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

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

By Linn Miyataki, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Yukio Mishima is the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka, who was born on January 14, 1925, to parents Azusa and Shizuko Hiraoka in Tokyo, Japan. He was reared primarily by his grandmother, Natsuko, who "virtually kidnapped the little boy from his mother" (Stokes, 60) when he was only two months old. Mishima was confined to Natsuko's sickroom for the greater part of some twelve years, where he was not allowed to play with rough, noisy toys, and was surrounded mainly by girls. Compounding a sheltered and miserable childhood was "jikachudoku," or "auto-intoxication," an illness he complained of from age four. Mishima was gifted. In 1944 he graduated from the Gakushuin (The Peers' School) at the top of his class, receiving the Emperor's Award. Mishima went on to Tokyo Imperial University, graduating in 1947 with a law degree. After working for the Ministry of Finance for less than one year, he published Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no Kokyhaku), often labeled an autobiographical novel, in July 1949. Seven years later Mishima published The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), perhaps his most famous work, for which he won the Yomiuri Prize in 1957. The following year, he married Yoko Sugiyama, with whom he had two children, Noriko and lchiro. Mishima continued publishing numerous short stories, modem No plays, other plays, and novels. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea was published in September 1963. Mishima has been called a genius as well as a madman for the manner in which he led his life and carried out his suicide. "Mishima ... fits no categories, follows no single tradition" (Petersen, 201). Yukio Mishima the novelist chose to die a fanatic's death, and the most Japanese death imaginable. On November 25, 1970, accompanied by four cadets from his Shield Society, he paid a visit to the commander of the Japan Self-Defense Force. On his signal, the cadets seized the commandant and held him at swordpoint, while Mishima demanded through the barricaded office door that the 32nd Regiment be assembled in the courtyard to attend a speech. He had intended on speaking for thirty minutes, but since his words were inaudible above the jeers and hisses of the eight-hundred angry men, he stopped after just seven. Then he withdrew to the commandant's office and committed seppuku (harakiri). When he had driven the blade into his left side and drawn it across his abdomen, he grunted a signal to the cadet standing behind him; the cadet beheaded him with a long sword, completing the ritual (Nathan, ix).

In The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, Noboru Kuroda is a precocious thirteen-year-old boy who lives with his widowed mother, Fusako, in Yokohama, Japan. Fusako, thirty-three, falls in love with a second mate sailor, Ryuji Tsukazaki, also thirty-three, who asks for her hand in marriage after several months of courtship. Ryuji has never married, and Fusako is ready to marry again after five years without a husband. As their time together increases, Fusako and Ryuji experience a strengthening of their love and an elevation of their happiness. Noboru, however, is a member of a gang that believes that the world is empty and meaningless. The gang members proclaim themselves responsible for recognizing and upholding any sign of order within that emptiness. The gradual incorporation of Ryuji into Noboru's life makes the sailor a subject of scrutiny to Noboru and the gang.

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a complex, chilling "cleverly constructed story with great psychological insight" (Janeira, 211). The tale takes place over the course of several months, and the novel itself is divided into two parts, Summer and Winter, in a movement of warmth to coldness.

We begin our study with the character of Ryuji Tsukazaki. Ryuji is a loner who envisions himself as separate from the ordinary man. In fact, Ryuji is convinced that he is designed for something grand.

At twenty, [Ryuji] had been passionately certain: there's just one thing I'm destined for and that's glory; that's right, glory/ He had no idea what kind of glory he wanted, or what kind he was suited for. He knew only that in the depths of the world's darkness was a point of light which had been provided for him alone and would draw near someday to irradiate him and no other ... And it seemed increasingly obvious that the world would have to topple if he was to attain the glory that was rightfully his. They were consubstantial: glory and the capsized world .... Sometimes, as he stood watch in the middle of the night, he could feel his glory knifing toward him like a shark from some great distance in the darkly heaping sea, see it almost, aglow like the noctilucae that fire the water, surging in to flood him with light and cast the silhouette of his heroic figure against the brink of a man's world. On those nights ... Ryuji was more convinced than ever: There must be a special destiny in store for me; a glittering, special-order kind no ordinary man would be permitted (16-17).

