The connection between glory and death

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea aroused a lot of controversy in the world’s literary society. As a classic example of Yukio Mishima’s later works, it combined themes and motifs that were borderline acceptable and unusual for the period, such as child violence, exaltation of death and scenes of sexual intercourse. Celeste Heiter described the novel as ‘a study in contrast: summer and winter, land and sea, companionship and isolation, wanderlust and domestication, glory and nihilism’[1]. The description given by Heiter is applicable as Mishima does introduce ideas are binary opposites. For instance, the main focus of the novel is the connection between glory, usually connoted with longevity, and a completely opposite concept of death. This connection is elusive and vague at first, but becomes more conspicuous as the novel progresses.

Intrinsic with Mishima’s style, he masterfully lays out various aspects of rapidly changing oriental life under the veil of the rather ordinary love story of Fusako and Ryuji — a widowed businesswoman and a well-traveled sailor. Although the main accent is put on romantic relations between these two, this relationship is mostly used as an enigmatic tool and is not as fundamental for the novel’s ideology as the concept of glory. Glory, on the other hand, as well as its direct association with death created by the author, is as a tool for conjoining various storylines present in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.

Represented in a very abstract form, glory is not outlined at any point of the novel, even Ryuji, a central character, who felt destined for glory — “there’s just one thing I’m destined for and that’s glory; that’s right, glory!” Mishima’s narrative suggests “he had no idea what kind of glory he wanted or what kind he was suited for” (16). Yet it is still drawn throughout the novel to link up storylines: Ryuji’s adventurous past, his relationship with Fusako and Noboru, and the gang with its members. On their own, all of them are independent parts of the novel that scarcely overlap. However, in an attempt to explore glory as a social construct, Mishima pieces them together so that each character contributes to further development of the theme.

In spite of not being clearly delineated, glory runs throughout the novel and becomes a reoccurring theme. From the very first moment Noboru sees Ryuji, he describes him as romanticized hero (the first impression Noboru has is that “there were gold-braid epaulets on his white short-sleeved shirt” (10), which extols Ryuji, presenting him as a romantic hero) and appears to notice something honorable about his mother’s lover.

This is particularly evident in the earlier depictions of Ryuji. Through the author’s clever use of a third person omniscient narrator, the reader gets a chance to perceive the situation through Noboru’s eyes. This has a significant impact on the subsequent reception of the character as it allows the reader to determine exactly what Noboru’s attitude towards the sailor in his mother’s room is. Combined with the vivid imagery and explicit symbolism the author uses in his narration, it amplifies the hyper-masculinity of Ryuji and hence turns him into a representative of the concept of glory in the novel. It is believed that the novel is partially autobiographical, where Mishima identifies himself with the main character, Ryuji[2]. Mishima grants this character features that he personally perceives as indicators of glory: throughout his life, Yukio Mishima attempted to further his pursuit of glory through hyper-masculinity and his stringent workout routine for bodybuilding. Therefore, the way Ryuji is represented in the novel only further expands the extent to which glory is explored and supports the idea that glory is central to the novel as it is one of the characteristics of the main protagonist.

To describe Ryuji, Mishima writes: ‘The reflection of the moonlight in the background traced a ridge of gold across his shoulders and conjured into gold, the artery bulging in his neck. It was authentic gold of flesh, gold of moonlight and glistening sweat’ (12). Strongly connoted with the colour of gold, which in Japanese culture denotes power, strength, wisdom and honor. Ryuji appears to look like a strong and heroic character, someone who is glorious. This image is further supported with detailed descriptions of Ryuji’s robust appearance: “his body looked younger and more solid than any landman’s” (11), he had “broad shoulders” (11) and “his flesh looked like a suit of armour” (11). This significantly enhances Ryuji’s valiant figure as physical fitness ties perfectly with Mishima’s personal views of what glory is.

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea reflects the beliefs Mishima held. As a representative of active nationalists and a devoted follower of Samurai culture, he thought that dying in battle or if that was not possible, dying serving his lord or his cause to maintain his honor, was the greatest privilege. Thus, Mishima’s personal understanding of glory is strongly associated with death, which is shown in the novel.

Noboru’s initial aim that he subsequently shares with the gang is to “preserve glory”. In order to do that, Noboru claims that he “would do anything to stop that [Ryuji becoming a father], no matter how awful” (13). However, this idea is subconscious at first, with it being the Chief, the figure Noboru admires the most, who expresses it. The authority of the Chief, as well as the way he presents this plan as the ‘only way to make [Ryuji] a hero again’ (163), makes Noboru inspired to conserve the sailor’s dignity, revert him back on the glorious path through delivering him to death. Consequently, although the novel has an ending open for interpretation, this foreshadows the later murder of Ryuji as Noboru kills him to not let him “abandon” his pursuit of glory.

