A Tide of Changes
In the ambit of Japanese literature and world literature in general, Yukio Mishima is one of the most recognized names. He is widely considered by both readers and literary pundits alike as one of the most, if not the most influential and most important Japanese authors of the 20th century. He is a prolific writer who established quite the reputation for himself for the variety of his works, which included essays, short stories, and full-length novels. He also wrote for the classical Japanese theater and has even starred in multiple films. However, he is still more recognized for his works as a writer. Despite the controversies and his untimely demise in 1970, he remains an icon of Japanese and world literature. The passage of time has also not blunted his luster and his illustrious career.
Born Kimitake Hiraoka, Mishima kickstarted his literary career in 1949 with the publication of his first novel, Kamen no kukuhaku (Confessions of a Mask). He was just twenty-four years old. The novel was an immediate sensation, marking the remarkable rise of a new voice in Japanese literature. His initial success prompted Mishima to pursue writing as a full-time career. In a career that spanned over two decades, he built an extensive resume that included the critically acclaimed Sea of Fertility Tetralogy and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Another work that has earned him global recognition is The Sound of Waves. Originally published in Japanese in 1954 as Shiosai, The Sound of Waves was one of Mishima’s earlier works that further consolidated his stranglehold as a premier storyteller.
The Sound of Waves transports the readers to the island of Uta-Jima, or Song Island, in Ise Bay. It was shortly after the Second World War. In Uta-Jima, we meet the novel’s hero, Shinji Kubo, an eighteen-year-old young fisherman under the mentorship of Jukichi Oyama, along with his fellow apprentice, Ryuji. He had to earn a living in order to sustain his family’s living expenses; he lived with his mother and his younger brother, Hiroshi. Their mother was a pearl diver. The family patriarch, on the other hand, was a fisherman who perished during the war after an American bomber blitzed the fishing boat he was on. Despite the tragedy and the trials that come along, Shinji and his family were living contentedly. Like most denizens of the island, they relied heavily on what nature can offer them.
“With a heart unaccustomed to doubting, he never wondered for an instant whether the girl would brave such a storm to keep their rendezvous. He knew nothing of that melancholy and all-too-effective way of passing time by magnifying and complicating his feelings, whether of happiness or uneasiness, through the exercise of imagination.”~ Yukio Mishima, The Sound of Waves
The relative peace experienced by Shinji was disrupted by the sudden appearance of a young woman. On an island of a little over 1,400 people, it was not hard to miss a new face. She immediately caught Shinji’s attention. Through inquiries, Shinji learns that her name is Hatsue, a young woman whose beauty captivated many of the island’s young men, Shinji among them. Hatsue was the daughter of Terukichi Miyata, a ship owner and one of the island’s richest individuals. He was also one of the island’s most formidable denizens. When she was younger, Hatsue left Uta-Jima to learn the craft of pearl diving from the pearl divers of another island. However, following the untimely demise of his only son, Miyata decided to bring back his daughter to Uta-Jima.
The death of her brother also signaled a monumental event in the young woman’s life. Miyata is looking for a young man to marry his daughter. Not only will the lucky young man be Miyata’s son-in-law, but he will be Miyata’s full-pledged son as he will also adopt him to be his son. These were, however, far off from both Shinji and Hatsue’s minds when their paths crossed. A mutual attraction started to blossom between them and we follow their path toward happiness. The flourishing of love, not so unusual in literature, can still be a very absorbing literary device. After all, love is profound and the experience is universal even though it is often shrouded in a veil of mystery.
Time has shown that romance stories are rarely straightforward; think Romeo and Juliet. No love story is without complications. The Sound of Waves, however, is no Romeo and Juliet story. In Shinji and Hatsue’s story, different complications were stamped all over the place and were the sources of the tensions and conflicts in the story. One of the biggest barriers they had to overcome pertained to their social standing. Hatsue’s father was not in favor of his daughter following her heart. Shinji’s social background comes to the fore as the two main characters reckon with their fate. Miyata was resolute in adopting a son of Miyata had another young man in his mind for his daughter: Yasuo Kawamoto, the son of an equally affluent family. Yasuo was also one of Shinji’s friends.
Further complicating their story was the appearance of Chiyoko, a young woman who was the daughter of the lighthouse keeper. She recently returned from Tokyo where she studied at a university. Her arrival, unfortunately, was ominous for the young couple. What ensued was a series of sordid events that tested the young couple. Ever since they were younger, Chiyoko had affection for Shinji, her childhood friend. When she saw her friend happy in the company of another young woman, she was overcome with jealousy. Fuming with rage, she spread a vicious rumor that had devastating consequences for Shinji and Hatsue. She further fanned the flames by giving a soundbite to the equally jealous Yasuo. It didn’t long for the rumor to spread like wildfire. Will the young couple overcome all the challenges leveled against them? Or will the waves make them drift apart?
“The sea, ebbing and flowing in the shaft at the eastern end of the cave, roared fiercely as it clashed against the rocks. The sound of the surging waves was completely different from that to which they were accustomed outside. It was a seething sound that echoed off the limestone walls of the cavern, the reverberations overlapping each other until the entire cave was aroar and seemed to be pitching and swaying.”~ Yukio Mishima, The Sound of Waves
In the ambit of Japanese literature, it is not uncommon for the backdrop to be more prominent. The sentiments and emotions of the characters are often characterized through rich descriptions of the background, such as the case in the novel. At the start of the book, we learn that the octopus season was giving way to the squid season. Octopi are the most abundant catch, accounting for nearly eighty percent of the island’s fishermen’s annual catch but the story started with the squid season which starts with the spring equinox. Spring is a season of blossoming, a time when animals come out of their hibernation, a time when the flora flourish. For Shinji and Hatsue, it was a time for discovering the mysteries of love.
