Category Archives: Capsules

CAPSULE: SAMURAI RAUNI REPOSAARELAINEN (2016)

Weirdest!

AKA Samurai Rauni

DIRECTED BY: Mika Rättö

FEATURING: Mika Rättö, Reetta Turtiainen

PLOT: Rauni, a homicidal Finnish samurai, searches for the mysterious “Shame Tear,” who has placed a price on his head.

Still from Samurai Rauni Reposaarelainen (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This deliberate cult item, with Nordic ninjas and Scandinavian samurai, plays like a low-grade acid trip and raises its artistic sights in the mystical and mystifying final act, but ultimately it’s more Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. than El Topo.

COMMENTS: As much a cross between and  as it is between Finnish and Japanese culture, Samurai Rauni Reposaarelainen is a messy would-be cult item that may be too off-putting in its mishmash of tones and its despicable anti-hero for all but the most adventurous audiences. Rauni the Finnish samurai is a scraggly, drunken rapist with bad teeth, clad in a fisherman’s wool sweater and a “Popeye the Sailor” cap. He’s a dick who terrorizes the locals of Meri-Pori, a frozen marsh overlooked by a coal plant and wind turbines, during his drunken rampages, but he’s also a magical fighter who decapitates ninja assassins with a blade of grass. This makes him a problem with no easy solution; thus, a mysterious enemy puts a price on his head.

The inhabitants of the movie’s insular Nipponophilic world randomly wear white pancake makeup like geishas or noh actors, and/or have bizarre accoutrements like a wire-frame headdress draped with a strand of pearls, suggesting the costume designer was either a Finnish thrift store genius or a deranged drunk the crew found wandering in a junkyard. One character is spray-painted gold. The costumes and sets have a punkish, esuqe feel to them, although the exceptional cinematography belies that dime store ambiance.

Most of the movie is an extended quest that’s shaggier than Rauni’s beard, as the samurai tracks down various suspects and former masters and slaughters them. Each scene exists in its own little world, rather than serving the whole. Most impressive is a well-choreographed battle at a buffet table (with a servant who keeps filling up Rauni’s glass as he fights); it alternates between slow and fast motion and, although mock epic in intent, still suggests how clever camerawork and planning can create an thrilling action sequence on a minimal budget. Other sequences drag, like the training montage, or seem pointlessly out-of-place even in this rambling movie, like Rauni dancing on stage at a post-wedding rave. It ends with a true Surrealist flourish, by turns horrific and poignant, as Rauni loses the power of speech and, prompted by nonverbal goblins in a canoe, dives through a door in a lake into an underwater world to finally learn the truth about the price on his head.

Though likely intended as a comedy, most of the humor is either bone dry, or perhaps so inherently Finnish that I couldn’t catch it (when Rauni challenges one ex-master to a series of contests that include a game of “Risk,” it’s about the closest thing to a conventional joke you’ll find). The movie is so odd and personal that it’s almost impossible to predict who will like it and who will hate it, a feature that the marketing campaign cleverly plays up by putting a selection of critics quotes on the back of the Blu-ray that range all the way from one star to a perfect score, and every rating in between. Obviously, if you’re one of those readers who prefers movies marked to ones marked , then this is for you. It will be interesting to see if Mika Rättö will grow as a director—he seems like he could benefit from a more disciplined structure—or whether he’s the kind of auteur who only had one strange movie in him dying to get out.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a batshit-weird work of art with a surprising amount of heart.”–Andrew Todd, birth. movies. death (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by director , who called it ” one of the most satisfyingly odd movies that has come out recently.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: DEVILMAN CRYBABY (2018)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Griffin Burns,  Kyle McCarley, Cristina Vee, Cherami Leigh (English dub)

PLOT: High schoolers are being eaten by demons bent on conquering the world; crybaby Akira is convinced to merge with a devil in order to become a superhero and oppose them.

