Like many great and prolific writers, Yukio Mishima divided his time. His best novels, including the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, were sweeping works tinged with his nationalist right-wing politics but also full of universal profundity. These are the types of books that made him a three-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“Life for Sale,” recently translated from the Japanese into English for the first time, is not one of those books. Mishima called serialized novels like this one his “minor works.” He wrote 17 of them in 20 years. “Life for Sale” was the last of them, published in 1968.

“Essentially these were potboilers,” John Nathan wrote in his 1974 biography of Mishima. “At best they were worthless stones skillfully cut and polished. Mishima himself had only contempt for them, and when he had finished one he was impervious to criticism about it.”

Mishima may have held “Life for Sale” in contempt, and it doesn’t rise to the level of those novels by Graham Greene that Greene once called his own “entertainments,” but it’s a propulsive, madcap story with echoes of the deeper concerns that interested and plagued its author.

Mishima famously died by his own hand in 1970, after storming a military headquarters with members of his own private army, delivering a speech in favor of returning to the old traditions of Japan and then committing seppuku, the ancient samurai ritual of suicide by disembowelment.

Hanio Yamada, the young copywriter at the center of “Life for Sale,” attempts suicide for much less ideological reasons than Mishima. In fact, with just about no motivation at all. “Suicide was not something he had put much thought into,” Mishima writes. “If he were forced to come up with a reason, he could only conclude that he had attempted to end it all on a complete whim.”

After he fails in his attempt, he places an ad in a local newspaper: “Life for Sale. Use me as you wish. I am a 27-year-old male. Discretion guaranteed. Will cause no bother at all.”

The first person to answer the ad is an old man whose very young wife has been having an affair with a mobster.

“What I’m asking is that you acquaint yourself with my wife, become intimate and make sure that this mobster finds the pair of you at it,” he explains to Hanio, at which point the mobster will presumably kill both of them. “Could you manage to die like that for me?”

Hanio manages to do everything but the dying. And he soon finds that he is better compensated by the respondents to his ad than he had been even in his steady job.

“Life for Sale” was serialized in Japan’s Playboy magazine, and it has a serial’s episodic rhythms, a string of scenes in which Hanio encounters and manages to survive new misadventures.

Mishima brings to these set pieces a colorful imagination. They revolve around the poisonous qualities of certain Japanese beetles, the role that snacking on carrots might be playing in the death of several spies at an embassy and Hanio’s stomach-churning relationship with a vampiric woman who might slowly, somewhat affectionately drain him to death.

There are several references throughout to a mysterious drug-smuggling organization called the Asia Confidential Service, but its existence or nonexistence never feels like much of a reason to keep reading. It’s the book’s looseness and weirdness that provide its appeal.

“I’ve always wanted to keep a Siamese cat as a pet, but I’ve never got around to it,” Hanio tells one customer. “So after I’m dead, I’d be grateful if you could get one and take care of it on my behalf.” He suggests that another use the money she would pay him to buy a large animal, “a crocodile, a gorilla, something like that,” so that “each time you look into its eyes you’ll be reminded of me.”

This essential goofiness doesn’t keep Mishima from pausing on occasion to color in some of the story’s darker existential shades. “Once the world has been transformed into something meaningful, some feel they can die without regret,” he writes, in an elegant translation by Stephen Dodd. “Others feel that they exist in a world without meaning, so what’s the point of living? But where do these two sets of feelings converge?”

It would have been helpful for this book to include an introduction or some other explanatory material. Those who don’t know Mishima, and even those who do, could use some context. Even in a relatively diverting work, several of his themes are present: reasons for living and dying, the power of the death drive, the eroticism of death, the modernization and Westernization of Japan.

The nature of Mishima’s death casts a significant shadow over any reading of his work, and even if “Life for Sale” was written without his deepest attention and intentions, its portrait of the willingness to die is complicated. “Such readiness in the face of death is commendable. You have the heart and soul of a warrior,” one character tells Hanio. Those are words that snugly fit what we know of Mishima’s worldview. But Hanio’s quest for death is at best halfhearted, and doesn’t withstand much interrogation. Just two years before his own earnest end, Mishima wrote of his character’s plight as something passive and essentially comic: “There was something inexpressibly funny here. He simply could not be bothered to put up a fight.”


“Life for Sale”

by Yukio Mishima

Translated by Stephen Dodd

188 pages. Vintage International. $16.95.

(May 21, 2020)