Kimitake is holding the book.
What was the thing you found when you were a kid, the object that changed you irrevocably? Was it a VHS? A book? A mixtape? Find the moment. Put your hand inside that pocket of time and touch that object. You have that holy relic in your hand right now, clueless as to how it will transform you.
Kimitake is holding the book.
“I began turning a page from the end of a volume. Suddenly there came into view from one corner of the next page a picture that I had to believe had been lying in wait there for me, for my sake. It was a reproduction of Guido Reni’s ‘St. Sebastian’, which hangs in the collection of the Palazzo Rosso at Genoa…A remarkably handsome youth was bound naked to the trunk of the tree…the only covering for the youth’s nakedness was a coarse white cloth knotted loosely about his loins.”
Kimitake Hiraoka grew up to become the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima (1925-1970). This recollection of his discovery as a twelve-year-old comes from his book Confessions of a Mask (1949). Here he writes that his father Azusa had returned from a trip to Europe with some art books: “My miserly father, hating to have the pictures touched and stained by children’s hands, and also fearing – how mistakenly! – that I might be attracted by the nude women of the masterpieces, had kept the books hidden away deep in the recesses of a cupboard.” The young Mishima, off school sick with a cold, discovered them there. In doing so, he succumbed to both a lifelong fascination with Saint Sebastian and “my first ejaculation”.
- Guido Reni’s St Sebastian
In Confessions of a Mask, Mishima describes the erotic quality of Reni’s painting, his prose dewy with his own sweat: “His white and matchless nudity gleams against a background of dusk. His muscular arms, the arms of a Praetorian Guard accustomed to bending of bow and wielding of sword, are raised at a graceful angle, and his bound wrists are crossed directly over his head. His face is turned slightly upward and his eyes are open wide, gazing with profound tranquility upon the glory of heaven. It is not pain that hovers about his straining chest, his tense abdomen, his slightly contorted hips, but some flicker of melancholy pleasure like music.” Fuck yeah, I would too.
It was not just the sensuality of Sebastian’s classically beautiful body – “more a Roman athlete resting from fatigue” – that ignited Mishima’s lust. A tangle-legged threesome inspired his desire, a psychological ménage à trois of Mishima, Sex, and its paler twin, Death. He writes that as a child, the fairy tales he loved the most were the ones that featured “princes murdered or princes fated for death. I was completely in love with any youth who was killed.” Moreover, the “gory duelling scenes on the front of adventure-story magazines…pictures of young samurai cutting open their bellies or of soldiers struck by bullets, clenching their teeth” caused his “toy” to “promptly lift its inquisitive head.” (The “toy” of which he speaks is not a cowboy doll voiced by Tom Hanks, but you might still call it Woody). His description of the violence of Sebastian’s glorious acupuncture session juxtaposes the language of pain and pleasure, expressing and encapsulating this erotic ache for gay S&M: “The arrows have now eaten into the tense, fragrant, youthful flesh and are about to consume his body from within with flames of supreme agony and ecstasy.”
But what of Sebastian himself, this languid pretty boy in a Calvin Klein loincloth? According to the story, he was a captain in the Praetorian Guard and converted various Romans including the mayor. When he was found out, he was sentenced to death and shot with arrows until he resembled a child’s cocktail sausage hedgehog. Irene, a pious widow, went to bury him. However, she found he was still of a sensible body temperature and nursed him back to health, whereupon a juicy sainthood was thrust upon her. Unfortunately, Sebastian just wouldn’t let it lie and decided to go and give the emperor a piece of his mind. For this, his real martyrdom was to be clubbed to death and put straight on the guest list for Heaven. His body was then chucked unceremoniously into the sewer. It would seem highly unlikely that the real Sebastian might have resembled a twelve-year-old gay Japanese child’s sexual fantasy, but I think we should probably stop thinking about a masturbating twelve-year-old for a minute and think about something legal.
To understand why Mishima was so arrested by the image of Sebastian, we must try to understand why the saint came to be represented with such an erotic undertone. It was, after all, a painting found in a guidebook to Italian museums that inflamed Mishima’s lust, not pornography. How and why did Reni’s painting come to be made at that moment in art history? The earliest image of Saint Sebastian is a mosaic from Ravenna in Italy at the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo that dates somewhere between 527-565. He looks like a purse-lipped bearded dude with the typical fashion sense of a dapper older martyr; airy linen robes and practical thong sandals. He has the hint of a pixelated Jeremy Corbyn about him.
