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Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea

1,416 words

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea remains imprinted upon the mind long after one has read it. It is one of Mishima’s shorter novels, but its tightly-woven narration heightens the intensity of the atmosphere, simulating a taut bowstring upon readying an arrow.

The novel takes place in Yokohama, Japan’s leading port city, during the American occupation, and unfolds mainly from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy by the name of Noboru Kuroda. Noboru lives alone with his mother Fusako, who runs a luxury shop that sells Western-style clothing; his father died when he was eight years old. He belongs to a gang of six precocious young boys who espouse a form of nihilism and hold mainstream society in contempt, reserving especial scorn for fathers.

Noboru is fascinated with the sea and ships. He convinces his mother to take him to a port, where a sailor by the name of Ryuji Tsukazaki, second mate aboard a freighter ship, shows him around his ship. The reader is introduced to Ryuji when Fusako invites him to the Kurodas’ home and Noboru observes the two embracing through a hole in the wall behind a chest in his bedroom.

Ryuji is rough-hewn, muscular, and ruggedly masculine. As a young man he was drawn to the restlessness and vastness of the sea and its rejection of the static confinement of landbound strictures. He was convinced that glory lay in store for him: “At twenty, he had been passionately certain: there’s just one thing I’m destined for and that’s glory; that’s right, glory!” (15). He wanted to lead a life of danger and adventure. Thus his vision of glory was inseparable from the perilous nature of seafaring: “They were consubstantial: glory and the capsized world. He longed for a storm” (15).

Ryuji becomes a hero to Noboru. As a young boy growing up without a father in postwar Japan, Noboru looks to him as a role model and worships the ideal of glory that he represents. He is in awe of Ryuji and likens him to “a fantastic beast that’s just come out of the sea all dripping wet” (41).

Ryuji leaves when his ship sets sail again, and his return marks the beginning of Part Two of the novel. Upon returning, Ryuji proposes to Fusako and the two agree to marry, which enrages Noboru. By marrying Fusako and embracing a life of domesticity, Ryuji is forced to sacrifice life at sea. He realizes this and at one point briefly questions his choice:

Are you really going to give it up? The feeling of the sea, the dark, drunken feeling that unearthly rolling always brings? . . . Are you going to give up the life which has detached from the world, kept you remote, impelled you towards the pinnacle of manliness? The secret yearning for death. The glory beyond and the death beyond. Everything was ‘beyond,’ wrong or right, had always been ‘beyond.’ (87)

Noboru becomes disillusioned with his former hero. Having turned his back on a life of glory, Ryuji forsakes his status as a hero of mythical proportions and becomes an everyday sort of fellow. This is foreshadowed in a scene in which he encounters Noboru one afternoon and calls out to him while flashing a forced grin. Here Ryuji comes across as a sheepish, almost pitiable figure attempting to endear himself to the boys.

Noboru informs the gang of Ryuji’s engagement to Fusako, and they decide it is necessary to “make that sailor a hero again” (107). There is a single means through which this can be achieved. The boys lure Ryuji to a secluded area under the pretense of getting him to talk about his adventures at sea. Ryuji begins to muse about the life he left behind. As he speaks, the immensity of his decision hits him just before he meets his end: “Now only embers remained. Now began a peaceful life, a life bereft of motion” (142).

The prose in the final scene is subtle and understated, which lends it a haunting effect. Mishima also refrains from inserting moral judgments that would color the reader’s interpretation of the deed, recalling Ryuji’s description of the sea’s indifference to human moral schemes.

Like many of Mishima’s works, the novel is essentially an allegory for the decline of traditional Japanese culture and the masculine spirit of the samurai amid the onslaught of Westernization and modernity.

