Three Million Yen (Hyakumanen Senbei) by Mishima Yukio, 1960
THREE MILLION YEN (Hyakumanen senbei)
by Mishima Yukio, 1960
First published in October 1960, some 10 years before the author's early death, "Three Million Yen" ("Hyakumanen senbei") is one of the last stories of Mishima Yukio. He tended to concentrate on novels and speculative or political essays in his last years. "Three Million Yen," therefore, represents Mishima's mature ironic style, a combination of self-consciously distanced narrative, strong symbolic effects, and sharply observed dialogue. One feature of this style is that it is hard to tell whether the irony serves to rein in a real sense of anger or merely to sharpen good-humored social observation. It is probably this tension between mockery and passion, present in all of Mishima's best work, that makes the story so memorable.
In the story a young married couple, Kiyoko and Kenzo, has an appointment with an unnamed old woman later that evening. They are walking toward a modern department store housed in the New World Building. On the roof of the building is a five-story pagoda gaudily illuminated with flashing neon lights. We are told that the pagoda has replaced a pond, now filled in, as the prime landmark in this district of the city. With the image of the rooftop pagoda the tone and direction of the story start to emerge: this is to be an ironic exposure of the values of modern Japan and of the concerns of average postwar Japanese people. The pagoda, evocative of quiet temple grounds and the grace of old Japan, has become something lit up in neon, flickering on the roof of the building named New World. The massive Western-style department store, both symbol and propagator of consumerism, rises like a tombstone over the grave of a pond in a pleasure garden, again evocative of the more refined amusements of Japan's past.
The young couple are in Western clothes in the summer heat—the man in a undershirt, the woman in a sleeveless dress and clutching a pink plastic handbag. In the department store the atmosphere of abundant consumerism is stressed again by the mountainous piles of cheap, brightly colored goods.
A remark about the man's fondness for toys sets the couple talking about their wish to have children, and the authorial voice tells us that they are indeed a couple united in their careful consumerism. They open special saving accounts for each item—refrigerator, washing machine, television—that they wish to acquire, and then they search carefully for the best deal they can get on their chosen model. They also have a budget plan for a child, though that is still a few years off, and feel only contempt for those poor families who have children without proper economic planning. We are told that Kenzo is filled with rage when modern young Japanese say that there is no hope, for he believes that those who respect nature and work hard will be able to make a life.
The talk about hope for the future then shades into a description of a toy flying saucer station that has attracted Kenzo's attention. On a tin base, with its background cunningly painted with twinkling stars, the toy launches plastic spaceships into the humid summer air. The flying saucer that Kenzo launches lands on a packet of three "million-yen rice crackers," which provide the title of the story. (Although the English title is "Three Million Yen," the Japanese literally translates as "million-yen rice crackers.") Here again we are treated to an ironic contrast between old values and modern consumerism. The figure on the imitation banknotes on the wrapper is that of the baldheaded owner of the department store, replacing Shotoku Taishi, the legendary scholar-prince who is said to have introduced Buddhism to Japan and who used to be on most Japanese banknotes.
Kenzo sees the landing as a good omen and buys a packet of the crackers despite his wife's protests that they are too expensive. (Much of his wife's dialogue throughout the story consists of saying that things are too expensive.) They nibble the crackers while looking around the indoor amusement park on another floor of the building. Kenzo insists that they try out a ride called Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, even though his wife again mutters that for the price of the ticket one could get a good bit of real fish rather than looking at a lot of cardboard ones.
In the description of the ride that follows the focus of attention is mostly on the wife as she feels her husband's bare arms on her naked back and shoulders and senses that he takes a sensual enjoyment in her fear. Paradoxically, she feels more embarrassed by this sense of sexuality in the darkness of the ride than she would in daylight; she tells herself that with her husband's arms around her she could bear any kind of shame or fear.
The second attraction they try is called Magic Land, whose dwarfs suggest again the children they want to have. As they walk up the path with its row of artificial flowers lit by flashing bulbs, Kenzo remarks that they should have something like this themselves someday. In the leaning room and other wonders of distorted architecture contained in Magic Land, the couple continues to see genuine images of future domestic happiness.
Finally it is time for them to keep the appointment mentioned at the beginning of the story, and we learn that the money they so scrupulously put aside for various projected purchases is earned by giving sex performances in the homes of the bored and wealthy.
The end of story comes as a kind of epilogue in which the couple is shown walking along tired and spiritless, late at night, talking about how hateful the crowd they had performed for had been. Kenzo says that he would like to rip up the banknotes the bourgeois had given them. His wife nervously offers him the remaining million-yen rice cracker as a substitute, but it has become so damp and sticky that it will not tear.
Pressed together in the dark, sexually aroused, and ashamed before the cold, bright eyes of artificial sea monsters, the pair reenacts a version of the kind of performance by which they earn their living. They then move from this to a "magic land" that, with its wobbly staircases and shaking passageways, provides a distorted and insecure vision of the domestic bliss they hope to build out of their nightly humiliations.
This story reflects Mishima's contempt for what he considered the decadence of the postwar, Americanized consumer culture in Japan and also for bourgeois money values. He came to feel more and more that they were destroying everything of worth in traditional Japan. Although the irony is strong and the whole structure of the story possibly a little too schematic, it is still humor rather than rage that dominates. We are clearly meant to see the young couple as largely unwitting victims of modern acquisitiveness, and Mishima's treatment of them contains enough indulgent warmth to allow us to be touched by their naive trust in each other and in what their relationship can do. They have sold what was best in themselves to buy into a more prosperous future, and clearly Mishima believed that the same could be said of postwar Japan.