The sailor who fell from grace with the sea or Gogo no Eiko in Japanese, is Yukio Mishima’s 1963 novel. It is very late in his career that he wrote this. The story is about a widow called Fusako and her thirteen year old son called Noboru. Noboru had recently escaped from the house so he is now locked in his room at night by his mother. Being bored and offended by this he explores his room. He pulls out drawers from a chest and lays inside it out of pure boredom and wanting to find a small space to be in. He notices there is a hole which allows him to see into his mother’s room.
He begins watching her out of boredom. He considers why this hole is here and concludes it must have been made by the soldiers who were stationed in this house after the world war was lost by Japan. He shivers at the thought of foreign soldiers watching his mother undress before bed. Whenever he and her argue he will go into his room and watch her, but when nothing negative happens he goes straight to bed and instead dreams about watching her and being punished for it. She goes out on a date and brings a naval officer back with her. They sneak upstairs and into her room together while Noboru watches them secretly. They undress and sleep together.
The Naval officer, Ryuji, then wakes up in an empty bedroom and waits for Fusako to return when Noboru goes out swimming. Ryuji is a naval officer who believes that he is destined to die at sea like a real man with a glorious fate that awaits him. Fusako returns with breakfast and explains that she doesn’t understand how this happened, and how Noboru seems to know about them but he likes Ryuji so it should be okay. Ryuji feels that he has travelled all of these years just to get here with this soft widow of a woman.
Fusako goes to work and can’t stop thinking about Ryuji and their relationship which has been consummated after two days of knowing each other. They met because her and Noboru went onto a naval ship for Noboru to be shown around. He is crazy about the sea and ships in general. Ryuji is the one who shows them both around, and notices that Noboru knows a lot about ships and is curious and exited to see everything. Fusako tries to thank Ryuji by asking him out to dinner. She is surprised by how he eats in such a proper way, and he offers to walk her home, but instead they end up sat on a bench in a park spending the night talking about anything and everything. She thinks to herself how she hasn’t spoken to a man this much since she last spoke to her husband who died five years ago.
Ryuji has a few hours before he will meet Fusako again, so he wanders around town and goes to the park. It is a terribly hot day and he is sweating through his clothes, so he uses the fountain to wash some of the sweat off, which soaks his shirt. He thinks about how he had talked to Fusako, and instead of explaining to her that he has no wife and children because he is waiting for his glorious fate at sea, he instead made an excuse about women not really wanting a sailor for a husband, which is untrue as most of the sailors he knows have children, and proudly read and reread the letters from their wife and children while at sea. He runs across Noboru and gets nervous as Fusako stated that he came across as if he knew about their relationship. He makes small talk with him, and Noboru asks him why his shirt is so wet. Ryuji explains that he took a shower in the fountain.
Noboru is nervous that he met Ryuji while he and the boys in his club were off to get up to no good, as always. They have a little society where they have a chief, and then numbers. Noboru is number three. They eat their sandwiches and Noboru explains that he watched Ryuji and his mother make love, he respects Ryuji because he is such a large man and a sailor, a real man. The society mocks him saying that mankind is pathetic and useless, that existence is meaningless, and so on. Then they go to the chief’s house, and murder a kitten in his shed. Noboru is the one who does it this time, because the other members have already done this in previous meetings in order to become a real man. After he murders the kitten by smashing it over and over again against a log, the chief dissects the kitten for the boys to study. He then removes a glove, and places his ungloved hand onto Noboru’s shoulder, congratulating him on becoming a real man.
On the return home Noboru runs into Ryuji again, Ryuji ends up going home with Noboru as he asks him to come with him. They return and sit next to an air-conditioner to cool down and escape the horror of this sunny day. Ryuji is thinking to himself about how he doesn’t know what he is doing, he had devoted himself to the sea, and here he is, on his last day of a two day holiday spending it with the son of the woman he slept with last night. Noboru falls asleep and dreams of drowning, while Ryuji leaves and gets the maid to cover the sleeping Noboru with a blanket so he doesn’t catch a cold.
Later on, Fusako and Ryuji meet up again outside of the home. She and him talk, both not wanting to speak about when he will go away tomorrow. They share a long kiss and Ryuji overhears a horn which means a ship is leaving. This troubles him and makes him think about him leaving. He tries to light up a cigarette but the lighter won’t work, he finally gets it to and with the light created from it he can see that Fusako has tears down her face, she tries to hide it but he embraces her for another kiss, and pushed on by her tears he cries himself. He longer needs to conceal his upset because she has bared her suffering to him.
Noboru waits up for his mother and Ryuji to return, but the maid receives a phone call to say the mother won’t be returning tonight. Noboru is furious and writes up a list of crimes that Ryuji has committed and should be punished for. He wants to share this with his society and the chief, but he is locked inside his room. He sneaks into the chest and tries to peek into his mother’s room but it is too dark to see anything.
Ryuji and Fusako stay at a hotel, then she gets Noboru and visits the port to say goodbye to Ryuji. Neither know what to say, but Noboru looks at Ryuji not wanting him to betray being a sailor hero, so he tells him to make sure to send letters with different stamps from each port, Ryuji says he will and he will reply because sailors love nothing more than receiving a letter. They then all say goodbye by shaking each other’s hands. Noboru thinks to himself how Ryuji is playing the part of the sailor perfectly, while his mother is playing the part of being a woman who is saying farewell to a man who will leave her with loneliness perfectly. Thus ends the first part of the book titled ‘Summer‘.
