The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima

Consider the subtitle of this post: “Attempting to understand Mishima, part IV of ?”

If you thought the last thing I read by him was, oh, I don’t know, creepy, violent, weird, unpleasant, crazy, unsettling…The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is probably even more so. Fusako is a youngish widow who runs a fancy men’s clothing store in Yokohama. She lives with her young teenage son Noboru, who spends much of his free time with a group of boys his own age with a very particular life philosophy who enjoy killing and dissecting cats. Noboru is also very interested in ships, and when Fusako arranges to take him on a tour of one docked in the harbor she meets its second mate, Ryuji, and the two begin dating.

The novel opens with Noboru being locked in his room for the night, a precaution Fusako has taken ever since he was caught sneaking out (probably to kill and dissect another cat). But Noboru has found a secret: a peephole that allows him, if he pulls the drawers out of a built-in dresser and crawls into it, to watch his mother undressing in her room. It also allows him to watch his mother together with Ryuji the first night she brings him home, and all the ones following.

Noboru climbing into the womb of his chest of drawers to peer through a tiny hole at his mother’s sexuality; his Lord of the Flies-like club of friends; his beginning sense of wonder at Ryuji, effectively the first “real man” Noboru believes he has known; these are things I can understand, “get into” literarily. And one of Mishima’s themes is an old favorite: misunderstandings between men and women (and between adults and children, of course).

Ryuji, the first night he goes out walking with Fusako, is preoccupied with serious thoughts. “He hadn’t been able to explain his ideas of glory and death, or the longing and the melancholy pent up in his chest, or the other dark passions choking in the ocean’s swell.” Ryuji is not satisfied with a normal life; he disdains his fellow officers with families at home, who “have thrown opportunity away—there’s no hope for them any more.” Ryuji, by contrast, has

never done much, but I’ve lived my whole life thinking of myself as the only real man. And if I’m right, then a limpid, lonely horn is going to trumpet through the dawn someday, and a turgid cloud laced with light will sweep down, and the poignant voice of glory will call for me from the distance—and I’ll have to jump out of bed and set out alone. That’s why I’ve never married. I’ve waited, and waited, and here I am past thirty.

Will the reader be swept away by these delusions of grandeur, or share Fusako’s impression of the same evening, when he wasn’t articulate enough to explain those delusions fully?

And what a simple man he was! Their conversation in the park the night before was proof of that. First he had misled her with his pensive look into expecting profound observations or even a passionate declaration, and then he had begun a monologue on shreds of green leaf, and prattled about his personal history, and finally, horribly entangled in his own story, burst into the refrain of a popular song!

Noboru, though, senses about the glory and death. But when Ryuji decides to marry his mother, Noboru cannot forgive this crime against the glory of man. He and his friends decide the sailor is now irredeemable, or rather, can be redeemed in only one way. I’ll let you guess how, based on their pre-serial-killer behavior thus far.

On the fateful afternoon, Ryuji visits with the teenage clan. Noboru has invited him to tell them stories of the sea, and he does. But he becomes melancholy as he realizes what he’s done—you see, ultimately he agrees with Noboru.

Whenever he dreamed of them, glory and death and woman were consubstantial. Yet when the woman had been attained, the other two withdrew beyond the offing and ceased their mournful wailing of his name. The things he had rejected were now rejecting him.

Ah, glory and death and woman, Mishima all over. Is this just a cry of despair? I can understand cries of despair, and get behind them. And I suppose it only makes sense for an artist to concern himself in his art with something that concerned him in life, but again, I must be careful to guard against thinking too much of the man behind the curtain.

And despite my misgivings I do believe I will be reading more of him. His writing is beautiful. Here, my favorite passage from John Nathan’s translation, describes Ryuji’s ship as it leaves Yokohama harbor.

The Rakuyo was transformed into an illusory phantom as angles altered from one instant to the next. Gradually, as the stern was towed farther out into the harbor, the long ship folded like a paneled screen while the superstructure on deck overlapped, piled into impacted tiers, and, trapping sunlight in every pocket and dent, soared skyward like a shining pagoda of steel. But the effect was only momentary. Now the tug began to circle back in order to face the prow toward open sea, and the storied tower thrusting up from the deck was dismantled; each object in order from prow to stern resumed its proper shape until finally the stern itself reappeared and a matchstick figure just recognizable as Ryuji swung back into the splendor of the setting sun.

5 comments to The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima

  • Holy cats! Glory, death and woman indeed. I am a little bit done with the womanhood-as-crazy-symbol thing right now (I know, good luck to me, right?), but remain theoretically intrigued with Mishima in a future time when I feel a bit of tolerance coming on.

  • Haha, “theoretically intrigued with Mishima,” I can get behind that. I guess that’s what I have been for the past two years or so!

  • What I wonder – and it’s been a long, long time since I read this book – is: does Mishima give the reader a way out? Evil is redemptive; evil is beautiful; tie it all to an abstract idea of “woman.” I’m simplifying, probably, but does Mishima give space to critque these ideas? Or does the reader have to either swallow it or reject it?

    I’ve read a novel of his called Spring Snow that is full of bad ideas, but not this bad – in that book, it’s self-sacrifice that’s redemptive.

    Long, long ago. I no doubt misunderstood so much.

  • Spring Snow was my first Mishima. I guess I liked it enough that ever since I’ve considered him “someone I read”—what a fraught concept.

    To answer your question, I don’t thing Mishima does give room to critique these ideas, but I’m not sure I trust myself as a judge either.

  • Oh, Mishima! I too have a fraught relationship with this writer. I too think his writing is absolutely beautiful but his ideas…no, I’ve never felt he provides an out. Indeed, I find most of his books almost overwhelmingly claustrophobic in the inevitability of their various catastrophes or ennui. I can’t stop going back to him, though. Favourites: Acts of Worship and Confessions of a Mask.