Life for Sale (Vintage International)
“Life for Sale is a smart novel masquerading as a crime thriller.”
Japanese author Yukio Mishima is best remembered today for his complex, deeply philosophical fiction like the short story “Patriotism” and the novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. During his own time, Mishima was just as famous for his popular novels, most of which feature crime and detective stories with a dash of black comedy. One of these novels, 1968’s Life for Sale, was initially serialized in Japan’s Weekly Playboy magazine, and, thanks to translator Stephen Dodd and Vintage Books, is now available in English.
Life for Sale is an existential crime novel. On day after work, salaryman Hanio Yamada decides to commit suicide. This decision comes about because, as he reads the evening newspaper, the black lines of print transform into cockroaches. This image convinces Hanio that life lacks meaning. He swallows several pills but fails to actually die. Rather than try again, Hanio places an ad in the newspaper offering his life for sale. It does not take long for takers to begin knocking on his door.
Life for Sale is a madcap story: Hanio’s buyers include a cuckolded husband who wishes to kill his wife (and Hanio) by setting them up against a mobster; a frumpy librarian who ends up committing suicide after accidentally falling in love with Hanio; a living vampire who drinks blood straight from Hanio’s arm; and a 30-year-old hipster who leads a life of nihilism because of a false rumor that she has congenital syphilis. Strange events move in the background, too. Hanio finds himself not only ensnared in an espionage war between Country A and Country B (thinly veiled proxies for the US and USSR), but he also finds himself targeted by a shadowy group of smugglers and assassins known as the Asia Confidential Service, or ACS.
The grand irony of this story is that Hanio is a man sick of life, and yet his various suicide schemes fail. Despite recognizing that all ideas and all of life are “all rooted in meaninglessness,” Hanio cannot help but bumble into money, sex, and situations wherein he actually fights to save his own skin. Hanio’s detachment from family and work, which, in the eyes of one provincial detective makes him “a dodgy member of society” and “human trash,” allows him to see the myths undergirding ordinary life. As such, Hanio critiques postwar Japan’s love of filthy lucre. He also excoriates the Western world for always complicating the simplicity of life. Most of all, Hanio takes to task all those who deny the inherent chaos and pointlessness of life.
It is hard not to read Life for Sale as Mishima’s own criticism of modern society. After all, just two years after the publication of this novel, at age 45, Mishima tried to lead a military coup against Tokyo in the name of restoring the primacy of the imperial family. When it failed, he committed ritual suicide, also known as seppuku. Mishima really did want to “purge” Japan of liberal democracy, materialism, and the ills of a supposedly subjugated people. Hanio is in many ways a harbinger—a man whose chevalier view of life mirrors Mishima’s, albeit instead of heroism, Hanio’s central belief is randomness.
Life for Sale is a smart novel masquerading as a crime thriller. For those seeking entry into the complex world of Mishima, this is not a bad place to start.