Fusako embodies both the Westernization of Japan and the essence of the feminine. She leads a thoroughly Western lifestyle and decorates her home with Western furnishings, wears Western clothing, etc. She also represents the mentality of the modern West, one which prioritizes economic security, stability, and contentment above all other values. Such values are inherently feminine, eschewing adventure and heroism for comfort and safety. Fusako symbolizes the archetypal feminine, that which is earthbound and static, while Ryuji’s youthful aspirations represent celestial masculinity, that which strives to attain glory and greatness. Female seduction represents a woman’s attempt to lure a man into her domain and drag him down to earth, thereby derailing his quest for glory. Thus the gang scorns fatherhood because they realize that their fathers were each forced to compromise their individual quests for greatness and make concessions to societal custom.

The sense of glory that Noboru and the gang see in Ryuji is the antithesis of bourgeois, modern Western values, which in Mishima’s view were eroding traditional Japanese notions of honor. Thus the ideal of glory that Noboru reveres symbolizes the martial ethos of the samurai, and Noboru and the gang serve to enforce bushidō, the samurai code.

Yet Ryuji himself falls short of fulfilling this ideal. The choice between land and sea that lies before him and his ambivalence in the face of this dilemma is a reflection of the uncertain identity of postwar Japan, a country that over the course of a single century had transitioned from a feudal state into a global military power and was forced to grapple with how to reconcile its indigenous culture with modernity. Ultimately Japan pursued the course of Westernization, reflected in Ryuji’s rejection of his former life.

Thus Ryuji’s rejection of his life at sea in order to marry Fusako represents a surrender to the West/modernity as well as to the feminine. Faced with the fall of his hero, Noboru comes to believe that Ryuji can only be redeemed through dying a heroic death. The gang’s final act symbolizes an attempt to halt Westernization and restore heroism and glory to Japan. In this sense the gang parallels Mishima’s militia, the Tatenokai (“Shield Society”). On the morning of November 25, 1970, Mishima and four Tatenokai members seized control of a Japanese military base and attempted to enact a coup that would restore prewar imperial rule in what is now known as the Mishima Incident. The coup failed but ultimately served as a symbolic ritual (like the murder of Ryuji) that set the stage for Mishima’s suicide.

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is far more than an exploration of adolescent mischief gone awry. It illustrates that civilizations fluctuate between two opposite poles: a feminine spirit of bourgeois complacency and mediocrity and a masculine spirit that valorizes glory and greatness. The difference between the two is perhaps most evident in their respective attitudes toward death. In societies characterized by the former, an early or unnatural death is considered the worst fate that can befall a man. Many modern people expend an enormous amount toward artificially prolonging the degenerative state of old age for as long as possible. In societies characterized by the latter, it is held that weakness and dishonor are far worse than death. In such societies it is regarded as noble and heroic to sacrifice one’s life for a great cause, the “Grand Cause” that Ryuji invokes while reminiscing upon his life at sea (142). Mishima sought to do the same and intentionally committed seppuku when he was in his prime.

The modern world is defined by that which Fusako embodies: a desire for contentment and economic security at the expense of glory and heroism. In Greek mythology, sailors who were lured to land by the seductive song of the Sirens invariably met their end. Likewise the prospect of easy living appears alluring in times of national uncertainty but in the long run leads to civilizational decline. Thus the final act of the novel represents not the depravity of disturbed teenagers but rather the role of gang violence in enforcing justice and restoring order to a disturbed world.


  1. Anita Boniface
    Posted December 4, 2017 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Sir, I like your blog very much as it is informative and well written. However, before you propagate the distinction between male and female aligning the latter with mediocrity and complacence I ask you to consider and question the ‘complacence’ in the pain of labour, that our mothers unexceptionally endure to give birth to our men. Please forgive me, but is there not something of a noble glory, sacrifice, and a great deal of bloodshed the world over every moment of every day by women giving birth. Not least in the countries of the world that are still developing where the advantages of western healthcare with its vaccines are not yet present. Please have the heroism in yourself to publish this comment, and in doing so open your mind to the great sacrifice made by women. It is a very narrow and shallow thing to align gang murder with nobility and then undermine the noble act of women giving life. Yours, Anita Boniface

  2. Peter
    Posted December 4, 2017 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the question is: does living in a civilisation (i.e. first having built this civiliation, then maintaining it) require a non-heroic life-style? So… which one is it now: we´re proud about our civilisation, as opposed to turd world shitholes, or we are unhappy that we are degenerate twits?

