Yukio Mishima - The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea

Yukio Mishima - The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea
Rating - 7.7

On November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima and four members of his private army, the Tatenokai, attacked the office of the commandant of the Ichigaya Camp in Japan. Mishima, by then a famous novelist and essayist, demanded the restoration of the powers of the emperor. Mishima believed that Japan had lost its way following its defeat in World War II, and that something very important had vanished from the Japanese people. After his speech – which was justifiably mocked by the Japanese – he committed seppuku, or ritual suicide. Earlier that day he had concluded the final volume in his tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility.

Mishima's final days are important in understanding the complexity behind the novel, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea. On the surface, this novel is a chilling tale of tetherless children gone awry, sharply echoing William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Studied deeper and it becomes a metaphor for Mishima's discontent over Japan's embrace of westernisation, and its lack of military might and political power – its lack of glory.

Fusako has been widowed five years. She owns a clothing shop that mostly imports from Europe and England, but also stocks designs she embroiders herself. Her son, Noboru, is thirteen and very intelligent. He is part of a gang lead by 'The Chief', who is also thirteen. The members of the gang refer to one another as Number One, Number Two and so on, with Noboru as Number Three. They practice suppressing their emotions, and “[m]atchless inhumanity was a point of pride with every one of them.”

Enter Ryuji. He is a sailor, a man who has spent his entire adult life traveling from one harbour to the next. Ryuji and Fusako meet and fall in love, but they know that a sailor's love can only ever be fleeting. Ryuji sees himself as one of the only real men about – real because he has not succumbed to the pressure of a wife and children; real because he has remained on the sea after years of being a sailor. To fall in love and leave the water is, to him, a form of death. The fragrance of Fusako's perfume whispers 'DIE! DIE! DIE!' in a language only he can understand, and he imagines a time when her cool fingertips would turn into spikes of flame, burning him into nothing.

While Ryuji grapples with his desire to leave the sea and “succumb” to Fusako's charms, Noboru's gang engages in a series of activities designed to destroy their humanity. Lead by The Chief, they kill, skin, and mutilate a cat – so that they can see life in its truest sense, without the pettiness of skin. Mishima writes these scenes in an offhand manner, describing the boys' actions with the same level of passion you would use to tell someone about your visit to a supermarket, say, or a library. The boys, too, though they are nervous, accept this as their lot – they are disgusted with Japan and its mores, and see this immolation of sensitivity and compassion as their path back to glory and power. The Chief tells his gang members that other people “think danger means something physical, getting scratched and a little blood running and the newspapers making a big fuss. Well, that hasn't got anything to do with it. Real danger is nothing more than just living.”

As Ryuji and Fusako become closer, Noboru unloads his problems on to the gang. They come up with the perfect solution – Ryuji must go. Like the cat, he offers a chance for the boys to learn the truth behind the lies.

This is the plot of the novel, but below that lies Mishima's dissatisfaction with Japan. Each of these characters are firmly allegorical, their personalities and fates tied to Japan's (then) contemporary history. Ryuji is Japan drifting, uncertain how to be or what to do. Ruiji has aspirations of glory, but, as he ages, he wonders if this glory will ever come. Returning to land does not seem like the right answer for him, but what else is there for him to do? Fusako represents post World War II Japan, with its increasing obsession for Western goods and its growing economic might. It is no coincidence that there “wasn't a single Japanese room in Fusako's house”. Her mode of living is “thoroughly Western” it is Ryuji, then, who is giving up everything, losing his freedom, his "Japaneseness", and finally his life.

Noboru and his gang are the old ways of Japan. They know that Ryuji must eventually succumb to Fusako's wiles, and they know that discussion and compromise are not the answer. If Ryuji is killed and they remain, Japan has been won back. This is most clearly seen when Ryuji and Fusako are married, and Ryuji shows compassion following a transgression on the part of Noboru. The boy wonders to himself: “Can this man be saying things like that? This splendid hero who once shone so brightly?” Old Japan, it seems, is dying, its glory fading into squalid domesticity and petty economic success.

Mishima writes in clear, good prose that does not bother overmuch with passages of beauty or ordinary description. Very often we remain inside the heads of each character, with Mishima jumping us from Fusako to Noboru to Ryuji as needed. We see the thoughts of the character best able to propel the plot and highlight the differences in view for Japan's future. The characters, because they are so clearly delineated as allegories of Japan, are sharply focused and deeply realised – except perhaps for Fusako, who is the real 'villain' of the piece if we are susceptible to Mishima's political viewpoint. Ryuji is doomed without seeming like a pawn to the plot, while Noboru is compelling in the incongruity of his age compared to his beliefs.

Mishima's vision is bleak, and the story itself is quite dark. Read purely as a story this novel provides little solace, with every character basically unhappy, and the conclusion as inevitable as it is horrible. Seen reflected through Mishima's old fashioned, immensely nationalistic and imperious viewpoint, and the story becomes even darker as he probes the wounds Japan suffered during the Second World War. Mishima's conclusion from all this was death – death by submission, if Ryuji marries Fusako, the Westerner; or death by physical violence, if old Japan is capable of overthrowing new Japan. His own life showed that old Japan was done for, a throwback neither desired nor encouraged by Japan in the sixties and seventies. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea displays a different possibility, an alternate reality, perhaps, and one that is better for being contained within the boundaries of a printed book.


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