The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea Mishima Yukio
Translated by John Nathan
144 pp., New York: Berkley Medallion Books
Writer, actor and revolutionary, Yukio Mishima is heavily decorated despite an austere constitution. He was a man of dynamic build whose devotion to the union of mental and physical brawn culminated in the self-inflicted slashing of both.
His 1963 Sailor follows the actions of three individuals: a boy called Noboru, his mother Fusako, and her new lover, a sailor named Ryuji. Noboru is thirteen and precocious, seeking self-education in a band of adrenalized teens with a Lord of the Flies-like mentality, deriding the sentimentality and simplicity of the adult world as they form their own mores.
Significant as a study of human nature, the writing, too, is startling. The language, grandiose, potent and precise, seems to feed directly off of the characters’ psyches as it manipulates and governs their behavior from the other end, resulting in a continual projection of expectations and punishments of heroic proportions. It’s a gripping portrayal of the process of adaptation humans undergo—from boy to man, widow to wife, sailor to shore man—through which the world swells and shrinks, between liberation and stability, like the sea.
The Three-Cornered World Soseki Natsume
Translated by Alan Turney
184 pp., Tokyo: Tuttle
Author of dozens of novels, for twenty years the face on the 1000yen note, and Japan’s first Japanese literary scholar; if Natsume Soseki were alive today, he’d look at this modern world of ours and shake his head.
In a time when loud western thingamabobs were beginning to extend their creaking arms, Soseki was writing novel-length poetry about a man who turned away from modern materialism and into the mountains. Of his days in a mostly uninhabited town, wandering through valleys, studying trees, the poet-painter of TTCW makes notes of the epiphanic musings he is moved to by the scenery: on being an artist, liberating oneself from earthly fetters, the unpleasant, unwelcome multitude of niggling fart-counters (big-city types who think their shit don’t stink).
While his sentiments have a clear brother in romantic period lit—necessary isolation, bare “truth,” a veiled seductress—Soseki’s pastoral escape is markedly Japanese. At the core, indistinguishable from personal philosophy, are tenets of Eastern ideology. Aesthetics of traditional Japanese art. Haiku for self-expression and more thought than plot. But where it lacks in cohesion, it rewards in imagery, beautiful phrasing and inspiring ideas worth turning your materialistic mind to.
Thousand Cranes Kawabata Yasunari
Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker
147 pp., Tokyo: Tuttle
A boy orphaned by four and relative-less by fifteen, Kawabata writes through a filter of loss and isolation. His characters seem predisposed to the nighttime; they creep about in the dark, conversing in the shadow of a corner, engaging in activities that must never see the light for their depravity. All told is quiet and spare, and for such lyrical portrayals of traditional Japan he claimed the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, a then unprecedented feat for a Japanese writer.
TC is considered an exemplary sample of Kawabata’s talents and fixations. The main character Kikuji can’t seem to get his desires attuned with his fate which destines solitude, dithering, and lots of tea parties based on pretense.
Specifically: He has fallen for and lost his father’s ex-lover, taken to visiting her colorless, runaway daughter, blown off an omiai with the only balanced female in his tea circle, and now sits, pained, as he contemplates the somewhat incestuous careers of his lacquered wares, which he inherited from his father. It’s a study of the duplicity of gestures embedded in the restrictive environment of the tea ceremony. It’s still despite turmoil, cold though it burns with passion—a deceivingly quiet execution.