Paul Schrader‘s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a towering, unique, and absolutely gorgeous work that explores the life and final moments of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata). Blending together moments from Mishima’s final day as he attempts to overthrow the government of Japan, dramatizations from segments of three of his books, and flashback sequences that show his youth and vignettes from his life before and during his planning of the coup. This is a beautiful film, one that both celebrates the skill of its subject and also never shies away from critiquing his approach to the world, all by examining the self that he put forth in his work and in his actions on Earth. This is a tremendously woven together look at a man who used words to express himself until those words no longer did the job.
While a tremendous character study, where Mishima often excels is in its visuals and in its sound. The golds, the blues, the reds, the greens, the pinks, the oranges, and even the blacks and whites, all come together in perfect harmony with the film being both a burst of color and a tremendous use of the entire color palette at Schrader’s disposal. The end result is a film that is absolutely transfixing at every point. This color is undoubtedly one of the main elements of Mishima, particularly in the dramatization portions. Using color to differentiate between the various storylines, they come to mean far more in the context of the story, often existing as symbols or indicators of mood within each section. The dramatizations often capture a surreal feeling fitting for a “story within a story” via this use of color with aerial shots revealing a stark black exterior surrounding a boxed-in “stage” where the action occurs. The film also shows off DP John Bailey‘s tremendously slick camera work, often using dolly shots or using shadows quite strikingly such as when a group of young nationalists plot their coup. Together, the frequent sweeping camera movements and lighting help to give the film considerable visual flair. All of this being accented by Philip Glass‘s tremendous score, often rapturous while always being attention grabbing, adds yet another cherry to the top of this film’s beauty.
Yet, at its core, this is a character study, both of Mishima himself and of Japan. The beauty is unmistakable, whether in the score, cinematography, or the color. What is not always beautiful, however, is Mishima himself. He is a man guided by his own pride and belief that he is the one who can resurrect Japan to the glory that he perceives the days of the samurai to have been. Schrader’s admiration for him as an artist and as a writer is unmistakable, as Mishima’s mastery of language takes center stage on many occasions with the film slipping into poetic narrations and intimate looks at the inner workings of his mind as he wrote, spilling his every thought into both his consciousness and onto the page. Mishima knew how to write beautifully, but became disenchanted. His words did not have the impact he hoped, as shown by him woefully trying to speak to a group of “radical left” university students at Tokyo University, only to be shouted down and told he is speaking nonsense. In a personal moment surrounded by chaos, he even states that, as he tries to make people cry while on stage, he often realizes that he is making them laugh. He is out-of-touch in a world defined by action, not words. The very first act of this film finds him admitting this, viewing words and the world in absolute contradiction with one another. This sets the stage for his ultimate demise at the film’s end, for he was a man who could never fit into the new Japan or the world at-large.
Mishima often follows its subject’s life through black-and-white flashbacks, largely adapted from his autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask. The film’s flashbacks start from the very beginning in which a young Mishima is raised by a vain, hateful, and ill grandmother who has an indelible impression upon this young man. From there, we see a series of moments that come to describe and portray who this man would become. Schrader shows a formative moment in his Mishima’s life when he masturbates at age six to an image of a Christian martyr, which would later transpire into his own vanity and obsession with looks. From boxing to trying to fit into a hyper-masculine version himself as a military leader, and even stating that nobody should live past 40 due to the decay of one’s appearance after that age, Mishima is shown to be impeccably vain. These flashback sequences even show him starting his own division in the army with very traditional and ritualistic ceremonies – namely signing an agreement in blood – and his own experiences as a soldier during WWII only to find himself sent home after faking a cough. By the time he finally dies, the audience has been shown every setup for why he will do what he does. The obsession with beauty, the destruction of that beauty, his radicalization, and his rather introspective approach to his life all come to the forefront. Mishima seeks certainty and understanding, which would not come until he died a violent death, fulfilling much of his own personal ideology and meeting with an end he had been spiraling towards since youth.
