CONTENT WARNING for discussion of homophobia, hate crimes, violent fantasies, and suicide; NSFW images.
Christian themes of martyrdom, purity, and moral judgment have long struck a disturbing chord with me, because so much of this imagery initially tainted my self-perception. My mother’s side of the family is from Brazil, and my father’s side is from Spain. Both sides are, to my knowledge, intensely homophobic, and those that aren’t are blithely ignorant on the subject. Although my parents were never religious, we were religious by association to our cultural family histories and their upbringing—I always joke that we’re Catholic once removed.
I remember being fifteen and seeing a story on the news while I was visiting Brazil: a father and son were attacked on the street for hugging, simply because bystanders thought that they were gay. My own late aunt, who was secretly gay, committed suicide at eighteen due to social pressures in her hometown; and every time I visit my other aunt’s house in Riberão Preto, I have to deal with the uneasiness of seeing the portrait of a bleeding Jesus Christ in every room, even hanging over the guest bed at night. It’s an eerie feeling to be judged so impersonally and to wonder whether I could go from being greeted with affection one day to possibly being shut out of their lives.
Because of these cultural dangers and my own family’s reservations (my wonderful mother excluded), Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask was a novel that, to me, reflected the violence and anxiety that society perpetrates against LGBTQ people. Although the book was published in 1949, that violence is still enacted upon the bodies and minds of LGBTQ people today; and because Confessions of a Mask was a mostly autobiographical novel, I decided that in these pages, I might find myself.
The story follows Kochan, a closeted young gay man. The stress of hiding his sexuality causes Kochan to have violent sexual fantasies where he murders the men he’s sexually attracted to. Mishima gives Kochan all of his own pivotal childhood memories, and the book reveals Mishima’s struggle with his sexuality by using Kochan as a medium.
From his fear of growing up as a child to his steps into a painful adulthood, Kochan’s early life recounts several of Mishima’s life events almost verbatim: his overprotective grandparents, his weak constitution as a child, and his affinity for St. Sebastian. Mishima even went so far as to have himself photographed as St. Sebastian in a reproduction of Guido Reni’s painting, St. Sebastian.
Precisely because Confessions of a Mask is a medium for Mishima’s internal grappling with his sexuality, it’s a coming-of-age story that never really arrives. The novel is set during World War II and Kochan is eventually recruited as a soldier while attending university. Although he never goes to war, Kochan believes that because he will most likely die in action, he can pretend to be straight until he meets his impending death. To prove this, he pursues Sonoko, the sister of a school friend.
It’s important to mention that Mishima’s personal politics heavily influenced Kochan’s pro-conformist narrative, since Mishima was a fascist. Besides the prejudices of 1940s Japanese society, Mishima’s authoritarian views undoubtedly confined Kochan’s existence and his own. Mishima was closeted throughout his life, and although it was widely known that he had sex with men regularly, he married a woman and had two children.
This unyielding rigor to conform may have been one of the reasons why Mishima considered youth and death the epitome of beauty. When we are young, we have more room for growth and flexibility, and adults pay little attention to children. Even death could be seen as a welcome escape for Mishima, who conformed rigidly to social norms even though they went against his very existence.
Mishima’s fascist ideology even led him to create a right-wing military group, the Tatenokai. The Tatenokai attempted a coup to reestablish the emperor’s pre-war powers, and the incident, which was dubbed the “Mishima Incident,” culminated in a short speech made by Mishima and ended with his ritual suicide and beheading.
Mishima believed that in both fiction and reality, beauty was something that was out of reach and only attainable through its own destruction, which would also ensure its preservation. In Confessions of a Mask, this idea takes the form of the martyrdom of gay men, as if suffering a torturous death at the hands of your would-be lover is somehow noble. This made me recoil because my young aunt, who killed herself by swallowing chemicals used for the development of black-and-white photo prints, died a horrible, painful death that shocked and shattered her family.
Even so, there are some useful fragments in the book. Due to fear of social backlash and his own self-loathing, Kochan’s life is a prison that he cannot smell, touch, or taste because it’s never even acknowledged. I related to this personally, since even as a child I wanted to please everyone and have always hated conflict, which directly led to me hiding my sexuality rather than talking about it.
This, in turn, led to confusion, emotional mood swings, and a depressive state when I was younger. By not being able to talk about my sexuality, I felt that a part of me had been blunted, and this made me see my life as fake and incomplete—something Kochan constantly talks about.
But while I had my mother and friends at school, Kochan had no one to talk to. Because Kochan never discusses his sexuality, the book makes for a draining read. You can feel just how hard it is for Kochan to acknowledge his sexuality, especially since his society pretends that gay people simply don’t exist. It is death by a thousand unsaid words, and enough to make anyone lose their mind.
Kochan’s violent sexual fantasies plague him indefinitely with both the pressure to conform and his unyielding attraction to men. This landlocks him, because he feels that he can neither out himself nor settle for an empty existence. This intense, internal struggle to conform is what gives birth to and feeds Kochan’s violent sexual fantasies.
His violent fantasies never leave the realm of his imagination, and in the real world Kochan is neither imposing nor very noticeable. In fact, near the end, he makes a considerable effort to take up as little room in the physical world as possible and secludes himself in his room, studying.
Because Kochan’s physical world is barred to him in so many ways, Mishima uses internal dialogue to further deepen and escalate the richness of Kochan’s mental landscape. To do this, he uses the image of Guido Reni’s bound St. Sebastian, which serves as the template for all of Kochan’s violent sexual fantasies. This painting is also what causes Kochan’s first ejaculation. Given Mishima’s own obsession with St. Sebastian and the autobiographical nature of the book, it makes sense that it would also become Kochan’s obsession.
