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The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima is thought of being one of Japans many exceptional and irreplaceable contributions to the world of literature. This book was translated by John Nathan, and published by First Vintage International in New York in 1994 at 181 pages long. The original edition was published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1965.
Judging a book by it covers is often how I choose a book to read. Although this book was assigned for the class I still gave the cover a once over before reading it. My first impression was that the cover backed up the title of the book by offering a huge rolling wave as a focal point and the person portrayed the sailor. After learning that the Great Wave is a popular symbol of Japanese culture and reading the book I gave the cover another look. Everything about the cover reflects Japanese culture from the wave to the way that the title and the author's name are written. On the cover is a person who I believe to be Noboru. In his eye you see the wave reflected which can be seen as the way Japanese culture is reflected in him for he and his friends are old Japan.
Set against the backdrop of the shores of the Yokohama Harbor, Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea takes place Post World War II Japan. At the start of the book we are introduced to the three main characters: the widow Fusako Kuroda, a merchant of fine European goods, her defiant son Noboru, and Ryuji Tsukazaki, a second mate on the freighter Rakuyo.
Fusako Kuroda owns a fancy clothing shop in Yokohama that imports from Europe and England. She lives a lonely existence as a widow with her young son Noboru, who is a 13-year-old boy who lost his father 5 years ago. Noboru spends much of his free time with a group of boys his own age who seek to understand the fundamental order of the universe through their philosophy of objectivity.
When we first meet young Noboru, he is being locked in his room by his mother to prevent him from slipping out during the night to meet with his gang. While locked in is room Noboru discovers a peephole in the wall behind one of the drawers of his dresser. Through the peephole he is able to spy on his mother during her nightly routines and some of her most intimate moments by herself and while she is with the sailor. But in the end his secret is found out.
Noboru is part of a gang that is made up of several boys that are of the same age. The gang is lead by The Chief. The members of the gang refer to one another in a military fashion of order with Noboru known by the gang as Number Three. Noboru is one of six boys who obey the rules of their superior leader "the chief", a bright but spoiled adolescent, left far too often to his own devices by his wealthy parents. The chief is the embodiment of the old adage "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing". Every day after school "the chief" gathers to him his intimate circle of followers for tutelage in the ways of the world, setting himself up as both judge and jury of human nature. His hatred for mundane commonplace and mindless contentment drives him to extremes at times; to the point, even, of killing and dissecting a poor kitten, so he can show his followers life in its truest sense, without the pettiness of skin.
Noboru shares the characteristics of any typical adolescent when free from the control of "the chief". In Noboru's character the author reflects occasional moodiness, sexual curiosity, the need for independence, and a boyish fascination with all things mechanical, especially ships.
When a freighter (Rakuyo) pulls into Yokohama Harbor, which happens to be the ship Ryuji Tsukazaki is second mate on, Fusako is invited to the ship to take her pick of the items for her shop. She takes her son along with her. It is Noboru's excitement that leads to a tour of the ship and the chance meeting between his mother and the sailor. Tsukazaki tours them around and somehow the widow and the sailor ended up spending the night together in her very beautiful house in a high scale neighborhood. From there it turns in to a love affair. While Ryuji struggles with his longing to leave the sea and yield to Fusako's charms, Noboru's gang sets about practicing their philosophy of objectivism which in the end will lead to the destruction of their humanity.
Noboru is charmed of the seafaring vagabond, whom he believes to embody a certain casual wholesomeness. He and his friends idealize the man at first, but it is not long before they conclude that he is in fact soft and romantic. When Tsukazaki commits the unthinkable felony of falling for his mother, a price must be paid. As boy's mother and the sailor grow closer with each other, Noboru seeks out his gang to confide his troubles and his "charges" against Ryuji on to the gang. They regard their disappointment in the sailor as an act of betrayal on his part, and react violently; which lead the gang to find a brutal way to restore Ryuji heroism again. Predictably, it is the chief who decides a punishment befitting a sailor who has fallen from grace with the sea.
At first glance it seems to be just another clichéd plot line. Lonely rich widow with monster brat of a son meets a sailor, falls in love and trouble follows. Once I thought about the cultural tradition of which the novel is from, I came to see this as very shallow opinion of the book. The three main characters in the book, the widow, the son, and the sailor are not to be seen as whole characters like in a traditional fictional story.
