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

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The major 20th-century Japanese writers were notably kinky and obsessive: Tanizaki’s foot fetishism and coprophilia, Kawabata’s yens for young girls (pederasty), Mishima’s sadomasochism, the obsessive imaginings of suicide by Dazai and Mishima, the guilt carried by Oe. We’re talking about fiction? OK, but even if and writing may be “sublimation,” of desires not acted on, returning over and over to a theme and with such palpable excitement is revealing. And we know that the “suicidal ideation” was eventually acted upon by Dazai, Kawabata, and, most publicly, Mishima Yukio.

Mishima’s 1963 Gogo No Eikô, translated by future Mishima biographer John Nathan two years later as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. (The Japanese title means afternoon towing,” as in tugboats towing ocean-going vessels.) The merchant marine officer, Ryuji, is not the protagonist of the novel. Ryuji liked the sea, while most of the crew was sleeping, helped with that.

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While the ship on which he serves is docking in Yokohama, Fusako, a widow who runs a prosperous couture shop and her 13-year-old son Noboru come aboard and Ryuji gives them a tour of the boat. Fusako invites Ryuji to dinner in gratitude, and the process of being grounded, giving up on his vision of a heroic destiny, and settling for domesticity and heterosexual sex begins.

Noburo, who has been spying through a peephole he found in the wall between his room and his mother’s and continues when she entertains company, is revolted by the failure of Ryuji to live up to Noburo’s fantasy of the freedom of a seaman.

Mishima writes about the tedium of life on a merchant ship that was starting to wear on Ryuji, and about the hopes and curbing of their expression of Fusako. What is most vivid in the novel, however, is the feverish, puritanical views of Noburo within a very rigid hierarchy of a clique of 13-year-olds who abhor adulthood and its compromises, and experiment in purging any feelings of sympathy by such rites as slaughtering and dissecting a stray cat.

Noburo’s disappointment in the sailor turning into a father attempting to make him a pal is amplified by the group’s sinister, absolutist leader (a nihilist similar to princes of darkness in other Mishima fiction), and the path to “punishment” is inexorable (as is the path to destroying the beauty of the temple of the golden pavilion in Mishima’s other most famed novel, which also has a sinister amoral influence on the stutterer who will torch the titular national treasure).

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Mishima’s disgust for aging was central to his suicide in 1970 at the age of 45. In 1966 he wrote that “among my incurable convictions is the belief that the old are eternally ugly, the young eternally beautiful. The wisdom of the old is eternally murky, the actions of the young eternally transparent. The longer people live, the worse they become.” I don’t think the actions of the 13-year-old boys in “Sailor” are “transparent,” though their aesthetic/ethical code is a transparent cover for sadism and the nihilism the intensely arrogant chief is trying to inculcate in his followers.

The combination of quasi-incest, peeping, homoeroticism, narcissism, cruelty to animals, and murder was surely designed to shock and am I not at all convinced that Mishima was satirizing the juvenile delinquents or observing them as a zoologist (as Robert Musil seems to me to have been doing in The Young Törless, another unsettling novel of adolescent male cruelty, or William Golding with the younger savages he imagined loose of adult supervision in Lord of the Flies).

The voyeurism and drugged sex partners also are prominent in work by Tanizaki (The Key, The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi) and Kawabata (The House of the Sleeping Beauties) and the necessity of evanescence of beauty is a leitmotif of Japanese culture (exemplified by the cult of the cherry blossom) that seems to be directly connected to the cult of suicide. Mishima was a part of both those belief systems, and in “playing soldiers” in his last years with a private army and advocating the most reactionary extremism, it is difficult not to read Sailor as a celebration of proto-fascism (for my generation, not his own or the older-than-him one he celebrated in Patriotism and The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, especially Runaway Horses). Absurd as the code of the puritanical young is, it is not all that different from the one the adult Mishima proclaimed before (very literally) cutting his life short.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

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