“All six of us are geniuses. And the world, as you know, is empty.”
― Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
This novel is difficult to review. Because of what it says and how it says it, it is an object of long analyses and symbolical interpretations. Mishima has an incredibly luxurious vocabulary. I found the novel astonishingly poetic – to me it became very vibrant in its use of the colors that constructed the world of each individual character, including the sea itself on a canvas below the night sky of Yokohama. To me it was very viral and alive in its auditory aspect, of the way the characters spoke through their inner monologues. I’m not going to try to analyze it but rather try to review what captured my interest. So be warned!
To paraphrase an introduction to this novel, Gogo no Eik or as it is widely known “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea” is a beautifully written, but darkly told story about Noburo, his mother Fusako and a ship officer she meets named Ryuji.
Noburo belongs to a band of 13-year old boys eerily reminiscent of the group you remember from the “Lord of the Flies”. The boys are led by a Chief and address themselves through numbers and ranks instead of names. The Chief trains them in something he calls objectivity – being physically and mentally numb to emotions but also pornography, murder, sex, humanity… Noburo in the duration of the novel ranks at number 3 and he is constantly tested and teased especially after his mother begins a more lasting affair with the sailor Ryuji.
The thing about the notorious secret group Noburo is a member of is that their Chief prophesies the pure hatred of the father figure.
“There is no such thing as a good father because the role itself is bad. Strict fathers, soft fathers, nice moderate fathers — one’s as bad as another. They stand in the way of our progress while they try to burden us with their inferiority complexes, and their unrealized 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 — they’d like to unload all that silly crap on us, all of it!”
― Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
The six boys believe in their cosmic superiority and aspire to exist in a reality made by them that is bordering on social chaos but which is also perfection again in a cosmic, greater than life way in which they are not limited, they are not controlled. Since Noburo’s father has passed he is considered the lucky one of the group. The Chief believes he can understand the futility of human life and society, so he destroys both in his new world, the one he creates by speaking to the other boys. The boys share daily mishaps from their personal lives that are the doing of their fathers – from violent outbursts to pure negligence.
Noburo has a great passion and understanding of ships and the sea. For him the sea is the only truth. When on a visit to the commercial steamer Rakuyo he and his mother meet Ryuji. Later on the adults engage in a night of passion while Noburo stares through a peephole drilled in a dresser in his room – there he experiences the “natural order of the universe”, because while having sex a ships horn sounds in the night and Ryuji turns towards it thus turning away from passion and continuing to be drawn by the sea and towards it. So this vision of perfection that Noburo cherishes makes Ryuji a hero destined to do great things and that is so for both parties concerned, because Ryuji himself believes his destiny to be one of great honor and glory, of immortality in sea. His dream and his destiny ultimately lead to death at sea. His pure disconnection and even resentment for the land is put to a test when he falls in love with Fusako thus deciding to stay. To Noburo’s disappointment Ryuji falls from grace in his eyes as he is deemed too romantic and soft and not the hero the boy believed him to be. The transgressions pile up until Noburo shares them with his fellow misfits. The punishment they enlist on Ryuji for failing them and failing Noburo and for becoming his father is a vile and cruel one.
Summing up this novel is a strange task, I found. There’s so much packed in 180 pages that the brief summary above addresses just the periphery of each storyline, just the basic influence, emotional charge the novel gives you. Even though my understanding of Mishima as a person or a writer is far, far too shallow and his beliefs are, like I mentioned, something you’d put into a multiple-paged analyses, I still cannot deny that I enjoyed “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea” a great deal. It was fairly easy to get lost in his version of Yokohama even when the words put on the pages were uncomfortable or bordering on mad. The way his characters think, I assume is how Mishima used to. They have a very clear understanding of what they want and who they are for themselves, but life becomes a vantage point from which their facts change drastically and yet again take on a solid form, a new storyline that has an end to it, that has a purpose which could be different from the original, but it is still grounding for the character or characters. You might not like these changes, I might not like them. The novel deals heavily with dehumanization, alienation, glory through death. Usually those would be subjects I’d dismiss because they are very extreme and final. So the novel pushes social norms to the brink of insanity, to the breaking point in which we sit and read and watch as chaos unfolds.
There are these obvious parallels that you can clearly see once the story begins. My advice is to get to know Mishima first before you start reading just to get a better grasp of why certain things are written the way they are. I said some things here and there in the above text but I mostly draw from my conclusions and what I’ve been introduced to while looking Mishima up.
These parallels come from Mishima himself as the characters carry his own philosophy and ideology into the narrative and thus shape it on a more personal scale which is interesting. You’d read the novel, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Fusako for example is a direct representation of westernization by way of her style of living, her choice in imported clothes, her line of business. It’s a lifestyle she is keen on implementing in her household so Noburo also carries some traits though they are mostly visual rather than imbued into his being. If you read into Mishima himself as a person you won’t be surprised to know he despised the Western invasion in Japan. Noboru on the other hand, is more leaning into traditional Japan, so he’s a thread through to Mishima, a character in more direct connection. Ryuji is a dreamer but his dreams involve blunt heroism and a glorious death, so he’s quite selfish in that regard, there is a scent of narcissism around him that blows away in the wind as his character is felled from grace. From what I’ve gathered and read, Ryuji and this drive of his towards heroism represent Mishima’s own political thoughts as he was a known fighter for his country, a known rebel.
It’s no surprise that Mishima took his own life in a ritualistic way (seppuku) after a failed coup attempt. He was an avid keeper of the code of the samurai and a firm believer in protecting the Emperor of Japan, but also according to history and his biography, his death was something he more or less organized and prepared for and more so longed for. So his ideologies and pride of masculinity leek into his works, particularly here because of Ryuji who is the embodiment of masculinity – a lone strong male, with a destiny set out to sea, longing a glorious death. You can see the points of comparison.
This was supposed to be a short review. I feel once I’ve posted this I might come back and add something because that’s how things usually spin with “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea”. There is no doubt the novel is a masterpiece. I was honestly surprised that it captured me so immensely, that it drove its thoughts on life or lack of one that deep that I was musing on it even when I wasn’t reading. It’s without a doubt a novel that shows how Mishima saw the world and society. It’s cruel in its own way. And I highly recommended it.
“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.”