was a battlefield without glory, a battlefield where none could display deeds of valor:  it was the front line of the spirit.” 

 

An aspect of this opposition between private and public, heat and cold, is that Reiko looks upon her husband as a sun god, and “she was ready, and happy, to be hurtled along to her destruction in that gleaming sun chariot.”  But after the Lieutenant’s suicide, cold permeates their home.  As she sits down at her mirror to apply rouge and lipstick before killing herself, “she was conscious of the dampness and coldness of her husband’s blood in the region of her thighs.”

 

Moreover, in order to make it easier for people to find their bodies, she unbolts the door her husband locked hours ago and opens it a crack; not surprisingly, “at once a chill wind blew in ...and stars glittered ice cold through the trees in the large house opposite.”  With the death of her husband there is no more warmth.

 

Reiko’s concern with her physical appearance before death is an interesting touch.  Both she and her husband reflect some of their author’s obsession with physical beauty.  Mishima emphasizes that both the Lieutenant and Reiko are exceptionally good-looking.  In their final rounds of lovemaking they gaze tenderly on each other’s body, knowing this is the last time they will have such an opportunity.  Lieutenant Takeyama, “not without a touch of egocentricity, rejoiced that he would never see this [i.e., his wife’s] beauty crumble in death.” 

 

There seems to be a “touch of egocentricity” in Reiko also.   As she puts one her make-up one last time, we are told, “This was no longer makeup to please her husband.  It was make-up for the world which she would leave behind, and there was a touch of the magnificent and the spectacular in her brushwork.”  When she unbolts the door, part of her motive is that she “did not relish the thought of their two corpses putrifying before discovery.”

 

In works as diverse as “Patriotism” and Antony and Cleopatra there are some noteworthy resemblances.  Cleopatra, too, wants to look her best in death.  As with Reiko, Cleopatra’s lover is already dead (though she hopes to see him again), but instead of a humiliated figure marching before Roman mobs for their entertainment, she wishes to put on an impressive display, even in death, for Caesar, who will find her corpse. “Give me my robe.  Put on my crown,” she instructs her female attendants, and after her death Charmian fixes her crown, which is slightly “awry.”  Like Cleopatra, Reiko assists her lover in his final moments, and as with Cleopatra, Reiko is the center of attention in the last scene of the work.

 

All four lovers hope to see their partners again in the world to come.  Antony who temporarily believes that Cleopatra has betrayed him to Caesar and who mistakenly believes she has died, intends suicide, in order to “o’ertake thee, Cleopatra, and / Weep for my pardon.” When Iras dies shortly before her mistress, Cleopatra worries that “if she first meet the curlèd Antony, /  He’ll make demand of her, and spend that kiss / Which is my heaven to have.”  Similarly, Lieutenant Takeyama tells Reiko they will soon be meeting their friends, presumably the soldiers that he would be responsible for arresting, “in the other world.  They’ll tease us, I imagine, when they find I’ve brought you with me.”

 

Though Cleopatra and Reiko die in different ways, one by serpents, and the other by means of a small dagger given to her by her mother as part of her trousseau—Antony and Lieutenant Takeyama die from sword wounds and in each case their deaths are prolonged.  Indeed, there are characteristics in common between the samurai tradition of honor and the code of honor among Roman soldiers.

 

 

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