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Yukio Mishima: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea

Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea is a short novel but, due to its tight plot, brevity is not an issue. Published in 1963, seven years before he committed ritual suicide, the novel explores motivation and the factors that can cause someone to abandon their passions and resume their life embracing the dreams of another.

Noboru Kuroda, a thirteen year old on the cusp of an adult world, is part of a savage gang whose members, despite their exemplary grades at school, have rebelled against the adult world they deem hypocritical. Under the tutelage of Noboru’s friend, also thirteen, they condition themselves against sentimental feelings – a goal they call ‘objectivity’ – by killing stray cats.

Ryuji Tsukazaki, a merchant seaman, has been granted two days’ shore leave and has spent the time romancing Noboru’s widowed mother, Fusako. Noboru likes the sailor at first, his commitment to the sea and all the manly stories he has to tell. But, as Ryuji falls for Fusako, Noboru feels betrayed by the man’s burgeoning romanticism and, with the help of his gang, feels that action should be taken against the man who has replaced his father.

The first thing I noticed while reading this novel was that the characters are rich with life and history. Noboru, at thirteen, has strong feelings for his mother that manifest through voyeuristic sessions at night when, peeking into her room through a spy-hole, he watches her undress, entertain, and sleep. Ryuji, the sailor, knows he has some purpose at sea and continues his life off the land in the hope that one day he will learn his place in life. And Fusako, five years widowed, displays certain strength as she runs her own business, mixes with a richer class of citizen, while trying to raise he son as best she can.

The way the characters develop from this introduction is fast yet believable – the book, in fact, is split into two sections, Summer and Winter, to show that enough time has passed to be plausible. Noboru’s respect for Ryuji wanes as he becomes the worst thing, based on his gang’s beliefs, a man can be in this world: a father. Ryuji’s abandonment of his life’s passion is, of course, the main thread of the novel and it is a tragic decision he makes to give up the destiny waiting for him at sea in order to embrace the world of Fusako and the new direction she has planned for him.

The best thing about this novel is the language. The translator, John Nathan, has done a wonderful job and not a page passes without hitting you with a warm wash of sea-spray. Metaphors and similes are drenched with watery goodness as they add to the novel’s appeal. The prose is warm during the Summer section but as the book turns to Winter the turns of phrase become icier and tend to sting more. The dialogue is nice and realistic and doesn’t smart of stereotypical Japanese honour; the way the characters interact completely plausible.

I hadn’t heard of Mishima until I picked up this novel and, given that he had three Nobel nominations in his lifetime, I will certainly look out for more of his work. His concise prose, realistic characters, and the way his voice carries the sea makes him a rare find. If books were shells, I would hope to hear Mishima in every one.

June 1, 2007

7 responses to Yukio Mishima: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea

  1. jem said:

    Hi, just browsing your site having jumped here from the Booker debate board, while I await the longlist…

    Glad you found and enjoyed Mishima. I have read a few of his novels and this is a good place to start. Some can get stuck a little heavily in Japanese past. My favourite novel, and a good next step if you want one is ‘The Sound of Waves’. It would be a complimentary pebble on your Mishima beach!

  2. Stewart said:

    Thanks, jem. It’s actually been 1½ years since I read this book and I’ve still never got round to reading more Mishima. I particularly want the quartet. But then I want everything else, regardless of author too.

  3. jem said:

    I know what you mean, enough is never enough when it comes to books. I read Spring Snow but didnt get beyond that, but you know how it is, one day.

  4. jamesewan said:

    Hi Stewart, thanks for your post on my blog concerning Murakami. On Yukio Mishima I can also recommend ‘Spring Snow‘, the first and apparently most, um, approachable in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. Concerning itself principally with themes of love, death and reincarnation, it’s an evocative novel with strikingly vivid seasonal imagery rooted in Japanese aesthetic traditions. Similar to your experience with ‘The Sailor …’, I was struck by the quality of the translation, which really seems to deliver Mishima’s highly disciplined descriptive style into English.