An idea of “preserving glory” by capturing Ryuji in the moment of honor, when he has not yet contaminated it, does not only come from Noboru and the Gang. The connection between demise and glory is fostered early in the novel, where Mishima includes Ryuji’s memories from his sailing past. The sailor himself avers that “man sets out in quest of the Grand Cause; the woman is left behind”, where glory and honour is achieved through dangerous adventures at sea (74). Ryuji, too, associates glory with a heroic death: “The secret yearning for death. The glory beyond and the death beyond.” (111) He despises those sailors who settled down to have families and could not obtain honour like that: ‘Now perilous death had rejected him. And glory, no doubt of that.” (180) Thus, by killing Ryuji as he reminisces over his adventures at sea and his pursuit of glory, Noboru is offering Ryuji a glorified death the sailor was looking for as he can be considered dying while chasing his glory.

Members of the gang, the Chief in particular, contribute to the overall idea of equating glory to death, although in a slightly more metaphorical way. Children see “fathers” and “teachers” as the biggest enemies to society, those who are burying glory and those who can never reach any heights. “They stand in the way of our progress while they try to burden us with their inferiority complexes, and their unrealized aspirations” (136), writes Mishima about fathers, implying that those who choose to embrace a paternal role will inevitably hinder glory, and thus encouraging juveniles not to become fathers themselves. However, for a Japanese society, where family is traditionally one of the most important aspects of life, not fulfilling a paternal role can be associated with a social death. Moreover, this can subsequently lead to a literal death of a generation and abolish a memory of an individual. This draws another sturdy line of connection, reinforcing a tie between glory and death as the final goal and the price to pay for it.

Glory is undoubtedly a central theme throughout the novel. However, it is not an easy concept to comprehend. Although it reoccurs as a plot engine, it is very subtly used. It links other motifs together (“glory and death and women were consubstantial” (180)), with one of the strongest connections being the one between glory and death. Representing traditional Japanese views on how glory can be obtained, this relation translates a powerful idea: glory as a goal is unachievable unless searched for in a struggle — physical, mental or social. To emphasize and clarify the outcome of his exploration, Mishima draws a clear line in the end of the novel with a laconic sentence: “Glory, as anyone knows, is bitter stuff” (181).

Works Cited[1] Heiter, C. (2002). Book Review: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima | ThingsAsian. [online] Thingsasian.com. Available at: http://thingsasian.com/story/book-review-sailor-who-fell-grace-sea-yukio-mishima [Accessed 16 Oct. 2017].

[2] Book Review: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima | ThingsAsian. Thingsasiancom. 2017. Available at: http://thingsasian.com/story/book-review-sailor-who-fell-grace-sea-yukio-mishima. Accessed September 5, 2017.

Childhood, Compliance, and Conflict: The Characterization of Noboru in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea

Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea follows the struggles of a young band of boys who strive to restore a sailor, Ryuji, to his former glory by taking his life and subjecting his remains to dissection. They became acquainted with the process by which they would come to achieve this task, following their brutal killing of a young cat. Reassured that there was ‘nothing to worry about,’ (Mishima 165) they believed the only discernable disparity between the dissection of a cat, a stray animal, and that of Ryuji, a grown man, lay in their physical size, as implied in their chief’s apathetic contention that ‘the job’s a little bigger this time’ (Mishima 165), preceding their commencement of this task. Though the execution of such absurd and extreme measures would advert to a sense of heightened loyalty and honor with which these boys must have preached and practiced the pillars of their nihilistic mindset, Mishima constantly attributes the protagonist of this novel, Noboru, with behavioral traits and characteristics which depict him as a boy whose actions and relations with his fellow Nihilist friends, in particular, the Chief, that question his adherence to this way of thought.

