This is only my intoduction to Mishima's work, but I can already tell why he's regarded as one of Japan's most important 20th-century authors. In this book he displays a mastery of descriptive writing and a remarkable ability to make commonplace situations violent and absurd. A woman who's lived as a widow for five years with her 13-year-old son falls in love with a sailor and decides to marry him, but her son rejects both the sailor and the relationship. Sounds ordinary, right? Try that when the woman fools herself into believing that her life is wholesome, the sailor can't give up his obsession with the sea, and the kid is a voyeur who has teenage sadists for friends.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
13-year-old Noboru idealizes the sailor and the sea. The one, masculine, is the ultimate emblem of manliness. The other, feminine, is both a temptress and the ultimate emblem of freedom.
He hangs out with a group of intelligent yet morbid and cruel boys his age who reject the adult world and are obsessed with objectivity, death, blood sacrifice, and (sick-and-twisted) heroism. They have ideals that are impossible for adults or any other simple humans to satisfy, let alone understand. They are convinced that they are geniuses and that they control the world and reality, which are both certainly and irreparably empty. Also, they have a particularly unyielding disdain for fathers.
As the owner of a luxury clothing store, Noboru's mother Fusako lives by pretense, image, and style. But when she meets a sailor named Ryuji, she develops a sexual relationship with him which quickly becomes romantic and serious. She then finds herself struggling internally. On the one hand, she wants to be a respectable widow, mother, and businesswoman. On the other, she desperately needs to assuage her loneliness by giving herself physically and emotionally to the man she loves.
Noboru and his mom's lover have one point in common, in that they both see the sea as a gateway to the infinite. Ryuji has derived his identity as a man from his life at sea. He draws correlations between manhood/glory, glory/the sea, the sea/freedom, love/death, glory/death, and woman/glory/death. All of these concepts are inseparable in his mind. He settles down with Fusako, but he still feels the sea calling him and is not sure if he made the right decision to give up the sailor's life.
Noboru's disdain for Ryuji grows as he becomes more involved with Fusako, moves in, and assumes the role of man of the house. Not only has he intruded upon Noboru's life and territory, but the once-bright heroic sailor has degenerated into a mere lowly "landsman". His resentment toward his mom and soon-to-be stepdad is intensified by the fact that Noboru has been spying on them having sex from the very beginning. When the couple announce their marriage to Noboru, he and his comrades agree that the sailor must be destroyed. I'll choose not to spoil what happens in the end.
This book is beautifully written. So beautifully that the intense moments of yearning and violence ebb and flow to the reader seamlessly and almost unexpectedly, like waves. It's not terribly difficult to get through, but it can take a while to understand what all is going on and get a grasp of each character's story/mentality. If you want a concise yet profound read that will leave you asking "What in the world did I just read?!" at the end, this is for you.
"...essentially he belonged neither to the land nor to the sea. Possibly a man who hates the land should dwell on shore forever. Alienation and the long voyages at sea will compel him once again to dream of it, torment him with the absurdity of longing for something that he loathes. Ryuji hated the immobility of the land, the eternally unchanging surfaces. But a ship was another kind of prison" (p. 16).
"[Fathers] stand in the way of our progress while they try to burden us with their inferiority complexes, and their unrealized aspirations, and their resentments, and their ideals, and the weaknesses they've never told anyone about, and their sins, and their sweeter-than-honey dreams, and the maxims they've never had the courage to live by─they'd like to unload all that silly crap on us, all of it!" (p. 136-137).