The second part of the book is titled ‘Winter‘. Months have passed and Fusako is at the docks picking up Ryuji. They kiss and begin talking normally with tears in their eyes, because of this all anxiety and nervousness is pushed aside and allows them to be even more talkative than they were before he left. They get home and Fusako explains that Noboru is ill and was excited for Ryuji’s return, but was too ill to come to the docks. So Ryuji takes a present out of his bag and goes upstairs to see him. He opens his bedroom door and speaks through a crocodile doll. He then gives it to Noboru explaining its origin story. Noboru thanks him, but feels this man is somehow different. He rudely asks him when he will be sailing away again, and Ryuji replies that he does not know yet. This offends Noboru. How does a sailor who lives for the sea not know when he is going home to the sea? They put his rudeness down to him being ill and leave him alone. Noboru then adds two new crimes to the list against Ryuji. They then go into his mother’s room and Noboru wants to spy on them through the peep hole but can’t because his door is not locked and it would be too risky.
The new year comes and Ryuji and Fusako go out in the cold to watch the sun rise. In this romantic scene Ryuji is thinking about something that has been bothering him for a while: should he give up his masculine dream of a fate of glory at sea? He thinks so, which is why he told Noboru he didn’t know when he was sailing again. He asks Fusako to marry him, she is shocked and just replies what. Ryuji repeats himself and explains he has money to settle down and loves her, so why shouldn’t they marry. She agrees to marry him but explains that if he is going to sail again then they need to sort some things out before they marry. Ryuji is about to say he will never sail again, but stops himself and instead just says he will not be sailing again anytime soon.
They return home and celebrate the new year with the maid and Noboru. He begins telling a story to Noboru about a storm and how it is to be caught in one. Noboru is interested and is listening intently, but Fusako tells him to stop and clamps her hands on her ears in fear at hearing such a terrible event being told by the man she loves. Noboru is annoyed by this and thinks to himself, why is she acting like the story is being told for her? He then becomes aware that there is something about Ryuji’s telling of the story which comes across as somewhat like a merchant who is peddling his wares. He listens to the story and considers to himself that this story certainly has wares, and Ryuji is certainly selling.
Ryuji’s ship leaves the port, and he is not on it. Fusako is at work and considering bringing Ryuji in so he can learn the ropes and begin working there as soon as possible. Plus one of her main workers is getting old and has bad wrists, so the sooner Ryuji is trained and working there, the better. One of Fusako’s customers convinces her to hire a private investigator just in case Ryuji is a conman or in debt. She is so offended by this that she does it just so she can gloat when the results show that he is clean and innocent. The results of the investigation do show exactly that, and Fusako is happy she has made an example of this annoying customer.
They all go out to dinner where Fusako and Ryuji explain to Noboru that they will be getting married and that Ryuji will become his father. Noboru is no longer locked in his room at night, Fusako makes a joke about the key and Ryuji makes it clear that Noboru is grown up enough to not need that anymore, he is a man now not a boy. It bothers him that he will not be locked in because then he can’t safely sneak a peak of them through the chest. He comes up with a cunning plan, he will go into the peeking hole and bring his studying cards so if he is found out he can say he was studying in there. He uses a torch so he can see, but Ryuji sees this through the hole from the mother’s bedroom, and Fusako instantly figures out what is going on. She storms into Noboru’s room and attacks him screaming about how he is a disgusting pervert. Noboru is frozen stiff, his nightmare about being punished for peeking by his mother is coming true. Ryuji comes in and is told to beat Noboru as punishment, but being the father of Noboru now he doesn’t want to, he instead seeks to forgive him and put this behind them so they can grow into a family that will later laugh at this.
This enrages Noboru and he visits his group to discuss this with the chief. They all agree this is terrible, because fathers are the worst thing in existence, and now Ryuji is becoming his father he needs to be sorted out. According to them fathers are full of lies and weakness, and are the worst thing out of everything. All of the boys hate their fathers for different reasons (weakness, beatings, abusing their mother, spoiling them, not spoiling them, etc.), but all agree that fathers are terrible. They come up with a plan to punish Ryuji because he has given up his masculine dream of being at sea and being separated from normal life, instead he is choosing to stay on land and become a father. They set out their plan and what they will do. They select an area with an empty swimming pool where he can be drawn to with a devious invitation, while the rest of the gang will arrive with things they need: rope, a saw, tablets for drugging, cups, and so on.
Noboru asks Ryuji to come with him to meet his group of friends to tell them about his naval stories, and also asks him to wear his naval clothes and not to say anything to his mother. Ryuji makes up a story about meeting a sailor friend so that is why he is going out in his naval gear. He meets the boys and goes off with them and then begins telling them his stories when they settle down at a spot. While telling his stories and looking out at the sea and seeing ships which are no way near as huge as the one he served on, he starts to regret his choice to stay on land. He gradually becomes the masculine man of glory and detachment that Noboru originally respected as he carries on talking. He is interrupted by Noboru who offers him tea, he says yes and is lost in thought. As he thinks on he is getting close to truly changing his mind about marrying and not spending his life back on the waves, but he is interpreted again by the tea being given to him. This tea is drugged but he doesn’t know. He drinks it down and it is bitter. He thinks to himself that glory, as everyone knows, is bitter stuff.
This is how the story ends, we do not know what happens next or whether Ryuji does actually have a change of heart and thus saves himself from what is about to happen to him. Leaving the ending untied gives the reader a strong urge to reread the entire story all over again right away. The language, story and narrative is far darker than The sound of waves, but because of this it has far more going on within it. When you read one and then the other, there is a strong feeling that these two stories are related somehow, and also that they are separate sides of the same coin. The darkness of this novel is somewhat suffocating and begins to become a burden as the story moves along. This doesn’t make the story unreadable, quite the opposite, but it certainly makes the reading more unpleasant as it goes on. As stated above though, the unpleasantness doesn’t make the book bad, but interesting.