the sailor who fell from grace with the sea by yukio mishima
the sailor who fell from grace with the sea by yukio mishima
historical context and themes
It’s helpful to see Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea in it’s historical context. The book was published in Japan in 1963, at a time when memories of the defeat in the Second World War were still raw. There were mixed feelings about the occupation by the United States. Many of the themes of the book are themes that would have resonated strongly with a domestic Japanese audience at the time. To what extent is responsibility individual or collective? Are people inherently good or bad? What value do we place on tradition, and what value on manliness and glory?
These are themes that crop up in many of Mishima’s writings. Mishima was famously a committed Japanese nationalist who venerated the traditions of the Samurai, of manliness and glory. He died in 1970 when he committed ritual suicide in public following the failure of a nationalist coup attempt, of which he was a leading member.
The story follows a young boy, Noburu, living with his mother, Fusako, as their lives are impacted by the arrival of a sailor, Ryuji. Fusako and Ryuji become romantically involved. What does this mean for each party? The mother and sailor have both been enjoying an independent life, and the boy and his mother have been extremely close. Against this backdrop we follow the boy’s relationship with his peers as they head to darker and darker places.
to what extent is responsibility individual or collective?
The extent to which an individual must bear responsibility for following orders issued from those in authority was of course a very live issue in the immediate post-war world. In Europe the Nuremberg Trials had dealt with the issue at length, and at the time The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea was being written and published, the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem was wrapping up and being commented on.
Noburu is a member of a secret and elitist group of schoolboy friends, organised along pseudo-military lines. Each member of the group is assigned a clear place in the hierarchy, designated by a number, and they consider themselves superior to the rest of society. The leader (The Chief) states that all six of the group are geniuses. The group meet secretly and, taking orders from The Chief, they willingly participate in some horrific acts of cruelty. There are parallels with William Golding’s earlier 1954 Lord of the Flies.
Although ordered by The Chief, to what extent must each individual be judged responsible?
For a different take on circumstances when responsibility for actions could be clouded, check out William Oldroyd’s excellent movie Lady Macbeth.
are people inherently good or bad?
The schoolboys are urged on to commit their acts of cruelty before they lose their immunity from justice. Penal Code Article 14 states that ‘Acts of juveniles less than fourteen years of age are not punishable by law’. This is their last chance, they are told. If they don’t act now they will never be able to steal or murder of do any of the other things that – freed from conventional and moral constraints on their actions – truly express their freedom.
Noburu finds a hole in the wall that separates his bedroom from his mother’s, and spends a good deal of time spying on her. Ryuji tries to manipulate Noburu by bringing him presents. It’s always a good idea to get your woman’s kid on side.
Mishima paints a world where people violate each other’s privacy, manipulate each other and ultimately kill each other, constrained only by the law. If people think they’ll get away with it – they are voyeurs in secret, they manipulate those they think too young to realise, or they believe themselves safe from the law even if they’re caught – they will act in ways that hurt others. There’s an interesting parallel here with the recent Japanese movie A Double Life, in which a Masters student stalks unwitting individuals for her own gain in the belief that she can do it without being caught.
what value do we put on tradition, manliness and glory?
For Mishima with his veneration of the Samurai, of course, the answer is clear. Yukio Mishima 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.
We see the tension between the old, proud Japan, and the new Westernised Japan that is being ushered in by the American occupation played out in the relationship between Noburu and his mother.
Noburu is attracted by traditional notions. He joins the military style society, and values manliness and glory. Fusako, his mother, works in fashion and values European styles and tastes. Her house is Westernised. Times are changing.
Ryuji values his life at sea, which he feels is manly and glorious. He is free to travel and adventure with no ties to the conventional world. Noburu idolises Ryuji in this. After his brief tryst with Fusako, Ryuji begins to reevaluate his priorities, and ultimately turns away from manliness and glory. He gives up his life at sea for a life of domesticity with Fusako. In this, and in his refusal to punish Noburu when his voyeurism is exposed, he loses Noburu’s respect, to disasterous effect! Mishima’s fate for Ryuji once he’s made his choice, is surely a warning for those turning away from traditional values.
the sailor who fell from grace with the sea book review
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea deals with some big issues, although I’m not sure that I’m in complete harmony with Mishima’s own views on the issues! The book’s an easy read, and we share some attractive scenes in the life of a postwar Japanese port town. We also plunge into some dark themes and scenes. What is it with Japanese culture that it seems so often to focus on the dark?
The sailor who fell from grace with the sea book review. The book is an interesting novel – interesting partly for the setting in post war Japan, for the imagery and the dark themes. My rating: 6/10.
Have you read the book? What did you think? Do you agree with my assessment? Leave a comment..