To Honour and Glory and Beyond
History has it that Imperial Japan once sought to reign over the world. It joined forces with Germany and Italy to form what is known as the Axis countries. We all know happened thereafter. The three power’s vainglorious attempt to wrest control of the world was met grave resistance; it didn’t take long for order to be restored. Reeling from this defeat, the three Axis countries try to pick up the pieces and rebuild splendours that were lost in the process. For Japan, the opening of its doors led to a pivot towards Western philosophies.
This pivot towards Western philosophies after the resounding defeat is thoroughly portrayed in several works of literature. One such work belongs to famed Japanese author Yukio Mishima’s oeuvre. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is an unsuspecting title which no one would take as a book about this subject. Moreover, Mishima’s subtle writing helped obscure the real intentions of the story.
Mishima introduces the readers to Noboru Kuroda, an intelligent yet gangly thirteen-year-old living in Yokohama, Japan with his widowed mother. On an unsuspecting day, he discovers a peephole through which he spied his mother, Fusako, getting intimate with a sailor, Ryuji Tsukazaki. Upon being introduced to Ryuji, Noboru began to revere him and his ambitions. This hero worship slowly turned into a silent resentment when Noboru began Ryuji’s other shades and realizes that he is not who he initially thought he was. How will the pre-adolescent Noboru deal with this new insight?
“An ugliness unfurled in the moonlight and soft shadow and suffused the whole world. If I were an amoeba, he thought, with an infinitesimal body, I could defeat ugliness. A man isn’t tiny or giant enough to defeat anything.” ~ Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
Japanese literature is saturated with many narratives on what happened to Japan post-World War II. Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes and Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills are just amongst these works representative of this seminal intersection in Japan’s history. Joining their company is The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, which, like the first two, is an allusion to the events following the Second World War.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea reels the readers in through the subtle yet optimum use of metaphors and symbols. The entire story itself is a big allegory. Ryuji, a metaphor for Japan, has grandiose plans for glory. Even though there is no real connection between him and the sea, he still pushed through with his ambitious plans; the sea is the biggest metaphor for glory. His search for glory and honour beyond the land is one of the underlying themes in the novel. It was Ryuji’s pursuit for grandeur that made Noboru look up to him.
Mishima, through his creative imagination, subtly highlighted Japan’s commission of crimes during the war. Through a gang of six teenagers detached from the society at large, Mishima underlined the inhumanity of some of Japan’s actions during the war. It is beyond imagination for thirteen-year-old schoolboys to kill and dissect an innocent cat. Japan’s pursuit for glory during the Second World War is underlined through every page but there the story has more facets that represent the other components of Japan.
“Real danger is nothing more than just living. Of course, living is merely the chaos of existence, but more than that it’s a crazy mixed-up business of dismantling existence instant by instant to the point where the original chaos is restored, and taking strength from the uncertainty and the fear that chaos brings to re-create existence instant by instant. You won’t find another job as dangerous as that. There isn’t any fear in existence itself, or any uncertainty, but living creates it.” ~ Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
One familiar theme explored in the story is the pivot of traditional Japan’s towards Western philosophies and ideals. Under the Kuroda’s roof live two facets of Japan. Noboru, sprightly and young, represents the traditions and customs of Japan. Meanwhile, his mother, entranced by the new luxuries flowing in after the war, is an allusion to Western ideals. The dichotomy between the two can be gleaned from descriptions of Fusako’s room. Noboru is perplexed by his mother’s bedroom which he thought belonged to a stranger.
It is without a doubt that The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is book of symbols and allegories. The allusions to different components that make up Japan is one of the interesting facets of the novel. Apart from the two main themes, the novel also explored alienation and disconnect from society. Gender roles, an element of the traditional Japanese novel, were depicted in the confines of the narrative as well.
An antithesis to the dark and heavy subject the narrative explored is the grace by which Yukio Mishima executed the story. His vivid descriptions enchant the readers. His writing is akin to an artist painting with words. It was this lyrical yet effective writing that made cringe-worthy scenes bearable, at some parts beautiful. Apart from the gracious writing, one of the novel’s better facets is the depiction of Noboru’s sinister and complex psychology. Mishima’s insight gave a different perspective to a very complex character.