However, the line immediately following the long, impassioned speech reads, "At the same time, he liked popular music" (17), a statement incongruous with his destiny. From early on, then, we see a dichotomy in Ryuji's nature- he aspires to be a superior man worthy of glory, but is frequently reminded of his ordinariness by Mishima’s mocking characterizations. Ryuji often refers to glory as "his passion of the Grand Cause" (77).

Furthermore, Ryuji aspires to a melodramatic version of love. Love cannot be merely romantic or sweet; love must transcend life itself; love must be qualified by death. After his first sexual encounter with Fusako, Ryuji condemns himself for his inability to explain his concept of ideal love in which “a man encounters the perfect woman only once in a lifetime and in every case death interposes and lures them into the preordained embrace”(39). Once again, his statements are ridiculed by the next line, 'This fantasy was probably a product of the hyperbole of popular songs (30).

Noboru and his gang of precocious thirteen-year-olds consists of six members; their leader is called Chief, and the remaining five members are numbered according to a hierarchy which is never explained. Noboru is number three. “The gang were all smallish, delicate boys and excellent students. In fact most of their teachers lavished praise on this outstanding group and even held it up as an encouraging example to poorer students” (49). Indeed, Noboru himself, “at thirteen ... was convinced of his own genius (each of the others in the gang felt the same way) and [he was] certain that life consisted of a few simple signals and decisions” (8). The gang appoints themselves arbiters of morality, dictating what is acceptable and what is not.

At one point the Chief proclaims to the rest of the gang:

I'm sure you all know where our duty lies. When a gear slips out of place, it•s our job to force it back into position. If we don•t, order will turn to chaos. We all know that the world is empty and that the important thing, the only thing, is to try to maintain order in that emptiness. And so we are guards, and more than that because we also have executive power to insure that order is maintained (163).

The gang also attempt to display absolute dispassion and values all that is severe and hard. "[Noboru] never cried, not even in his dreams, for hard-heartedness was a point of pride” (9). They repeatedly display their belief in detaching themselves from pity, compassion, and sympathy. As they eat their lunches one day, sparrows circle over them, but "no one shared even a crumb with the birds. Matchless inhumanity was a point of pride with every one of them" (53). For the gang, coldness is a virtue.

Furthermore, they believe "society is basically meaningless, a Roman mixed bath. And school, school is just society in miniature: that's why we're always being ordered around" (51). The Chief refers to the herd morality as "a bunch of blind men" (51) -unseeing, unperceiving- in the dark about the true meaning of existence.

Within society, however, the most contemptible of all creatures is the father. Fathers are excoriated repeatedly in Mishima's novel as despicable, loathsome, hateful beings. "Fathers ... by virtue of being fathers ... were guilty of a grievous sin" and Noboru himself describes his own father's death, which occurred when he was eight, as "a happy incident, something to be proud of'(8). The Chief simply calls them "the vilest things on earth!" (167), and elaborates:

Fathers! Just think about it for a minute- they're enough to make you puke. Fathers are evil itself, laden with everything ugly in man. There is no such thing as a good father because the role itself is bad. Strict fathers, soft fathers, nice moderate fathers-one's as bad as another. They stand in the way of our progress while they try to burden us with their inferiority complexes, and their unrealized aspirations, and their resentments, and their ideals, and the weaknesses they never told anyone about, and their sins, and their sweeter-than-honey dreams, and the maxims they never had the courage to live by- they'd like to unload all that silly crap on us, all of it! .... A father is a reality-concealing machine, a machine for dishing up lies to kids, and that isn't even the worst of it: secretly he believes that he represents reality (137 -8).

Despite the Chief's obvious superiority and influence on the gang, when Ryuji first enters the scene the latter becomes the center of Noboru's world. Noboru, while keeping in mind the Chief's views on adults and fathers, becomes consumed with the idealization of his mother's lover. The opening chapter of the book features a scene where Noboru watches through a peephole as Fusako and the sailor make love. Noboru recounts his experience:

It was like being part of a miracle: in that instant, everything packed away inside Noboru's breast since the first day of his life was released and consummated . .. The universal order at last achieved. Noboru and mother-- mother and man-- man and sea-- sea and Noboru ... [Noboru] was choked, sweating, ecstatic, he almost fainted. And it would have to be protected: for all he knew, he was its thirteen-year-old creator... This must never be destroyed, It'll mean the end of the world. I guess I'd do anything to stop that, no matter how awful. It must never be destroyed(12-13).

