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Review: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
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Yukio Mishima’s 1963 novel The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is one of his darkest works. Set in post-War Yokohama, it is the story of Fusako Kuroda, a thirty-three-year-old widow who runs a boutique selling Western luxury goods, and her thirteen-year-old son Noboru Kuroda. (See Alex Graham’s discussion of the novel here)

Fusako’s world is entirely feminine, bourgeois, modern, and Western. She is also deeply lonely. Then she meets Ryuji Tsukazaki, the second-mate on a steamship. Ryuji is ruggedly masculine. Contemptuous of safety and hungering for risk, Ryuji took to the sea out of romantic longings for adventure and glory. But he too is lonely.

Ryuji and Fusako spend a few passionate days together, then he returns to the sea. But they can’t forget one another, and when Ryuji returns to Yokohama some months later, he proposes marriage, which Fusako joyfully accepts.

Fusako’s son Noboru is also attracted to Ryuji. He is a fatherless boy, cocooned in Western, bourgeois luxury. Ryuji represents the exact opposite. Noboru sees the sailor as archetypically masculine and heroic. But Ryuji constantly disappoints Noboru. First of all, he is just too nice, whereas Noboru longs for hardness. But the last straw is when Ryuji decides to marry Noboru’s mother and quit the sea. Fusako even starts dressing him in smart English suits and training him to work in her boutique.

Sounds like a soap opera plot easily resolved into a happy ending. But this is Mishima, so it is much, much weirder. When we are first introduced to Noboru, he is a peeping Tom, who watches his mother masturbate. Then he watches her make love with the sailor. Noboru also fancies himself a genius and belongs to a small circle of precocious thirteen-year-old Nietzschean sociopaths. This plot element read like a mashup of Hitchcock’s Rope and Lord of the Flies.

The gang starts out by killing and dissecting a cat, then they decide that the sailor can only be restored to his fallen heroic status by being cut up as well. We never actually see this happen, but everything is clearly driving toward it, and it mounts into one of the most suspenseful, gripping, and horrifying final chapters in literature.

Sailor is powerful because it is constructed around deep conflicts: primal family dramas as well as the clashes between land and sea, civilization and the wild, the masculine and feminine, the bourgeois pursuit of happiness vs. the heroic pursuit of glory, and Japanese tradition vs. Western modernity.

Sailor is a slender, compulsively-readable volume that most people can devour in an afternoon. It cried out for translation and then for a film adaptation. The translation came rather quickly, in 1965. I can’t help wondering how Kurosawa would have directed Sailor in the Yokohama of High and Low, or how Hitchcock or Michael Powell would have handled it in a Western setting. But the film adaptation of Sailor ended up in the hands of a very different director and appeared in 1976.

I avoided the film of Sailor for a long time, for two reasons. First, the book may be a masterpiece, but I found it intensely disturbing, and I didn’t really want to see it on film. Second, the film is not set in Japan but in England, which I thought would undermine one of the deep dramatic conflicts in the book, which is between Japanese tradition and specifically English modernity.

Mishima puts all the pieces in place for a very happy ending. Fusako has found a husband, and Noboru has found a father figure. But it is all dashed in an utterly perverse way because, to quote Nietzsche, “Man does not strive for happiness; only the Englishman does that.”

I am sorry I hesitated to watch The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, for it is a very good film. Sailor was the directorial debut of John Lewis Carlino, who had a long and distinguished career as a screenwriter, including John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, Mark Rydell’s film of D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox, the fascinating sociopathic buddy film The Mechanic starting Charles Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent, and Anthony Page’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Carlino went on to direct only one more film, The Great Santini (1979), his adaptation of Pat Conroy’s novel of the same name.

Fusako and Noboru Kuroda become Anne Osborne and her son Jonathan, played by Sarah Miles and Jonathan Kahn. Industrial Yokohama becomes quaint Dartmouth, in Devon. Fusako’s Western import boutique becomes a select antique shop. And the sailor, Ryuji Tsukazaki, becomes an America, Jim Cameron, played by Kris Kristofferson.

The casting and acting are uniformly good. All three main characters are convincingly brought to life, with almost no friction transforming them into whites. Miles’ performance as the mother is the best. Some might claim Kristofferson is wooden and inarticulate, but that’s how the character is supposed to be played. He does, however, convey genuine warmth and humanity. There is real sexual chemistry between Miles and Kristofferson.

The gang of sociopathic schoolboys becomes even more realistic and chilling in the English context due to their posh accents, public school uniforms, and constant bullying and backbiting.

Carlino masterfully adapts Mishima’s story to the screen. It is easy, because Mishima’s novel is short, and there’s quite a bit of dialogue. Moreover, Carlino chooses the exact right bits of interior monologue to dramatize. Finally, he fully realizes the almost unbearable suspense Mishima generates in the last pages.

A few things don’t quite fit, though. For some reason, I did not find it odd that an upper-middle-class Japanese widow would casually enter into a sexual relationship with a sailor in 1950s Japan, but it seemed very odd for an English widow of her class, even in the 1970s.