In “Beauty”, the first chapter, Schrader partially adapts Mishima’s story “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion”, in which a young man with a stutter burns down a pavilion because he felt inadequate in the face of its absolute beauty. This young man, Mizoguchi (Yasosuke Bando), acts out by burning down this golden pavilion, somewhat mirroring his own vanity. Yet, this portion is both personal and political. It speaks to Mishima’s insecurity and lack of comfort in a world where his words either fail him or are just inadequate, also foreshadowing to how he will respond to these issues. Meanwhile, in “Art”, the second chapter, Schrader partially adapts “Kyoto’s House” and depicts the sadomasochistic relationship between a young man and an older woman. Schrader shows the dissatisfaction within the young Osamu (Kenji Sawada) as he may sleep with beautiful women, but finds no substance. In an older woman who cuts him when they have sex, he finds the exact intersection of beauty and action that he was unconsciously hoping for. This fits nicely with a flashback in which Mishima discusses how the human body is art. Thus, the eventual destruction of the human body in “Art” is key in viewing Mishima’s eventual descent into action and violence. For Mishima, it demonstrates his own radicalization as he destroys art – and, in a way, himself – while both chapters find him creating stories about young men who see the Japan around them with great disdain. In the end, both turn to violence as the only way to escape this social decay, destroying themselves in the process.
It is in chapter three – “Action” – that Mishima finds its subject going off the rails, with Schrader adapting “Runaway Horses” in which a group of young men plan to overthrow the Japanese government to rid it of the capitalist influence and restore Japan to its old traditions. It is exactly the radicalist movement that Mishima was leading and that Mishima the film would expand upon in flashbacks in chapter three and real-life events in chapter four. Mishima’s plan to restore Japan and help the citizens overcome their new greed-driven way of life fails. He has followers derived from his own military force, so he is not alone. Yet when Mishima speaks to a garrison of soldiers, they shout him down as the university students had, while he admits that they probably did not even hear him. In the end, he realizes this Japan cannot be changed because nobody wants it to change. Mishima finds himself both out of touch with the world and wholly incapable of using action instead of language to communicate.
The tragedy of Yukio Mishima is undeniable as his adeptness with language, poetry, and storytelling is on display. Yet, he was not infallible as he was often incredibly vain and proud. His love of Japan and his desire to change it, however, do drive this film and his own eventual radicalization with many of his vain statements and portrayals undoubtedly also applying to how he viewed the nation he loved so dearly. It is only natural the film ends with the fourth chapter, “Harmony of Pen and Sword”. For Mishima, the only convergence of art and action is death and with his failure to achieve his goals and his refusal to watch Japan and himself decay even further, it is this lone option that remains. Possessing gorgeous colors, a tremendous score, and terrific direction, Mishima is not just a masterpiece but a true work of art from director Paul Schrader, proving to be a film with many possible readings, a variety of ideas expressed, and a unique fabric that differentiates itself from any other film via an embracing of both realism and surrealism. Yet, at its core, this is a film about a man who was, for a long time, the “seer” and his doomed desire to become both the “seer” and the “seen” by finally taking action.
Criterion Collection Blu-ray Extras:
Ranging from explorations of Mishima by those close to him or even himself to interviews speaking about the production of the film itself, the supplements on Mishima convey a wealth of information. Mishima on Mishima, John Nathan and Donald Richie, and the BBC documentary The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima all dive into the man behind the myth. Learning about his influences and philosophies, these particular segments are an incredibly interesting dive into the man himself and serve as a great complement to the film. Just as Schrader had done, the interviews and documentary explore various works and stages in his life, exploring the impact these life events had on his overall view towards the world and himself.
The extras Chieko Schrader and Producing Mishima offer a terrific look at the background of the film, the highly negative view towards it from right-wing activists in Japan, the struggle to get the rights to his story, and the production issues that arose. It is particularly interesting to hear the different sides of the film’s production story from Chieko Schrader – wife of Paul Schrader’s brother, Len, who also wrote the film with Chieko – as she recounts helping to secure the rights while the men interviewed in Producing Mishima, Mataichiro Yamamoto and Tom Luddy who were producers, had a different perspective on it and spoke about their own efforts to secure the rights. Behind-the-scenes stories of how Francis Ford Coppola got involved or a great story of how George Lucas suggested that the film be distributed by Warner Bros because he knew they would never say no as they wanted to bury the hatchet with him, also prove of great interest.
Yet, the star supplement has to be the 2008 interviews with composer Philip Glass, production designer Eiko Ishioka, and cinematographer John Bailey. Going between the three of them, the interviews dive into every frame, every shot, every set, and every note of the film. The explanations regarding the film’s different shooting techniques for each setting – mimicking 1930s-1950s Japanese films for the black-and-white portions, relying on frequent dolly shots and a more conventional style to let the set capture a surreal feeling in the novel dramatizations, and using a quasi-documentary style for the scenes in the “present” – prove quite illuminating. Ishioka’s explanation of the thematic intent with every color and Glass’s explanation of the composing process also prove quite compelling. These extras, as a whole, accomplish two main things that are crucial for any group of supplements: they make the viewer appreciate the film even more and they make the viewer want to drop everything and watch the film again with the information in mind.