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

What is it with books that feature seemingly innocent children or teenagers commiting evil acts that disturb the mind of the common reader? Ian McEwan’s Atonement, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, movies like Omen etc. are such and they went on to became bestsellers.

Riding on this theme is this book. The first ever book which contains a spoiler at introduction. It says:

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea tells of a band of savage 13-year-old boys who reject the adult world as illusory, hypocritical, and sentimenal, and train themselves in a brutal callouness they call ‘objectivity’. When the mother of one of them begins an affair with a ship’s officer, he and his friends idealise the man at first; but it is not long before they conclude that he is in fact soft and romantic. They regard their disappointment in him as an act of betrayal on his part, and react violently.

With this passage and the title, we can pretty much conclude that the poor Sailor will meet his end in a nasty way.

Still we are curious about how it happened. At least I am curious about how it happened. A satisfying read for me is about the journey, never depending on the end. After reading After the Banquet, you can tell that I’m determine to read all of Mishima backlist.

Noburo is a 13-year-old who lost his father 5 years ago. Fusako Kuroda, his mother, owns a clothing shop that imports from Europe and England and lives a lonely existence as a widow. Noburo 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 impassivity, and “[m]atchless inhumanity was a point of pride with every one of them.”

Ryuji Tsukazaki is a sailor, “whereas most men choose to become sailors because they like the sea, Ryuji had been guided by an antipathy to land.” He recalled his days in various exotic part of the world. Ryuji and Fusako met and fall in love, but Fusako knows that a sailor’s love is fleeting.

At 20, he had been passionately certain: there’s just one thing I’m destined for and that’s glory; that right, glory ! he had no idea what kind of glory he wanted, or what kind he was suited for. He knew only that in the depths of the world’s darkness was a point of light which had been provided for him alone and would draw near someday to irradiate him and no other. And it seemed increasingly obvious that the world would have to topple if he was to attain the glory that was rightfully his. They were consubstantial: glory and the capsized world. He long for a storm. But life aboard ship taught him only the regularity of natural law and the dynamic stability of the wobbling world. He began to examine his hopes and dreams one by one, and one by one to efface them as a sailor pencils out the days on the calendar in his cabin.

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 mutilate a cat – so that they can see life in its truest sense, without the pettiness of skin. It is a very graphic scene, one an animal lovers would find hard to stomach.

As Ryuji and Fusako become closer, Noboru unloads his problems and his “charges” against Ryuji on to the gang, which led the gang to find a brutal way to restore Ryuji heroism again.

Some of the Chief’s rhetoric can be very twisted and disturbing:

There is no such thing as a good father because the role itself is bad. Strict father, soft father, nice moderate fathers –one’s as bad as another. They stand in our way of progress while they try to burden us with their inferiority complexes, and their unrealised aspirations, and their resentments, and their ideals, and the weaknesses they’ve never told anyone about, and their sins, and their sweeter-than honey dreams, and the maxims they’ve never had the courage to live by (and that the rhetoric got worse from thereon)…. 

The Sailor…introduces me to an ideology which is both alien and perverse to me. Upon further research I found out that the story is an allegory. This is what I found out:

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.

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’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.

This passage put all the pieces of puzzles together and everything falls into place. There isn’t much left for me to talk about or try to intepret it in any other way, because the statements above says it all.

Compared to After the Banquet, this one is dark and bleak. The two books exudes a different aura that I wouldn’t believe it is written by the same author if it is not specified so; that! Perhaps show case the genius of Mishima.

In The Sailor… We know that the Sailor will fall from grace, and we know from the back cover that he will meet his end eventually, yet I read with anxiety and expecting the sailor to die the same way like the mutilated cat, and felt my heart palpitating all the way to the end. The story line is quite dark.

It is therefore hard for me to rate this book. If I read this purely as a story it would be perverse and meaningless and I’ll probably give it a 3/5. I wouldn’t understand why Ryuji would see death as his glory (the same way Mishima see his), and every character seems to be so unhappy. However, if this story is read as Mishima’s interpretation of the Japan political changes and how he deftly uses various characters to represent the key politcal players involved, the novel is sheer brilliance. When this is seen through Mishima’s old fashioned immensely nationalistic eyes, the story becomes clearer as he probes the wounds Japan suffered during the Second World War. Mishima and translator Donald Keene writes such beautiful sentences that take my breath away. With this in mind, I would rate it a 4.5/5.

Read this book. You could be repulsed, enchanted or bewildered but there is no denying that Yukio Mishima is a great novelist and he makes an impact. I can’t help thinking about the two novels for days and have resort to tracking down Mishima’s other books from other borough libraries and borrowed all what is available, which is The temple of the Golden Pavilion and the first two of the tetralogy. I can’t wait to read The Sea of Fertility tetralogy!

Another read for Japanese Literature Challenge 4.

Paperback. [Vintage East 1963, 2006], [181 pages], Japan 1960’s, Own book, Finished reading at 7th September 2010


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


21 thoughts on “Yukio Mishima: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea

  1. I actually really didn’t enjoy this book when I read it earlier this year it just seemed a little to casual with the violence and the translation seemed a little stuffy ,but know other people have enjoyed it so may it was just me ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | September 8, 2010, 9:34 pm
  2. Hi Stu, I don’t blame you. I was ambivalent about it until I understand what Mishima was trying to hypothesise. This seems to be a more well known novel than After the Banquet, not sure why people find that so. I can’t go along with the crowd on this one.

