“It’s better for a star to never be around,” says Rikio Mizuno, the narrator of Yukio Mishima’s 1961 short novel Star (recently translated by Sam Bett for New Directions Press). “Absence is his forte,” he concludes. At twenty-four years old, Rikio has reached the height of his movie acting career. Young fans surround him on set. They idolize him, dress like him, mirror him. He finds them all disgusting, though he cannot find himself, despite appearing everywhere from press releases to the life-sized posters he plasters to the outside of his bedroom door. Celebrity has taken over his life. The entertainment bosses who hire and direct him have, in collaboration with the endless fans, agreed on who and what is: a bad-boy yakuza on screen, who in reality is an innocent heartthrob. His public life is controlled by this latter narrative, such that even when musing out loud about suicide, his assistant instructs him to make sure it looks like an accident if ever he decides to go through with it. An innocent heartthrob, after all, loves life, and never thinks of leaving this world.
Kayo, the assistant, is Rikio’s only friend, his makeup artist and occasional lover, “my accomplice, my partner in this artifice.” In their bedroom, after a day on set, Kayo role plays for Rikio. “Who should I be tonight?” she asks him, before imitating one of his romantic interests from a past movie role. It’s as though the acting never stops; but with Kayo in charge, Rikio can sit back and watch for a change. “To be honest, I think she was the better actor,” he says.
His on-screen face is the result of her vision and expertise, though she herself does not wear makeup, does not fix her hair, does not, according to Rikio, care about her appearance. She lets her age show, looks older than she is—“She looked about forty but was barely over thirty.” She is not some patron saint of the “natural” though, but wears fake eyelashes, has two silver teeth—like the moon—and daily transforms Rikio’s face into the picture of perpetual youthfulness. Rikio believes that Kayo’s disregard for appearances makes her powerful, in a way that he cannot be. Assistant to the artifice, she is still her own director. “Her ugliness was everything, and she made it plain.”
While Rikio and Kayo are complementary—his artifice, her openness—he himself is split, between Rikio the Man and Rikio the Actor, “real” and “unreal,” as he calls his two ways of being. He comments at length about the experience of being on set, being filmed, living by predestined script that is often assembled out of order, according to the director’s schedule. When acting, he lives through “unreal time,” though it seems as real as anything else—perhaps even more so. While memories and reflections from his “real” life are, for instance, reported in the past tense, scenes from shooting are often told in the present. To talk about a work of art means talking in the present tense, as though the work were timeless. Perhaps a cliché, his movies make him immortal; to recount them is to assume presence: “Neriko Fukai was playing a seamstress for a neighborhood dress shop,” he begins, in the past tense. “Neriko hates everything about the yakuza. Her brother was like a brother to me,” he continues, shifting into the present. When recounting the staged scenes of his life, he fuses both his I’s into one, and annihilates the boundaries that separate them: “Here’s how things progress after the scene I mentioned earlier….I bid farewell to Neriko and leave the dress shop” (Italics are mine).
Star is a meditation on presence, on what it means to be something as performative as a human being, while also performing professionally, as someone else. Mishima, a sometime actor himself, challenges the dichotomy of fabricated and authentic self. Rather than validating either category—perhaps they are the same thing—he tells a story about the power of being seen, correctly and incorrectly—as one wants to be seen and as one has been made to be seen. Existence, it seems, is a group effort. One cannot achieve it alone. Sometimes directors and fans are the collaborators, while other times a loved one validates. Performance is not the issue here, but confinement to only one.
Photo courtesy of the publisher.