The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea

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The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea
First English-language edition
Author Yukio Mishima
Original title 午後の曳航 (Gogo no Eiko — Eng trans. Afternoon Shiptowing)
Translator John Nathan
Cover artist Susan Mitchell
Country Japan
Language Japanese
Genre Philosophical, Psychological
Publisher Kodansha
Alfred A. Knopf (U.S.)
Publication date
Published in English
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 181 pp
OCLC 29389499
895.6/35 20
LC Class PL833.I7 G613 1994

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (Japanese: 午後の曳航, meaning The Afternoon Towing) is a novel written by Yukio Mishima, published in Japanese in 1963 and translated into English by John Nathan in 1965.


Much of the story is told following the actions of Noburu Kuroda, an adolescent boy living in Yokohama, Japan, who does well in school but is secretly "Number Three" in an adolescent group of boys who reject conventional morality and are led by another schoolchild, the "Chief". Noburu discovers in his chest of drawers a secret peephole into his widowed mother's room (speculated to have been put there by previous occupants, American troops), and uses it to spy on her. Since Noburu has a strong interest in ships, his upper-class mother Fusako, who owns Rex, a European-style haute fashion clothing store, takes him to visit one near the end of the summer. There they meet Ryuji Tsukazaki, a sailor and second mate aboard the commercial steamer Rakuyo with vague notions of a special honor awaiting him at sea. Ryuji has always remained aloof from the land, and while accruing a substantial savings, has no real ties with other sailors either. Ryuji and Fusako develop a romantic relationship, their first night of sex is spied upon by Noburu at the peephole but the second takes place at a hotel to Noburu's disappointment. The relationship continues but ultimately ends when the Rakuyo sets sail again.

Noburu at first reveres Ryuji, but a chance encounter on the second day of their acquaintance changes this stance. Noburu and his friends have just come from Noburu killing (and then the "Chief" eviscerating) a tiny stray kitten, and he has lied about his whereabouts to his household. Ryuji has combatted the extreme heat by dousing himself with water. Noburu takes issue with what he perceives as an undignified appearance and greeting by Ryuji, although he is later thrilled by Ryuji recounting his voyages around the world.

While Ryuji is sailing, he and Fusako exchange letters, and they fall deeply in love. Returning to Yokohama around the New Year, he moves into the house, lets the Rakuyo sail without him, and ultimately decides to marry Fusako (Fusako plans to install him in a managing position at Rex, after Ryuji passes a private investigator audit of his circumstances). This estranges him from Noburu, whose group resents fathers as a terrible manifestation of a terrible position. Noburu is nonetheless able to hide his true feelings behind a mask of youthful innocence. Noburu is discovered in his peephole position (for which he must crawl into his chest of drawers) but Ryuji does not punish him severely despite being asked to by Fusako.

As Ryuji begins to draw close to Fusako, a woman of the shore, he is eventually torn away from the nautical dreams he's pursued his entire life. After an "emergency meeting" of the gang, the Chief determines that the only way to restore Ryuji to being a "hero" is to kill him in a similar manner to the kitten (they will use drugged tea to subdue Ryuji after luring him to a remote location under the guise of asking him for sea stories). The Chief expressly quotes from the Japanese criminal law to show that they, as individuals under 14, cannot be held criminally responsible for their actions. Their plans works perfectly; as he drinks the tea, Ryuji muses on the life he has given up at sea, and the no longer possible heroic life of love and death he has abandoned. The novel ends, presumably (but not explicitly) with the boys' plan being carried to completion.


  • Glory and honour

The themes of glory and honour are central to the story, and Mishima explores these ideas mainly through the character Ryuji Tsukazaki.

When Ryuji is first introduced, he is strongly associated with gold, a colour which often has positive connotations of triumph, achievement, and royalty. Gold is often highly regarded and respected, and can symbolise higher ideals. This therefore casts Ryuji as a representation of ultimate glory and honour. Furthermore, it is emphasised that this is "authentic gold", hence removing negative connotations of artificiality and pretentiousness, as well as establishing that Ryuji exists in the real world, and is not simply an illusory dream. Gold could also be a symbol of masculine energy and power, which highlights Ryuji's manliness. This masculinity is a point of pride and honour – Ryuji reflected later in the novel on how the sailor's life "impelled (him) toward the pinnacle of manliness", and agonised over whether he could "give it up". This aligns with the author's ideals as well – Mishima had been obsessed with hyper-masculinity and had strived to attain it himself, as exemplified by his endeavours in bodybuilding.