Still from Devilman Crybaby (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We could rule it out simply due to format (TV miniseries rather than feature film). Even if we considered it as a longform movie, however, Devilman only distinguishes itself from other anime in its exceptional, often trippy, visuals. It’s simply not that weird, especially by the elevated standards of its baseline-strange genre.

COMMENTS: “Devilman Crybaby” begins with an androgynous blonde in a cosmic ball dropping onto earth, like an egg fertilizing a larger egg, then segues into protagonist Akira’s childhood flashback, where the young crybaby bawls over the fate of a wounded rat while his friend Ryo tries to euthanize it with a wicked box cutter. Years later, Ryo is a machine-pistol toting prodigy anthropology professor investigating a demon infestation who convinces Akira to serve as an experimental subject: he takes him to a “sabbath” party (basically, the world’s tightest rave) so the mild-mannered teen can be deliberately possessed by a demon. Director/animator Yuasa goes nuts at the orgy, giving us huge glowing wire sculptures, topless high school chicks lit in aqua gyrating like strippers on ecstasy, another topless girl passing out pills to everyone who enters the party, and in-the-open pansexual couplings everywhere. Then, things get weird: Ryo starts slashing random dancers with a broken champagne bottle because the party’s “too tame” and devils “love the smell of blood.” This somehow leads a (topless) girl to urinate (while keeping her panties on) while her boobs turn into a head-chomping tentacles, giant bugs and spikes burst out of other copulating teens, and Akira to turn into Baal as teenybopper heads and limbs fly around a party that suddenly looks like a high school massacre set in a neon cathedral. The last time you want to get possessed by a devil is when you’re peaking on acid at the club.

The orgiastic scenes and various mutant devil designs—including one who incorporates the lamenting heads of his victims into his torso—are the best part of “Devilman.” During breaks in the battles between Devilman and the monsters, Akira fantasizes (in explicit fanservice detail) over his surrogate sister (they grew up together in the same household, but are not related by blood). We also follow a subplot involving rapping teenagers. At times, “Devilman” alternates so much between awesome tentacle battles and Akira using his Devilman x-ray vision to check out pseudo-sis’ undies that it almost seems like a parody of anime conventions. You won’t be surprised at all by the identity of the main villain, but you might be a bit confused about how the Devilmen fit into the scheme.

Besides the standard angsty superhero tropes, there’s also a bit of genuinely weird stuff, some of it intentional (a bug-eating coach) and some of it unintentional (they expect us to buy that regional high school track and field meets are so popular in Japan that they pack Olympic stadiums for them?) The anime genre works according to its own internal conventions, and requires a heightened ability to suspend disbelief from its audience. In general, however, I thought the storyline (a reboot of a popular anime series by the legendary Go Nagai) was juvenile (in theme and form, not in its not-for-kids sex and violence) and beneath Yuasa’s talent. The characters are predictable types, if affectionately drawn, and the theme of human empathy is not particularly deep. It’s Yuasa’s next-level visuals, best displayed in the bacchanalia of Episode 1 and the apocalypse of Episode 10, that raise “Devilman” above its brethren. Even some of the minor sequences, like a minimalist nighttime drive in Ryo’s white sports car, with streetlights lights strobing by like regiment of precise fireflies in the side view mirror and windshield, are of superior design compared to the industry standard. Yuasa borrows a good deal of “exotic” Christian imagery, particularly the cross, horned devils, and a mangled eschatology (which has been a thing in anime ever since and pioneered it in the 1980s). The final episode features an twelve-winged “angel” riding a seven-headed dragon, weaponized rainbows, and other stuff that got left out of the Book of Revelation but would have looked really cool on an Iron Maiden album cover. Devotees of the style looking for action-oriented psychedelic thrills with a little teenage drama on the side will groove to it, but it’s not the best pool of anime goo for a newbie to dip his or her toe into.