    Posted by JoV | September 8, 2010, 10:04 pm
  3. I read this book last year-I had a very similar reaction to it as you did-taken as a straight story it seems like almost trite-rich widow falls for a sailor while perverted teenage boys have evil plans-then like you I re-thought my reaction to the book and realized it was me that was being shallow-I rethought the book as essentially a No play and then I saw the brilliance of it and saw the allegorical nature of the work-I did not like the cruelty to the cat but that is because I am a cat lover-I thought your review really well done

    Posted by Mel u | September 9, 2010, 12:49 am
    • Thank you Mel for your kind words. The allegory is brilliant isn’t it? Another book I thought who use allegory very well was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (which I have reviewed and one of my favourite books this year) about the state of South Africa and the relation between feeling disgraced yet emotionally tie to the land. It might all very well be my own interpretation, but I thought you are very intelligent yourself to figure the allegory of “The Sailor..” because I would have thought at the 60’s the resentment of Japanese towards the West would have mellowed, and the Samurai code long dead. This book tells me I’m wrong. The Samurai code is still prevalent and if I look around it is being embraced and practised in every aspect of the contemporary Japanese life.

      Posted by JoV | September 9, 2010, 12:50 pm
  4. I was thinking today as I am reading Mishima’s Spring Snow that a good bit of his writing, as for sure seen in a very clear way In Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, is about young men taking revenge on older men who do not live up to the ideals they place in the mind of the younger men in the first place-The Sailor is the failed nobility or even the Emperor -just s thought that came into my mind

    Posted by Mel u | September 20, 2010, 5:29 am
    • Mel, take it literary, his books seems to promote anarchism. In “Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea” it gives me the impression that the younger men conceive old fashioned ideology than the elder generation who embrace new changes more readily (that might contravenes the old ideology) – failed nobility. Because Mishima was born into a Samurai family, this is hardly a surprise.

      Since you are starting with the Tetralogy now, perhaps I will do so now since it’s on my pile. Thanks for sharing your thought!

      Posted by JoV | September 20, 2010, 8:32 am
  5. I finished this book 2 days ago and what struck me most was Mishima’s prose. I’m wondering how impeccable it must be in Japanese. As for the plot, I believe it’s impossible for anyone without research to figure the allegory- the 60s are so way back. I’ve never really seen the need for allegory since it makes most books hard to penetrate. That said, I do find that the allegorical background given on this site makes for a richer reading. And I appreciate dt. Bt I’d like an explanation on the allegory of Coetzee’s Disgrace you made a reference to. I read and love dt book, but that’s mainly because of the character nt what he represents. I’d be waiting.

    Posted by Aigbos Oris | November 15, 2010, 12:18 am
    • Aigbos, thanks for your first visit. In “Sailor who fell from grace…” case, I do see the need for allegory, else the novel is pure nonsensical and promotes juvenile crime. The gist of the allegory behind “Disgrace” is most represented in the character of Lucy. She is violated, she is deprived of all her rights (her land, her farm, her dignity), yet she feels bonded to the land because she was brought up there. It is an allegory of the current political situation in SA, and requires no further explanation that there are white people in SA who feel the way Lucy felt (not literally, metaphorically) contemplating the choice of fleeing, which at time feel like the dogs in the novel, waiting for their impending end.

      Posted by JoV | November 21, 2010, 5:25 pm
  6. with allegory-Sailor is trite-rich widow picks up a sailor and tries to turn him into a dandy and her perverted son does not like the idea is what the literal view of the story is- re seeing it as a No play it is something very different-just my thoughts-at first reaction I admit I thought it was a silly book almost from over macho author!

    Posted by Mel u | December 15, 2010, 10:50 am
    • Mel, when I finished the book, I don’t know what to think of it. If I think about it again, the book seems silly and perverse, taking it on the surface. Anyway I have passed this book on at the very first opportunity I have!

      Posted by JoV | December 15, 2010, 1:44 pm
  7. hey can u plz plz give me some further analysis on chapter 2 and 3 of this book !! i liked this a lot !

    Posted by kev | November 26, 2011, 3:08 am
  8. I hated this book so much that I threw it away when I was finished. I didn’t want it in my house anymore, and I didn’t want to give it away or sell it because I didn’t want to be responsible for putting somebody else through the horrific experience I had while reading it.

    Posted by jen | June 27, 2012, 6:12 pm
  9. I just read the book after reading one earllier one by Mishima that was beautiful in it’s imagery. I almost didn’t continue after reading Mishima’s bio and how he died. After this one, I want to read all. He was a gifted writer. I thlink you’re interpretation of allegory is dead-on. Mishima was at war within himself and it all fits.

    Posted by reader1 | June 28, 2012, 3:48 pm
  10. Hello. I’m writing a paper about the novel and would like to know where you got the source that explains how the novel is an allegory to Mishima’s political beliefs and activities. That quote alone pretty much pieced everything together for me. Thanks in advance!

    Posted by christopherjanb | October 8, 2012, 8:45 am
  11. Reblogged this on Christopher Jan Benitez and commented:
    ‘Nuff said.

    Posted by christopherjanb | October 8, 2012, 8:46 am
  12. I somehow came across this review while browsing about Mishima. I had an entirely different interpretation to the story than what you had. I actually thought that the story symbolized that Ryuji was originally on the path to his destiny for glory, but then strayed from the path by choosing to leave his sailor’s life and marry Fusako, and the 13-year old boys were a kind of force that put him back on the path to his destiny and fulfilled it by killing – not the way Ryuji originally expected, but that’s because he strayed from the path. I’m not sure where you got all that stuff about Noboru representing the old ways of Japan; it doesn’t make any sense to me. In any case Mishima likes to write about crazy, freaky people whose ideas and actions he doesn’t necessarily agree with; it seems that once he even wrote a story called “Extracts of a Murderer’s Philosophical Diary in the Middle Ages”, but that hardly means he approves of murder.

    Posted by Eric | August 28, 2016, 1:57 am


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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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