    Here may be a related, and important, thought: so in order to maintain a civiliation, we have to be boring and unexciting -> but the female instinct craves the savage, impulive and aggressive. So biology´s selection success (the civilisation is superior to the turd world)… paradoxically denies itself as the females desire “lower” types? So which valuation method is the right one? “Genetic interest” as evidenced by female mating preferences? Or the unquestionable superiority of White civilisation over the turd world??

    My answer would be: we White men, having created, and maintaining, the superior civilisation, we have the power, and thus we have the right to exercise this power to prevent our females from certain mating choices, even if biology dictates it to them. So are we wiser than nature? In any case, we have the power. All else remains to be seen.

  3. Posted December 4, 2017 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Evola mentions that Aztec women who died while giving birth (to males) were given divine immortality with warriors who died in battle. Then speaking of women who nurtured thumos, there is the legendary “blessing” of Roman mother to son: Come home carrying your shield or laid upon it. Along those lines, Coriolanus’ mother pushed him to the fore as a soldier from the start. Then, in the penultimate act of Shakespeare’s play, she spits fire in his face, while making him reconsider his traitorous march against Rome as a self-centered warrior leading the Volscians. There is no feminizing ploy in her speech or manner. She purely wants her son to understand the link between a great victory as a mercenary general, and a cursed legacy as the hot-headed turncoat who razed Rome.

    Coriolanus was in a fix. His dearly commanding mother, under duress, brings him to the brink of maturity whereupon he makes a choice. Ultimately, Coriolanus surrenders command of the Volscians. He chooses not to march on Rome. In this way, the mother saves Rome but loses a son who is subsequently killed for breach-of-contract. There is little sentimentality throughout. The play is a masterpiece of passionate yet pitiless Pagan tragedy. Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother, has icy-hot dignity for the ages.

    On a personal level, I grew up among ambitious women who, in a way, rightly took feminization as a sign of lazy old money. So they couldn’t wait to dress their husbands in pastels. It was a sad comedy to watch 25% feral working class guys affect to be placid tennis bums and golf pros. On a higher and almost meta-level, Sir Richard Burton was a swashbuckling intellectual-explorer-prick until he got God. Or maybe he just got mirroring religion of the English kind. Burton traded heroic kicks for a trophy wife of glossy virtue. I’m sure that his heart was in the right place. I’m sure he thought that she’d be a moral inspiration instead of a nagging penance. Louis XIV also married to reform himself. But he was happier with a courtesan who, let’s say, had the supple morality fit for a king. In a word, she was worldly. An experienced confidante. A very good woman, in the Nietzschean sense. Maybe Burton and The Sun King teach that men wreck themselves when they put too much redeeming virtue into the pocket of a woman.

  4. Matthew Crawford
    Posted December 17, 2017 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    I was a Coast Guardsman serving on the island of Iwo Jima at the loran station there in 1970/71 when Yukio Mishima killed himself. He had attempted to induce a revolt in an army unit who ridiculed him. Devastated, his companion decapitated him. The Japanese naval unit on Iwo was appalled. They saw it less as fanaticism than just plain bad manners. They explained to me in broken english at our monthly baseball game (which they always won) that such a thing should have been done privately, not as a public event to draw attention. Furthermore, they could not agree with a proponet of rebellion in any case. It was a return to the anarchy which had perverted the Japanese officer corp prompting the Great Pacific War. It was rather interesting to understand that ‘good manners’ was a political as well as a social duty as far as they were concerned. It was quite an embarrassing event for them. It gave me the impression of a noble and innocent culture.

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