“Devilman Crybaby” made a small splash as Netflix’s “first original anime” when it debuted in January 2018. Actually, it was only the first of twelve new original anime series (of a planned thirty) to roll out.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…for as grotesque as it regularly gets, Devilman Crybaby is bizarrely easy to love… a peak example of director Yuasa’s brand of balancing surrealist art and a real love for young people.”–Allegra Frank, Polygon

(This series was nominated for review by Benjamin Rubin, who asked “where else are you going to get psychosexual imagery, a mid-air fight scene that is also a sex scene, the end of the world, and of course, a gay hermaphroditic Satan who causes said end of the world, yet still remains a (slightly) sympathetic antagonist”? Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: IMAGES (1972)

“I think, when I grow up, I’m going to be exactly like you.” – Susannah (Cathryn Harrison)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Altman

FEATURING: , , Marcel Bozzuffi, Hugh Millais,

PLOT: An author finds herself plagued by visions of lovers past and increasingly losing her grip on reality.

Still from Images (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Images is a mystery of the mind, providing a striking visual representation of the heroine’s mental collapse. The subject matter provides a platform for unmoored imagery and encourages confusion, which heightens the WTF effect of the movie. But it’s not so strange that it defies understanding or logic, and its oddities now play as innovations for thrillers and psychological horror stories to come.

COMMENTS: Robert Altman is one of those filmmakers distinctive enough to have merited his own adjective. “Altmanesque” sits comfortably on the shelf alongside “ian” and “ian” and “Spielbergian.” But Altman himself seems to resist such easy categorization. You think he’s about sprawling casts, like in Nashville or M*A*S*H? Surely his fingerprints are just as evident in the one-man powerhouse Secret Honor. Appreciate his focus on real but insular universes, as in The Player or Pret-a-Porter? How about the cartoony Popeye or obtuse Quartet? It’s important to remember that defining Altman is as much about his unwillingness to be defined.

Images does not, at face value, seem like a comfortable fit in the Altman oeuvre. Filmed abroad, centered around a single character with a small supporting cast, incorporating surreal and supernatural elements, it doesn’t outwardly share much DNA with, say, Short Cuts. But his trademark use of improvisation (Altman is credited as screenwriter, but evidently he came to the actors with a rough outline each morning as a jumping-off point for the day’s filming, an approach he would use again in 3 Women) and found materials (York herself wrote her character’s children’s book, which serves as a quasi-narrator) are both indicative of the director’s modus operandi. That he was able to marry this decidedly freewheeling approach to a genre and subject matter that would seem to demand deliberate plotting and rigid oversight are a strong measure of his skill.

Altman manages to be both clever and pretentious with some of his stylistic choices. The simple mechanism of having one actor go behind a wall and another emerge from the other side is used to great effect here, constantly surprising us and Cathryn, our increasingly unstable heroine. (She even manages to surprise herself more than once, both literally and figuratively.) On the other hand, tricks like jumbling the actors’ names to come up with the characters’ monikers only call attention to themselves, making the film’s issues seem trite. York’s towering performance manages to meld the excesses of a nervous breakdown with deft emotional subtlety, but her work is frequently undercut with blatantly obvious symbolism, like the prisms, lenses, and mirrors that practically litter the screen, broadcasting her fracturing psyche at the highest volume. For every moment of delightful surprise, there’s also an eye-roll to match.

It’s a sign of York’s strength in the role that she is so convincing and deserving of our empathy, especially considering how her mania is evidently inspired by three very dull men. Marcel is a callous bully, Rene an obtuse void, and Hugh a complete and utter drip. In fact, Hugh is such a dishrag with his cavalier dismissals of his wife, his perfunctory affections, his witless repetitions, and his truly wretched jokes, that his ultimate fate does not hit as hard as it probably should. These vacuous men only serve to highlight her much more interesting relationship with adolescent Susannah, who pulls off a mix of precociousness and mystery while still being believably young.

