11th Jun2018

‘Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Junkichi Orimoto, Naoko Ôtani, Masato Aizawa, Gô Rijû | Written by Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader, Chieko Schrader | Directed by Paul Schrader


Lucasfilm isn’t just about lightsabers, high fantasy and hunky archaeologists, you know. Occasionally it has produced films like this one: Paul Schrader’s truly original biopic about the Japanese author Yukio Mishima (real name Kimitake Hiraoka), a right-wing artist who spearheaded the infamous “Mishima Incident” in 1970. Despite winning awards for production design, cinematography and music (Philip Glass’s theme is instantly recognisable) at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival, the film has never been released in Japan.

“Words are insufficient,” Mishima (Ken Ogata) laments early on. He’s seeking a new form of expression. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a portrait of a frustrated artist, so it’s easy to see why Schrader – the man who wrote Taxi Driver over a fevered fortnight – would be attracted to the story. Handily, Paul’s brother and co-writer Leonard was fluent in Japanese.

The film is fragmented, but its broad structure is framed around the aforementioned “Incident”, which saw Mishima lead a group of soldiers to kidnap an army general (Junkichi Orimoto) and restore the rule of the former Emperor. A rash and hopelessly ambitious plan, the other parts of the film give the scheme context, showing us Mishima’s life from childhood to adulthood, and also a selection of his plays, which conspicuously mirror the real-world events.

Mishima is overprotected in childhood by his grandmother (Haruko Katô). “Don’t go outside!” she warns. But how else can he change the world? “My need to transform reality was an urgent necessity,” he narrates. To do this, Mishima tries to marry his two roles as an army officer (a man of action) and an artist (a man of expression). Easier said than done, especially when he is also concealing his burgeoning homosexual feelings whilst simultaneously searching for authenticity.

Schrader separates each of the three sections – the present, the past and the plays – with distinctive visual styles. The kidnap plot is filmed with handheld immediacy, and the colour palette is pale and drained; the backstory sections are shot with monochrome formality; and the plays are highly stylised, splashed with bold colours and collapsible sets. It works brilliantly, not just as an aid to following the many strands, but as a means to character: the broken jigsaw of Mishima’s mind, which he’s never able to fully piece together.

The themes are dense and deep, but are kept from the rabbit hole because these are all facets of Mishima’s mind. He is conflicted, but we always get the sense that these incompatible drives – the need for direct social action and the need for personal expression – are coming from one mind. Mishima is on a quest for power. Not the imperialist kind, but some kind of agency.

It’s remarkably relevant today. Mishima’s struggle for finding a means of expression which has a tangible effect on others; his obsession with purity and harmony; the sense of belonging he feels in founding the deeply traditionalist “Shield Society”; the belief that if only he can reach a suitable platform then people will be persuaded from their stupor – all of this has clear parallels with the way that the far right is emboldened in the globalised age.

Perhaps Mishima sees honour in martyrdom. A man’s desire for beauty, it is said in the “Beauty” chapter, is always a determination to die, because in death important men endure. It’s all bound up in the tradition of seppuku (the samurai tradition where someone kills themselves with honour rather than falling into the hands of the enemy). But for all his honour, Mishima is a failure in his mission. From words he never gets the “hot darkness” of action; and from action he never gets the “chilling satisfaction” of words. His real failure is his inability to cooperate with others; his inability to function as a social animal.

In terms of his flawed, often unlikeable protagonist, Schrader retains an admirable objectivity until the end. We empathise, even if we don’t sympathise. This is Schrader’s personal favourite of the films he’s directed in his prolific (and highly variable) career, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a work of exquisite control; a film which seems at once chaotic in its frayed plot threads, but which weaves together wonderfully in its final moments. For a film about failure, it’s a significant success.

Criterion offer an abundance of extras, including the option of choosing Roy Scheider’s original English-language narration. Commentary comes courtesy of Schrader and producer Alan Poul. Interviewees include cinematographer John Bailey, producers Tom Luddy and Mata Yamamoto, music maestro Philip Glass, production designer Eiko Ishioka, Mishima biographer John Nathan and buddy Donald Richie, and co-writer Chieko Schrader. Mishima himself gets the interview treatment in an excerpt from 1966. To top it all off, we get an hour-long documentary about Mishima, made in 1985. And, of course, there’s the trailer.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.


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