“Human life is quite meaningless, and people are just puppets anyway,” says Hanio Yamada, as he sits in a warehouse with three men who want him dead. “What’s the big deal?” The big deal is the first English translation of a piece of engaging pulp fiction, first published in 1968 in Japanese Playboy, by one of the country’s literary greats.
Outwardly, Hanio’s life seems enviable: he’s young and handsome, with a cushy copywriting job. But, overwhelmed by visions, he attempts suicide and wakes in a hospital ward to see “a wonderfully free and empty world ahead of him”. He puts an advert in a tabloid offering his life for sale: “Use me as you wish. Discretion guaranteed. Will cause no bother at all.”
Interested parties are soon pounding on his door, asking him to sleep with a man’s wife, drink scarab beetle juice, feed a vampire and solve a diplomatic mystery. Classic genre drama ensues: exotic foreigners appear, secret organisations are uncovered, men point guns at Hanio and women leap gratefully into his arms.
Mishima was a nationalist who killed himself after his 1970 coup to restore the emperor’s power failed, and here he stares unimpressed at a 1960s Tokyo awash with money and adverts, where manicured streets are overlooked by bland offices and self-indulgent hippies roam. It may be only a footnote in his career, but this surreal tale offers a trenchant critique of a city that has misplaced its soul.
• Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima, translated by Stephen Dodd, is published by Penguin Classics (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.