Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770
Widely regarded as one of the most philosophical and thought-provoking novelists of the post-World War II period, Yukio Mishima produced twenty-five major works of fiction, concentrating on contemporary Japan but embracing universal literary and philosophical themes. These themes he presents in such dichotomies as art and nature, literature and life, asceticism and hedonism, mind and body, and Eastern and Western culture. His portrayals of art and beauty, love and death, nearly always involved some shocking exposure of deviant sexuality, such as Noboru’s voyeurism. Unlike conventional authors, Mishima sought to remain in the public eye, advertising both his aestheticism and his political conservatism. As a final act of staged publicity, he committed suicide in full military regalia watched by thousands on television.
The original Japanese title Gogo no eik, literally meaning “towing in the afternoon,” conceals a pun on eik, which stands for “glory” as well as “towing.” Since this pun cannot be translated into English, Mishima selected the English title that the novel now bears from a list devised by his translator. It presumably means that Ryuji, by abandoning the sea, deviated from his destined role in the universal order and therefore fell from an approved position. Throughout the novel, the sea is a metaphor for woman, sex, glory, and death, elements that are continually interwoven.
Events are narrated from the perspective of only two characters, Ryuji and Noboru. They are foils for each other, Ryuji representing bodily development and romantic optimism, and Noboru standing for intellect, youth, and carnal nihilism. Ryuji may be seen as an idealistic figure, hopelessly obsessed by the trinity of the sea, feminine beauty, and death. These elements are united in his recurrent dream of a man lured by a perfect woman into a passionate embrace in which a kiss of death is accompanied by the sound of the sea. Ryuji’s quest for glory, with which this dream is associated, is by itself highly romantic, but his actions fall sadly short of his mission. The high degree of erotic satisfaction provided by Fusako compensates for his lack of fulfillment, but it leads to his abandoning the sea, a further retreat from his vision of glory. His death, moreover, does not represent a tragic resistance to destiny or, as he fantasizes it should be, a glorious and triumphant finale to a storm-tossed career. It comes instead as the result of the commonplace act of drinking a cup of tea. Since each member of the band is instructed to bring a knife to the meeting place, it is clear that Ryuki’s body, like that of the kitten, will be dissected after his death. At this moment, the figure of Ryuki symbolizes the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer instead of the romantic optimism that had until then been associated with him.
Noboru, who is Ryuki’s antithesis, observes and criticizes him and, eventually, starts in motion the machinery leading to Ryuki’s destruction. At first, Noboru highly approves of the sailor when he finds him in bed with his mother. For him, the sight is “like being part of a miracle.” He admires the sailor’s muscular body and sexual prowess, but when the latter exchanges the sea for a subordinate position in Fusako’s boutique, Ryuki is converted from his mother’s conqueror into her ally. Although seeing himself as the instrument of Ryuji’s destruction, Noboru is forced to turn to the chief for energy to carry out the actual deed. Noboru’s antagonism toward Ryuji is linked with his personal development and his coming-of-age. In part 1, his bedroom door is locked by his mother at night, a sign of childhood dependence; in part 2, on the advice of Ryuji, it is left unlocked. This symbolizes both Noboru’s emancipation and the role he will play in Ryuji’s ultimate demise. It also represents a choice in life between retreating to a safe haven and taking arms against turbulent reality. Noboru clearly indicates these alternatives when he wonders whether there is any way that he could remain in the room and at the same time be out in the hall locking the door.
Although the characters of the novel lend themselves to a psychological interpretation, the key elements in the plot are implausible from a realistic perspective, particularly the thirteen-year-old boy’s commitment to nihilistic philosophy, the contemplated marriage between the rough sailor and the wealthy owner of a luxury boutique, and the effortless massacre of the sailor as the joint act of a group of schoolboys. On this level, the novel is best understood as an exquisitely wrought allegory, expounding the doctrines of nihilism.