As time wore on, artists began to add arrows and archers and used the story as a good excuse to execute a near full frontal of a male nude. In short, he transformed into sexy Jesus. The Renaissance period was marked by an obsession with classical antiquity. Artists developed an interest in anatomy in an attempt to create more realistic figurative imagery, but also to ape the perfect forms of Greek and Roman sculpture that so obsessed them. It should be noted that homoerotic love had a significant place in Greek culture and was not discouraged. If we turn to Donatello’s ‘David’ sculpture, made in the 1440s in Renaissance Florence, we see homoeroticism sidling back into art, slinky of hip and buff of bronze buttock. David is nude but for hat and sandals, an effeminate youth standing lazily on one hip, his toes luxuriating in the hair of Goliath’s head underfoot, the winged plume of the giant’s helmet working its way up the inside of his thigh.
- Andrea Mantegna’s St Sebastian
But what of our beloved Sebastian in this period? The Paduan artist Andrea Mantegna would paint him three times. My personal favourite from 1480 resides in the Louvre and shows his gym-honed classical torso penetrated with arrow shafts, lashed bondage style to a Corinthian column. Sebastian’s serene beauty, eyes raised heavenward, is juxtaposed with his wrinkly, leather-faced executioners. Essentially, his goodness is reflected in his gorgeousness. His feet stand firm upon the ground, coolly enduring the agony of arrows that force their way through an entire thigh muscle or pointedly perforate a certain area of his loin cloth. One purpose of saint imagery is for the viewer to identify with the suffering of said martyr, so that they might endure their hardship with similar fortitude. Mantegna’s image delivers stoic Sebastian in spades.
However, there is more than one way to skin a saint. This involves their nature as a benefactor. Therefore, a further purpose of Sebastian is to call upon him as though he were the ever-loving Santa Claus, (“I’ve been really good, beloved Saint Sebastian – witness all my praying – now can you please remove the plague buboes from under my armpits please? Yours sincerely, Andrea Mantegna”). Sebastian is patron saint of plague because his wounds both echo the marks of the disease and because as an arrow finds the air to be borne upon, so the disease was believed to be spread by air. Perhaps Sebastian had Mantegna spared the constant plagues of this time so that he might glorify the saint in paint. He couldn’t have done better with a spin doctor, a personal trainer, a lighting rig and a makeup artist to contour both his cheekbones and his abs. But before we forget…
…Kimitake is holding the book.
He opens that museum guide and flicks through the Renaissance to the Baroque. Guido Reni’s Sebastian stares back. This Sebastian was made in c.1615, the height of the Counter Reformation. The Catholic Church sought to deflate the numerous accusations of corruption levelled at it by Protestants. Paintings became propaganda. Money was spent to turn the volume of Catholicism way up past eleven. If the Renaissance is a shaken bottle, the Baroque is a popped cork of fizzing, jizzing champagne. The saints’ flesh suffers spectacularly, blood flows, pools and spurts and everything is gold. It’s as though Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen had been given the go ahead to create a Liberace-ish spectacle of Catholic gilt. The centrefold of the Baroque is Bernini’s sculpture of The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647-52). If you don’t know the sculpture, I would describe it as a woman having a sonic boom of an orgasm and attributing it to godly interference. When I look at her, I always remember the When Harry Met Sally quote “I’ll have what she’s having.”
- The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
A sexy lucky seven Saint Sebastians attributed to Guido Reni were painted during the 1610s, though art historians are unsure how many were really touched by his hand. Many of the Sebastians’ bodies were influenced by the Belvedere Torso by Apollonius of Athens, a fragmented sculpture dating to approximately the 1st-century BC. Again, Sebastian would be recreated according to the aesthetics of Ancient Greece. Interestingly, his biographer, Carlo Cesar Malvasia described how Reni “turned to marble” in the presence of female models and after his mother died (whom he lived with until he was fifty-five), he refused to have women in the house.
Mishima’s favourite Reni ‘St Sebastian’ shows an Instagram muscle boy bound by his wrists to a tree, the blue of the evening light shadowing his arms and torso. One arrow under his armpit points directly to one of his executioners walking away in the background. The tension of the composition comes from the knotted rope at his wrists and its echo in the knot of his loincloth, a hastily assembled garment which at any moment might fall. The light on his skin is sensuously silvery as though he is wet with twilight. Perhaps the use of chiaroscuro may be a nod to that greatest of Baroque painters, Caravaggio, a man whose paintings were as his life was; a dark tableau of gay sexuality and murderous bloodshed. Reni’s Sebastian is the perfect encapsulation of Baroque sensuality and violence recreated as an advert for Catholicism. Malvasia would write that Reni – ever the professional patron pleaser – could paint heads looking to heaven a hundred different ways to illustrate ecstasy or divine inspiration. Mishima saw the ecstasy in Sebastian’s eyes and then the ecstasy became his own.
