Yukio Mishima was one of the most intransigent characters of the 20th century, and insofar as his work reflects his mind, many find it offputting. He was a widely accomplished individual, as well as writing novels (and plays and poetry) he also directed films, modeled, and was even considered a Samurai. He ended his life by committing seppuku at the age of 45. This was in fulfillment, at least to an extent, of his ambition never to grow old, as the body cannot be beautiful when it is old. Yes, he was surely a character, and of the likes to be found in his novels.
Speaking of which, The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea possesses a title that carries a meaning intrinsic to the theme within its pages: the sailor- Ryuji Tsukazaki- is looked on by a boy- Noboru Kuroda- as a kind of fantastic ideal. The 13-year-old is part of a precocious little gang which sees itself as the keepers of order over chaos. They seem to be rather nihilistically inclined. While some readers have suggested that they are too young to be thinking philosophically insofar as they are, I don’t think Mishima necessarily made a mistake here. After all, they, like all young boys, think in ultimatums. What is interesting is how easily we forget the fictive elements of a book like this, written by an author so absolutist in his own thinking. But should we interpret Noboru as a representation of the author? To some extent, we can make this psychoanalytic connection, but we must also realize that Mishima is not writing a manifesto.
There is a considerable artistry to the book, and just because a character in a book is disagreeable does not mean we should find the book disagreeable. Few people read American Psycho as an attempt by Ellis to give credence to the way Patrick Bateman sees the world. At least I would hope not. It seems that many think of The Sailor as an ‘anti-feminist book’ since Mishima was most interested in the aesthetic of the masculine and the functional. To say The Sailor is anti-feminist because his prose lends poetry to this aspect of the world is simply overreading, and Noboru’s twisted adolescent ideology is not the same as Mishima’s. Even if it was, what’s the problem? There is no Nazi propaganda in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, though the author was a Nazi, nor does anyone really care: the art reaches deeper into the human soul than ideology. The Sailor should be read in this way. It articulates things about the world which, whether they render as ‘true’ to you, are real. Just as Moby Dick articulates the reality of obsessive fixation, The Sailor articulates the reality of masculine expectations and perceptions- and I ask you when has a spaghetti western, starring a ‘man’s man’ like John Wayne, ever done the same?
Now, with some of my reviews, I do tend to spoil things- not that I think great novels can be spoiled anyway- but this time I’m going to let you find out for yourself how things turn out. The reason I spoil books is that I sometimes need to in order to critique certain aspects of them. In this case, I am defending the novel from a criticism that doesn’t seem to have been thought through very well by those who give it. Unlike 1984, The Sailor is not preachy. It is incredibly condensed and filled to the brim with meaning. There is no wasted space, every word is of import. And best of all the plot does not feel contrived. Not only is it original, removed from all cliches, it is organic and perfectly realized.
Mishima was nonpareil as a writer, but he was one of a dying breed, it may not have been so far from the truth to call him ‘The Last Samurai’. The last man perhaps, who truly devoted himself to the Samurai mentality. I can only admire his devotion and appreciate the sublime and unique genius of his work.