The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is as much a story about the sailor Ryuji Tsukazaki as it is about thirteen-year-old Noboru Kuroda, who shares many of the same dreams as Ryuji, witnesses his downfall, and even participates in his ritualistic death. The novel examines the young boy’s and the older man’s desire for glory, beauty, and control, and their connections, all too often, with betrayal and death.
As the novel opens, Noboru finds himself bored and alone in his mother’s house. While rummaging through an old chest of drawers built into the wall between his bedroom and his mother’s, he discovers a small hole in the wood which allows him a fairly complete view of his mother’s room. From that point on, when his mother is severe with him, he begins spying on her at night. What he sees is a thirty-three-year-old widow, Fusako Kuroda, sitting in front of her mirror naked, with “scented fingers rooted between her thighs.” As he watches her caress her body, his curiosity is more philosophical than sexual, and he associates the “zone of black” beneath her fingers with a “pitiful little vacant house,” and his own empty world.
His mother’s room also holds a different attraction for him, for her windows overlook the ships in the harbor. Noboru has a fascination for ships, and his mother takes him to visit a tramp steamer one day. Their guide is Second Mate Tsukazaki. Both Noboru and Fusako are attracted to him. The boy sees the sailor as a hero, a “fantastic beast that’s just come out of the sea.” Fusako, a lonely widow, sees him as a man and takes him as a lover. As Noboru watches them make love in his mother’s room, the sailor, his mother, the sea, and Noboru, himself, achieve a sort of “universal order” signaled by the faraway scream of a ship’s horn. This ideal harmony is the “miracle” of which Noboru has always dreamed, and he vows to let nothing destroy it.
Noboru, however, is not the only one with a dream. Ryuji is drawn to the sea because he feels “destined for glory,” and he believes that the sea is the only place he could find it. Closely linked to his passion for the sea and for glory is the idea of death. Thus as he makes love to Fusako on that first evening, he, too, hears the wail of the ship’s horn, and for him the woman, the sea, and death become as one. He spends three days with her, and during that time comes to the realization that the glory for which he is destined will never come. He is tired of waiting. He tries to tell Fusako about his dreams, but all that comes out are stories of his travels. She thinks of them as simple, pleasant tales, but when Noboru hears them all he can think about is the adventure of foreign travel. For him, Ryuji is a hero.
The image of the hero begins to falter for Noboru the next day, when he meets Ryuji walking in the park. The boy is with the Chief and the other four members of the gang. He has boasted of his mother’s lover and is eager to show him off. Ryuji, however, makes a fatal mistake. He tries to win the boy’s friendship with an “overbright and artificial” smile reminiscent of all adults wishing to “mollify” a child. To make matters worse, Noboru has lied to his mother about where he would be that day and with whom he would be. He asks Ryuji not to tell his mother where he saw him, and when Ryuji agrees, Noboru is disappointed at his eagerness, again, to please the boy.
Noboru has a reason to be worried, for he and the other boys are returning from a ritual murder and vivisection of a cat. Noboru and his friends consider themselves “genuises,” boys set apart from the world and its rules. They meet in secret places, call one another by ranking numbers instead of names, and discuss a type of nihilistic philosophy. For...
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Widely regarded as one of the most philosophical and thought-provoking novelists of the post-World War II period, Yukio Mishima produced twenty-five major works of fiction, concentrating on contemporary Japan but embracing universal literary and philosophical themes. These themes he presents in such dichotomies as art and nature, literature and life, asceticism and hedonism, mind and body, and Eastern and Western culture. His portrayals of art and beauty, love and death, nearly always involved some shocking exposure of deviant sexuality, such as Noboru’s voyeurism. Unlike conventional authors, Mishima sought to remain in the public eye, advertising both his aestheticism and his political conservatism. As a final act of staged publicity, he committed suicide in full military regalia watched by thousands on television.
The original Japanese title Gogo no eik, literally meaning “towing in the afternoon,” conceals a pun on eik, which stands for “glory” as well as “towing.” Since this pun cannot be translated into English, Mishima selected the English title that the novel now bears from a list devised by his translator. It presumably means that Ryuji, by abandoning the sea, deviated from his destined role in the universal order and therefore fell from an approved position. Throughout the novel, the sea is a metaphor for woman, sex, glory, and death, elements that are continually interwoven.
Events are narrated from the perspective of only two characters, Ryuji and Noboru. They are foils for each other, Ryuji representing bodily development and romantic optimism, and Noboru standing for intellect, youth, and carnal nihilism. Ryuji may be seen as an idealistic figure, hopelessly obsessed by the trinity of the sea, feminine beauty, and death. These elements are united in his recurrent dream of a man lured by a perfect woman into a...
(The entire section is 770 words.)