Altman has crafted a perfect atmosphere; the breathtaking Irish countryside is an appropriately solid spooky backdrop for the story, while the combination of John Williams’ jump-scare score and the jarring soundscape (credited with weird bluntness thusly: “Sounds – Stomu Yamash’ta”) keep everything on edge throughout the film.

For a time, Images was thought to be lost, and its rediscovery and availability on Blu-ray and streaming video is welcome, both for completists Altman fans and for anyone who wants to see how a cinema legend tackles an unexpected genre. But it’s ultimately good-not-great, and whatever else we may expect of Robert Altman, we definitely don’t anticipate landing somewhere in the middle.

One piece of verisimilitude to which I must tip my cap: the opening credits depicts Cathryn trying to write her latest book. In the process, she drapes herself over the couch, curls up on the floor, turns everything into a writing desk, contorts herself every which way in her search for the right words. I recognize all of these actions, all of these behaviors, as part of the agonizing process of turning thoughts into text. Writing is a physically taxing struggle, she seems to say. Girl, I feel you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

”’Oh, we’re in for one of those movies,’ I thought as Images trotted out strange doppelgangers, obsessively peering cameras, and phantoms that either aren’t there at all, or are taking the place of real people. It’s frustrating until Susannah York’s sensitive performance starts to sink in. These Twilight Zone-inflected weird tales usually end up in a trite twist of fate, or fold in on themselves in solipsistic self-worship. Images has real intelligence beyond its cleverness… It’s not a picture for a lazy viewer, that’s for sure.”–-Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant (DVD)

CAPSULE: KING OF HEARTS (1966)

DIRECTED BYPhilippe de Broca

FEATURING: , , Françoise Christophe, ,

PLOT: Signal Corps pigeon-keeper Charles Plumpick is mistakenly sent into the recently abandoned town of Marville to defuse German explosives, but his mission hits a road block when released members of the local insane asylum adopt him as their king.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: King of Hearts is whimsical, farcical, pacifist, fairly amusing and even sometimes tense—but not weird. Film-maker Phillippe de Broca lets his hippie-freak flag fly high, but the tone and story are altogether too bright and straight-forward for this to parade anywhere near List candidacy.

COMMENTS: It is altogether natural that a movie like this—an atypical period film (WWI) made during a disruptive decade (the 1960s) concerning a small French town taken over by the inmates of an asylum—appeared on our radar. Though filmed during the (stage) theatrical run of another asylum-themed dramaKing of Hearts is preaching more to the pacifist/anti-establishment choir than dealing, cinematically, with any madness other than the folly of war. While it is set during the first World War, it’s more of a fluffy predecessor to other counterculture anti-war films like Altman‘s M*A*S*H or ‘ Catch-22.

It is safe to presume that in contemporaneous times, Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) would have been a draftee. The Great War was a strange beast, though, and as an Englishman there’s every reason to believe that this bookish lover of birds would have volunteered the minute he heard that Jerry was on the march. As a signals officer for the military (specialty: carrier pigeons) with a name similar to a bomb disposal expert, he is sent off to the recently evacuated—and recently booby-trapped—town of Marville. Feeling guilty, one of the townsfolk unlocks the insane asylum as he flees. After wandering out, the inmates find all kinds of diversions: dressing up fancifully, enjoying shaves and haircuts, and staging ad hoc parades. Our hero Plumpick is mistaken for their King, and spends the movie being feted, scurrying madly to find the bomb trigger, and getting seduced by a cinematically antediluvian manic pixie dream girl.

I was reminded of my love of darker cinema when I first watched King of Hearts: it is entirely missing any aura of unease, much less menace. The “insane” people are all highly functional, charming, and seemingly guilty of nothing more than harmless delusions and a capacity for wonder. The British soldiers are Scottish, the only reason for which I could deduce was so the film-maker could have a bunch of kilted yobbos running around (there’s a trio of soldiers sent after Plumpick that wouldn’t have been out of place amongst the constables in The Pirates of Penzance). The Germans are boobs in the “Hogan’s Heroes” mold. The showdown between the two sides when they descend upon the city is the only bit of violence, and its orchestrated in a manner that screams, “Hey! I think war’s stupid!”