Ryuji's pursuit of glory deeply affects Noboru. For the thirteen-year-old Noboru, Ryuji is a hero, a "luminous evidence of the internal order of life". Noboru is therefore determined to protect the glorious image of Ryuji after he witnesses Ryuji making love with his mother ""If this is ever destroyed, it'll mean the end of the world." Noboru murmured, barely conscious. I guess I'd do anything to stop that, no matter how awful!" Noboru's obsession with Ryuji and the idea of glory he represents ultimately lead to Ryuji's murder.

Death is strongly associated with glory in Mishima's text. Mishima had said in one of his interviews: “It is natural for me to find it obscene that human beings live only for themselves. You might call this the boredom of living ... they get bored living just for themselves ... always think of living for some kind of ideal. Because of this, the need to die for something arises. That need is the “great cause” people talked about in the past. Dying for a great cause was considered the most glorious heroic or brilliant way of dying”[1] Thus in a certain way Mishima hereby personifies his ideology in Ryuji's character. When Ryuji was first introduced as an almost god-like figure, attention was drawn to his "dangerous, glittering gaze", hence firmly linking glory with danger, and by extension, death. Glory in the text is also found in the turbulence and uncertainty of the sea and in the danger of death that the sea may bring about: "They were consubstantial: glory and the capsized world. He longed for a storm".

Glory is presented as inherently dangerous in the novel, as evident in how Ryuji felt "glory knifing toward him like a shark from some great distance". The sharp violence and peril associated with knives, as well as the predatory nature of sharks, illustrates the great risks that came with the pursuit of glory.

When Ryuji gives up his Grand Cause and settles onto the land, he loses his life. Before his death, his thoughts drift back to the glory that he has longed to pursue: " Emperor palms. Wine palms. Surging out of the splendor of the sea, death had swept down on him like a stormy bank of clouds. A vision of death now eternally beyond his reach, majestic, acclaimed, heroic death unfurled its rapture across his brain. And if the world had been provided for just this radiant death, then why shouldn't the world also perish for it!"

  • Alienation

The theme of alienation is shown through the isolation of the characters Noboru and Ryuji Tsukazaki. The character Noboru is portrayed as isolated in the book as he seems to not understand all that going around him. The idea of westernisation is also brought into play as Noboru is seen as very traditional yet his mother is westernised, which is seen through a physical description of her room. In the physical description of Fusako's (Noboru's Mother) room, Mishima constantly refers back to where a certain element is imported from. Written through Noboru's perspective we can see that because he is not westernised and is still very much traditional to his culture he notices these elements- where the item is from. Through this separation due to westernisation the idea of Noboru being alienated is brought up as he is detached from even the closest person to him- his mother. In the book Mishima describes "Noboru couldn’t believe he was looking at his mother’s bedroom; it might have belonged to a stranger." Through this quote we can see that not only is he not close to his mother but that he feels as though his mother is a stranger which reinforces the idea of alienation.

The theme of alienation is highlighted also by the character Ryuji Tuskazaki due to his detachment to society. Mishima describes ‘’He grew indifferent to the lure of exotic lands. He found himself in the strange predicament all sailors share: essentially he belonged neither to the land nor to the sea. Possible a man who hates the land should dwell on shore forever." The phrase "belonged neither to the land nor to the sea" implicates the idea of alienation as there is only land and sea, but Tsukazaki belongs to neither which questions the reader where does he belong? As he does not feel as though he belongs to either and perhaps he belongs to this unknown place for himself it connotes the theme of alienation.

In conclusion, both Ryuji and Noboru feel detached to society, and in various degrees and for different reasons, they both try to relieve their isolation. In Fusako, Ryuji finds the anchor for which he has been searching, and moves quickly into the comfortable life of lover and father. Noboru has chosen to turn his loneliness to hatred and seek for strength using murder. The prevalence of alienation and loneliness as a theme can be linked back to Mishima’s own background. Not unlike Noboru and The chief, Mishima spent his childhood under the strict rule of his grandmother, while dreaming of a world in which Japan was restored to its original power and glory. Mishima’s dislike towards Japan’s westernization is reflected through “Chief’s contempt of adult nature.

