‘The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea’ was written in 1963 by Japanese author Yukio Mishima, known as one of the most controversial yet celebrated writers of Japan. One could argue the novel has many links to Japan’s history, hinting at various aspects of Japan’s WWII surrender. Translated by John Nathan, the novel is set in post-World War II Yokohama, Japan, based around a boy named Noboru. Noboru is a member of a gang of savage adolescent boys who reject social norms, discuss the uselessness of mankind and insignificance of life, and show dispassion towards emotion and other typical conventions. When Noboru’s widowed mother, Fusako, encounters and eventually falls in love with a sailor called Ryuji, Noboru and his gang initially idolize him for striving for glory. However, this idolization soon turns into disapproval due to the notion that Ryuji decides to leave the sea, abandoning his ‘pursuit of glory’ for love, revealing an alternative, tender and romantic side. The novel is heavily centered around two major events: the killing of the kitten and death of Ryuji, which arose from the characterization of the gang, expressing dispassion and exposing many unexpected traits from these young boys, possibly stemming from their naivety. Through the portrayal of the gang, Mishima suggests that adolescence is wrought with occasional immorality.
Mishima uses the lens and perspective of Noboru, one of the members of the gang, to emphasize the influence the young chief has on the gang, commenting on the malleable nature of adolescents, easily manipulated by peer pressure. The way Noboru and the rest of the members of the gang interact with the chief emphasizes the way they look up to him, always conforming to his views, and willing to exempt themselves from confining to social norms. There are many instances in which this manipulation and peer pressure was evident. The first instance was early on in the novel, when the gang was talking about Ryuji, and the chief questions Noboru’s favorable opinion towards the sailor. He says, “And that’s your hero?”. Mishima’s use of a rhetorical question expresses the power of the chief’s views, emphasizing the importance. Furthermore, it suggests the dismay and disappointment he feels towards Noboru, idolizing someone undeserving. In the same conversation, the persuasiveness and manipulation of the chief is seen. “He’s probably after your old lady’s money; that’ll be the punch line. First he’ll suck her out of everything she’s got and then, bang, bam, see you around ma’am- that’ll be the punch line.” In this quotation, the chief opposes Noboru’s opinion towards Ruiji. The use of repetition emphasizes the phrase “and that’ll be the punch line,” implying it’s a joke. However, the onomatopoeia, rhyming and bluntness with the words “bang, bam, see you around ma’am” shows the chief’s determined behavior, with an aggressive tone. This also contains a subtle humor connotation, alluding to youthfulness and childishness.
The second instance where Noboru and the gang are influenced by the chief was prior to Noboru performing his horrific killing of the kitten, “he (Noboru) checked himself for pity”, suggesting the internal conflict/struggle that Noboru faced, and contemplating whether or not to feel pity for the kitten. Regardless of Noboru’s contemplation; however, it was ultimately Noboru recalling the chief’s views that led Noboru to slaughter the kitten, remembering that “the chief insisted it would take acts such as this to fill the world’s great hollows.” Mishima uses a simile to compare Noboru’s dilemma with “a lighted window seen from an express train, flicker(ing) for an instant in the distance and disappear(ing)”. In this instant, the express train, known for its speed, is symbolic for Noboru’s emotions: initially flickering, contemplating both sides, and finally gradually disappearing, barely visible. This emphasizes the sheer distance between Noboru and his emotions, due to the chief’s influences. This emotional detachment is something the gang desires and chief strongly believes in, showing strength instead of vulnerability. Hence, during the killing, Noboru constantly thought about the chief’s views, fixated on the notion that the chief was nothing but right.
The final instance in which peer pressure is evident in the novel was in the final scene of the novel when the gang poisoned Ryuji. “Here’s your tea,” Noboru said to Ryuji, “thrusting a dark-brown plastic cup near Ryuji’s cheek. Absently, Ryuji took it. He noticed Noboru’s hand trembling slightly”. The use of somber diction, evident through the dark, murky, mud-like colors, when describing the cup, foreshadows events opposite to Noboru’s beliefs, as if Noboru’s emotions are treading into unfamiliar territory. Moreover, the fact that Noboru was trembling slightly suggests that Noboru was uncomfortable with what he was doing, most likely told to do so by the chief, manipulated and heavily influenced, depicting the occasional unprincipled nature of adolescence.
Through the characterization of the gang’s views and reasoning towards the killing of the kitten, Mishima is able to portray the completely irrational and exploitative actions of adolescents for personal gain. Due to their somewhat tunnel vision and nihilistic views towards the existence of mankind, they performed inhumane acts which involved the killing of a kitten and was the reason for Ryuji’s death, based on delusional and irrational reasoning. This was evident in the scene in which the gang captured and gruesomely killed a kitten in order to practice dispassion and objectivity. This shows that these adolescents are willing to exploit an animal for practice. The gang believes that emotion means vulnerability, whereas lack of emotion suggests power. Hence, by killing the kitten, the gang is able to practice invulnerability. The use of blunt word choice when Noboru ‘swung the kitten high above his head and slammed it at the log’ shows the gruesome nature in which the kitten was killed, emphasizing the inhumane actions the gang participated in to be invulnerable. Furthermore, the outcome of their actions is seen through the vibrant and energetic diction, the instance after the kitten dies. The five other boys in the gang watched with ‘their eyes glistening’, and Noboru felt ‘a resplendent power surging through him to the tips of his fingers’. This light and electricity is a symbol for energy, Noboru being ecstatic, full of positivity as if he conquered a mission. This is also shown through the simile of Noboru feeling ‘like a giant of a man’, putting further emphasis on the power Noboru felt, as if he is above and better than everyone. This immensely cruel and immoral act provided Noboru with power, shockingly unsympathetic towards the kitten, and unconfined by social norms in which people abide by, showing the sheer distance adolescents will go for personal gain.
Through the development of Ryuji’s character and his actions throughout the novel, Mishima is able to portray the gang’s responses as immature. They completely overreact towards Ryuji’s actions based on their personal views, reflecting the immoral nature of adolescents. Towards the beginning of the novel, Noboru and his gang idolize Ryuji to some extent due to the fact that he was a sailor, and that he was doing something ‘real’ with his life, on the pursuit of glory. However, once Ryuji falls in love with Fusako, abandoning his job as a sailor and hence abandoning his pursuit of glory. In the gang’s eyes, his proposal to Fusako was an act of weakness, giving in to society, giving up glory. Furthermore, Noboru can’t accept the notion that someone is genuinely caring for him, coming into his life as a fatherly figure. Due to these actions of Ryuji, Noboru has an unfairly critical and judgmental attitude towards him, as does the gang. Ryuji’s actions and revelation of a different side of his personality causes Noboru and the gang to poison him while he reminisces about his life as a sailor, giving him a chance to die on a good note. The terribly ordinary and common actions of Ryuji caused his death through the immature and unnecessary poisoning from the gang, yet completely justified in the eyes of ‘fulfilling glory through a perilous death’, which Ryuji became aware of later in the text.
The gang in ‘The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea’ not only provided Mishima with a driving force to propel the narrative forward, but also allowed him to explore immorality in adolescence. More specifically, Mishima was able to portray three immoral traits of adolescents through crucial events in the novel: the chief’s manipulation of the gang, the killing of the kitten and Ryuji’s death sequence. These traits portrayed by Mishima include succumbing to peers’ pressure, selfishness for personal gain and immaturity without evaluation of consequence. The gang acts as an exaggerated representation of adolescence, supporting the idea that adolescence is wrought with occasional immorality, no matter the scale.