Title: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
Director: Paul Schrader
Cast: Ken Ogata, Gô Rijû, Masato Aizawa, Yuki Nagahara
After a long delay, it is time to take a look at the life of Yukio Mishima through the direction of Paul Schrader. As the film’s introduction states: “Yukio Mishima was Japan’s most celebrated author. On his death, he left a body of work consisting of 35 novels, 25 plays, 200 short stories and 8 volumes of essays.” If Mishima was alive today he would be one of the few writers that could claim to have a life more interesting than the stories he wrote about. In fact, when asked about why he chose to make this biopic, Paul Schrader said: “I came to Mishima because he was the type of character I might’ve invented if he had not existed.”
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters begins on Mishima’s last day, November 25, 1970. It is a strange coincidence that in order to fully appreciate the work of Mishima as well as the film, the viewer should be familiar with the events of Mishima’s death. After completing the final page of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, Mishima along with four cadets from the Shield Society, his personal army created to protect the Emperor, entered the Eastern Army Headquarters in Japan and forcibly took control of the commander. With the media already at the scene by request of Mishima, he demanded that the troops be assembled. He then addressed the garrison and urged a return to the old ways of Imperial purity. After being mocked and heckled, Yukio Mishima stepped back from the ledge and committed ritual suicide or seppuku. Two weeks after his death, Time magazine dubbed him “The Last Samurai.”
Using an unconventional approach to a biopic, Schrader weaves the last day of Mishima’s life with earlier events and three of the author’s books. The books he uses are: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses. The three books each deal with a set of issues consistent with the worries present in Mishima’s life. The sets created for each of the book sequences are outstanding. Each story takes on its own refreshing variation of vibrant colors, moving props, use of space and creative lighting, constructing a theatre on the screen. Exhibiting his books like this allow the viewer to experience these stories as something parallel to the reality of the film. The music by Philip Glass not only advances the action throughout the film, but is essential as it impeccably intertwines the different timelines and stories.
A scene three fourths of the way through the film features Mishima acting in and directing his only short film titled Patriotism. Patriotism is a simple film set on a Noh stage shot in black and white without dialogue. The film is about a military officer and his wife committing seppuku after a failed coup d’état, foreshadowing Mishima’s own end four years later. Soon after Mishima performed seppuku in real life all prints of Patriotism were destroyed. A negative of the film was found thirty-five years later and the film was reprinted and released by the Criterion Collection.
As is expected, Yukio Mishima remains a very controversial figure in Japan even though he is considered by most the country’s most prominent author. Mishima’s living wife was not keen on having a film made about her late husband, partially because the film, as do many other sources, depicts Mishima as a homosexual; however, Schrader was able to convince her to sell him the rights to the three featured books. Because of family wishes and the controversy surrounding Yukio Mishima’s life, the film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters has never been officially released in Japan although it has aired on Japanese television and can be legally imported.
Recommended reading includes: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Confessions of a Mask and The Sea of Fertility tetralogy (Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel).
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Next: Babel (2006)