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

A review of the philosophical literary novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima.

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Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a beautiful novella that manages to contain two intertwining story arcs revolving around a sailor, Ryuji Tsukazaki, and mother and son, Fusako and Noburu, respectively. Owing to the short nature of the book, every detail is a potential spoiler in some way or another. However, a short, single sentence description of each of the three major characters is enough to demonstrate the complex relationships they share and give insight into the basic plot elements.

First is the sailor, Tsukazaki, who had always been more in love with the unknown glory of the sea than any woman until he met Fusako. She is a lonely widow and mother, spends her days raising her son and running her dead husband’s clothing store. Finally comes the son, Noburu, who is obsessed with the sea, believing the epitome of manliness to be the endless quest of seafaring in the search for glory, but he and his gang also have a more gruesome side to their beliefs.

The brilliance of the piece comes from the twist on a classic love triangle which is mutated to include the hero-admirer relationship and the fact that every act of romance and innocence is met with a complimentary scene of perversion or violence in gruesomely uncomfortable detail. Yet, surprisingly, the book manages to avoid resorting to the need for good and evil but instead seems to replace them with love and ideals. After all, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is nothing if not a love story. Whether the love is by a man for a woman, a man for the sea, or a boy’s love for the sea and all the men who sail it.

All of these complex relationships and concepts are presented in a compact 40,000-word narrative and yet, despite its short length, the novella doesn’t lack in depth. Instead, it presents itself with the same economic considerations as the works of Camus or Borges who eliminate everything but the most matter-of-fact, absolutely crucial lines. The writing finds no need for exaggerated descriptions or the finest of details but leaves the mind to imagine for itself, knowing that the plot and its progression carry the true weight of the story and would only be hindered by anything which wasn’t entirely necessary. Even so, and even through John Nathan’s exceptional translation, the novella is more poetic than the majority of its literary peers, in which any attempt to be poetic falls short, feeling simply grandiose, bloated and lifeless compared to Mishima’s work.

Strangely enough, the living feeling of the text doesn’t come from its characters. In fact, some may argue that the characters are very standard templates and act more like vessels for Mishima’s idea than fleshed out people. The true-life feeling comes from our ability to replace the characters with ourselves, therefore their simplicity is the greatest asset the book has, because they are nothing except their compromises, their desire to love, and the dreams they hold. This is why the sweet romance and the rising tension can be so impactful, because they are underlined with the truths of our own lives and that can be a hard pill to swallow. The adventurous, unwavering need for glory contained in our youth, where we all want is to conquer the world and wouldn’t compromise one part of ourselves for everything it had to offer, is shown in both Tsukazaki and Noburu. But the narrative also shows us the reality of ageing, of how eventually we all compromise piece by piece until that longing dies or our priorities shift. At the same time it shows the danger of that need to rebel if it goes untamed. And again, we return to the idea of the novel as a work about love.

These ideas also relate to the author, Mishima, himself. He was a fairly prolific writer in his lifetime and one with immovable views on his life’s work, his literature, and it really was his entire life. So much so that after Mishima conceived the idea for a tetralogy in 1964 called The Sea of Fertility, he would frequently make comments that once it was complete he would die. True to his word, aged only 45, on the 25th of November 1970—the same day he completed The Decay of the Angel, the final novel in the series—Mishima committed ritual suicide. Some of the strong values he must have had about his life come through in this early novel and only heighten the importance of its ideas.

In the end, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea isn’t a novel for everyone. But it is a novel everyone should read. For the readers, it steps outside the realm of a standard genre; it is half romance, half something else entirely. It is a short, easy read that will give you as much as you are willing to put into it. And for the writers, its cultural influencers, being a Japanese novel, means it can break down some preconceived ideas we in the western world think a narrative must contain. It offers a valuable lesson in being conservative with words, teaching us that more words do not necessarily mean more story. As a final word, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a book which is hard to recommend based on one’s other interests, and that is probably the best reason to pick it up; it won’t be like much else you’ll ever read.

A writer.

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