Review Of The Sound Of Waves, by Yukio Mishima
Copyright © by
Jessica Schneider, 12/26/10
Before this point, I was beginning to think that Yukio Mishima was only
capable of one type of novel—that is, the angsty, pissed off, young male
protagonist in search of self-destruction. In fact, it is sort of a joke among
Mishima readers, in that one does not need to wonder too much what the unfolding
of events will be. If there’s an attractive, young male, he will likely die
(usually by seppuku) because all beauty must be destroyed. If there are women
present, they’re likely dull, nagging, one-dimensional and getting in the way
of said young male’s homoerotic fantasies. Destruction, angst, and
hyperbole—all of these traits are often present within Mishima’s work,
albeit he tends to write them very well. In other words, while I can’t claim
Mishima to be a great writer (since his work tends to lack a complexity
that is found within the best of Kawabata or Tanizaki, or so I’ve seen) what
he does do, for most of the time, he does very well.
The Sound of Waves is unlike any other Mishima novel I have
encountered, for not only are the characters more “realistic” and
“normalized,” Mishima has moments of tenderness within this book, and it is
for these reasons why The Sound of Waves is a different sort of Mishima
novel. Translated by Meredith Weatherby, The Sound of Waves is not a
great work but it is a very good one—perhaps even excellent, and along with The
Temple of the Golden Pavilion, one of his best books (that I’ve read).
The Sound of Waves is a rather simple love story involving a young
man named Shinji and his involvement with a rich man’s daughter, named Hatsue.
Set on an isolated fishing village in Japan, there are lovely passages
describing the ocean and scenery that surrounds. Some of the most interesting
parts to the book, in fact, are not those involving the “love story” but the
lives of those around them, and some of the intricacies involving fishing, pearl
diving and the village where this is taking place.
In many ways, the core of the tale is rather predictable: Hatsue’s father wishes to keep his daughter from Shinji, and then there are secondary characters who are both interested in the young couple. One girl, named Chiyoko, is rather unhappy and feels trapped within her life. In one scene, she presses her face against a window, only to watch the outside storm. The narrator notes: “Outdoors was the storm; indoors, domesticity. Nowhere was there anyone to heed Chiyoko’s unhappiness.” A student to Western language, while reading an English book, she is unable to make out any of the words, and instead only sees gulls flying between the lines.
Mishima crafts this effective moment of longing, which only adds to the sympathy readers feel towards her character. The people in this book, while a certain archetype, are not stereotypes. The Sound of Waves is not so much about any one “love story” per se, but the exterior of that—the gossip that results, the mindless chatter, all of which creates a sort of distracting and rhythmic noise that, much like the sounds of waves themselves, can either grow louder or be tuned out, depending on the individual.
One of the most memorable scenes involves a butterfly flying over the ocean, and while it is being watched, the description is detailed and tender—very unlike what one expects to find within a Mishima novel:
“Soaring high, the butterfly was trying to fly away from the island, directly into the sea-breeze. Mild though it seemed, the breeze tore at the butterfly’s tender wings. In spite of it, however, the butterfly, high in the air, finally got clear of the island. The mother stared until it was only a black spec against the dazzling sky.”
The ending too, is not one of death and violence but of a shared laughter and exchange. Did Mishima even write this novel? I can almost imagine him saying: “I am going to force myself to write something happy for a change.” I’ve been told that his intention was to write something fluffy for the masses, but whatever his intention, the final product works. Too bad he never tried comedy as perhaps that might have…alright, I better not push it.
The Sound of Waves is not regarded as one of Mishima’s more “important” works. In fact, it tends to get passed over in exchange for his Sea of Fertility series, in addition to other works that reflect his autobiographical obsessions. Yet, The Sound of Waves is actually one of his better works. Another advantage the novel has is its brevity, for at times, Mishima feels the need to pontificate, which can often lead to pages of preaching. The Sound of Waves is lyrical, concise, well developed and definitely memorable. For those new to the Mishima arena, The Sound of Waves will show readers his craftsmanship and skill, but those looking for biographical insights will be disappointed. But isn’t a writer’s lack of predictability a good thing?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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