ACTS OF WORSHIP By Yukio Mishima translated by John Bester (Kodansha: $6.95) : SUN AND STEEL By Yukio Mishima translated by John Bester (Kodansha: $5.95)

The often vulgar excesses of his life, culminating in his flamboyant suicide in 1970, have prevented Yukio Mishima from being recognized as one of the great writers of the 20th Century. These complementary volumes of fiction and nonfiction only confirm his genius.

Of the seven stories in "Acts of Worship," which span most of the author's career, "Sword" is the most typical. With his lean, amber flesh and single-minded devotion to samurai ideals, kendo champion Jiro Kokubu prefigures the ill-fated Isao in "Runaway Horses." His exquisitely trained movements reflect the unconscious purity of the Zen archers; he remains at the center of each motion, taut, yet natural and relaxed.

But Mishima balances this physical perfection against the character's icy priggishness: Jiro proves as hollow as the decadent society he inhabits. The title story is both the most unusual and the most affecting work in the collection. Two very unsympathetic characters, a dried-up old poet and the meekly self-effacing widow who looks after him, discover their unspoken emotional bond on a sentimental but unromantic journey.

Mishima explores his fixation with body-building in "Sun and Steel," an intensely personal book--part autobiography, part artistic credo, part apologia. Initially, Mishima was intrigued by the contrast between physical exercise and his life as a writer. But the transformation of his body gradually led to a transformation of his literary style, and this synthesis strengthened his fascination with death. In addition to exploring the beliefs that underlie much of Mishima's work, "Sun and Steel" stands as a devastating portrait of an extraordinary mind.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World