Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) ****
Directed by: Paul Schrader.
Written by: Paul & Leonard Schrader and Chieko Schrader collaborating with Jun Shiragi parts based on the novels by Yukio Mishima.
Starring: Ken Ogata (Yukio Mishima), Masayuki Shionoya (Morita), Junkichi Orimoto (General Mashita), Naoko Ôtani (Mother), Gô Rijû (Mishima, age 18-19), Masato Aizawa (Mishima - age 9-14), Yuki Nagahara (Mishima, age 5), Haruko Kato (Grandmother), Roy Scheider (Narrator).
The same is true of Yukio Mishima, the famed Japanese novelist that is the subject of perhaps Schrader’s best film as a director. Mishima became famous after WWII, and was widely regarded as Japan’s greatest living novelist – almost winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, a year before his death. Mishima went out in spectacular style – when he, along with a few of his devout followers tied up a high ranking General, and demanded to speak to the troops on the base. They allowed this, yet as Mishima was giving his insane speech, he was mocked and jeered by the soldiers. Retreating back into General’s office, he commits suicide by seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment), which was his plan all along. How did Mishima get to this point?
This is the question that Schrader tries to answer in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), but ultimately, I don’t think he comes up with an answer. Yet, rather than making this film a failure, I think it actually makes the film somewhat more interesting. My favorite biopics, like Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007) about Bob Dylan, often leave their protagonists as much of an enigma as they were when the films started. The same can definitely be said of Mishima.
Told in four chapters – Beauty, Art, Action and Harmony of Pen and Sword – Mishima covers the man’s life and his work from early childhood until the day he commits seppuku. The scenes of Mishima early in life are shot in gorgeous black and white, and cover his confusing childhood first being raised by his grandmother, because she thought his mother was unfit, then going to live with that mother when grandmother dies. At the outbreak of WWII, Mishima goes to enlist, but gets a medical rejection – although the film states that he exaggerated his illness to get out of service. Perhaps this is the key moment in Mishima’s life – the shame of lying to get out of dying for his country. During the first three chapters, we also get mini adaptation of three of Mishima’s books – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, about a stuttering young man who experiences sexual humiliation, and ends up waiting for American bombers to come and destroy the beautiful Golden Pavilion in his hometown of Kyoto (and is devastated when they don’t), Kyoko’s House, about a strange, almost incestuous relationship between a son and his mother, and how the son plays it out with an older woman who abuses him, and finally Runaway Horses, about a military group plotting an assassination so that the Emperor of Japan can reassume his “rightful place” as ruler of Japan. These sequences are shot in brilliant, over the top color and style The final chapter is almost exclusively about the day in which Mishima kills himself. These scenes are the most “realistic” of the movie, and are anchored by the great performance by Ken Ogata, one of Japan’s best actors.
What does all of this add up to? I’m not exactly sure. It can be dangerous to try and read too much into the art to get to know the artist behind it, but Schrader gives us a valiant effort in his three adaptations, which in total reveals a man obsessed with beauty and death. The flashbacks pain Mishima’s evolution from a shy, quiet child, into a right wing ideologue, preaching that Japan had grown weak in the years following WWII, that the army needed to be stronger (so he starts his own army), and that the Emperor was the rightful leader of Japan. The scenes of his last day portray a man who is confident in what he is doing, and that it is the right thing. He doesn’t even seem too phased by the mocking and jeering that come at him during his speech. He sticks to the plan.
Ultimately what emerges is a character not unlike Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Both are men obsessed with death and destruction, who have molded an ideology to fit their obsessions, instead of the other way around. Bickle doesn’t particularly how he gets to his endgame – whether its assassinating a Senator or killing a group of pimps and johns, to him it leads to the same place. With Mishima, I think he saw himself as a romantic figure, suppressing himself (it is quite clear that at least Mishima was bi-sexual, if not just gay) who wanted to commit seppuku, and simply adopted his right wing stance as a means to get him there. Mishima directed one film, a short entitled Patriotism, which is about (of course) a military man who commits seppuku in front of his wife. If you watch that film, Mishima’s politics really don’t come through very well at all – he seems more obsessed with getting the details of the seppuku right than the reasons behind it. This is how he wanted to die – and he just wanted a reason to get there.
It also must be said that Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a massive technical accomplishment. The cinematography by John Bailey ranks among the best of any American film of the 1980s – gorgeous black and white for the flashbacks, saturated colors for the fiction segments, and realistic colors for the day of his suicide; it is all handled well by Bailey. The art direction, which requires a lot of details through these four chapters, is also top notch. Although I often feel like the scores of Phillip Glass are too grandiose for their own good, here writing his first score for a fiction film, it works beautifully. Schrader keeps the score going throughout almost the entire movie, and it casts a spell over the proceedings. Ken Ogata’s performance of the obsessed man in his final years is brilliant at every turn – matching his performance as a psychopath in Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine.
Ultimately, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a challenging, thought provoking film. No, it does not answer all the questions about the man – it may not even answer any of them – but it is a haunting film, one that asks tough questions, and demands the audience to try and answer them. As a country, Japan seems to want to forget that Mishima existed, or at least how he died – this film has never had an official release in that country. His legacy makes that country uncomfortable. As a film, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters has often been called flawed by critics. That may well be true, but it is gloriously flawed in a way that only truly great films are. It may be too ambitious for its own good. But I wouldn’t want this film any other way.