A scene of particular importance arises in Mishima’s attempt at detailing Noboru’s fascination with ships and maritime activity. Early on in the novel, Noboru’s character is treated as a child, detached and stripped off of any associations that can be made to his nihilist mentality. He recounts Noboru and Fusako’s first meeting with Ryuji aboard the Rukayo, which highlights a disparity between his demeanor in the absence and presence of, the Chief and his Nihilist friends. Mishima attributes the quality of ‘boyish excitement’ to Noboru in order to describe how greatly captivated he was with the prospect of touring an actual freighter. He is seen absorbing the happenings at the dockyards and soon after, playing around with the dials and buttons dispersed around the command cabin of the Rukayo. His characterization of Noboru, particularly in his placement of the word ‘boyish’, would appear redundant given that he was in all actuality, a young boy. This direct emphasis on his juvenility serves to depreciate his Nihilist side, almost rendering it insignificant and absent. Additionally, when preoccupied with these toys of his maritime obsession, the need to remain mindful about staying in ‘character’ of his Nihilist self seemed to have escaped Noboru. Thus, the appointment of Noboru’s character in this setting served to undermine his practices of ‘absolute dispassion’ and in turn, his adherence to the nihilist way of thought.

When confronted with the inquiries of a local guard while stationed under an overpass during one of their meetings, Noboru’s chief knowingly flaunts himself in a childish demeanor with ‘a scrubbed, school boy smile’. The feigned innocence with which he pretends to unconfidently contemplate something to say greatly contrasts the Chief’s regular, snippy and sharp self. Scrutinization by adults rendered the need to assert to them, their normality as children, something that the Chief and his gang accomplished by purposely behaving like children. Noboru’s behavior in the absence of the chief and the other members of their band appears genuine and corresponds with his young age. The detailed fabrication of the environment aboard the Rukayo from the narrative stance of Noboru suggests that his conduct there was sincere and his fascination with the ship absolute. However, when in the company of the chief and his gang, Mishima makes note to present such childlike qualities in Noboru as forcefully feigned and systematically thought out about by him, before actually being worn and made apparent to those in his company. For example, another scenario that sees Noboru exhibiting a childish demeanor is during Ryuyi’s parting with Noboru and his mother, to return aboard his freighter. As expected of a child, the words that escape Noboru seemed appropriate for his young age. He innocently requested of Ryuji to “use all different kinds of stamps” (Mishima 89), when reminding him to write back to them. The manner in which Mishima describes Noboru’s request to Ryuji aimed to show that he was “perfectly in command of his role” (Mishima 89). This sense of control over his conduct that Noboru displays during Ryuji’s farewell demonstrates that the nature of the child-like demeanors that adorns is relative based on who’s present around him.

When in the company of their gang alone, Noboru has to contain any form of raw emotions that he would have otherwise let escape with their absence. The gang barricades itself from the display of all sentiments, and Noboru’s failure to heed to this tenet of ‘absolute dispassion’ in times beyond the scrutiny of his gang, questions both his loyalty to the gang itself, and his understanding of the nihilist ideology.

Noboru’s reluctance to perceive his mother and his dead father as figures of authority, like a nihilist mindset would dictate him to do so, directly contradicts his acceptance of the Chief as the leader of their Nihilist gang. In essence, the Nihilist ideology dictates there to exist no system of class based governance in life and rejects of all forms of authority, and the absence of his father helped him ascertain this particular of Nihilist thought. To Noboru, in other words, the death of his father had been a ‘happy incident’ (Mishima 8). He believed society to be fiction, with fathers and teachers, ‘by virtue of being fathers and teachers, guilty of a grievous sin’ (Mishima 8), a belief that does not seem to justify why he still, along with the other members of his Nihilist gang, accept the Chief as their undisputed leader. Though against all roles of leadership and guidance, such as that of fathers and mothers, Noboru, and even the rest of his gang for that matter, had always preached the chief as their leader and guru on the Nihilist way of thought. He presents himself with a cold, stern charisma, correcting the thoughts of his apprentices, enlightening them about this world and leaving them unhesitant about internalizing the knowledge he imparts them with. The chief serves as the source of their understanding of nihilistic teachings, and is responsible for the way the gang, including Noboru, perceive the world. He seems to have adopted the role of a teacher, and the title by which they address him, ‘chief’, signifying a position of command or control, only further challenges Noboru and the gang’s understanding of Nihilist principles. A strong contrast between what Nihilist ideals appear in theory, and the boys’ approach to its practice, is evident from their relations with the Chief.

In conclusion, this portrayal of Noboru by Mishima questions the honor with which Noboru and his friends practiced their Nihilist thought. The boys’ treatment of their Chief, and that of the adult world, does not differ. Noboru and his gang failed to recognize the fault in their interpretation and practice of the Nihilist way of thought; this is made clear by their acceptance of the Chief as a figure of authority. Mishima holds the ages of these boys as the sole facilitator of their inability to practice Nihilism as it is, as his emphasis on Noboru’s youth is almost repetitive. He seems to demonstrate how their juvenility and arrogance as self-proclaimed intellects blinds them from unearthing their misconceptions and incompetence in adhering to Nihilism.