What kind of movie would it have been if Plumpick were infiltrating a bomb-laden city peopled by actually insane citizens? Obviously the movie would have been very different; and almost certainly much less beloved. King of Hearts was received lukewarmly at its release, but developed a considerable cult following since. There are some decent laughs, some clever lines, and yes, despite my complaints, I largely enjoyed the thing. However, throughout it all I couldn’t help but wonder, “How much darker, troubling, and altogether more glorious could this have been if the inmates had been more like those found in Charenton?” Ah well.

WHAT CRITICS SAY:

“…a surrealistic jewel of a comedy which you realize, when you can catch your breath between laughs, has made the case for the sanity of the lunatics and the madness of the war-waging sane.”–Charles Champlin, The Los Angeles Times (DVD)

CAPSULE: SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY (1987)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Merrill Gruver, Michael Edwards, Barbara Millicent Roberts, Ken Carson

PLOT: The dizzying rise and tragic fall of the honey-voiced pop star is dramatized in the context of the ailment that killed her, as embodied by inanimate plastic fashion dolls.

Still from Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The use of dolls to perform a celebrity tell-all while simultaneously deconstructing the societal conditions that lead women into eating disorders is unusual in and of itself, without even getting into the strange collage of tones packed into 43 minutes. But the film’s legal unavailability and overall student amateurishness land it just shy of our list.

COMMENTS: Todd Haynes is earnest. It’s a quality that is remarkably out-of-step with our postmodern, irony-chasing, take-the-piss-out times. Who is this weirdo who insists on taking people at face value? In films like Far From Heaven, Carol, and even the recent Wonderstruck, he trusts in his characters to be open and honest even when they are being deceptive, a quality which is somehow more distancing to a modern audience than a detached remove.

Superstar demonstrates that he possessed this quality all along. In this, his M.F.A. dissertation film, Haynes takes on all the tropes of the celebrity biopic without a trace of irony. Like a soft-rock Esther Blodgett, innocent Karen is plucked from behind the drum kit to become the voice and face of The Carpenters, launching the sibling act into the pop music stratosphere. Just as quickly, the insecure girl falls prey to her own flawed self-image and heaps of abuse from her family, leading her to an equally meteoric crash.

At first glance, it seems like a parody of a Lifetime celebrity TV movie, but there’s Haynes’ earnestness again. Karen is a truly pitiable character, seen here as particularly ill-equipped for the pressures of stardom, despite her perpetual smile. Nearly everyone in her life is either carelessly or viciously cruel to her, and no one is more villainous than the version of Richard we meet here. Vindictive from the start (“I’ve found your singer,” Mom says, only to be met with Richard’s bitter rejoinder, “And lost me my drummer”), he browbeats his younger sister, bellowing at her about the damage she is doing to their career, harangues that are set to the impossibly rich harmonies of the siblings’ songs. So it’s hardly a surprise that he would set out to squash the film—successfully.

And then there’s the other story Haynes wants to tell: the tragically overlooked problem of anorexia itself. The movie gets pretty strange as Haynes starts to weave in a somewhat amateurish documentary about the disorder. The footage is ham-handed, with man-on-the-street interviews straight out of a 7th grade health film. But the facts themselves are horrifying, as we peel back the panoply of societal pressures Karen endured. It’s as if two very different movies were competing for the screen, and that’s even before Haynes goes in for an indictment of society at large, juxtaposing Carpenters songs against footage of Nixon, Vietnam, and even the Holocaust. It’s kind of pretentious, in that way that only young people who’ve just discovered a really impressive idea can be. But Haynes consistently gets away with it, thanks to his pure commitment.