The settings, moreover, are very different from the novel. Yokohama is urban, industrial, and gritty. This underscores the difference between the wild beauty of the ocean and the ugliness and artificiality of urban life. Dartmouth, however, seems small, quaint, and very beautiful, and it is surrounded by scenic countryside and seacoast.

Scenes that in the novel take place indoors or in seedy industrial settings are filmed outdoors. There is a great deal of stunning landscape photography. The interiors of the Osborne house and shop are also beautifully appointed, and the camera lingers on the details like decorator porn. The music is classical.

In fact, the whole film is shot like a Masterpiece Theatre period drama, only with nudity, masturbation, sex, voyeurism, animal cruelty, and murder. If Carlino’s aim was to be unsettling, he succeeded wildly. Like the novel, the film is brilliant, troubling, and difficult to enjoy—but it is well worth the effort.

• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Mishima, Movies 
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  1. Many thanks, what an outstanding review. Bought the book and DVD, doing likewise, in that order. I wonder how long I’ll wait, before watching the movie?

  2. “the fascinating sociopathic buddy film The Mechanic starting Charles Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent”

    An underrated and almost forgotten gem of 70s film.

    • Replies: @SunBakedSuburb
  3. lloyd says: • Website

    The masturbation scene in the movie was unnecessary. It just demonstrated that Sarah Mills was Me Too. The book does not mention it at least in the English translation. Japanese porn is nauseating. So possibly it is in the original Japanese. I was suprised to read the reviewer did not find it odd that a Japanese high class lady would enter into a casual sexual relationship with a sailor. Perhaps he can explain his reason. The social opposition to her behaviour would be catastrophic and anyway she was masturbating. Indeed the sailor would be likely murdered which indeed happens. In England at same time, such a lady would get cold social isolation which would soon make her end it or less likely, marry him. T he pre pubescent boys seem prophetic of the generation who now rule UK.

    • Replies: @Trevor Lynch
  4. The sexual chemistry between Miles and Kristofferson was apparently real, as they did a pictorial in the July 1976 issue of Playboy magazine that was jaw-dropping for the time period, featuring full frontal nudity for Miles and nearly full frontal nudity for Kristofferson; they engaged in an enthusiastic re-enactment of the sex scenes from the movie that would be considered hard-R (think Showtime late-night films) these days.

    • Replies: @Cauchemar du Singe
  5. Haven’t read the novel but I did see this long long ago, and it seemed middling and uninspired. Timidity of approach and tepid style. The films STEPPENWOLF and SIDDHARTHA based on Hesse novels are also acceptable but mediocre. Same with A SEPARATE PEACE. Problem is we don’t want to see first-rate art reduced to merely okay middlebrow fare.

    Sometimes, the essence of an artist isn’t rendered in adaptation or representation(as with Paul Schrader’s MISHIMA) but re-invention or critical deviation. Best Greek Tragedy is HARAKIRI by Kobayashi, and best Homer is TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., which blows away TROY by a mile. Best Kafka on film is David Mamet’s HOMICIDE. Most Kafka adaptations are pretty dull with the exception of Welles’ THE TRIAL.
    And best Mishima in MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE and GOHATTO. Nagisa Oshima, a radical leftist, didn’t share Mishima’s views, and some have noted MR. LAWRENCE was an indirect commentary on Mishima. Still, Oshima tapped into something of myth, romance, and neurosis(of homo-erotic nature) that fueled Mishima’s art.

    • Replies: @Cauchemar du Singe
  6. @lloyd

    The masturbation is mentioned in the book.

    Naoki Inose’s Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima was interesting because of its very matter of fact discussion of sex throughout, which struck me simply as an expression of Japan’s essentially pagan culture. That is why the widow’s behavior did not strike me as odd. But it is a slim basis for such a reaction.

  7. @Robert Evans

    Word around the campfire was that the sex scenes were not simulated, Kris and the Brit ho were really going Squish-Squish, and doing The Old In-Out, In-Out…to quote Alex from Clockwork Orange.

    btw, the pix in Playboy were not re-enactments, but stills from filming.

    Ahhh, The Pre-AIDS ’70s…Horndogs off on a toot.
    Fond memories…no STDs, for me anyway.

    Willie Nelson’s character in “Half Baked”
    ” You know what rubbers cost back in the day ? ”
    Dave Chapelle’s weed dealer, “No.”
    W.N. “Neither do I, we never used them. HAAAAH- HAH-HAH-HAH ”

    • Replies: @Lace
  8. @Priss Factor

    Please, elaborate on, “…best Homer is TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A ”
    Am eager to read such.