Rich and lush descriptions of the backdrop made the setting, Uta-Jima, come alive. Mishima’s sharp strokes captured the portrait of the idyllic island, its denizens, and their lifestyle. Domestic life was vividly captured by Mishima. We read of the island’s denizens’ reliance on the produce of the sea. As such, they have learned to map the different seasons based on the most abundant sea product. The sea has become a familiar playground for the fishermen who understand it like the back of their hands. The women, on the other hand, have honed their skills as divers, diving deep into the ocean to harvest pearls and abalones. The locals have learned to live simple but contented lives.
On the seashore, there was a strong sense of community spirit as the locals take part in local endeavors such as participating organizations for young men and women. Common areas such as shrines and onsens are always teeming with social activities. There were, however, downsides to small communities. Even the most minute of disruptions is enough to disrupt the natural flow of things. The young couple were aware of this, hence, they were cautious of their actions lest they set tongues wagging or worse, anger the gods. They were, after all, born into a highly conservative society and they are both conscious of it. They always see to it that they conform to the expectations of the community. Even in the face of temptation and weakness, they see to it that they resist the urge.
Beyond the romance, details of Japanese culture took the spotlight in the novel. Yashiro Shrine, for instance, played a pivotal role in community life. When disasters strike or in times of uncertainty, locals climb up to the temple and worship. The locals also believe in the sun god who provides them an abundant catch. Adopting a prospective son-in-law used to be common, particularly among affluent families with no sons. It was a means of preserving the family name. We see a culture deeply steeped in the observation of respect, etiquette, and traditions. Boundaries and expectations of the different social classes are well-defined, albeit mostly unspoken. The conservative culture was further magnified by the small island’s isolation which compounded the feeling of solitude that the island was wrapped in.
“The surface of the sea in the lee of the island was black, but the offing was stained with dawn. The mountains enclosing the Gulf of Ise could be seen clearly. In the pale light of daybreak the gravestones looked like so many white sails of boats anchored in a busy harbor. They were sails that would never again be filled with wind, sails that, too long unused and heavily drooping, had been turned into stone just as they were.”~ Yukio Mishima, The Sound of Waves
No culture, however, is safe from the tides of change. While the denizens of Uta-Jima take pride in their well-preserved traditions, it cannot be denied that the tentacles of modernization and westernization sweeping the mainland following the end of the Second World War were slowly making their way into the island. The locals have become more receptive to modern ideas and even started sending their children to schools outside of the island. For instance, one mother was fascinated by the wealth of information her daughter was giving her. In another instance, pornographic materials have also reached the island. Perhaps the biggest illustration was the acceptance that young women can also have a voice in choosing their life partner, albeit to a limited extent.
Parts-romance story, parts-community study, The Sound of Waves is a picturesque story from one of the literary titans. The vivid and idyllic portrait of Uta-Jima was captured by Mishima’s dexterous writing. He captured both the beauty and the ugly side of small-town living through the love story of Shinji and Hatsue. In their story, we see the clash of social structures and the slow shift of social paradigms. In a way, Uta-Jima is a microcosm for the rest of the nation as it is a projection of the events that seized Japan shortly after the end of the Second World War. We see a community that is slowly coming to terms with the tide of changes that have been sweeping the nation. The Sound of Waves is a multi-layered literary masterpiece.
“The boy felt a consummate accord between himself and this opulence of nature that surrounded him. He inhaled deeply, and it was as though a part of the unseen something that constitutes nature had permeated the core of his being. He heard the sound of the waves striking the shore, and it was as though the surging of his young blood was keeping time with the movement of the sea’s great tides. It was doubtless because nature itself satisfied his need that Shinji felt no particular lack of music in his everyday life.”~ Yukio Mishima, The Sound of Waves
Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 21%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%
Japanese literature has certainly become one of my comfort zones in the vast world of literature. It was a shame I discovered it recently but I am proud of the progress I have made. I have discovered a kaleidoscopic world and a multitude of writers who have captivated me with the variety of their works. It is literally a smorgasbord. One of the Japanese writers whose prose has been captivating me is Yukio Mishima. It all started with The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, a book I read back in 2019. Its slender frame belies a powerful and insightful story of post-war Japan. In a way, it shared the same elements with the latest Mishima novel I read, The Sound of Waves, although the setting is quite different. Rather than in the metropolis, I was transported to the Japanese countryside, in what I surmise was a magnification of themes and subjects prevalent in Mishima’s works. It masquerades as a romance novel but it is more than that. The book makes me look forward to reading more of Mishima’s works. The Sea of Fertility is, by far, my topmost priority.
Author: Yukio Mishima
Translator: Meredith Weatherby
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: October 1994
Number of Pages: 183
Set in a remote fishing village in Japan, The Sound of Waves is a timeless story of first love. It tells of Shinji, a young fisherman, and Hatsue, the beautiful daughter of the wealthiest man in the village. Shinji is entranced at the sight of Hatsue in the twilight on the beach, upon her return from another island, where she had been training to be a pearl diver. They fall in love, but must then endure the calumny and gossip of the villagers.
About the Author
To learn more about Kimitake Hiraoka or more popularly known for his pseudonym Yukio Mishima, click here.