Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea

Every new foray I make into the works of Yukio Mishima, Japan’s worst-kept literary secret, expands my appreciation for him as a writer of great conviction. He was a man at odds with his time, a vocal critic of post-war Japan and the eagerness with which it was jettisoning its traditions and its culture, enthralled to the glittering possibilities of global markets and consumerism, and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (1963) is a daring, disturbing rebuke, a wakeup call written in blood. It is also the most overtly influenced by Dostoevsky, whom Mishima revered, and whole aspects of this work’s plot and themes may be traced directly to Demons, Dostoevsky’s great exposé of Russian nihilism and the damage it was doing to a young generation nursed on it.

Three characters dominate the narrative: the titular sailor, Ryuji Tsukazaki, a merchant marine whose job has taken him all over the world; Fusako Kuroda, a widower and young mother, now working in an haute couture clothing store offering the latest European styles; and Noboru, Fusako’s son, who has filled the void left by his father’s death by joining a gang of nihilists eager to prove that the world of the adults, with its rules and conventions is a fraud.

At thirteen, Noboru was convinced of his own genius (each of the others in the gang felt the same way) and certain that life consisted of a few simple signals and decisions; that death took root at the moment of birth and man’s only recourse thereafter was to water and tend it; that propagation was a fiction; consequently, society was a fiction too: that fathers and teachers, by virtue of being fathers and teachers, were guilty of a grievous sin. Therefore, his own father’s death, when he was eight, had been a happy incident, something to be proud of.

How much Mishima can pack into a single paragraph! There is the sense of genius, certainly a sign of pride and what once would have been called hubris, and the cleverly bracketed remark, cast as a casual aside, that this feeling of genius was common to all the young boys – sure proof that none of them are geniuses. The technical word “propagation” is perfectly chosen, underscoring the nihilism of boys who believe society is a fiction. And what about that final sentence, simultaneously providing us with critical plot details while alerting us to a possible psychological motivation: believing that fathers are “guilty of a grievous sin” by propagating the “fiction” of society enables him to recast what would otherwise be an almost-unbearable loss as “something to be proud of.”

Noboru’s descent into nihilism has gone entirely unnoticed by his mother, whom we first meet as she quite literally locks him in his bedroom as punishment for sneaking out at night. The plot gets underway when she meets Ryuji, who comes to represent different things to mother and son. For Noboru, Ryuji’s life at sea is a romantic adventure, a flouting of the “fiction” of society in favour of something more vital and closer to nature, while his mother comes to hope for exactly the opposite from Ryuji: that he might give up his life on the high seas for the stability of an office job. For Ryuji himself, however, the sea is beginning to lose its lure, the voyages to foreign lands no longer exciting but monotonous.

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 longed 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.

When, ultimately, Ryuji opts to marry Noboru’s mother and give up the sailor’s life, Noboru experiences this as a betrayal, an unpardonable sacrifice of vitality and stature for the fictionalized life of domesticity and wage earning. And, as in Dostoevsky’s Demons, the dashed hopes of a nihilistic youth have bloody and unpredictable consequences.

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea is a tightly-plotted domestic drama, turning on the blighted expectations of a disturbed child. It is also, and much more importantly, a powerful allegory for the choices Japan made in the wake of the Second World War: eminently reasonable choices, perhaps, with much to recommend them, but whose cost was nothing less than the soul and vital force of the nation. Mishima’s insight is Dostoevsky’s: a generation reared on nothing, oriented towards nothing, will burn the world down in search of purpose.