In 1966/68, Mishima posed for Kishin Shinoyama in a series of photos of him dressed (or undressed) as Saint Sebastian. He had begun bodybuilding in 1955 and also taken up Kendo. The photos show a man so muscled that he resembles an écorché of his own body. They are clearly inspired by the Guido Reni painting, with Mishima’s body stretched and arching in both agony and rapture. His arms cross at the wrists above his head, while the arrows pierce his armpit and his side, mirroring the Reni painting. In a detail that may become interesting to us later, an additional arrow pierces a tender spot between his belly and his hip. Essentially, these photos illustrate the culmination of thirty years of sexual fantasies first aroused by a museum guidebook. In transforming himself into that image from art history, Mishima refashions his body as art itself and becomes part of Sebastian’s story within it.
- Yûkoku: The Rite of Love and Death
Mishima’s obsession with violence and bloody death did not just extend to Sebastian. He was extremely proud of his samurai heritage and was committed to bushido, the way of the samurai. In 1966, he made a film entitled Yûkoku: The Rite of Love and Death in which he also starred. The story concerns a Lieutenant and his young wife who kill themselves after a failed coup d’état involving his friends. Mishima plays the Lieutenant and performs seppuku on himself, black blood pouring from his wounded stomach onto his white hands. The most unforgettable image of the piece is an almost nude Mishima looking sex club ready in a loincloth, a military cap pulled down low to obscure his eyes, a shining samurai sword in his hands. In an interview, Mishima would describe hara-kiri as “very different to the Western concept of suicide. The Western concept of suicide is always defeat itself. But hara-kiri sometimes makes you win.”
On November 25 1970, Mishima left a note on his desk that read: “Human life is short, but I wish to live forever.” November 25 was a date loaded with meaning: on this day some decades before, Mishima had begun writing Confessions of a Mask. In 1968, he had formed the Shield Society, or Tatenokai, a militia group of a hundred men sworn to protect the emperor. Mishima’s politics were inherently nationalist; he sought a stronger Japanese army and to restore the concept of the emperor to that of a living god. On this day in 1970, Mishima and four members of the Tatenokai got into a car and drove to the Ichigaya Camp, the army base for the Eastern Command of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. They visited the commander and surprised him by tying him up and barricading themselves in his office.
Mishima strode out onto the balcony. Below him there stood the assembled soldiers of the base. Here he began his speech, and in a moment where we might perhaps compare him to a certain evangelical captain of the guard, he tried to trigger the soldiers into a coup d’état, one that would reinstate the emperor’s powers. Of course, his sincerity was met with laughter and abuse. It seems that he had predicted his own failure, hoping instead that what he did next and had planned for at least a year before, would revolutionise Japan.
I don’t think that what he did next had been circulating in his mind for only a year.
He walked back inside to join the four Tatenokai. Seating himself, he took his blade and cut into his abdomen, a round red circle bleeding out around him onto the floor. One of the attending men, Masakatsu Morita, had been tasked with Mishima’s beheading. Unfortunately, rather than delivering a thundering decapitation in one blow, Morita gave up after three cack-handed strikes, leaving the task to Hiroyasu Koga. With Mishima finally headless, Morita also performed suppuku on himself and Koga made his second man of the day about nine inches shorter.
Several years after Mishima’s first ejaculation, he wrote the unfinished St. Sebastian – A Prose Poem which he included in Confessions of a Mask. “This was Sebastian,” he wrote, “young captain in the Praetorian Guard. And was not such beauty as his a thing destined for death?” Mishima’s own demise is the fulfilled prophecy of his lifelong obsession with violent death. People ask whether Mishima’s seppuku can be regarded as madness, a political act, or even a lovers’ suicide pact with Morita. I think we might view it as performance art, and therefore, the physicalisation of Mishima’s ideal of the ultimate “harmony of pen and sword.” He became art itself, martyring himself for Japan in the process. In his prose poem he also wrote of Sebastian’s death that “in no way was it a pitiable fate. Rather was it proud and tragic, a fate that might even be called shining.”
In 1970, a forty-five-year-old Mishima is holding the end of a blade to his belly and in 1937, a twelve-year-old Kimitake is holding the book.
“That day, the instant I looked upon the picture, my entire being trembled with some pagan joy. My blood soared up; my loins swelled as though in wrath…My hands, completely unconsciously, began a motion they had never been taught. I felt a secret, radiant something rise swift-footed to the attack from inside me. Suddenly it burst forth, bringing with it a blinding intoxication…”