Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1963) ends with the impending death of Ryuji Tsukazaki, a newly retired second mate of the ship ‘Rakuyo’ – a retirement he embraces in order to settle down to a domestic life with his newly found girl friend, Fusako, a young widow in Yokohama – at the hands of a gang of adolescent school boys. This gang consists of a group of intelligent, deeply read, high-achievers which includes Fusako’s son, Noboru. The preceding summer, Ryuji had entered young Noboru’s life, who is fascinating with navigation. With his connection with the sea and as a bearer of sea-stories, Ryuji becomes to Noboru a signification of zealous heroism. Soon after, Noboru watches through a secret peep hole in his wall cupboard as Fusako and Ryuji prepare for bed together. As a part of his cult indoctrination Noboru had already been conditioned to look at sexual encounters of the sort with dispassion and disinterest. But, as the elders’ relationship develops, and as Ryuji moves in during the winter – in short, as Ryuji transforms from a ‘man of the sea’ to a ‘father’ and a ‘husband’ – Noboru loses his idealization of Ryuji. Later, Noboru reports his situation to the cult leader – another thirteen year old – along with a ‘charge sheet’ he had made against the sailor. The cult decides to kill Ryuji after having drugging his tea. His body would then be cut and hacked into pieces and be disposed of.
Mishima’s novel is memorable for several representations, motifs and traits. As an overarching preoccupation, for instance, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is at once a haunting meditation on isolation and death, as well as one’s poignant effort at mastering or bypassing those conditions. Ryuji carries as a dormant scar the deep memory of his own father’s and sister’s deaths. He gets drawn to a life of navigation as a means of getting over his disenchantment with the land. But, when the first thrill of the exotic wears off in faraway lands, he becomes less passionate of his vocation. On the ship, Ryuji often retires from company to his isolation and the wailing sea song which he plays on a loop. Between shifts and calls at ports that he follows mechanically as a routine, Ryuji meets Fusako and is enamoured by her. When his desires are met with and as their union takes shape, Ryuji feels a sense of fulfillment in life. Conditions that are connected to or are shaped by death can be noted in other characters, too. For instance, Fusako lives with a cavity left by her husband’s untimely death and – burdened by the responsibility of a child and her reputation – she suspends or suppresses her desires and sexual needs. The cult to which Noboru belongs engages in discussions of the meaning of life and death, and how to surpass these base realities. They carry out a rehearsal where the boys slaughter a kitten and dissect it by drawing out its entails. One of their motives is to conquer the banalities of life, which includes triumphing over fear and death.
But, what interests this essay is the unmistakable Oedipal overtone which the novel assumes. Ryuji’s death is partly the result of his transgression of the sacred space of the domestic chamber as a ‘newly-cast father’. As a returnee from the sea – as a man who had exposed himself to the elements and the tests of bare life – Ryuji was both a hero and a model to look up to: he, in Noboru’s eyes, was one who had gone beyond the banal and the mundane to challenge uncertainty and death. For Noboru, the first time Ryuji takes Fusako to bed is an extension of that heroic conquest. But, later, as Ryuji’s relationship with Fusako gets cemented in domestic terms within matrimonial definitions – as he crosses the frontier from ‘hero-conqueror’ to ‘would-be father’ – the sailor becomes reconfigured as an intruder who has now cast a loathsome shadow over the house, as well as Noboru’s life.
The novel opens with a description of Noboru’s discovery of the ‘peep hole’ in the wall cupboard, which gives the boy a secret advantage to the intimacy of his mother’s bedroom. The reader is familiarized with Noboru’s voyeuristic habits, which include watching his mother undress for bed. It is emphasized that Noboru followed this voyeur-routine with great satisfaction and self-revival when he was being punished or grounded by his mother. His voyeurism, in other words, was a psycho-sexual response which became prominent in moments of rage or oppression. His father had died at eight, and now, at thirteen, Noboru had perfected a method to balance his own universe against that of his mother’s dictate. At one level, through the familiarizations made by his cult, Noboru had come to see himself as mentally superior to the superficial existences of his elders, including Fusako. The tempers, desires and anxieties that moved the life of his mother were ‘superficial stuff’ in his eye, compared to his superior understanding and quest in life. In such circumstances, Noboru’s voyeurism can be charged with an erotic energy that sublimated a form of sexual control which he otherwise cannot stand to exert on Fusako.
In an Oedipal universe, there cannot be two males in polarization. Ryuji’s elimination becomes inevitable – and in a way, he fails to capitalize on the line he is provided by chance – when he chooses to be a ‘modern father’: a reasonable, compromising friend than its over-imposing, authoritarian Oedipal counterpart. When Noboru is caught in the act of peeping on Fusako and Ryuji in bed, Fusako lets “father decide” the fate of the mischief-maker: she allows Ryuji to exert punishment, preferably, by physical humiliation of the child. However, Ryuji decides to dismiss the matter with a friendly rebuke, and volunteers to fill the peeping hole with cement, with the promise of not alluding to the matter anymore. Noboru’s inner resentment at this is powerfully captured in the novel. In his diary, Noboru writes a charge sheet against Ryuji.
In fact, Ryuji Tsukazaki’s ‘charge sheet’ is one that goes back as Noboru’s summer meeting with the sailor. In all, it contains six charges. The initial indictments – charges one and two – are warranted by Ryuji’s breach of the ‘heroic figure’ Noboru mentally desired in the sailor; the one he had bragged to his friends about and made much of. ‘Smiling at me in a cowardly, ingratiating way when I met him this noon’ (charge one) and ‘wearing a dripping wet shirt and explaining that he had taken a shower in the fountain at the park’ (charge two) decisively give way to complaints that emerge from Ryuji’s crossing the ‘domestic line’ – stepping over Noboru’s psycho-sexual domain to the life of his sexual object/fantasy, Fusako – in his transfer from ‘hero’ to ‘father to be’: ‘Answering, when I asked when he would be sailing again: “I’m not sure yet”‘ (charge four), ‘coming back here again in the first place’ (charge five). The third charge, which goes back to the first night of Ryuji’s summer stay at Fusako’s, reads as follows: ‘deciding arbitrarily to spend the night out with mother, thereby placing me in an awfully isolated position‘ (my emphasis). This third charge is a mediation of the shifting paradigm between ‘hero’ and ‘father, as sexual rival’. It identifies Ryuji as a vandal and pillager; an alienating agent that upsets the equilibrium of Noboru’s world. The sixth and last charge is based on Ryuji’s decision to fill the hole on the wall, which deprived Noboru of his arbitrary voyeurism. Taken together, the cult chief sees the sixth as the gravest offense. Ryuji is then sentenced to be executed by the cult.
Ranking high among Mishima’s more memorable work, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea pierces through a host of psychological and sexual ‘givens’, chiseling them away against the backdrop of a modern suburban Japan – a country revitalizing itself after the World War – and the complex personal and community tensions that shape its rise. It is at once meditative, philosophical, dramatic and pregnant with dark irony, while being ingrained by unexpected passages of satanic dryness (least of all, from a band of thirteen year olds), harsh cynicism, sharp irony, and twists and sharp narrative bends.