Yukio Mishima became a rising star in the Japanese literary field when he was only in his mid-twenties, and he remains today one of that country’s most internationally renowned contemporary writers. Susan J. Napier writes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that Mishima is a “writer who has helped mold the Western imagination of Japan at the same time as one who continues to haunt the contemporary Japanese mind.” Aside from his numerous writings, Mishima achieved notoriety for his ritual suicide, performed while still at the pinnacle of his career.
Stories like “Patriotrism” glorify traditional aspects of Japanese society, such as imperialism and the nobility of the samurai. In contrast to such works dealing with abstract social ideals, a story like “Fountains in the Rain,” which was not made accessible to the English-speaking public until 1989, has often been called a story about the end of a love affair. Indeed, its most in-depth commentary comes from John Bester, Mishima’s translator. In his preface to the 1989 collection, Acts of Worship, Bester writes,
“The ability to organize a small form is very evident in ‘Fountains in the Rain.’ A slight, humorous account of a tiff between a very ordinary young man and his girl, it skillfully portrays the instability, lack of confidence, and above all the self-centeredness that often characterize youth. With great skill, the imagery set forth in the title is worked into the fabric of the story; in a central set piece of description, the fountains reveal themselves as a symbol of the shifting impulses—ambition, aggression, sexuality—to which the hero is prey, and which are liable at any moment to be negated by the monotony of everyday life—the rain—and its obligations. The girl is barely sketched in, but the suggestion of a firmer grasp of immediate realities provides a good foil to the boy’s instability.”
Though readers may disagree with such simplistic reductions of ”Fountains in the Rain,” many of Bester’s points hold up. The story is rich in imagery, the boy does rebel against the obligations of everyday life, the boy is extremely self centered—but the boy is hardly a ”very ordinary young man.” The character Akio actually obliquely references Mishima’s aesthetic beliefs in the celebration of rigidity and self-control, as well as the necessity for it, which are far from aspects of the average person.
Akio, the main character of the story, has previously set himself the task of making a young woman fall in love with him simply so he can end the relationship. He apparently has accomplished this goal, for as the story begins he has recently told Masako that they must break up, which was ”something he had long dreamed of’ doing. The impetus for this action, though not explicated by the young man, is Akio’s desire to demonstrate control over another human. As indicated by the grandiosity of his description of what he imagined would happen, Akio believes himself to hold Masako in his thrall: ‘”It’s time to break it off!’ Those words, the mere enunciation of which would be enough to rend the sky asunder. . . . That phrase, more heroic, more glorious than any other in the world.” Akio further ascribes the ability to manipulate a woman as something belonging to only “the most manly of men.”
His need to prove that he can achieve this “height of masculinity” stems from Akio’s insecurity. As hinted at early in the story and again indicated closer to its end, Akio fears losing control of himself. His subconscious recognizes this truth, and he takes great pains to shore up his self-image. He seeks to strengthen himself by gaining control of others. He assigns personality traits to himself that he would like to possess; for instance, he maintains that his nature is “cut-and-dried,” a blatant misrepresentation. Akio’s nature is actually quite mutable—simply note the myriad emotions that he undergoes throughout the course of the afternoon— and beyond his ability to control. Even the moment of his greatest triumph—breaking off with Masako— is undercut by his weakness. Instead of speaking firmly and forcefully, he had spoken ”with such a deplorable lack of clarity, with a rattling noise in the throat.” His fear is evident, yet he continues and thus accomplishes this “splendid achievement.” Evincing such power over another human draws Akio to what he calls a “newfound sense of maturity.”
Akio feels oppressed by Masako’s tears, for they represent his inability to shake her free. Despite his claims at being able to simply end the relationship, he feels an obligation to her. Even after he tells her his news, he still spends the afternoon with her, for it is raining and Masako has no umbrella of her own. The sense of freedom he had hoped to achieve through his actions cannot come as long as she is crying. He feels ‘’absolute frustration… at the rain, the tears, the leaden sky that hung like a barrier before him.” Angry at the usurpation of his superiority, “the boy gave in to a simple desire to hurt.”
Bringing Masako into confrontation with the fountains only ends in Akio’s fascination with the fountains. He even finds greater truths there, though he hides them from himself, unwilling to face what they reveal about him. His wonderment as he gazes at the fountains reveals a sublimated sexual desire for both men and women. Akio had earlier denied any true sexuality, claiming ”that he had made love to Masako” even though he “had always been free from the dominance of desire,” but his perception of the fountains utterly disproves that claim. The columns with water that “shot upward” and “spouted vertically and undisturbed” represent the male sexual organ, while the “jets from the big central fountain” with the “untiring rushing” arcs of water represent the female sexual organ.
Although Akio begins his contemplation by focusing on the columns, he still is ”less taken with three main columns of water than with the water that shot out in radiating curves all around.” At this point, he forces himself to be drawn to the representation of a woman’s sexuality. As he watches the arcs of water surrounding the columns, his mind is “taken over by the water, carried away on its rushing, cast far away. . . .” Akio’s rapture can be likened to one that would emerge from a sexual encounter. He feels the same way, however, while watching the central column. He is fascinated by the “furious speed” of the water climbing within it, “steadily filling a slender cycle of space from base to summit, replacing each moment what had been lost the moment before, in a kind of perpetual replenishment.” Here Akio describes his fantasy of the ultimate, ongoing orgasm. Although he seems to take pleasure in this idea, as he has done previously, he counters what he has said by adding, “It was plain that at heaven’s height it would be finally frustrated; yet the unwaning power that supported unceasing failure was magnificent.” Here Akio unconsciously expresses his own image of himself as a sexually frustrated creature, yet one who longs to achieve true fulfillment.
As abruptly as Akio falls into this sexual reverie, he is brought out of it: “suddenly, fountains in the rain seemed to represent no more than the endless repetition of a stupid and pointless process.” With this perception, Akio again denies his sexuality, casting himself back into that person he claimed to be at the beginning of the story—one who has complete control over himself. The reader, however, knows this to be untrue. Not only does Akio have true sexual desires, he has them for men as well as women. His subconscious understanding of this is demonstrated when he starts to walk away from the fountains, having completely forgotten Masako; she is no longer important to his maintenance of the belief that he can control others, for he knows that he cannot even control himself.
The story further exposes Akio as he discovers that Masako never even heard his words breaking up with her. She was crying for no special reason; the “tears just came.” The shock of learning the truth is so great that Akio is “[A]lmost bowled over.” When he speaks to her again, he has reverted back to the unsure self who first met Masako at the tea house. He stammers out a reply that is desperate in its attempt to regain the upper hand: ”he wanted to shout something at her,” but he is foiled again in this effort as “at the crucial moment” he let forth an “enormous sneeze.” Akio thinks, “If I’m not careful I’m going to get a cold.” As the story’s final sentence, it sums up Akio’s release of his whole fantasy of controlling himself and others, at least for the moment. His acceptance of himself as a fallible human, even a mundane one at that instant, shows the utter failure of his plan toward Masako and his plan to shore up his own ego.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Yukio Mishima, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Rena Korb. Critical Essay on “Fountains in the Rain,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.