Summary: Highest Recommendation
Comment: Without once making specific or explicit reference to Catholicism, Shusaku Endo's membership in the Mystical Body of Christ is as clear as mountain water. With superb craftsmanship and artistry, Endo depicts the nightmarish results of living one's life without seeking and obtaining that membership, without obedience to the commandments of the Lord and the teachings of His Church.
No, it's not a question of being holier than thou -- after all, we're all sinners. Rather, it's a question of knowing the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil, and not pretending that there is no difference, or that the inverse might be true, or that there is no truth at all.
According to Endo, the character Suguro can go no further. But we can. If we don't shake off this diabolical disorientation, we can sink deeper and deeper into the sea of poison; wander further and further through the sinister halls of our own Fukuoka University Medical School.
I liked this book much more than what is generally considered Endo's masterpiece, "Silence", so poorly translated by the Christophobic William Johnston. Michael Gallagher, translator of "The Sea and Poison", also pays some homage to oh-so trendy Christophobia. His is not as egregious as Johnston's, however, and he's a much more careful translator.
Summary: READS LIKE A HAIKU
Comment: SEA AND POISON by Shusaku Endo
Reading Shusaku Endo's Sea and Poison was such a delightful experience I was reluctant to close the book. Granted, it is sad to read about cruel and heartless experiments on living human beings but that is not what the book is about. From the vantage point of Japanese/Christian culture Endo courageously shines his compassionate light into the dark crevices of our souls and makes us confront our own demons nesting there. In doing so he helps us become better persons. Robert Wright in his often quoted The Moral Animal points out that "Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse." Endo does us a service by diminishing our "constitutional ignorance of the misuse" [of our moral equipment]"
Endo traces the inner development of his characters with such a deep understanding of the human condition that I was astounded and moved to tears and joy. He placed two aspiring medical doctors, Toda and Sugura in a University hospital in southern Japan now seemingly under the control of the military establishment. The end of the Japanese/American war was quickly approaching. Daily bombing of the nearby city flattened the city and killed thousands of civilians and gave rise to implacable hatred directed towards two enemy airmen the military captured and brought to the hospital for experiments to determine how much could be surgically removed from a person before the person died. Toda and Sugura are assigned to assist the chief medical doctor who controls the future of the two aspiring doctors. Endo explores how Toda and Sugura deal with the conflicting demands of society, the medical establishment the nation and their conscious. Endo gently opens a window into their souls and allows us to witness the mighty clash between the demands of self preservation and the importuning of their conscious.
Endo writes so evocatively, with such elegance and grace and without a trace of judgment or preaching it was like reading a book length haiku. I recommend that the readers read Bushido the Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe, (it's in the public domain and several sources allow a free download). Reading Inazo gave me a deeper and broader understanding of Endo's perspective and I intend to return to reading his books.
Summary: The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil
Comment: Edmund Burke would have agreed with Endo's novel "The Sea and Poison". Although a short novel, it is one that delves into some very deep issues about morality and the ethics of passively accepting evil in one's presence.
Contrary to another review, "The Sea and Poison" is not based on the activities of Unit 731 in Manchuria at all. The novel is based on the vivisection of 8 B29 crewmen at Fukuoka Imperial University. These experiments involved removal of lung tissue, puncturing hearts and other experiments, while the airmen were alive. None survived the experiments.
Returning to the novel, Endo focuses on a medical intern, Suguro, and his friend Toda. Both characters represent very different responses to the proposal to vivisect the airmen. Toda feels no guilt or remorse, and has no issue with taking part. It is not even matter of justifying it to hinmself: he just has little response in his conscience. Suguro, on the other hand, is flooded with doubt, ethical problems, and his own conscience. Shown to be a basically kind man, the novel reinforces Burke's suggestion that all evil needs is for good men to do nothing.
A burning look into the morality of the passive, "The Sea and Poison" will challenge and provoke. Despite its brevity, it packs a punch, and will leave you thinking for long after you have turned the last page. As usual, Endo has written a fantastic novel with real weight.
Summary: War - what is it good for?
Comment: This short, dark, psychologically gripping novel is an indictment of militarism and its corrupting effect on the individual and society. The old, the young, the innocent, the pure of heart, caregivers, families, traditions, institutions - all will be degraded if not destroyed by it. It is, for me, Endo's most important and accessible work; it is also that rare thing, a Japanese artist's unsparing summation of the worthlessness and hideousness of The Fifteen Year War.
Summary: Info on Film Version
Comment: My compliments to the reviewers who have contributed to the further publicity of this harrowing and psychologically complex novel, an exploration of those who have denounced their spirituality in exchange for social acceptance, and the consequences they have to suffer. I would like to just add one side note. There is an excellent film adaptation of SEA AND POISON, directed by Kumai Kei in 1986. Because of the controversial subject matter, no major studio would finance the film and it took Kumai years to finish it. (It would certainly not be made in today's Japan, considering the strength of revisionists and glorifiers of the imperial past) This movie has also been nearly completely neglected in the US, no doubt due to its unflinching realism, thoroughly unexotic visuals and political content, something we do not expect from the country mostly known to us through bubblehead animation, Power Rangers and Godzilla. Please do seek it out, if you have wherewithal to do so, and show it to as many Americans (and Chinese, etc.) as you can. I believe the US distrubtor in 1987 was Gates Films.