Yukio Mishima was a twentieth century Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, model and film director. He was also an ardent nationalist, with extreme right wing views. His death in 1970, aged just 45, came as a result of a failed coup d’ etat through which he sought to restore power to the emperor and return Japan to its pre-war glory. After failing to incite the desired rebellion, Mishima committed the ritual suicide known as seppukku, cutting open his abdomen with a short knife, before being decapitated by one of his followers.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea was first published in 1963, and was translated into English by Jonathan Nathan in 1965. In this book, Mishima presents us with multiple examples of misogyny, and xenophobic nationalism. As such, it is a challenging book in both content and outlook. Yet Mishima’s prose style is disarmingly beautiful, and keeps you reading right to the grizzly end.
The plot itself centres around a group of thirteen year old boys; self-professed geniuses who believe that they alone have the ability to see society for what it is. This sense of the adult world as somehow phoney or false, echoes the preoccupations of The Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield, a connection which only strengthens as we learn of the boys’ parental wealth and fundamental sense of privilege. They are described as ‘smallish delicate boys, and excellent students,’ an image which disguises their dangerous attitudes, and the lengths towards which they are prepared to go in their pursuit of freedom from the taboos and restrictions of society. That they feel superior to the rest of society is made abundantly clear:
No adult is going to be able to do something we couldn’t do. There’s a huge seal called ‘impossibility’ pasted all over this world. And don’t forget that we’re the only ones who can tear it off once and for all.
This attitude and the ends it justifies are, however, undermined within the narrative. The chief as a representative of this extreme and ultimately murderous logic is unseated in statements like: ‘He claimed he could tell what any book was about just by looking at the cover,’ which betray his surface-level interaction with the world in place of any true understanding. That said, the worldview that the narrative promotes is barely any less appalling.
The main character that we focus on from this group is Noboru, or number three in the hierarchy of the group. At the beginning, his almost child-like optimism is cast in contrast to the leader, chief’s, outright nihilism: ‘The chief maintained that there was nothing new to be found anywhere in the world, but Noboru still believed in the adventure lurking in some tropical backland.’ This contrast sets up a dichotomy between two interconnected worldviews that run throughout the book: the glorious, heroic ideal of masculinity, and the emptiness left behind when that ideal is not attained. Both of which are deeply problematic.
The idea of an abject emptiness underpins one of the fundamental issues with this book, namely its outright misogyny. Representations of the feminine are realised both in empty, womb-like spaces, that need to be filled, and through connections to the natural world, most often the sea, which needs to be dominated, controlled, and overcome. The feminine, therefore, is often perceived as a failed iteration of the masculine. These ideas become particularly problematic in metaphors of rape and the sexual domination of nature:
To a man locked up in a steel ship all the time, the sea is too much like a woman. Things like her lulls and storms, or her caprice, or the beauty of her breast reflecting the setting sun, are all obvious. More than that, you’re in a ship that mounts the sea and rides her and yet is constantly denied her.
Later, Ryuji –a sailor entering into a relationship with Noboru’s mother, Fusako–says of his new partner: ‘Her eyes were quiet, and icy, and their chill was lewdness itself, indifference to the world become reckless lechery.’ This is a particularly dangerous image in the way it interprets sexual intent from impassivity, raising concerns about consent within the relationship. Particularly following the description of sailors mounting and riding a capricious sea in acts of sexualised domination.
Ryuji’s attitude towards Fusako, particularly at the beginning, is objectifying, sexually aggressive, domineering, and deeply discomfiting. But this is a society in which women are demonstrably second class citizens, as we see in the treatment of Fusako by her employee, Mr Shibuya: ‘The old man looked at a woman as though he were examining a piece of fabric in his hand. Even if she was his employer.’
And for anybody that may feel sympathy towards the main character, Noboru, he too, has an attitude of contempt towards his mother:
The desk was covered with assignments he had to finish before the new semester began; there were only a few days left. But Ryuji was leaving the next day and then his mother would help him again. Or would she just wander around in a daze, too preoccupied to worry about her own son’s homework? Not that it made much difference: Japanese and English and art were the only subjects she could handle. She was never much help with social studies, and he knew more about math and science than she did. How could anyone be that bad at math and run a business? She was probably always at Mr. Shibuya’s mercy.
In a world that views women in this way, you would hope that the main female character in the book, and one of only two, would have enough depth of character to push back against all the misogyny, but Fusako is woefully underdeveloped as an individual. Her lack of character depth can be seen in the contrast between her response to Ryuji’s departure and his own. We are told that ‘Fusako was aware only of the next day’s parting’, whereas:
For Ryuji the kiss was death, the very death he’d always dreamed of […] He was perfectly aware that he would leave her in a day, yet he was ready to die happily for her sake. Death roused inside him. Stirred.’
