Yukio Mishima and the poetry of death

For me, 2010 is the year of all things ‘Ocean Hearted’. Work is now well underway on the multi-media project and the manuscript is nearing completion. So with my head full of the ocean, I have recently started re-reading the Mishima classic, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea.


Set against the backdrop of post-WWII Japan, the book explores the intricate relationships of 13 year old Noboru, a boy convinced of his own genius; the widow Fusako, an importer of European finery; and Ryuji, a merchant seaman, who also believes his is destined for greatness; “a glittering special order kind no ordinary man would be permitted.” And all the while lurking in the background are the gang of schoolboys, Noburo has become deeply interwined with. Led by The Chief, the boys practise ‘absolute dispassion’ with devastating results.

Mishima’s writing is at all times sharp and uncompromising. He  intersperses flourishes of lyrical beauty with dark, cutting prose exploring  themes of vanity, glory and nihilism. Each character a deep and complex creation, working through their own inner turmoil to find out where (or if) they belong in this world. Such emotional complexity mirrors the struggle of Mishima himself; a man who had unrealistically high expecations of himself; who struggled with his own sexuality; who was denied entry into the military; and who rallied against the intrusion of Western materialism, to the point where on November 25, 1970, he and four members of the Tatenokai (a private militia in Japan dedicated to traditional Japanese values and veneration of the Emperor, founded and led by Yukio Mishima), visited the commandant of the the Eastern Command of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to inspire a coup d’etat restoring the powers of the emperor. Instead, Mishima was ridiculed and as a result, committed seppuku (ritual suicide).

One of the elements of seppuku is the composition of a jisei or death poem. In searching for Mishima’s jisei, I have uncovered two poems:

Masurao ga
Tabasamu tachi no
sayanari ni
Ikutose taete
Kyo no hatsushimo

The sheaths of swords rattle
As after years of endurance
Brave men set out
To tread upon the first frost of the year.


A small night storm blows
Saying ‘falling is the essence of a flower’
Preceding those who hesitate

Yukio Mishima

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, is a work of great power. It’s descriptions of the sea and the notion of love, deliver some of Mishima’s finest ever writing. Here’s a taste from the first half of the novel:

“It was the sea that made me begin thinking secretly about love more than anything else; you know, a love worth dying for, or a love that consumes you. To a man locked up in a steel ship all the time, the sea is too much like a woman. Things like her lulls and storms, or her caprice, or the beauty of her breast reflecting the setting sun, are all obvious. More than that, you’re in a ship that mounts the sea and rides her and yet is constantly denied her… Nature surrounds a sailor with all these elements so like a woman and yet he is kept as far as a man can be from her warm, living body.”



Filed under interviews/artist profiles

5 responses to “Yukio Mishima and the poetry of death

  1. This sounds great, will have to hunt it down

  2. michael

    great book. devastating. picked it up last year on a whim, unaware what i was in for. can i ask who translated your copy? it’s always worth re-reading.
    i have a book called mishima’s sword if you would like to read it. it ain’t perfect but it does reveal a few things (about mishima, about japan). for one,mishima’s death poem is considered absolute shite by prominent critics, which is why it would be hard to track down.

    (while you are indulging in japanese literature may i recommend snow country by yasunari kawabata. or anything by kawabata)

    • gnunn

      Thanks for the reading tip Michael! My copy of The Sailor Who Fell… was translated by John Nathan… Mishima’s sword sounds interesting… would love to borrow it.

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