The Japanese writer Yukio Mishima was already a famous and popular figure in his native country before he attempted to overthrow his regional government and killed himself in 1970. In fact, over the course of his career, he was considered several times for the Nobel Prize in literature, and at the time of his death, he was recognized internationally for his novels, short stories, essays, and stage plays. Today, his work stands alongside Shusaku Endo, Junichiro Tanizaki, and Yasunari Kawabata as some of the best and most renowned Japanese writers of the post-war period.
In The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, Mishima explores the relationships and conflicts between men and women, children and parents, and individuals and groups, in addition to extrapolating these conflicts into the context of the Japan’s climate of post-war defeat following the second world war. Mishima’s textured prose, coupled with his nuanced appreciation for tradition, reveal a level of insight into the transmittance of values that remains especially relevant today.
Sailor’s drama revolves around a child, Noboru, his mother, Fusako, and the sailor who enters their life, Ryuji. Noboru’s only real peers are a group of children headed by an ominous and sociopathic boy given the only name of Chief, who generally masterminds whatever hijinks they execute when they aren’t waxing philosophic like a group of anonymous internet trolls who just finished reading Max Stirner. Noboru’s mother, on the other hand, runs a fairly successful textile plant that makes and sells clothing for high-end upper class consumers. The only friend she seems to have is a client who daylights as a movie star actress—someone that Fusako herself isn’t even all that attached to. And Ryuji, the titular sailor, enters the scene as a man Noboru looks up to for his innate masculine sense of purpose and adventuresome honor, and as a man Fusako falls in love with for, perhaps, the same reasons. But Ryuji’s interest in the sea is waning.
The three main characters each seem to embody some aspect of Japanese culture. In Noboru, the youthful exuberance and idolization of the old ways of life, of masculinity and grandiose—if naive—ambitions of adventure are alive and extreme, egged on by his small group of friends. His mother Fusako, meanwhile, viewed as she is primarily through Noboru’s demanding gaze, comes to represent a Japan widowed of its masculinity by the war, left to search somewhat distraughtly for fulfillment while attempting to peddle foreign products to its changing domestic demographic. And Ryuji comes to stand in for the ultimate soul of Japan, beneath whatever hopes, prospects, naiveté, and whorishness it is accused of; he’s been to sea and he’s been to adventure and, in stoic Japanese fashion, he desires only now to lay down and sleep.
Most readily, Mishima’s own personal knacks are apparent in Noboru’s general idealism. Noboru idolizes Ryuji’s masculinity, believing—perhaps because of his own father’s untimely death—that man’s place is to be waving goodbye to his woman from the deck of an outgoing vessel. On his part, Ryuji certainly sympathizes and even understands the boy’s idealism; it’s the same or similar idealism that he felt in his own youth.
As Japan struggled with its defeat, governmental restructuring, and subsequent occupation of American troops, the western impact on Japanese culture that began more than half a century prior had finally become complete. Given the zeal with which they had waged a total war across Asia and the Pacific against the Americans, it isn’t difficult to see how their defeat necessitated the questioning of the metaphysical foundations upon which their entire society was based. Coupled with the restructuring of their government, the removal of the Emperor as a living deity, and importation of Western products and services, Japan’s culture reeled from shockwave after shockwave of radical alterations.
Sailor’s conflicted undercurrents between Noboru’s ideals, Ryuji’s worldview, and Fusako’s realities bring these struggles into focus, all of them pointing toward Mishima’s diagnosis of his then-contemporary Japanese society and culture.
Fusako tries to keep her best interests for Noboru’s future at heart; he’s the next generation, growing up without a direct masculine example to look up to, and provided for by a woman who has embraced the Western modes of commerce and fashion and even living in a Western-style house. And as much as she peddles western-style clothing and lives in a western-style house, she wears the West as a mask or another layer of clothing. Despite using it, trying to be part of it and selling it, nothing erases the distinctly Japanese character beneath the Western clothes and mannerisms, and the same goes for her clientele. Culture is not something that can be put on or stepped into. It is grown over generations and it is lived inside of. Japan, Mishima says, has lost sight of its culture, and it tries now to live with someone else’s.
And Noboru’s resentment isn’t so much for her intentions, but for her compromises. He’s looking for the sort of honor and dignity that only the old school of Japanese manliness can provide, which he finds some delusional and contorted haven of within his circle of young friends. But from his mother, no such meaning can be found. Japan, Mishima says, has compromised too much; Japan, he says, has lost its character and its masculinity, and it wants it back.
Noboru’s disdain has an immediate foil. Ryuji, the man romancing his mother, is a sailor who has grown tired of the sea. No longer filled with anxiety or excitement, Ryuji wants nothing more than to settle down and, though finding himself hesitant to settle down with Fusako, ultimately cannot resist the security that a steady job, household, and future provides. The people who survived the war and were born steeped in the traditionalism of what passed for old-school Japanese imperialism before it are given a voice through Ryuji, and it is a voice tempered with nuance, experience, and some level of self-doubt. Japan, Mishima says, is tired of foreign conquest and retreats now to its shores; Japan, he says, has lost sight not only of its honor, but of even the value to be found in honor and destiny.
To take the allegory further, even Noboru’s friends play a major role in the intergenerational drama. The Chief, a year or two Noboru’s senior, waxes philosophic about the tyranny of fathers, in addition to glorifying death and, through his demands, denying the concepts of innocence and the innate sanctity of life. We see here a complex in which the honor and glory of traditions past are deified in the abstract while the specific people who bring these traditions to relevancy are vilified, combined with a gross reinterpretation of what those traditions stood for and to whom they are supposed to apply. The Chief and his gang embody the distinct death-urge mania that exemplified the propaganda of the Japanese high command during the second world war, and that affected the entire generation that proceeded it. The ending of the book could very well be seen as this particular ethos triumphing over what remains of the Japanese soul, while what’s left of Japan, Westernized and effeminate, stands by and helplessly does nothing.
Sailor is a very brief read for all of its depth and conflict. As nuanced as it is intriguing, Mishima’s book is a meditation on honor and glory, the generational divide of the war, and the embittered slow-suicide that Japan has embarked upon since the war’s conclusion. It remains relevant as a eulogy for the country today, and as a warning for other cultures who seek to follow suit. Mishima’s prose remains lucid and textured, wrought with imagery that only a master could deliver and imbued with a character that only someone of his caliber could write. Mishima wrote with purpose lacking in many contemporary writers, and in Sailor, it shows.