The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea

by Yukio Mishima

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is as much a story about the sailor Ryuji Tsukazaki as it is about thirteen-year-old Noboru Kuroda, who shares many of the same dreams as Ryuji, witnesses his downfall, and even participates in his ritualistic death. The novel examines the young boy’s and the older man’s desire for glory, beauty, and control, and their connections, all too often, with betrayal and death.

As the novel opens, Noboru finds himself bored and alone in his mother’s house. While rummaging through an old chest of drawers built into the wall between his bedroom and his mother’s, he discovers a small hole in the wood which allows him a fairly complete view of his mother’s room. From that point on, when his mother is severe with him, he begins spying on her at night. What he sees is a thirty-three-year-old widow, Fusako Kuroda, sitting in front of her mirror naked, with “scented fingers rooted between her thighs.” As he watches her caress her body, his curiosity is more philosophical than sexual, and he associates the “zone of black” beneath her fingers with a “pitiful little vacant house,” and his own empty world.

His mother’s room also holds a different attraction for him, for her windows overlook the ships in the harbor. Noboru has a fascination for ships, and his mother takes him to visit a tramp steamer one day. Their guide is Second Mate Tsukazaki. Both Noboru and Fusako are attracted to him. The boy sees the sailor as a hero, a “fantastic beast that’s just come out of the sea.” Fusako, a lonely widow, sees him as a man and takes him as a lover. As Noboru watches them make love in his mother’s room, the sailor, his mother, the sea, and Noboru, himself, achieve a sort of “universal order” signaled by the faraway scream of a ship’s horn. This ideal harmony is the “miracle” of which Noboru has always dreamed, and he vows to let nothing destroy it.

Noboru, however, is not the only one with a dream. Ryuji is drawn to the sea because he feels “destined for glory,” and he believes that the sea is the only place he could find it. Closely linked to his passion for the sea and for glory is the idea of death. Thus as he makes love to Fusako on that first evening, he, too, hears the wail of the ship’s horn, and for him the woman, the sea, and death become as one. He spends three days with her, and during that time comes to the realization that the glory for which he is destined will never come. He is tired of waiting. He tries to tell Fusako about his dreams, but all that comes out are stories of his travels. She thinks of them as simple, pleasant tales, but when Noboru hears them all he can think about is the adventure of foreign travel. For him, Ryuji is a hero.

The image of the hero begins to falter for Noboru the next day, when he meets Ryuji walking in the park. The boy is with the Chief and the other four members of the gang. He has boasted of his mother’s lover and is eager to show him off. Ryuji, however, makes a fatal mistake. He tries to win the boy’s friendship with an “overbright and artificial” smile reminiscent of all adults wishing to “mollify” a child. To make matters worse, Noboru has lied to his mother about where he would be that day and with whom he would be. He asks Ryuji not to tell his mother where he saw him, and when Ryuji agrees, Noboru is disappointed at his eagerness, again, to please the boy.

Noboru has a reason to be worried, for he and the other boys are returning from a ritual murder and vivisection of a cat. Noboru and his friends consider themselves “genuises,” boys set apart from the world and its rules. They meet in secret places, call one another by ranking numbers instead of names, and discuss a type of nihilistic philosophy. For...

(The entire section is 1555 words.)

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Part 1. Noboru, a precocious boy of thirteen, convinced of his own genius, spends much of his time in his bedroom, looking out over Yokohama Bay and listening to the sound of ships’ horns. His personal philosophy, like that of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, comprises distrust of authority and women, concentration on death and nihilism, and faith in universal order. One night he discovers a peephole in his bedroom wall through which he is able to observe his mother’s boudoir. Several days later, his mother, Fusako, who is only thirty-three years old and retains much of her beauty, invites a sailor named Ryuji to dinner, and they pass the night in lovemaking. Noboru, through his peephole, observes their most intimate moments. At first, he finds nothing objectionable, merely a verification of his philosophy of universal order. In his mind, he is encroaching on the mother, the mother on the man, the man on the sea, and the sea on the boy in a purposeful design.

Superficially, Fusako, as the wealthy proprietress of an exclusive male boutique, has nothing in common with Ryuji, the rough sailor. About her own age, he always lived as a loner, hating both the land and the sea as types of a prison. From his youth, he cherished the illusion of a special destiny leading him to glory. Becoming a sailor to escape a boring life such as his father led, Ryuji did not, like the conventional seafarer, engage in easy and frequent sex. His image of perfect love consists of idyllic courtship ending in death.

On the morning after Noboru’s spying on his mother, he tells her that he is going swimming, but instead he spends the day denouncing the insignificance of ordinary life with a band of six schoolfellows, all top students. They are ranked according to leadership; their chief is number one, and Noboru is number three. In boasting of his spying exploits, Noboru portrays the sailor as a hero, a man dominating a woman, but the chief disagrees on the grounds that such a relationship is unimportant. He inculcates as a principle that the band should remain absolutely apathetic concerning all things sexual. By means of a therapy of showing pictures that portray every physical aspect of intercourse, he makes the band completely dispassionate. Part of their ritual at this meeting consists of killing a kitten as a symbol of the emptiness of existence. Selected as executioner, Noboru bashes the kitten against a log. The boys strip off the animal’s skin and dissect its organs in order to experience the sensation of absolute nakedness. Noboru compares the nakedness of the kitten with the nakedness of his...

(The entire section is 1074 words.)