Fusako’s inner voice is much less developed than the male characters, to the point of being a little shallow. Where Noboru and Ryuji are given space to philosophise about their masculinity, and about life, and love and death, Fusako has a much more simplified outlook, seeming unable to contextualize her feelings within wider ideas. Her inner life is restricted to sensual feelings for a sailor, and a mild sense of annoyance in her dealings with a frivolous actress.
Another key theme of Mishima’s novella is the fate of Japan and Japanese identity, particularly male Japanese identity. At a moment when Ryuji is described as epitomising the heroic ideal championed by Noboru, he happens to be standing, not inconspicuously, next to a Japanese flag. The nationalism of this novella comes to the fore in its second half, and it is a very unpleasant form of nationalism that is inextricably linked to Mishima’s misogyny.
While Fusako’s modern values and her role as a business owner could be interpreted in a positive way, Mishima subverts those aspects of her characterisation into a negative portrayal. Fusako is described as a ‘worldly lady,’ which has negative connotations both in terms of sexual promiscuity and in terms of Westernisation. Fusako’s business is, tellingly, a shop selling Western goods. As a result, Fusako herself is presented not only as a woman of dubious moral character but as a traitorous emblem of the West in Japan: ‘There wasn’t a single Japanese room in Fusako’s house; her mode of living was thoroughly Western.’ This conflation of debased womanhood with Westernisation is an unfortunate but not uncommon stereotype. The suggestion in the narrative is that Fusako has somehow tricked Ryuji into abandoning not only his masculine ideals but Japan itself. His initial physical attraction to her is described in nationalistic terms: ‘The lipstick she had dashed on before they left the house, a spot of vivid red rising out of the whiteness of her chilled, drawn face, looked beautiful to Ryuji.’ The red on white of the Japanese flag attracts the sailor, but it is a painted face that hides her Western values.
There is a huge amount to dislike in this novella, particularly in the way it views gender, offering damaging portrayals of both masculine and feminine ideals. To reduce the entire novella to its problematic dimensions, however, would be unfair. In other ways, it is a complex and beautiful read with many layers for the reader to peel back. One of the layers that I found particularly interesting was the homoerotic subtext in the desire felt by Noboro towards his mother’s new love-interest, Ryuji.
Following Ryuji’s first night with Fusako, he runs into Noboru and his friends at the park. Ryuji’s shirt is wet from the fountain, and Noboru becomes flustered. This scene is presented in the narrative as one of the first examples of Ryuji’s heroic masculinity falling short of the ideals that the boys aspire to–strong men don’t play in fountains. While this sense of falling short of a masculine ideal is key to any interpretation of this book, there is, I would argue, a secondary layer to Noboru’s hero worship that reveals very different motivations. There are undeniably sexual undertones to this image of Ryuji in a wet shirt, and I would argue that this sexual element is, at least in part, the cause of Noboru’s discomfort around his friends. This idea of homosexual desire comes to the fore in the attempted seduction which follows.
Having told his mother that he was going to be spending the day at the beach, Noboru decides that he should at least look the part when he returns, so he goes to cover himself in sand. This scene is where the attempted seduction begins:
Conscious of being watched, Noboru was putting on a show, smearing the sand on the backs of his legs and all the way up his thighs. When he was satisfied, he stepped into his shoes gingerly so as not to dislodge the sand and minced back to Ryuji. “Look,” he said, indicating the sand on his sweating thigh.
Noboru and Ryuji return to Noboru’s house to await Fusako, where we witness an exchange in which the sexual undertones of Noboru’s thoughts and actions are made fairly explicit as he arches his back, drips fruit juice down his throat and closes his eyes in rapture. Yet Ryuji sees Noboru as a child and allows his thoughts to drift away to think of Fusako. This is not the only incident suggestive of homoerotic desire in the novella, it is simply the first. Later there are Noboru’s ‘too red’ lips, and Ryuji’s ‘virile’ sun-blackened face, and many other textual hints towards Noboru’s true feelings.
The possible implications of this sexual desire, Ryuji’s unwitting rejection and the jealousy it engenders should not be underestimated in terms of the final moments of the narrative. Does Noboru’s complicity in the terrible events of the ending stem from his belief in chief’s world view, or from a sense of personal revenge founded in part on this very desire? It is certainly an interesting question, and there is no simple answer.