Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

Even so, when the day's fishing was almost done, the sight of a white freighter sailing against the evening clouds on the horizon filled the boy's heart with strange emotions.  From far away the world came pressing upon him with a hugeness he had never before apprehended.  The realization of this unknown world came to him like distant thunder, now pealing from afar, now dying away into nothingness.

Yukio Mishima's The Sound of Waves is set on the (fictional?) fishing island of Uta-jima.  Shinji, a recent high school graduate, is a fisherman there; his mother is a traditional pearl diver.  These two jobs more or less express the way labor is divided by gender on this island, and has been for centuries.  Even the daughter of the wealthiest man on the island--whom he once had adopted, but then summoned back once his sons died, which is pretty fucked up--is a pearl diver, too.

That daughter's name is Hatsue, and Shinji, setting eyes on her for the first time, falls madly in love.  She returns his affections but others, less pure at heart, get in the way: a young ne'er-do-well named Yasuo, convinced he's entitled to Hatsue's hand in marriage because of his own wealth and status, tries to sexually assault her; a jealous girl named Chiyoko spreads a rumor that Shinji has violated Hatsue's virginity, a rumor that gets back to Hatsue's father.  The plot of the novel, which is incredibly slim and stripped down, comprises Shinji and Hatsue's struggle to be together in the face of opposing gossip.  Neither is especially clever, but Shinji is something of a holy fool, whose inherent goodness seems destined to win out in the end, and does.

The action of The Sound of Waves is always in the context of life on the island, which Mishima describes as somehow out of the reach of modern life.  Big fishing freighters pass by the island like ghosts from another world, suggesting, but not explaining, the life that Shinji might otherwise have.  In one funny scene, Shinji's brother Hiroshi goes on a school trip to Kyoto, where he goes to see a movie.  Hiroshi and his friends complain about the hard narrow seats until someone shows them how they fold down.  In Hiroshi's reflections on his trip, Mishima captures something of the strange whiplash feeling of travel: "Those gleaming streetcars and automobiles that had come upon him so suddenly, flashed by, and disappeared, those towering buildings and neon lights that had so amazed him--where were they now?"  The Sound of Waves isn't skeptical about modern or urban life, necessarily, but it does suggest that the purity and sweetness of Shinji and Hatsue's relationship is only possible on an island like this one, forgotten by time and technology.

Mishima was a weird dude: an actor and model in addition to a writer, he was also a fierce Japanese nationalist who committed suicide after leading a failed coup to help restore the Emperor.  Very little of that militarism or anger seems present here, but there's a recognizable kind of nostalgia for a nationalist past, the idyllic past as represented by Uta-jima.  As is often the case for foreign readers encountering that sort of trope, the charms of the island seemed mostly distant and opaque.  The Sound of Waves is pretty charming and subtle, but I didn't find it very memorable.

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