Yukio Mishima: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea

In an ideal world, a book could be read without your knowledge of the author influencing the experience.  But when the About the Author blurb ends with “On the day he completed his last novel, Mishima committed ritual suicide by disembowelment,” it can’t help but add a certain … frisson.

And Yukio Mishima’s life and personality is all over The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, the story of a thirteen-year-old boy who takes exception to his mother’s new lover and exacts a terrible revenge.  Wikipedia says, “Mishima’s sexual orientation remains a matter of debate.”  That is one way of putting it.  In the book, one might not be perturbed to see the male body (“His broad shoulders were square as the beams in a temple roof, his chest strained against a thick mat of hair, knotted muscle like twists of sisal hemp bulged all over his body”) described just as lovingly as the female (“Her haughty breasts inclined sharply away from her body; and when she kneaded them with her hands, the rosy nipples danced apart.  He saw the trembling belly”).  More surprising is the fact that the last description is the teenager, Noboru, spying on his mother.  And when we factor in the explicit connections made in the book between sex and death, and of “contempt” characters feel for those whose suicide attempts have failed, the picture of a ‘debatable’ sexuality is pretty much complete.

Not that this is surprising.  The other Mishima novel I have read, Confessions of a Mask, was a similarly humid, troubled tale, all nihilism and misanthropy, although The Sailor… has a much more straightforward plot.  The sailor of the title is Ryuji, who meets Noboru’s widowed mother on shore leave and has an affair with her (while continuing his love-hate relationship with a life at sea).  Noboru, however, is a self-regarding young man who associates with a gang of youths who share his hardline beliefs:

At thirteen, Noboru was convinced of his own genius (each of the others in the gang felt the same way) and certain that life consisted of a few simple signals and decisions; that death took root at the moment of birth and man’s only recourse thereafter was to water and tend it; that propagation was a fiction; consequently, society was a fiction too: that fathers and teachers, by virtue of being fathers and teachers, were guilty of a grievous sin.  Therefore, his own father’s death, when he was eight, had been a happy incident, something to be proud of.

That Mishima allows Noboru’s beliefs to remain unchallenged, and even to prevail, suggests that this sort of solipsism reflected his own views.  And knowing what we do of his life, that seems a reasonable conclusion.

The Sailor… is then a genuinely perverse book, and worth reading because of the insight it gives into a mindset that is alien to most of us.  Those who are looking for empathetic characterisation will be disappointed, and cat lovers will be nauseated, but there are some fine turns of phrase to be found, like “the darkly heaping sea.”


  1. *** This comment may contain spoilers, although I don’t think it does, if you have not read the book, don’t read this, even if there aren’t spoilers****

    I just finished reading this one myself (the John Nathan translation), and couldn’t quite get at what the point of the whole thing was.

    A right wing fantasy? Probably, knowing Mishima. A bizarre version of the ideas of progress? Probably. Maybe? The author working out some issues he had about his father and/or nation?

    And why was it that the only character without a father was charged with destroying his father? What was that about? Maybe Mishima just hated everyone, because they were all liars.

    1. In class we read this book and we related the characters to the stages of Japans transition and the fragility of Mishma’s mind. We came to the conclusion that Noburo stands for Old Japan and tradition, Ryuji for intermediate confused Japan adn Fusako for new Japan. As for the thoughts of Mishma we figured that Fusako was the thoughts and ideals trying to be forced upon himself(himself being Noburo and Ryuji). Mishma as Noburo is more of a tale of how his thoughts began to lean towards nihilism and Mishma as Ryuji was more of an allusion to his own death and how far he had tread from his own path.

  2. A great little work of real substance, but I’d agree the nature of that substance has a deeply unhealthy ring about it, though bordering on a higher mode of sanity perhaps… though perhaps because of that very heightened state, if one goes astray, one goes very astray.

  3. I see this book as the story of a man imprisoned by the mythical masculine role in society, conflicted in the choice whether to live as a sailor in the pursuit of “glory” and the “Grand Cause”, or to give this all up for the woman he love. As a sailor, Ryuji is incomplete because Ryuji’s ideas of glory at sea are unattainable. Only a woman can complete him, so Ryuji decides to lead a life on land with Fusako. And he is punished for this choice, but that is not to say that Mishima believes it was the wrong one. It’s Noboru and his gang headed by the solipsistic chief that kill him: can the the gang not represent society? Isn’t Mishima critical of the gang’s narcisstic views? Does he not mock them? Is he therefore not being critical of the belief that men should be “the pinnacle of manliness” and that women should be “the consummate women?” Aren’t these myths? Then Noboru’s view of the absolute and reality too is a myth.

