Yukio Mishima’s The Sound Of Waves

Yukio Mishima was unknown to me up until late last year, after which point he has been inescapable. Book-loving friends have pressed him on me; political commentators and polemicists I follow have invoked his name, his writings, or his life. He is, so to speak, having a moment, and his sudden rise in popularity is intimately connected with his criticisms of post-World War II Japan and the similarities – real or imagined – Western readers have discovered between a defeated and demoralized Japan, eager to put its past behind it, and the turn-of-the-century West. The most striking fact about Mishima’s life pertains to his death, and should probably be dealt with right away: on November 25, 1970, Mishima and a group of like-minded men attempted to instigate a coup on a Japanese military compound by barricading themselves inside the commandant’s offices and summoning the soldiers to listen to a prepared speech – delivered by Mishima in traditional military wear, including the red-and-white headband – in support of a restoration of the emperor. The soldiers were less than impressed, and Mishima accepted defeat by committing seppuko, a samurai suicide ritual in which a kneeling man – Mishima, in this case – uses a short sword to cut open his stomach from left to right, whereupon an assistant uses a longer sword to behead the kneeling man. In Mishima’s grisly case, three attempts at the beheading were necessary. To say that the news of one of Japan’s most popular and promising young writers instigating a coup and then committing suicide was shocking to the public is an understatement. The government reacted swiftly, suppressing Mishima’s writings and reassuring a worried international public that his failed coup was not representative of wider Japanese unrest.

New translations and heightened publicity have renewed interest in Mishima, both in and out of Japan, and The Sound Of Waves, the fourth of his dozens of published novels, seems to amply validate that attention. It’s a deceptively simple love story, taking place on an isolated and idyllic Japanese fishing island, where the traditional culture has not yet been swept away by modernity. Our young lovers are Shinji, an apprentice fisherman of humble birth, whose only aspirations in life are to provide for his younger brother and his widowed mother, and Hatsue, a pearl diver, the beautiful daughter of the village’s wealthiest man. Both are innocent and pure of heart, in the way only the young can be, and Mishima throws the usual obstacles up against their love: a wealthy male rival for Hatsue’s affections, the slanderous gossip of the village, and a possessive and protective father. Indeed, there is nothing original in this novel’s plot or structure, and quite a bit that could be derided as shopworn or cliché, and yet the reading experience is captivating, first because Mishima’s prose enlivens everything he describes and second because his imagination endows his characters with enough personality to provoke our sympathies. There is a third factor, which for Mishima might have been his principal aim, and that is the description of the island paradise, the pre-modern idyll, that so clearly enticed him, and even succeeds in enticing his reader. There is a symbiotic relationship between the inhabitants of the island and the sea, and again and again Mishima will turn to the ocean to provide his most powerful imagery: of stability, of eternal rhythm, of generous plenty. Here, for example, is an early depiction of Shinji, surging with youthful vitality:

The boy felt a consummate accord between himself and this opulence of nature that surrounded him. He inhaled deeply, and it was as though a part of the unseen something that constitutes nature had permeated the core of his being. He heard the sound of the waves striking the shore, and it was as though the surging of his young blood was keeping time with the movement of the sea’s great tides. It was doubtless because nature itself satisfied his need that Shinji felt no particular lack of music in his everyday life.

So remote is this island, and so evocative of a lost past, that at the novel’s opening we learn that its inhabitants have been living without electricity for weeks, since the sole village generator has broken down. But the absence of this most essential prerequisites of modernity does not in the least impede the village rhythms or the lives of its happy citizens, who go on fishing, diving for pearls, and living happily and communally.

I am writing this review in the midst of a global pandemic that has massively disrupted the modern world. Non-essential stores around me are closed down; nightclubs and bars have likewise shut their doors. Government health warnings have advised us all to remain indoors, except for exercise or purchasing food. In the span of a single month, the fast-paced, globalized world has been derailed, and like Mishima’s villagers, we are left with what human beings have always had to rely upon: friends, family, loved ones. Mishima died in 1970, before the hyper-modernization and homogenization of world culture enabled by the Internet. He would have found little to admire in the contemporary world, and much to scorn. In fact, I rather think he’d be on the side of the virus. And the truly dangerous thing about his writing is that he makes such a stance seem utterly reasonable.