“The Sound of Waves” is a typical boy-meets-girl story. Shinji is a poor fisherman on Uta-jima, a small island in Ise Bay. Hatsue left the island as a young girl to train to be a pearl diver. When she returns, now a young woman, Shinji falls for her but finds he has a rival in the rich and powerful Yasuo.

The Sound of Waves, by Yukio Mishima.
192 pages
VINTAGE, Fiction.

The couple struggle to maintain an illicit courtship in the face of malicious rumors and parental intransigence. When Yasuo and Shinji are chosen to join the crew of a merchant cargo ship, Shinji’s selflessness and bravery in a crisis mark him out as the better man.

The continuing popularity of “The Sound of Waves” — it has been adapted for screen five times — lies in its accessibility. The dense philosophizing that characterized Yukio Mishima’s later works is absent here, and the story is disarming in its simplicity. It is rather a conservative tale, where the chaste and honest couple who observe social traditions are rewarded after stoically suffering, but the beauty of Mishima’s prose and the vibrant evocation of island life elevate this short novel far beyond its constituent parts.

It also deals more directly with the aftermath of World War II than most of Mishima’s work. The island, facing the Pacific, is littered with reminders of the conflict, most movingly in the absence of fathers. It’s no surprise that it won Mishima the Shincho Prize in 1954 or that there is a booming tourist trade of fan pilgrimage on Kami-shima, the model for Uta-jima. (Iain Maloney)

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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