  4. I just finished this book. It’s the first Mishima book that i’ve read as an adult. As an adolescent I had a lot more tolerance for his brand of insanity. I guess the kids would kill me too if they got their hands on me…

    I disagree with the last comment because it assumes the central story to be that of Ryuji but-though that makes it convenient to retell and analyze the book-it’s obviously not the case. Noboru is the center. He starts the story, he ends it and his mechanisms are the only ones that are really revealed to us.

    What struck me most forcefully about this book (aside from its ubiquitous perversion) was the way that Mishima successfully switched off between believable conventional narrators and the idiotic (though superficially logical) and twisted world of Noboru’s cabal. It’s as if he’s saying, “I know what the real world is, I know how people think and how they feel. But I also know how to enter a parallel world, one in which everything is inverted, where esoteric slogans define reality more than direct experience and where justice operates with the logic of a serial killer.” Though it’s tempting to put him in to Noboru’s camp, recall that he presents them as being childish and their opinions as symptoms of their sad upbringings as much as they are “insights” into the true nature of things. I don’t think that the inexcusability of their actions disqualifies them but the stupidity of their ideas.

    But then again, we know that he was unsympathetic at best towards the modern world and personally espoused beliefs that danced ever so nimbly around the borders of sanity. I guess the ability to present that ideological conflict is what elevates him from crack pot to great novelist.

  5. Thanks for this response, mmdanziger. I’m afraid that I read Sailor too long ago to respond intelligently, but you have made me want to read the other Mishima on my shelves – Forbidden Colours – sooner rather than later.

  6. I’d hate to be the voice of nihilism and insanity here, but can any of you explain exactly why Noboru’s and the chief’s philosophy of the world is insane and idiotic? You all write your reviews under the assumption that what they are doing is inherently wrong from the start, but in my opinion the main point of this book is to challenge us to figure out and explain the problems without making that convenient assumption. It’s hard and it’s uncomfortable, but hey, then again so is the book.

  7. I’d say Jack that murdering other people basically for one’s own pleasure is a very sick notion. The book is somewhat vague in my memory but the people that decide the sailor are young unformed selves with some strange code of truth, which view as reasonable embodiments of this truth acts such as ending the life of someone who is an innocent stranger to most of them, and someone whose transgression, if transgression it is, is mild to the one who isn’t a stranger. And so for them their truth is that there is no truth, since there are no actions they forbid themselves – cold-blooded murder being a kind of absolute action, & so if one permits oneself such an action then there is no moral order or truth to transgress since all is permitted.
    However this “All is permitted” is as you might infer a more uncomfortably closer ‘truth’ than many would like to imagine. Unless one admits the intrinsic moral or holy nature of life then all actions are equal – simply lumps of matter acting upon other lumps of matter, there is no sin, and so within such a materialistic order for example one has no argument against raping a child in front of its mother, and alternating this with raping the mother in front of the child, and on ad finitum for the pleasure of the rapist.
    Whatever about one’s abstract notion of the life one inhabits I would say it’s pretty fair to say that if confronted with such a scenario all but the pathologically insane would see such actions as evil because they are felt at the very core of our being to be transgressions of truth, as violently evil; and so because of this intrinsic moral order to life the youths who grant tehmselves the liberty of murdering a more or less innocent stranger are subject to an insane philosophy which implies the ‘truth’ of all actions, from the murder of one other person to that of millions in the organised extermination camps of wide renown.

    1. Andrew,

      What is morally right for one culture is often not morally right for another. And culture is taught; we all learn what is right in wrong, and what is right one day is not so the next.
      It seems to me that you have assumed that there is a God who has instilled in all of us a sense of right and wrong, and it is only the deviants who stray from that line.

      Just a thought.

  8. Thanks for this review, Mishima is an author I’ve not read for many years but keep meaning to return to, to contemplate his output still astounds me and also his age when he wrote his novels. Without the ability to read anything written by an ‘old’ Mishima his works are perhaps difficult to measure.

  9. Interesting ideas Jack but that sort of moral relativism scares me. In the current climate (2012) of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where notions of democracy, morality and civilised behaviour are under constant scrutiny, even redefinition, perhaps we need to think again
    about the possibility of absolute truths. A good start would be to examine famous documents that have attempted to do just that e.g the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sadly, many of its signatories honour it more in the breach than the observance!

  10. Mishima’s Novel The Sailor …….. is the point of focus in my master Thesis. I found the notes given insightful as I delve into the fuller understanding of this great literary work

  11. I think all of you are missing the literary allusion that Mishima was using. Any of you ever read Odeipus Rex? The boy spies on his mother having sex (doing it himself would’ve been to obvious), the name of the store that Fusako owns is Rex ltd. and at the end the boy kills his new father. Sound familiar? Was Mishima familiar with western ideas, especially classic Greek drama? You bet!

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