"When conversation at school turned to the Russo-Japanese War, Kiyoaki Matsugae asked his closest friend, Shigekuni Honda, how much he could remember about it."Summary: It is the early 20th century and Japanese society struggles with the inexorable westernization of the country. Kiyoaki, feckless son of a samurai-turned-nouveau-riche lord, falls in love with Satoko, daughter of a waning aristocratic family. Kiyoaki's ambivalence toward his lover sends their lives in a downward spiral after Satoko is engaged to a prince of the Imperial Family. Kiyoaki's boarding school friend Honda observes Kiyoaki's fall and features prominently in the remainder of Mishima's Sea of Fertility tetralogy.
Reaction: I've been putting off this review for a long time now. Proper appreciation probably requires a greater grasp of Japanese history and culture than I possess. Still, Spring Snow is a haunting novel even without the full social context. Mishima (and translator Michael Gallagher) perfectly captures the youthful personalities of Kiyoaki and Honda. On the edge of adulthood, they remind me of friends from my college days - Honda, the driven and career-oriented go-getter and Kiyoaki, the slacker paralyzed by any responsibility. Being more critical and introspective than most, the two friends stand outside the circles of their more popular peers. Their (often sophomoric) discussions provide insight into the Japanese mainstream of the period and illustrate the social turbulence of Meiji era westernization.
The characterization alone made this an enjoyable read. Then there's the tragic love story. I prefer tragedies to comedies, but romances usually feel way too sappy for me to enjoy. Mishima avoids sentimentality and his narration reveals the relationship perhaps as dispassionate-but-astute Honda sees it: a delicate, passionate, but ultimately doomed affair. Kiyoaki and Satoko are drawn to each other's beauty, but Kiyoaki's psychic paralysis and ingrained misogyny prevent him from pursuing the culturally sanctioned path of courtship and marriage. Instead, the couple arranges secret, forbidden meetings. Their encounters become increasingly self-destructive, especially after Satoko's parents arrange her marriage to a member of the Imperial Family. The couple's fragile passion is touching, especially in the face of their unthinkable defiance of Imperial decree. The unsustainable and ultimately destructive path is hard to read (even for Kiyoaki's flaws, both lovers are sympathetic), but it makes the ending more poignant.
Bottom line: Worth the read. There is much more to be found in this book than I can discuss here. Mishima created realistic psychological descriptions of Kiyoaki and Honda, but also of supporting characters (who reappear in later books of the tetralogy). I will leave these characters (and other themes) to later reviews. The next novel, Runaway Horses, is in my to-read stack.