Dancing Mishima: The Tokyo Ballet in Maurice Béjart’s M

Online (recorded at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan on October 24 & 25, 2020)
November 26, 2020

David Mead

Maurice Béjart was particularly attracted to Japan. His M, created for Tokyo Ballet in 1993, brings to vivid life the story Yukio Mishima, not only one of the most celebrated Japanese authors of the 20th century but also playwright, actor, and model. A controversial figure, even today, fifty years after his death, Mishima was also a staunch nationalist opposed what he saw as Western-style materialism and Japan’s post-war democracy, to the point that he founded the Tatenokai, a private militia dedicated to traditional Japanese values and veneration of the Emperor.

Béjart mines those rich seams to the full. M may be an hour-and-three-quarters without a break, but the vivid work very quickly grabs you and doesn’t let go. Like Mishima’s novels, which are copiously referenced, the choreography brings together Japanese and modern Western styles. M is filled with luscious vocabulary and striking metaphors; with the idea that beauty, eroticism and death are closely interlinked never far away.

The Tokyo Ballet in Maurice Béjart's MPhoto Kiyonori Hasegawa
The Tokyo Ballet in Maurice Béjart’s M
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

In one sense, Béjart does tell the story of Mishima. It does start with the author as a child, follows a timeline, and end with his death in 1970 in seppuku, ritual suicide, after a failed attempt at a coup d’état. But it’s so much more. It also pulls in thoughts and themes that run through his writing. It’s a ballet that digs into the soul of the man; and in many ways of Japan itself, its traditions and its modernity.

Some prior knowledge of Mishima helps understanding enormously but the ballet remains both fascinating and enjoyable, even if, like me, you were not previously aware of him or his works. I’ll guarantee that if you didn’t know the man before, it will send you scurrying away to discover more.

The sea is an important symbol in many of Mishima’s works and that’s where M starts. The limbs of a graceful all-female corps in sea-green give the impression of the ocean swell. Wandering through the tableau, a schoolboy enters led by his grandmother. That youngster reappears throughout the ballet as Béjart takes the audience through the writer’s life.

Yuki Higuchi and Mashu Ohno (centre) with The Tokyo Ballet in Maurice Bejart's MPhoto Kiyonori Hasegawa
Yuki Higuchi and Mashu Ohno (centre)
with The Tokyo Ballet in Maurice Bejart’s M
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

Mishima’s novel, Kyoko’s House presents four stages of man, ichi (one), ni (two), san (three) and shi (four). The idea is taken up by Béjart, who gives Mishima four other selves who take up imagery from that book and others.

In Japanese, the words for ‘four’ and ‘death’ are very close in pronunciation and that double meaning appears in the ballet, Shi appearing frequently as a sort of mediator between worlds. After each stage of his life has been represented, another stroke is added to a Japanese character on a blackboard, slowly building that for death (死).

Béjart does not avoid the conflict between Mishima’s sexuality and his married life, which crops up repeatedly. A frequent visitor to the stage is the young and attractive Saint Sebastian (Yuki Higuchi), a figure based on that in Guido Reni’s 15th-century painting. Mishima reportedly identified with the image and its physical perfection. A long nod to the writer’s Mishima’s narcissism works less well, the giant circular mirror that hangs above the stage reflecting the action below feeling stylistically uncomfortable when set against the rest of the work.

Mishima was an avid body builder. An all-male scene depicting group training led by Shi is a powerful demonstration of the physicality of masculine bodies, exercises seeing to flow naturally from the music.

Maurice Béjart's M for The Tokyo BalletPhoto Kiyonori Hasegawa
Maurice Béjart’s M for The Tokyo Ballet
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

In keeping with everything else, Béjart opts for a mix of East and West for his accompaniment, original music by Toshiro Mayuzumi (a friend of Mishima) being interspersed with Western classics. Silence is important too, perhaps none more so than during the entrance of a Samurai archer just prior to the arrival of Saint Sebastian. That emptiness, a feature of much East Asian art (for example the white space in paintings, which is as important as the ink), gives space and time for images to sink in.

The choreography itself switches easily from classical to modern with nods towards noh and kabuki. The whole cast act and dance with ease. There are so many super performances, I hesitate to pick out individuals, although I did especially enjoy the accented delicacy of Dan Tsukamoto and Mizuka Ueno in the pas de deux for Ichi and La Femme, and Hitomi Kaneko as La Lune sur la Mer. Mashu Ohno has a remarkable detached presence that commands attention as L’Enfant (the schoolboy Mishima) too.

There’s even a genteel and elegant light waltz to Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestration of Johann Strauss II’s Rosen aus dem Süden as Béjart references Mishima’s play Rokumeikan, the title of which alludes to Tokyo’s long demolished Rokumeikan Hall, location for many European-style balls and a controversial symbol of Japan’s early 20th-century Westernization.

The ending is compulsive viewing. Mishima and the Tatenokai unsuccessfully attempted to inspire the overthrow the 1947 constitution, the mission’s failure leading to Mishima’s seppuku. The male ensemble are superbly drilled and absolutely as one as they background the schoolboy’s pitch-perfect re-enactment of the ritual. Again, Béjart rightly takes his time, the sad scene matched by the beauty of the cherry trees held by the military and the falling cherry blossom, that timeless metaphor for human existence and the fragility and transience of life. A long red ribbon links all the dancers as a symbol of Mishima’s enduring heart and soul before the return of the sea, the youngster and grandmother, completes the circle of human existence.


The Tokyo Ballet trailer for Maurice Béjart’s M