Reading five pages of Yukio Mishima’s prose is like eating an ice cream during December in Baguio.(1) It makes no sense; (2) It never loses its bite; (3) it is brainfreezing. And that is exactly my reception of Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea.
It is about a seaman named Ryuji who, while in a brief pitstop, met a widowed mother (Fusako) of a naïve but morbid boy (Noboru). The plot is uncomplicated, there is almost no shock or twist to be anticipated, but it was the interesting characters and brilliantly poetic prose that pushed me to flip the pages.
Mishima’s novel is an enigmatic tale of different levels; one may easily sense that Mishima is presenting us more than a love story or a typical coming-of-age variation. His writing style is very unique, charming but disconcerting.
I cannot but compare Murakami’s prose to Mishima’s. Murakami writes in an alienating and reckless fashion; the enigma left in every unfinished puzzle of his stories were deliberately placed, almost teasing in arrogance. Murakami is certainly living up to his name as a ‘post-modern’ writer who delights himself in constant cliffhangers, ‘open-ended’ sequences that mock the completeness and totality of traditional writing. Murakami’s characters are Westernized Japanese middle-class men who labor themselves not of the headaches and stomachaches in pursuit of daily bread but of their adolescent inner demons. Mishima, on the other hand, is suspicious of progress, modernity and its ideals but is also critical of tradition. Murakami writes with a pitiable hopeless sentimentality and languid humor; Mishima writes in a haiku-ish objectivity and lyricism. Murakami is the heartbroken, estranged and sometimes annoyingly emotional hippie, while Mishima is the modest naturalist, a composer of tranquility that instantaneously goes berserk, and then calms again.
For Mishima, shock is induced not by novelty, but by the piercing real-ness of destructive ambitions of rebellion.[i] In the scene wherein the gang’s chief tests Noboru’s ability and courage, we are presented with a very terrifying but ineffably sublime sight:
Noboru had withstood the ordeal from beginning to end. Now his half-dazed brain envisioned the warmth of the scattered viscera and the pools of blood in the gutted belly finding wholeness and perfection in the rapture of the dead kitten’s large languid soul. The liver, limp beside the corpse, became a soft peninsula, the squashed heart a little sun, the reeled-out bowels a toll, and the blood in the belly the tepid waters of a tropical sea. Death had transfigured the kitten into a perfect, autonomous world.
I killed it all by myself— a distant hand reached into Noboru’s dream and awarded him a snow-white certificate of merit— I can do anything, no matter how awful.
In a graceful play of words, Mishima transformed a grisly scene of death into a beautiful sight to behold; indeed, a picture of exhilarating triumph.
The novel is then a symbolic battle between two forces, that of adventurous and freewheeling spirit of Glory (Ryuji) against the shadow of skepticism, of perpetual and grand incredulity (Noboru’s gang). Ryuji was once an object of fascination by Noboru and his friends, precisely because of his being a sailor, which they believe is one of the ‘luminous evidence of the internal order of life’. Ryuji was the vagabond, the floating piece of being that knows no airport to land onto (It’s like the opposition between ‘lightness’ and ‘having weight’ in Milan Kundera’s language).
The uncharacteristic, almost mystical morbidity of Noboru’s gang is a symbol of the irony of innocence: innocence is ignorance, but it at the same time the raw energy of renewal, carnality, and even murder (as in the kitten). The repugnance of these children to paternal authority is dismissive, total and to some extent revolutionary:
There is no such thing as a good father because the role itself is bad. Strict fathers, soft fathers, nice moderate moderate fathers— everyone’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’ve never told anyone about, and their sins, and their sweeter-than-honey dreams, and the maxims they’ve never had the courage to live by— they’d like to unload all that silly crap on us, all of it!
When Ryuji decided to leave the life at sea and so his high ambitions and marry Fusako, Noboru’s gang decided to kill Ryuji as a punishment for his ‘sin’ of becoming a father. The chief’s logic is bloody, ruthless and twisted. Indeed, it was the sailor’s ‘fall from grace’: from being a solitary and daring man of the sea, he chose the peaceful serenity of a home, and become a father, the root of all crimes.
But it was the same time his ‘redemption’, the realization of his dreams of glory. Mishima is silent on what happened after Ryuji ingested the sleep drug at the end of the novel, and images of the murder of the kitten will suddenly fill in the tense space. But is this a tragedy? I think not really; as the kitten who was tinkered was exposed to its full nakedness, its vulgar beauty resembling that of the sea, and so will become of Ryuji in his death—laid out like the tropical sea in his full glory, “became perfectly at one,…transfigured into a perfect autonomous world”— exactly as he wanted in the first place.
[i] From Theodor Adorno, “It is not the monstrous uncanniness that shocks, but its matter-of-factness.” quoted by Georg Lukacs in The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, 1962, p. 77-78.