  • Gender roles

The role of females in the novel seem sparse – the main female character is Fusako, who is the love interest of Ryuji and the mother of Noboru. In some ways, she is one of the most important characters in the novel as her relationship with Ryuji is the unbecoming of him in some ways. The balance of their relationship seems quite equal and Fusako is portrayed to be the perfect partner and housewife. She is also portrayed to be an independent woman who is doing better in her business than Ryuji is with his work. She is also seen to be diplomatic with her clients in her business. Male characters dominate the book, but most seem dependent or obsessed with some sort of notion – Ryuji with his quest for glory, Noboru and his need to conform to his ‘gang’s’ ideology, and the chief and his obsession with his ideas surrounding life. Males in the book also seem to be the characters who are pursuing a specific goal, unlike Fusako, who seems to be a static character throughout the novel.


  • Ryuji Tsukazaki

Ryuji Tsukazaki is a sailor and Fusako Kuroda's lover. Throughout the book it is shown that Ryuji (also known as the sailor) sees himself destined for glory though at that point he is not sure as to what kind of glory he will receive. Ryuji falls in love with Fusako and then later he gets married to her becoming a father figure to her son Noboru. This new love and the failure of achieving glory in the presence of the sea makes him determine to retire from the sea, this out raging Noboru and causing him to take action.

  • Noboru Kuroda:

Noboru is a thirteen-year boy and the son of Fusako. He is the protagonist of this novel. He is influenced by his friends, especially the chief who thinks “..society is basically meaningless, a Roman mixed bath.” They have nihilistic view of the world and Noboru, after killing the innocent cat thinks murder would “fill those gaping caves” and he and his gang can achieve “real power over existence.”

Although he thinks there is little meaning in life, he is fascinated with the strength and vastness of the sea as he thinks it has “internal order of life.” Chief also explains him that the sea is “more permissible than any of the few other permissible things.” Therefore, he idealises Ryuji who lives and works in the ship. He is delighted when he sees his mother and the sailor are in love, saying “...Ryuji was perfect. So was his mother.”

However, he becomes extremely disappointed when he found out that the sailor was different from what he thought, “...But he hadn’t said anything of the kind. Instead he had offered his ridiculous explanation.” Eventually when Ryuji gives up his life as a sailor for Fusako and Noboru and destroyed the heroic image that Noboru had, Noboru and his gang punish him for giving up his glory.

  • Fusako Kuroda:
  • The Chief:

A thirteen-year-old boy, known only as “The Chief” to his gang, who Noboru is part of, leads an investigation to understand existence through analysis and criticism of human nature, social structure and life. “The Chief” is arrogant and dispassionate, but is also precocious. His hatred towards the normality of life has led him to committing extreme acts, namely his butchering and subsequent dissection of a cat.


The entire novel is an allegory for the situation following Japan’s defeat after World War 2. This can be seen by the characters and their representation of the different components of Japan that had surfaced following the war. Noboru and his ‘gang’ represent old Japanese traditions and values. Noboru’s mother, Fusako, represents westernisation of the Japanese culture. The sea represented glory, and Ryuji’s attraction towards this notion was in itself a metaphor for Japan’s quest in the war. Some of the gang's inhumane actions symbolise how some of the decisions made by the Japanese in the war were also inhumane. Thirteen year old boys killing a baby cat goes against usual human nature, and in the war there were kamikaze bombings, where a person would kill themselves for a desperate offensive attack and a glorious death. At the end of the novel, Mishima explores the choices that Ryuji has made. Ryuji seems to regret his decision to give up the sea and ‘majestic, acclaimed, heroic death’, which is likened to glory. Instead, he has been ‘abandoned’, condemned to ‘a life bereft of motion’. The ‘life bereft of motion’ refers to the surrender of Japan to western values, and the ‘majestic, acclaimed, heroic death’ refers to sticking by Japanese traditions and values. Through these melancholy destinies that Ryuji has chosen from, Mishima expresses his thoughts on how the Japanese seem to be condemned to a glorified death or bottomless limbo.


The novel was adapted into the film The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea starring Kris Kristofferson and Sarah Miles in 1976 by Lewis John Carlino. The setting was changed from Japan to England.

An opera by Hans Werner Henze, Das verratene Meer, is based on the novel; it was premiered in Berlin in 1990. The reception was not good, since a revised version, entitled Goko no Eiko written by Henze under the initiative of the maestro conductor Gerd Albrecht, was adapted to a Japanese libretto close to Mishima's original. The world premiere at Salzburger Festspiele 2005 is released on the label Orfeo, unfortunately without any libretto included.