From this moment, Noboru begins to idolize Ryuji as a virile, animal-like being. Ryuji is fused with the triumphant sea; he becomes majestic through association as well as through the contours of his sheer physicality. Ryuji becomes the masculine beast, devouring a woman, raging like the ocean. Such images and associations signify great power to a group of boys who have deemed the world empty and meaningless. A drop of virility from the sailor is a source of salvation in a banal society. Noboru does everything possible to maintain his idealization of Ryuji.

The power of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea lies in the "chill factor," in the actions and psyches of the characters who believe that a superior man must reach beyond the conventional morals of an "empty world," to strive for something beyond emotional sentimentality. Achieving detachment exhibits the strength of the will as an isolated factor; "absolute dispassion" is the goal.

1. What kind of picture do you have of Noboru’s mother after reading the passage

describing her bedroom on page 5? Explain your answer and give examples from the


2. What do you make of Noboru spying on his mother?

3. How do the passages pertaining to his spying, especially those with descriptions of

his mother’s nude body, make you (as a reader) feel?

4. With what is Noboru obsessed? What does he want to become when he is older?

What is the significance of this career/lifestyle choice? Why is it important?

5. The second full paragraph on page 8 is extremely important. It begins with “At

thirteen, Noboru was convinced of his own genius…” Why is this passage

important? How does it foreshadow events to come?

6. Who is Tsukazaki? Describe him. What sort of character is he?

7. Reread the second full paragraph on page 11. This is a description of Tsukazaki.

Look closely at the sorts of words used to describe him. What sort of diction (word

choice) does Mishima use to describe this character? Why is the diction important


8. How did Fusako (Noboru’s mother) and Noboru meet Tsukazaki? Do you think the

story could have played out in a similar fashion had they met under different

circumstances? Why or why not?

9. In the second paragraph on page 38, Tsukazaki explains what he had wanted to say to

Fusako when she asked why he had never married. Why had he never married?

What does he think of himself? Explain his idea of what it means to be a man. Do

you agree with him or disagree with him?

10. What is the purpose of Noboru’s gang? What sort of boys were in the gang?

11. Why do you think the Chief of the gang had gone to great lengths to show the boys

pornographic pictures? Why do you think the Chief thought sex or interest in girls

was unworthy?

12. The Chief claims the boys can “achieve power over existence” through the act of

murder. What does this mean? Explain.

13. On page 59, Mishima describes in great detail the insides of the dead kitten. What

sorts of words does he use to describe the kitten’s guts? Why is this strange? How

does it strike you or make you feel?

14. What exactly did the Chief do to the cat? Why? Explain.

15. In several scenes in the book, Tsukazaki seems unable to express what he really

means. This happens at least once with Fusako (early in the novel) and then once

again with Noboru (page 67). Why is this inability to express himself an important

part of his character?

16. Fusako believes Tsukazaki is a simple man? Do you agree of disagree? Why?

17. How do you think Noboru views his mother? How does he feel about her?

18. On page 81, Noboru creates a list of “charges” against Tsukazaki. What is the

purpose of this?

19. On page 122, Yorkio, the famous actress, declares that Tsukazaki’s decision to give

Fusako all of his money (two-million yen) was a “manly thing to do.” What is ironic

about this statement?

20. Which character is the protagonist? Explain.

21. Which character is the antagonist? Explain

22. Identify and discuss some of the conflicts found in the novel. Which problem is the

central or main conflict? Explain

23. What is the central theme of this novel?

24. Why are the boys in Norobu’s gang so disgusted with Tsukazaki?

25. Where is the climax or turning point of the story?

26. When the Chief tells the boys there’s one more way to make Tsukazaki a hero again,

what does he mean?

27. On page 136, the Chief goes off on a tirade about parents. Is this typical? If so, why?

If not, why not?

28. What is ironic about the very last paragraph of the novel?

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