The Sound of Waves

The Sound of WavesThe Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970) was first published in 1954 in Japanese. If you do not know who Mishima was, then you are missing out on one of the scandalous stories of the century. The translator for the novel is Meredith Weatherby (1914 – 1997) – yet another scandalous character. Both Mishima and Weatherby ran in some of the same circles as Tamotsu Yato (1928 – 1973) and Donald Richie (1924 – 2013), who were involved in film, art, and photography. Much of the work and interests of these people crossed paths repeatedly; especially because much of their production was classified in the homoerotic genre. For example, Tamtosu Yato’s photography books of young Japanese males contained introductions written by Mishima and/or were dedicated to Mishima. Weatherby was an actor (Cp. Tora! Tora! Tora) and publisher (hence, translating and publishing Mishima’s writing), and also Tamtosu Yato’s lover. Needless to say, intentional or not, engagement with one of these folks usually contains a connection to one of the others.

All of that being said, I read the Vintage International edition translated by Weatherby. I feel that the closeness of those folks [sic] probably guarantees that the translation was faithful to the original Japanese. However, I also think that proximity causes bias, and I would definitely purchase and read another translation if one were to be published.

A last note on the book itself – there are ink drawings at each of the chapter beginnings. These were done by Yoshinori Kinoshita and they are perfect. They complement the story perfectly and I found myself pausing in my reading to look at these illustrations.

Anyway, The Sound of Waves is one of Mishima’s earlier novels. I read it because it is the earliest novel of his that I own. I have owned it for decades, but there are so many books that are on shelves waiting to be read. I think this is a very good novel for a number of reasons, although I can also agree with most of the criticisms of the novel that I have read.

The novel takes place, mainly, on Uta-jima, a small island. It is important to note that in the first sentence this is translated as Song Island. The greatest element of this novel, in my opinion, is the setting. Being titled The Sound of Waves and setting the story on Song Island, should cause the reader to immediately sense the carefully selected wording that the author chooses. The word selection that develops each and every scene is deliberate and not frivolous.  The nice thing that comes from this deliberateness is a vivid and robust description of Uta-jima that does not come from a deluge of adjectival verbosity, but rather from spare, precise, nearly-poetic writing. The setting is so realistic and strong that it is almost another character in the novel.

At 183 pages, this could easily be an afternoon read. However, it does not seem like the sort of novel one should read-through with haste. Uta-jima is not an island in which the residents live with haste. Home to fourteen-hundred residents, the novel spins around the connections that exist between a handful of characters. We meet the main character, Shinji, in the evening of a day like most days – a day occupied by the main industry of the residents of the island, fishing.  Shinji, who is eighteen years old, is bringing a halibut caught that day to the lighthouse, for the lighthouse-keeper. En route to the lighthouse, Shinji comes upon a young lady whom he has never seen before, the surprise of this confuses him and he silently tries to identify her. This whole event is but a moment in the twilight, but it sets up the entire rest of the novel.

In retrospect, is this novel a story of love-at-first-sight? Most descriptions of this novel call it a “coming-of-age” novel.  That is a categorization that really vexes me. I usually avoid novels that are classified that way because I find it absurd and ridiculous. I guess in a way, Shinji is at a turning point in his life. He has been supporting his family for awhile and he is old enough to consider a career/marriage/etc.  However, even though this focus is on Shinji, I feel like Mishima is not writing about how Shinji develops into a young man and the decisions that occur. In fact, there is little or no “character growth” at all when it comes to Shinji. The stolid young man we meet on page 6, is nearly the exact same as the young man we depart on page 183. In fact, I might even go so far as to suggest the novel is a demonstration of how success comes to such a solid, unchanging, and strong character. An ode, perhaps, to the rigid and dependable ideal of the samurai that Mishima was always so enamored.

Still, on the surface, its a love story. Shinju and Hatsue forever – carve it in a tree trunk or something. They are good kids, and the reader is going to root for them. Because the story, on the surface, is fairly straightforward and unsurprising. This is another criticism that I read. Some readers felt that the story was too basic and not nuanced; I guess readers did not feel challenged. Well, the story is one that, in one form or another, we are all familiar with in novels and film and in real life. Two kids fall in love, this affects the others who are connected in some way to the situation. The others react in various ways, which causes further effects that spread out like the Doppler system. In the end, everyone has to play a rôle and adjust to the events.

Frankly, I think that because it is such a common storyline that the novel is actually worthy of more praise. Such a well-known and obvious storyline is elevated by such good writing and style that this begs the question of whether this is not what, precisely, art is supposed to do. In other words, taking the common in life and making it elevated or highlighting the spiritual, the magical, the extraordinary within the everydayness.

Finally, Mishima’s passion for physicality is apparent with every deliberate scene. The materiality and the tangibility of character’s bodies, the wind and the waves, the temperatures and the scenery, all are very important to Mishima. For example, readers can feel the rain, they can feel the hole in the sweater, and they can see the too-bright sunshine on blinding sand. Now, not all of readership wants to focus on what Mishima focuses on, but for a short novel, it is poignant and powerful. Definitely worthwhile reading.

The very subtle usage of elements of Shinto are also noteworthy. In delicate and significant scenes, the faith of Shinji is like all other characteristics displayed by him – solid and diligent. I liked these little moments of religion on this little island.

Overall, this is a novel with a lot to offer readers who are careful not to heap expectations on it before they start reading. It contains a somewhat timelessly familiar story within a careful arrangement of setting and sound. Even if readers do not necessarily like the novel, I suspect it is still a novel they will be glad to have read.

4 stars

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