One of the gripes to the story is the scarcity of female characters. Male characters dominate the story from the onset. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, unfortunately, is a resounding homage to the patriarchal structure of traditional Japan. It is, thus, not ironic that a female (the weaker gender) character was used to represent westernisation; Mishima was known to resent the intrusion of Western traditions to Japanese customs.
“Possibly a man who hates the land should dwell on shore forever. Alienation and the long voyages at sea will compel him once again to dream of it, torment him with the absurdity of longing for something that he loathes.” ~ Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
Overall, Mishima dealt with the heavy subject by conjuring the narrative with acuity and profound observation for details. His vivid descriptions make the narrative come alive. The subject and theme are ominous yet he was able to sprinkle it with some rays of sunshine. For a book that is less than 200-pages, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a hefty narrative that is parts psychological, parts adventure, and parts historical. It might not have been flawless but Mishima’s take on the difficult subject is fascinating and his writing is just impeccable.
It is simply exhilarating, as a reader, experiencing Japanese works. Japanese authors have this knack for channelling different elements of literature in a manner that is thought-provoking. They have an enchanting way of writing. Like magnets, they pull readers with their storytelling. I experienced it with Kawabata, with Tanizaki, with Murakami, with Ishiguro, with Soseki, and now, with Mishima. Yukio Mishima is an author whose works I’ve long wanted to explore and my first dip into the heart of his literary arsenal is anything but disappointing.
The Sailor Who Fell Grace With The Sea may seem like your ordinary and typical story. However, if you sift through the surface, an entirely different story reveals itself in the rubble. Mishima’s nuanced writing and ability to wrap the true story reminds us the beauty of literature.
Author: Yukio Mishima
Translator: John Nathan
Publisher: Penguin Books.
Publishing Date: 1985
Number of Pages: 143
After five years of celibate widowhood, Fusako consummates her two-day relationship with Ryuji, a naval officer self-convinces of his glorious destiny… and they are spied on by Fusako’s son, Noboru, a self-possessed thirteen-year-old, ‘No. 3’ in a sinister elite of precocious schoolboys.
Noboru hides his contempt of Ryuji until Ryuji and Fusako get engaged. Then ‘No. 3’ presents a long charge sheet to ‘No. 1’. And cool and detached, they make plans for Ryuji…
About the Author
(Picture by Wikipedia) Kimitake Hiraoka was born on January 14, 1925 in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan. He wrote under the pseudonym Yukio Mishima, a name he is more known for.
Mishima’s schooling began as early as the age of six when he was enrolled in the elite Gakushūin, the Peers’ School in Tokyo. His voracious appetite for reading directed him to the classical Japanese literary works and even to famed European writers. He read all of them both in translation and in original as he studied English, French and German.
At the age of twelve, he started writing his first stories. He also became the youngest member of the editorial board of his school’s literary society. Some of his earlier works were published in the literary society’s magazine. As being a member of the literary society was viewed as a weakness, his teachers coined his penname, Yukio Mishima. In 1947, he graduated from the University of Tokyo. After exhausting himself during the first year of his employment at the Ministry of Finance, he resigned and devoted himself to writing.
Post World War II, Mishima continued writing short stories, novels, novellas and even plays for Kabuki theaters. In 1948, first novel, Tozoku (Thieves) was published. Kamen no Kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask) was published the following year and was an instant success. His other renowned works include Shiosai (The Sound of the Waves, 1954), Utage no Ato (After the Banquet, 1960), and The Sea of Fertility tetralogy: Haru no Yuki (Spring Snow, 1969), Honba (Runaway Horses, 1969), Akatsuki no Tera (The Temple of Dawn, 1970), and Tennin Gosul (The Decay of the Angel, 1971).
Mishima also earned a bevy of awards and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times. Mishima married Yoko Sugiyama in June 11, 1958. The couple had two children. Yukio Mishima committed suicide in November 25, 1970.
I admire you Carl for exploring the literary giants of Japanese literature. I look forward on your review of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy of Mishima.
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Apart from Russian literature, Japanese literature has always captivated me. There is just something compelling about the culture that reels me in.
I am so looking forward to the Sea of Fertility tetralogy! Obtaining it here in the country, that is another story though. Haha.