The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima is a post-World War II novel centering on the ill-fated lovers, Shinji and Hatsue. At first glance, the novel appears to be a classical love story of a couple kept apart due to social and environmental obstacles, but a deeper analysis reveals that The Sound of Waves may be better described as a coming-of-age novel, or rather Bildungsroman, compared to a simple love story. The overlaying plot of the story focuses mostly on the star-crossed lovers and how they overcome the obstacles that stood in their way, but Mishima did not want to keep this novel simple. In addition to the focus on the couple and very pure ideas of love, he puts an even greater and rather subtle emphasis on the development and change in character of the protagonist, Shinji. This is a rather subtle emphasis and until the very last sentence of the novel, it is truly difficult to spot Mishima’s true message. The underlying and main point of the entire novel is the growth of Shinji from a shy boy to a confident man. Mishima emphasizes this growth, development and change that The Sound of Waves is a better depiction of the genre Bildungsroman than a romance novel.
Bildungsroman is basically a coming-of-age novel “dealing with the education and development of its protagonists” (Webster’s College Dictionary Def 1). “Bildung” is originated from German and relates to words such as “portrait”, “picture”, “shaping”, and “formation” while “roman” simply means “novel”. While Bildungsroman is described as a development of the main character, it is divided into subgenres to further specify books. The three subgenres are Entwicklungsroman: a novel of general growth rather than self-cultivation, Erziehungsroman: a novel focussing on training and schooling, and Künstlerroman: a novel concerned with the development of an artist and shows a growth of self. The Sound of Waves is a bit of both Entwicklungsroman and Künstlerroman; however this novel will be assessed based on the general trend of the genre Bildungsroman. There are several trends of a Bildungsroman novel.
One trend is the growth of a child creating an adult. The growth and development is set within the context of a defined social order, in this case the Japanese culture and values. The growth process is usually spurred by a quest to finding meaning and purpose to life. This is not the exact case. However, there is an observable growth and change in Shinji from a very soft-spoken boy to a confident and courageous man. His growth is not a physical development as since the start of the novel, Shinji has been described as “tall and well-built beyond his years, and only his face revealed his youthfulness” (Mishima 6). The growth of Shinji is more of a psychological development. Though at only eighteen of age, Shinji was already work-worn and had the weight of a mother and younger brother on him, there was still a boyish characteristic towards him. He was humble and kind and respectable, he lacked confidence and certainty about himself. Shinji had a very soft-spoken and shy personality and was very passive to life.
He never made the first move and was very hesitant to ask about Hatsue when she first arrived. This flaw of Shinji prevented him from entering adulthood and it was only when the schemas of the village interfered with his relationship with Hatsue. When the entire village became the obstacle, Shinji began to rise above all else. With his reputable profile as being humble and hard-working, Shinji only needed a final push to becoming a man. This push came with the opportunity offered by Hatsue’s father, Terukichi Miyata, to become a “rice-rinser”, apprentice seamen, to Terukichi’s boat Utajima-maru. During this journey, Shinji showed his courage and strength. His brave actions were rewarded with Terukichi’s acceptance and adoption into the family as Hatsue’s husband. His newly developed confidence and certainty in himself can be observed as “e knew it had been his own strength that had tided him through that perilous night” (Mishima 182). This statement was not made in arrogance or vanity as it was an internal though but one of pride and confidence. The Shinji at the beginning of the novel and the Shinji at the very end are two very different persons. By the end of the novel, Shinji had an entirely different mind-set and personality compared to his beliefs and character at the beginning of the novel. Mishima’s portrayal of Shinji’s growth is evident and fits with Bildungsroman’s most important idea, the development and growth of the character.
The growth and development is an arduous and gradual maturity of the protagonist often met with many clashes between the protagonist’s needs and desires and the rules of an unbending social order. This was very much the case in Shinji’s situation. The only reason Shinji and Hatsue were destined to be star-crossed lovers was because their social statuses are not favourable. Shinji is poor with an elderly mother and younger brother to take care of while Hatsue is the daughter of the wealthy Terukichi. The match is less than favourable. In addition to the unfavourable match, the way Shinji and Hatsue sneaked around behind the village’s back also played a factor in the obstacles created by society. Scandals are viciously frowned upon in the Japanese culture, especially a small village in seclusion. Though their desire and needs are very pure, the way it was portrayed to the public made it a problem. There is an evident clash between Shinji and the villagers on Uta-Jima.
The third trait of Bildungsroman was that eventually the values and standards of the society will manifest in the main character, who will then find a place in society and ending the novel with an assessment by the protagonist of himself and his new place in the society. Eventually the scandals and gossips of Shinji and Hatsue fade away and with Terukichi’s acceptance and adoption of Shinji as Hatsue’s husband, Shinji finally finds his new place in the village. The change is quite drastic from a boy wearing “a pair of trousers inherited from his dead father and a cheap jumper” to a man “wearing laundered trousers and a clean white sport shirt” (Mishima 6) (Mishima 176). Shinji is adjusting to his new position in the village and the novel end with an assessment by Shinji on his acknowledgement that “it had been his own strength that had tided him through that perilous night” and not the protection of Hatsue’s photo and love. Shinji has definitely shifted his beliefs which in turn helped him adjust to his new position in the society.
However, this novel did not fulfill the genre’s idea of the hero suffering some form of loss or discontent to stray away from the home and social norms of the culture. However this was not exactly the case in Shinji’s case. His journey was not spurred by a loss or discontent. Though the many obstacles posed by the villagers may have disheartened Shinji, he is by no means unhappy with his culture and beliefs. What prompted him on his journey did not come out of nowhere, but was rather very expected. In Uta-Jima, “hen boys of the village reached the age of seventeen or eighteen they began their maritime training in the capacity of “rice-rinsers”” (Mishima, 148). Evidently, Shinji would eventually become a “rice-rinser” and would have joined another ship had he not been offered a position by Terukichi. The journey was not one of loss but one of hope as there were possible hints that Terukichi was going to accept him. In this case what spurred the quest and journey was not the typical loss or discontent.
Even though, The Sound of Waves is not a perfect depiction of the genre Bildungsroman, it is a very good representative of the genre. Perhaps not every single trait of Bildungsroman is echoed in the novel, but it is important to note that Bildungsroman is based on the basic principles of education and development and the journey from childhood to adulthood. These generalizations help to identify the genre but it is the differences that make the novel its own story. Everyone has a different story while going through the similar stages of development to reach maturity and their own niche and purpose within the society.