Review: Life for Sale

Two years after the original 1968 publication in Japan of Life for Sale, which opens immediately with a young man's failed attempt to die, Yukio Mishima (Star) led an unsuccessful military coup d'etat that ended with his highly publicized, gruesomely violent ritual suicide. Just 45 at the time of his death, Mishima was a prolific, prodigious author, playwright, poet, actor, film director and model, often rumored to be repeatedly considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Half a century since his passing, he remains one of Japan's most revered literary figures, especially lauded for his semi-autobiographical novel, Confessions of a Mask, and the Sea of Fertility tetralogy. Life for Sale, available for the first time in English translation by University of London professor Stephen Dodd, reads almost like an anomaly among Mishima's oeuvre, distinctly characterized by elusive beauty, erotic obsessions, certain death. While all three elements are present here, this satirical Life's unexpected black-comedy-of-errors veneer will undoubtedly surprise even Mishima aficionados.

Hanio Yamada is a 27-year-old copywriter who "personified the honest, hardworking company employee"--at least until he "consumed a large amount of sedative" before stretching out on the empty seats of the last train of the evening. In hindsight, he considers that reading the "run-of-the-mill" newspaper headlines on November 29 (Mishima's chosen death date was November 25, 1970) might have been the "likely" cause of his "sudden urge to die."

His "complete whim" leaves him convinced "a wonderfully free and empty world opened up before him." He quits his advertising job and takes out a tabloid ad: "Life for sale. Use me as you wish." In case he might encounter walk-bys, he posts his door with a similar sign: "Hanio Yamada--Life for Sale." He has no lack of clients--plural, yes, because he can't seem to die, although the body count grows around him, not to mention his lucrative earnings. An old man hires him to die with his much younger wife; a woman sacrifices him to test a new drug; a son needs a body for his vampire mother; two rival embassies need him to eat carrots.

Still alive, and considerably wealthier, he meets his potential match in a drug-addicted virgin, but the best things never last, and he goes on the lam, severing connections, carving out tracking devices, trying to stay ahead of what might well be the end of his line. Repeatedly threatened, Hanio insists "my life is my own affair"--to protect it, live it, end it--all on his own terms.

Ludicrous situations, farcical exchanges and nonsensical plot twists might easily derail a less accomplished author's narrative, but Mishima embraces the outlandish and bizarre with affecting results. Life for Sale proves to be an almost-morality tale about the immeasurable value of life--and, of course--the elusive unknowability (despite its unavoidability) of death. --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Shelf Talker: In Japanese literary icon Yukio Mishima's darkly comic Life for Sale, available for the first time in English, a young man reacts to his failed suicide by putting his life up for sale.

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