  5. Stewart said:

    Similar to your experience with ‘The Sailor …’, I was struck by the quality of the translation, which really seems to deliver Mishima’s highly disciplined descriptive style into English.

    I know that the translator of The Sailor Who… was John Nathan, who Mishima picked out to translate his works, although they later fell out. I’ve yet to read The Sea Of Fertility tetralogy, but feel a little disheartened to see that the translators are a tad inconsistent, with three different translators bringing the four books to the English language. Disheartened because, since it may highlight inconsistencies in each translator’s understanding and interpretation of the original. Saying that, if they aren’t a cohesive whole, but a looser series, it may not be as much of a grumble.

  6. jamesewan said:

    As far as I know the books revisit the same character at different stages in his life, and in each book he meets someone he believes to be a reincarnation of his childhood friend who dies in ‘Spring Snow’. Re-birth is the principle theme but it’s very much intwined with Japanese notions of beauty – communicated very well, I thought, in the first book. How the translation might vary, especially in the descriptive passages, is definitely a cause for concern – but I don’t know anyone who has read them all. They are supposed to get increasingly more difficult to read though, so whether that reflects the quality of translation or not is hard to tell.

  7. john h. said:

    It’s been a long time since I read Mishima. There was a phase back in the 80s when I was really into him. The two books that stick in my mind are “Confessions of a mask” and “The Temple of the golden pavilion.” The latter, in particular, is great.

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7 responses to Yukio Mishima: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea

  1. jem said:

    Hi, just browsing your site having jumped here from the Booker debate board, while I await the longlist…

    Glad you found and enjoyed Mishima. I have read a few of his novels and this is a good place to start. Some can get stuck a little heavily in Japanese past. My favourite novel, and a good next step if you want one is ‘The Sound of Waves’. It would be a complimentary pebble on your Mishima beach!

  2. Stewart said:

    Thanks, jem. It’s actually been 1½ years since I read this book and I’ve still never got round to reading more Mishima. I particularly want the quartet. But then I want everything else, regardless of author too.

  3. jem said:

    I know what you mean, enough is never enough when it comes to books. I read Spring Snow but didnt get beyond that, but you know how it is, one day.

  4. jamesewan said:

    Hi Stewart, thanks for your post on my blog concerning Murakami. On Yukio Mishima I can also recommend ‘Spring Snow‘, the first and apparently most, um, approachable in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy. Concerning itself principally with themes of love, death and reincarnation, it’s an evocative novel with strikingly vivid seasonal imagery rooted in Japanese aesthetic traditions. Similar to your experience with ‘The Sailor …’, I was struck by the quality of the translation, which really seems to deliver Mishima’s highly disciplined descriptive style into English.

  5. Stewart said:

    Similar to your experience with ‘The Sailor …’, I was struck by the quality of the translation, which really seems to deliver Mishima’s highly disciplined descriptive style into English.

    I know that the translator of The Sailor Who… was John Nathan, who Mishima picked out to translate his works, although they later fell out. I’ve yet to read The Sea Of Fertility tetralogy, but feel a little disheartened to see that the translators are a tad inconsistent, with three different translators bringing the four books to the English language. Disheartened because, since it may highlight inconsistencies in each translator’s understanding and interpretation of the original. Saying that, if they aren’t a cohesive whole, but a looser series, it may not be as much of a grumble.

  6. jamesewan said:

    As far as I know the books revisit the same character at different stages in his life, and in each book he meets someone he believes to be a reincarnation of his childhood friend who dies in ‘Spring Snow’. Re-birth is the principle theme but it’s very much intwined with Japanese notions of beauty – communicated very well, I thought, in the first book. How the translation might vary, especially in the descriptive passages, is definitely a cause for concern – but I don’t know anyone who has read them all. They are supposed to get increasingly more difficult to read though, so whether that reflects the quality of translation or not is hard to tell.

  7. john h. said:

    It’s been a long time since I read Mishima. There was a phase back in the 80s when I was really into him. The two books that stick in my mind are “Confessions of a mask” and “The Temple of the golden pavilion.” The latter, in particular, is great.

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Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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