    • Replies: @Priss Factor
  9. @Cauchemar du Singe

    Charles Freeman, in his book THE GREEK ACHIEVEMENT, writes:

    “The eighth century… saw an intense interest in ‘the hero’… During his mortal life, the hero has superhuman strength and endurance even if, unlike in other folk traditions, he is not given any special powers. (He cannot transform himself into an animal at a moment of crisis, for example.) His exploits are always recognizably human ones, though carried out at a higher level of achievement… There is an element of the trickster… in his behavior and Homer allows him other virtues, endurance, statesmanship, and athletic prowess… It is in the heat of battle… that the ideal of heroism can be most easily achieved. In war the hero raises himself high above ordinary mortals — partly because the risks of death are so high and the intensity of the moment is so strong — but partly because it is through the act of killing that fame can be won. Yet the hero is mortal. Although he can be given help by the gods, so, too, gods can will or allow his death… When death comes, there is no special reward for the hero… The Greek concept of the hero is important, above all because the human attributes of the hero are never lost. This fostered the idea that every Greek, though most usually from the noble class, could become heroic, achieve ‘arete’, excellence, in his own life. Glory could be achieved through ‘agones’, competitive participation in battle or in games. Victory raises the victor to near godlike status. Death is something worth risking for the sake of everlasting fame and those who appeared to have avoided it could be reviled as were those who competed but lost in the games. (One of the Spartan survivors from the battle of Thermopylae was so effectively ostracized by his home community that he committed suicide.) Alongside heroic behavior comes the idealization of the heroic male body. The search for perfection in human form was to prove one of the driving forces of Greek art. In short, the heroic ethos, and the competitive instincts it released were essential elements in the Greek achievement… However, the Homeric epics are not concerned simply with the glorification of the hero. This would make the epics more than propaganda hymns concerned with the ease with which a here conquers and achieves glory for his community. The greatness of THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY as literature arguably lies in the way they illustrate the difficulties inherent in the heroic role. The greatest glory for the hero comes from activities which court death yet death brings nothing but a shadowy existence in the underworld. Here is the ultimate and inexplicable human tragedy. The Homeric heroes are actively fearful of death, yet they cannot risk the taunt of cowardice… There are other dilemmas for the hero presented in the poems. The clash between Agamemnon and Achilles reflects what must have been very real problems in defining the authority of leaders. On what grounds can one man be expected to accept the supremacy of another’s demands at a moment of crisis; how can individual honor be preserved in the face of such demands?”

    • Replies: @Cauchemar du Singe
  10. robwin says:

    “There is real sexual chemistry between Miles and Kristofferson.”

    Well, I should say so. In fact the pictorial expression of that “chemistry” as seen in Playboy is believed to have led to Kristofferson’s divorce from the lovely Rita Coolidge.

  11. @Priss Factor

    Thank you.
    My education continues.
    Petersen’s character, SS Agent Chance, as a flawed mortal hero, somewhat Achilles-like, is appropriate: hard/physical/daring/fearless enough/competent/surprising/lethal but mortal.
    Downey Sr. as SS Chief of Station…Agamemnon, is apt as authority at odds with hero.

    Your inclusion of Freeman’s work is much appreciated, and leads me to the entire work.
    A pleasure communicating with you.

  12. @Peter D. Bredon

    The Mechanic is definitely interesting. So is Death Wish, where Bronson was once again under the direction of Michael Winner. Between The Mechanic and Death Wish Bronson starred in another gritty crime drama, The Stone Killer. Again with Michael Winner. I don’t think Winner was a fully competent director (his camera placements can be bewildering); but his movies, including the horror thriller, The Sentinel, are entertaining.

    • Replies: @Cauchemar du Singe
  13. @SunBakedSuburb

    Check out “Telefon”…Bronson, Lee Remick, Donald Pleasance…and a big rattlesnake.

    “The woods are lovely, dark and deep…”

    • Replies: @dfordoom
  14. dfordoom says: • Website
    @Cauchemar du Singe

    Check out “Telefon”…Bronson, Lee Remick, Donald Pleasance…and a big rattlesnake.

    There’s a movie that wouldn’t get made today. Bronson as a KGB agent, and he’s the good guy. Good movie.

    • Agree: Cauchemar du Singe
  15. Lace says:
    @Cauchemar du Singe

    Sarah Miles was very good at these scenes, real or simulated. I’m interested that they may have really been fucking–onscreen: It sure looked like it and was convincing with the son looking on and describing it to his friends with this sense of ‘wonder’. But she seemed always to be under a man, whether in Blow-Up or Ryan’s Daughter, and probably some others (she may have been in The Servant, a marvelous film, where she was a supporting character but already big name–but I can’t remember, too long ago.)

    • Replies: @Cauchemar du Singe
  16. @Lace

    “…under a man…” is a problem, how ?
    You prefer Madeleine Stowe’s mo-derne wahmyn style, getting it while standing, in “The Last of The Mohicans” and “Revenge”, where she also performed the hot but dangerous Cowgirl On The Driver.

    Under A Man
    Doggy Style
    Reverse Cowgirl
    Mustache Rider
    Kneeling BJ
    Clam Snax
    Feet Behind The Ears Like Bugs Fukkin Bunny
    Standing 69

    Machts Nichts.

    Scrub up good, Honey, I’m coming home.

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