Fusako represents a contemporary Japan that is post World War II, with its increasing economic power and its growing fascination for Western goods. Through her we see a Japan that has forgotten its roots and now worships tokens of wealth and beauty with no understanding of what they mean. We see her wear a kimono only to show it off in the bedroom for the sailor. She is a mockery of the values an older world held sacred with regards to proper behavior of women. She represents the debauchery of post war Japan. She is portrayed as an intelligent educated business woman without any form of self awareness. It is no coincidence that there "There wasn't a single Japanese room in Fusako's house; her mode of living was thoroughly Western" (pg. 113).
The sailor is a bit more complicated and cast in a bit of a better lightâ€¦
Whereas most men choose to become sailors because they like the sea, Ryuji had been guided by an antipathy to the land...He found himself in the strange predicament all sailors share: essentially he belongs neither to the land or the sea. There must be a special destiny in store for me; a glittering, special order kind no ordinary man would be permitted (pg. 17).
Ryuji is the transition of Japan, uncertain how to be or what to do. He represents a Japan that is lost at sea, uprooted, belonging neither to its past or that of the west. He represents the transition between traditional and contemporary Japan. The sailor tries to live by old stoic values. He falls prey to a love of comfort and easy gratification "tired to death of the squalor and the boredom in a sailor's lifeâ€¦ There was no glory to be found, not anywhere in the world" (pg 111). He allows himself to be dressed up in English tweed suits and sent to English lessons. The widow begins teach him about the merchandising business. He knows he is losing sight of his old values but he willing takes what life has to offer him. Ryuji gives up everything, loses his freedom, his "Japanese identity", and finally his life. Yet at the end he realizes thatâ€¦ "I could have been a man sailing away forever. He had been fed up with all of it, glutted, and yet now, slowly, he was awakening again to the immensity of what he had abandoned" (179).
Noboru and his friends can be seen as the future of Japan in a culture in which the old values are destroyed. But I truly think Mishima portrayed Noboru and his gang as the old ways of Japan, and the Samurai Code, which one must have total control of the mind and body. The gang's philosophy of objectivity helps them strive for that total control, something demonstrated in the group's brutality and bluntness. Noboru has no father figure and the ideal Japanese figure that he so desperately clings to, seems to have no place in this westernized, peaceful Japan. The gang understands that Ryuji will eventually surrender to Fusako's charm, and they know that there is now way for them to justify it. If by killing Ryuji keeps them from going down the same path, then Japan has been won back. Ryuji's surrender becomes clear with his marriage to Fusako, and also with Ryuji's compassion that he shows towards Noboru. The boy wonders to himself: "Can this man be saying things like that? This splendid hero who once shone so brightly" (pg. 158)? Old Japan, it seems, is dying, its glory fading into squalid domestication and petty economic success.
Nihilism plays a dominant role in Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. The novel targets the boys' characters to be made an example. Noboru and his group try to go beyond the established societal boundaries; they don't think that rules apply to them because they are above law and order. The boys murder the kitten and later the sailor because they believe that only by "acts such as this could they fill the world's greatest hollows" (57). The boys act with no regard for morals, and their contempt for mundane platitudes drives them to hurt others. The Chief and his followers use killings to test their objective worldview and as an attempt to bring order to the chaos that has become their world. "They hover around our heads waiting for a chance, and when they see something rotten, they buzz in and root in it. And there's nothing they won't do to contaminate our freedom and our ability" (138). Only by killing the kitten and sailor could the group "achieve real power over existence" (57). The act of killing gave the boys a kind of "snow-white certificate of merit" (61) that meant they could now do anything, "no matter how awful" (61).
A) Like/Dislike for the Book
I really wanted to like this book, and there were certainly some parts that I did like, but overall I found that Mishima's prose left me a bit cold. This could be the translation, but I'm just not literary or philosophical enough to appreciate him. The cat thing was unnerving which made the ending all the more horrific because my brain could fill in all the details it needed to in order to know what fate had fallen upon the sailor. I rushed through to the end, as I didn't really want to read it, although I do acknowledge that it was written well and is a good piece of literature. I unfortunately, just didn't take to the subject matter at all.