Kochan first finds the painting when he is twelve years old, inside an art history book in his father’s study. It’s of a young, nearly naked St. Sebastian, bound to the trunk of a tree, his arms tied high above his head, exposing his chest. An arrow is sunk deep into his armpit, another in his side, and it’s clear that the painting is of a Christian martyrdom. Kochan is in awe that the man is young, beautiful, and dying, and what he finds most attractive are the arrows sunk into St. Sebastian’s body and his serene look.
He feels a personal connection to the image because he considers it to be openly sensual due to its serene depiction of death. This serenity in the face of death is only able to exist because it is under the “holy” guise of Christianity, where seemingly nothing is ever truly destroyed but instead preserved in another, kinder world.
To Kochan, the painting both speaks to his own fear of growing up and serves as an apt representation of social facades—sexuality veiled by a pretense of propriety. Because Kochan relates to this feeling of entrapment, he becomes utterly smitten with the picture.
Kochan continues to use paganism throughout the book in order to describe his true, secret sexuality while citing his platonic love for Sonoko as a purer, more wholesome aspiration, which he associates with Christianity.
I understood where Kochan’s anxiety came from, and this quietly gave voice to a larger problem: it wasn’t that I didn’t accept my sexuality—I was simply terrified of the cost of affirming my identity publicly. And while the images of dying Christs bothered me because I felt they cast implicit judgment on me, Kochan seems to offer up his sexuality as something to be crucified, which to me feels like the most extreme attempt to conform.
It’s worth noting that Kochan only feels “normal” when he thinks horrible things about himself and the men he’s attracted to. Over the course of the novel, it dawns on the reader that, in a way, Kochan wishes he would be killed, or at the very least his attraction to men vanquished.
His struggle between wanting to be safe versus wanting to be open about his sexuality are summed up best in his Body and Soul monologue:
To give a superficial explanation, my soul still belonged to Sonoko. Although it does not mean that I accept the concept outright, I can conveniently use the medieval diagram of the struggle between body and soul to make my meaning clear: in me there was a cleavage, pure and simple, between spirit and flesh. To me, Sonoko was my love of normality itself, my love of things of the spirit. My love of everlasting things. (Mishima 241)
To be considered normal instead of being treated like a pariah is a universal desire. Despite increased legal rights for LGBTQ people in many nations, including my father’s home country of Spain and here in the U.S., the presence of laws doesn’t dispel discrimination or ignorance. My father and his side of the family (although many were raised in the U.S.) are undeniably tainted by such negative views.
The relatability of a novel published almost 70 years ago makes you think about how even the thought of discrimination can make LGBTQ people linger and extend our coming-of-age stories. It can stagnate our lives due to the sheer efforts, divided fronts, and emotional compartmentalizing that we’re tasked to perform.
Take the term “inverted,” for instance, which is used throughout the English translation of Confessions of a Mask. It was a slightly more progressive term for being gay when the translation was published in 1958, but even then it was a medical term used to categorize homosexuality as a psychological disorder. It bothered me in particular because it brought to mind a stark image: La galería de invertidos.
The “gallery of the inverts” was the name given to Spanish jails reserved exclusively for the persecution of LGBTQ people during Franco’s reign. They were labeled dangerous to society and were tortured with all kinds of humiliations and “social reintegration” techniques. To see such a word appear in the text of a quasi-coming-out story only made it all the more apparent how violence against LGBTQ people is normalized in society.
Even though I’m bisexual and in a relationship with a supportive man, I know he feels great anxiety about my sexuality; it’s a part of me that I do my best to bury, and it comes back all the more forcefully because of it. Unlike Kochan, the trouble isn’t that I don’t love the partner that I’m with, but that I still feel my sexuality to be as divided as Kochan’s Body and Soul monologue.
Oftentimes, because I’m dating a man, I feel that I have no claim to being LGBTQ, and this makes me feel as if I have to choose between one or the other and “define” myself. I’m not saying that I’ve suffered from overt discrimination, but simply that I am constantly frustrated by the treatment of bisexuality as an unstable phase, rather than a fully realized sexuality. To be with one does not erase attraction to the other.
But mostly, I’m frustrated by people who seek to box in fluid concepts like gender and sexuality into only categories of gay/straight and man/woman. There is a world in between these categories. I think people’s greatest fear, and the root of homophobia and transphobia, is that so many people don’t want to acknowledge that gender and sexuality are spectrums, because to admit this would cause the biases that support unfair social structures to unravel.
My mom is very supportive, but then again, she knows what it’s like to lose a sister to homophobia and depression. To this day my mom resents her family for never acknowledging the real reason behind her sister’s suicide.
It’s important to talk about these things and give voice to them. Young LGBTQ people should not be made martyrs in order for people to understand and venerate their pain only after they’ve died. And despite how strongly I disagree with Mishima’s ideals, in parts, you can see Kochan wishing not for death, but for a world where he would not find death the only sustainable solution to his existence.
Personal parallels aside, what’s most intriguing about this book is how it inhabits a transitory space. The story is about transitions, entrapment, and the struggle to shed an old, tired identity in place of a new one. Certainly, Confessions of a Mask fails in many ways, but its potential draws the reader in: how it’s on the brink of a monumental decision and, for all its hand-wringing and loneliness, doesn’t want to die, but desires a new, worthy ending in some distant, shapeless future.