Translated by John Nathan.
In the port of Yokohama, one hot summer, Noboru, a 13-year-old fatherless boy, a member of a pack of boys held in the thrall of its leader, the ‘chief’, who believes in the insignificance of sex and life and the overwhelming emptiness of the world where only acts like murder can fill such hollows, spies on his mother through a peephole in his dresser and witnesses her nakedness in the arms of a sailor.
The gang of boys ritually kill and skin a stray kitten:
…the glossy layer of fat beneath was like a peeled spring onion. The skinned neck, draped gracefully on the floor, seemed to be wearing a cat mask. The cat was only an exterior, life had posed as a cat.
I killed it all by myself – a distant hand reached into Noboru’s dream and awarded him a snow-white certificate of merit – I can do anything, no matter how awful.
It’s in modernistic prose in shades of Woolf and Joyce, descriptions of the imagination, terrors, and death. Images of, and references to death and the sea, abound.
The sailor, Ryuji, and mother, Fusako, develop their little affair his two-day shore leave. The sailor is a phantom to the boy; not hero-like at all. The boy, Noboru, knowing so much about the world is careful to act the boyish part as he joins his mother on the dock to see Ryuji off; departure is just another step towards death. Fusako is stoic; Ryuji keen to get back on board. The mother and boy watch the sailor’s huge ship drift off into the setting summer sun.
He returns in winter. The mother is there to meet him.
Ryuji slipped his hands under Fusako’s coat and clutched wildly at her body as though searching for life in a corpse he had saved from drowning.
Fusako surprised herself to realise that she had been waiting for him. Ryuji gives Noboru a carved crocodile from Brazil. The boy is careful not to let his boyishness show. “Thanks” but he is angry at the sailor for coming back at all. Not at all heroic.
The mother is persuaded, by the sailor, not to lock the son’s door at night, he’s almost grown; the sailor is helping the son with his maths homework; his mother is kinder and more devoted to him. A trap!
Noboru calls an extraordinary meeting of the gang and much to the horror of the ‘chief’ and the boys the sailor is attempting to create a family, a just, fair, and loving family – all lies – headed by the worst of the worst, according to the chief: a father.
A father is a realty-concealing machine …
The boys must act. The sailor has betrayed the world, lost his love of the sea, the only permissible thing, and intends to enslave the boy to his brand of nothingness.
Noboru could feel a lunatic courage welling with in him.
They have done it before – remember the cat? -they can do it again. However, they must hurry because boys under 14 are not subject to punishment by law; and Noboru, and several of the other boys will be 14 come the spring.
With the help of a friendly invitation to talk to the gang about his seafaring adventures; a secluded location overlooking the sea, and a tea laced with poison, the gang begin their quest to revenge the betrayal of this man they see as a traitor to their cause. Do they succeed?
The book was originally published in 1963 in Japan as 午後の曳航, The Afternoon Towing. The title, as we know it, is a western concoction; its vague but poetic eastern syntax is reminiscent of the supposed colonial authority over the East by the West. This was very much abhorred by Mishima. He was a paradox: he basically lived a Western lifestyle and followed Western culture but raged against Japan’s imitation of the West. Culturally, he sought to promote traditional Japanese values as a post-colonial reaction to the West’s post-war reconstruction of his country.
His life exhibited a mass of contradictions: weak versus strong, masculine versus feminine, physical versus intellectual, eroticism versus aestheticism, elegance versus brutality, beauty versus ugliness, purity versus pollution, East versus West, ‘brave harakiri’ versus ‘defeatist suicide.’
You can find this and his other works here.
In 1976 the story, with the same name but transposed to a small English port town, was filmed; written and directed by Lewis John Carlino and starring Sara Miles and Kris Kristofferson.
Here is a short biography of Mishima on YouTube including an interview with him in English.
“When a boy…discovers that he is more given into introspection and consciousness of self than other boys his age, he easily falls into the error of believing it is because he is more mature than they. This was certainly a mistake in my case. Rather, it was because the other boys had no such need of understanding themselves as I had: they could be their natural selves, whereas I was to play a part, a fact that would require considerable understanding and study. So it was not my maturity but my sense of uneasiness, my uncertainty that was forcing me to gain control over my consciousness. Because such consciousness was simply a steppingstone to aberration and my present thinking was nothing but uncertain and haphazard guesswork.”
― Yukio Mishima,