The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea

by Yukio Mishima
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 481

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima is a novel that examines and articulates the complexities of developing one's identity at a young age. It also focuses on one's existential position in the world, as well as death. The sailor referred to in the title, Ryuji, is a young man who has lived out at sea all his life.

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He believes that the sailor's life will lead him to his own personal definition of glory. As a man who has learned to disconnect from the land and people, literally and figuratively, the domestic life is considered imprisonment.

The other main character in the story is Noboru, a thirteen-year old boy who lives with his widowed mother. Early in the story, Noboru exhibits high intelligence and a nihilistic, if not irrational, perspective on life and the world around him.

He is a curious adolescent and this curiosity leads him to eccentric practices, as well as the development of sociopathic tendencies. For example, when he discovers a hole in the wall that gives him a view of his mother's bedroom, he watches her masturbate in front of the mirror. Whilst watching her commit the act does not arouse him, such as in the case of oedipal complex, he continues watching whilst other normal children might have stopped in disgust.

He even constructs an analogy of her masturbation as an act of loneliness and despair, and that her crotch represents a dark void that one must not fall victim to. When Noboru, at the insistence of the psychopathic gang he associates with, brutally kills a stray cat, he becomes transfixed by the entrails and blood as the leader of the gang dissects it.

The boys—naked and covered in blood—believe that death brings a restoration to the order of the universe. Because death is a natural part of the life cycle and violence is inherent in the nature of the universe, Noboru concludes that death is the purest form of existence and the most exemplary form of the nature's undisturbed rhythm.

Additionally, Noboru feels a godly sense of power instead of remorse for killing the innocent cat. This sociopathic behavior coupled with his own existentialist-cosmological philosophy shows that Noboru believes he has transcended the material world, and is an entity that holds the power of life and death. If someone doesn't fit into his worldview or possess the same principles he values, then they are enemies of the cosmological order.

That is why when Ryuji begins to commit what Noboru considers "crimes" and exhibit what Noboru believes is weakness, Ryuji becomes a fallen hero to him. In Noboru's eyes, Ryuji goes from hero to enemy by deciding to leave the sailor's life and settle with Noboru's mother. Noboru believes that if man has not reached glory, or stopped reaching for it, then he is not fit to live.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573


*Yokohama. Major Japanese seaport that represents the symbolic place where the land or human culture meets the sea or untamed nature. Noboru, like many boys, is fascinated by the dark call of dangerous foreign seas and the apparently unfettered life of a sailor. This fascination represents an adolescent and romanticized vision of life that is the opposite of the land-bound bourgeois existence he and his friends detest in the adult world they see in Yokohama. Noboru shares this view of the authentic life with Ryuji Tsukazaki who, when he was a young man, had become a sailor for similar reasons. Tsukazaki’s plan to marry Noboru’s mother and abandon his sailor’s life to become a manager in the Kuroda clothing shop in Yokohama is a large element in what the boy and his friends see as a betrayal of their romantic vision. It is also what gives the psychological impetus to the imminent act of terrible violence planned by the group of boys that looms at the novel’s conclusion.

Kuroda home

Kuroda home. Stately home built by Noboru’s now-deceased father. From its hilltop location, it commands a beautiful view of Yokohama Bay. The family bedrooms are on the second floor, and Noboru is locked in his room every night by his overprotective mother, Fusako.

Bedrooms often serve as literary topos, or themes, in which the subjective and irrational sides of the human personality are prominent: Bedrooms are both places where people sleep (the subjective world of dreams) and places where sexual relations occur (the irrational world of sexuality). From a secret peephole in his own bedroom, Noboru regularly watches his mother undress and is filled with feelings of the utter emptiness and ugliness of existence. In this clearly Oedipal situation, the adolescent Noboru feels no arousal and seemingly denies any feelings. The author himself, a highly intelligent and sensitive person with his own deeply conflicted sensuality (married to a woman but also actively homosexual), seems, in his descriptions of Noboru in his bedroom, to portray his own difficulties with human sexuality.

From the bedroom, Noboru also dispassionately observes his mother’s love affair with Tsukazaki, whom she intends to marry. Noboru’s lack of all emotion at what he sees in his mother’s bedroom is the product of his involvement with a group of fellow students—all convinced, in typically adolescent bravado, of their own genius—who follow a philosophy of total nihilism and strive to view everything with dispassionate objectivity. The novel’s conclusion—in which the boys lure Tsukazaki to his execution—offers a chilling look into a nihilistic world devoid of human warmth, an irrational vision that begins symbolically, at the novel’s opening, in the boy’s bedroom with its secret peephole.

Kuroda clothing shop

Kuroda clothing shop. Clothes shop located in Yokohama that was founded by Noboru’s father and is now operated by the mother. The shop deals with expensive fashion imported from Europe and America and serves the wealthy clientele of nearby Tokyo who include a number of famous movie actors and actresses. Yukio Mishima uses the shop as a vehicle to criticize the shallow world of the rich elite of postwar Japanese society, especially in the figure of the attractive, but superficial and insecure, actress with whom Fusako has lunch. The clothing shop is representative of the nonauthentic bourgeois life that Noboru and the other boys so violently reject.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 180

Napier, Susan J. Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio and e Kenzabur. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Does not treat The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea separately, but offers many insights and suggestions.

Petersen, Gwenn Boardman. The Moon in the Water: Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1979. Provides a lucid interpretation of the sexual and aesthetic elements in the novel.

Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976. Discerning analysis by a Japanese scholar of Mishima’s fiction.

Viglielmo, Valdo H. “The Sea as Metaphor: An Aspect of the Modern Japanese Novel.” In Poetics of the Elements in the Human Condition, edited by Anna-Teresa Tyrnieniecke. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1985. Volume 19 of the Series Analecta Husserliana. An ingenious and credible interpretation of the multiple meanings of the sea.

Wolfe, Peter. Yukio Mishima. New York: Continuum, 1989. The best criticism in English of the novel, portrayed as “a work of warped genius” that “opens exciting realms of response, but only to slam them shut.”

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Critical Essays