the sailor who fell from grace with the sea book review – yukio mishima

Overview: the sailor who fell from grace with the sea

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea explores some dark themes, as do many of Yukio Mishima’s novels. There’s sadism, murder and voyeurism. In addition, and following Mishima’s own obsessions, we explore a striving for glory, and the importance of manliness.

The author famously wanted to restore some of the values of the Samurai, and railed against the image of the Japanese as a nation of flower arrangers – a reference to the beautiful art of Ikibana – but here we see the sorts of actions people (young people in the novel, but it isn’t too far a leap to extend this to others) are capable of when blindly following authority within a group.

The primary theme

The main theme for me is the responsibility of individuals for their actions, both in relation to the age of the individual and when decisions are made in a hierarchical group they are a member of.

The story follows a young schoolboy that is a member of a secret and elitist – the leader states at one point that all six of the group are geniuses – group of schoolboy friends, organised along pseudo-military lines where each member of the group is assigned a clear place in the hierarchy. The son effectively takes his orders from the group, and to disastrous effect for everyone concerned.

The leader of the group, the chief, seems to have immersed himself in existentialist literature – he believes in the importance of freedom and interprets this as being free from conventional and moral constraints on action. As the group comes close to losing their immunity from justice – Penal Code Article 14 states that ‘Acts of juveniles less than fourteen years of age are not punishable by law’ – the leader decides that this their last chance – if they don’t act now they will never be able to steal or murder of do any of the other things that truly express their freedom. What follows are two examples of the group carrying out shocking actions because directed to do so by the authority of the chief. To what extent is each member of the group culpable for this?

These are themes that would have been particularly ‘live’ in the period of the novel, during the American occupation of Japan in the immediate postwar world.

Secondary themes

Secondary themes are the triangular relationship between the son, the sailor – his mother’s suitor – and his mother, and the struggle between two ways of life – a chosen escape and competing attractions of a settled and conventional life.

The story follows a widow who hooks up with a sailor who is passing through the port. The widow’s son spies on the couple, and slowly builds a relationship with the sailor. We see some of the complex dynamic as the son reacts to his mother’s new love.

The son, being only 13 at the time and lacking a father, is close to his mother. He spends time in her bedroom with the excuse that he wants to see the ships from the window. The mother is starting to push him away as she considers it inappropriate for a boy of that age to be so dependent on his mother. But that’s not the worst of it! The boy has also developed a voyeuristic obsession with spying on his naked mother at night time, and in the course of that witnesses the sailor and his mother having sex.

The sailor for his part sees advantage in building a relationship with the boy. He brings the boy a present, and shows him about his ship. The boy however is imbued with some strange ideas – possibly under the influence of the chief, and judges the sailor not manly enough. The final straw for the boy is when his mother discovers his voyeurism and asks the sailor to punish the boy, but he refuses.

Interweaved with these themes is the struggle of the sailor, who committed himself to a life on the seas – an escape – and now finds himself considering the attractions of a more traditional life with a woman he loves. Which road should he and will he take? And what it is the meaning of Mishima’s fate for him after he makes his choice? He struggles with his decision to give up the sea – he wonders if he can really give up the feeling of the sea and the detached life it brings. And yet, he has now realised that he is tired to death of the squalor and the boredom of a sailor’s life. In addition to his struggle with giving up the life of a sailor, he also has misgivings about pursuing the relationship. He believes in the concept of an ideal love – a love that each man and woman only find once in a lifetime and which death always interrupts.

Outside the main storyline there some pretty scenes in a postwar Japanese port town, the motivations of a sailor escaping from the world and weighing in the balance a commitment to the sailor’s life versus a more traditional domestic life with a woman he loves.

An interesting novel. My rating: 6/10.