review by Gabriel
One of the many reasons I read novels is because they provide a window into lives I could never imagine. Forbidden Colours depicts the life of a young homosexual in post-war Japan. It offers not only an insight into gay culture, but also an examination of the deeper implications of being attracted to members of one’s own sex. More broadly, it is a novel about secret lives, and of finding the balance between the gratification of desires, and ones social responsibilities.
Forbidden Colours is full of bold assertions. Mishima is the kind of novelist who is uncommon now days, who makes blanket statements about society, people and genders:
“Someone once said that homosexuals have on their faces a certain loneliness that will not come off. Besides, in their glances flirtatiousness and the cold stare of appraisal are combined. Although the coquettish looks that women direct at the opposite sex and the appraising glances they direct at their own sex have quite separate functions, with the homosexual both are directed at one and the same person.”
In fact, Mishima is a writer who makes almost everything explicit – the mindsets of characters, the reasons for tensions in a scene, the wider significance of small actions. His style and statements are bound to polarise people, especially considering his denigrating depiction of humanity.
The novel initially focuses on an aging novelist, Shinsuke Hinoke. Due to a string of failed marriages and affairs, Shinsuke has come to hate women, seeing them as creatures devoid of a soul. While pursuing his latest mistress to a hot-spring resort, he encounters Yuichi Minami, a young man tortured by his desire for other men. Shinsuke is so entangled in intellectualism as to be capable of despicable acts and self deception, and he sees in the devastatingly attractive Yuichi a perfect instrument to exact his revenge against the women who have scorned him. He instructs Yuichi in misogyny, and binds him to his will by offering much needed financial assistance.
At Shinsuke’s urging, Yuichi marries, and soon after sets about seducing two of his puppet-master’s former flames. It’s the kind of set up that would be familiar in 19th century English novels, a similarity that is furthered by the Japanese attention to social interaction, and the gentility of the characters.
However, the author is more interested in Yuichi’s struggle to maintain his dual worlds. In one, he is a young husband with a pregnant wife, an ailing mother and a promising future. In the other, he is “Yuchan”, with strings of lovers who grow increasingly infatuated with him. As the stakes are raised, his callousness strains the barriers between these two worlds, until his exposure seems inevitable. This tension energises much of the novel, and also offers a more universally relatable theme – the struggle between expressing one’s true self, and presenting a counterfeit self to the world to survive.
Shinsuke, too, presents a vastly different face to the world, writing as if he is not concerned with “All the fierce hatreds, the jealousies, the enmities, the passions of humankind”. In fact, he is consumed by these emotions. In contrast, the author, Mishima, seems to be concerned with little else. He is master of delving into his character’s baser motivations. It is the infrequent acts of kindness and tenderness that are left unexplained, as if they are as mysterious to the author as they are to the character. Nonetheless, each character’s outlooks and philosophies are fully realised. Their interaction is constantly compelling, due in part to Mishima’s breathtaking skill in choosing a setting and establishing atmosphere that will heighten the drama.
People unfamiliar with Japanese culture may be mystified by the social constraints that the characters take upon themselves. I lived in Japan for about a year and a half and have read a few Japanese books and novels, but still find it hard to grasp the intricacies of the culture. When reading Forbidden Colours, I often found myself unable to anticipate how characters were expected to act in certain situations. For the purposes of this book, I suppose it is most important to understand the Japanese notions of obligation and public face. In Japanese society, it is one of the highest ideals that one honour ones debts, which explains why Shinsuke can make Yuichi do his bidding. On the other hand, Public face explains why the possible discovery of Yuichi’s double life might be of greater consequence than the taboo acts themselves.
Forbidden Colours is a bleak and challenging novel. It offers only the hope of freedom in conformity, which may not sit well with a Western audience. The philosophies and lifestyles presented will probably be very foreign to most readers who experience the novel in English, but if you are someone who seeks out new perspectives, then you will be engrossed by this then this masterfully told, unconventional tale. Recommended.