On top of all that, let’s talk about the Barbie dolls. Like the lamest of puppets, these fashion dolls are propped up and posed to the accompanying soundtrack, standing perfectly still even as we’re supposed to imagine them belting out some of the biggest hits of the 70s, and damn if it doesn’t work. Barbie ends up being a perfect stand-in for Karen Carpenter: an impossible standard for beauty who is (literally) manipulated by everyone around her. Todd Haynes feels deeply for this put-upon, disfigured piece of plastic, and so do we.

Although Richard Carpenter’s legal action turned Superstar into a banned treasure (he cannily sidestepped any charges of over-defensiveness by going after the film’s liberal and unauthorized appropriation of the band’s songs, rather than its ruthless assassination of his character), the film has never completely gone away. Bootleg videos, occasional surprise museum screenings, and the electronic frontier have all kept the movie close enough for anyone who really wants to see it. A simple Google search should lead the curious to a lo-fi version of what is already a lo-fi production.

In the final scene, real hands take over for the doll extremities we have seen so far, and one fleeting image of the real Karen flickers in and out, like her life. We often talk about art as a way to get at a more substantial truth. Superstar manages to go one better, using extreme artifice to get at the heart of one very real, very broken human being.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… daringly peculiar… The film’s tragedy works in tandem with its tastelessness for a nightmarish effect not too far removed from one of David Lynch’s explorations of concealed horror…” – David Pountain, Filmdoo

(This movie was nominated for review by Kelsey Osgood, and then unknowingly seconded by Lovecraft in Brooklyn. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.

CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

Must See

“These films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It’s been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation-state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it’s not the effect of, it’s that everything exists within [technology]. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe…”–director Godfrey Reggio

“I just shot anything that I thought would look good on film. Shooting bums, as well as buildings, didn’t matter. It was all the same from my standpoint. I just shot the form of things.”–director of photography Ron Fricke

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: the music of Philip Glass

PLOT: The film explores the fragile balance of humanity’s use of and interaction with the natural world and the inexorable advance of time through montage, juxtaposing time-lapse and slow-motion photography.

Still from Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Koyaanisqatsi is a landmark motion picture, creating a memorable visual language and utilizing time-honored cinematic techniques in wholly new ways. But it’s a strange sort of success: a wordless visual essay which points the finger firmly at its audience to the beat of a musical minimalist icon. An experimental film that becomes a movie lingua franca would normally be an easy call for this list. But, you see, we’re kind of running out of room…

COMMENTS: My son was an unexpectedly gracious and patient viewer of Koyaanisqatsi. Surely it would be too much to expect a pre-adolescent boy to be enthused about a movie that opens with ten minutes of canyons and clouds. But he was a game spectator, settling for his own running commentary to keep himself amused. So it was a particular thrill when we arrived at the legendary implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, leading him to blurt out a shocked “What?” followed by silence throughout the ensuing montage of destruction, and concluding with a pained, “Why would they do that?”

Director Reggio, a veteran of media campaigns to warn of the dangers of technology, couldn’t have asked for a better reaction. Given the most common translation of the film’s Hopi-language title–“life out of balance”–it’s clear that we’re supposed to be horrified by mankind’s wanton destruction of both the natural world and its own psyche. In fact, it’s a little shocking to see how angry contemporary critics were at the film’s stance: Roger Ebert called it “an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind” while Variety described it as “a cynical display of decadence intending to edify and anger to action, but instead alienating with its one-sidedness.” More than three decades later, continued environmental peril has placed the judgment of history strongly on the side of the movie. But Koyaanisqatsi remains an effective advocate on its own, Continue reading CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

CAPSULE: MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Paul Schrader

CAST: Ken Ogata, Yasosuke Bando, Masayuki Shionoya, Toshiyuki Nagashima

PLOT: The life and works of celebrated Japanese writer Yukio Mishima are portrayed through a triptych of styles: events from his past life are in black and white, his last day is in color, and renditions of segments of three of his novels—The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses—are staged like plays on elaborate studio sets.

Still from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the film’s narrative doesn’t strictly follow the conventions of a biopic, it’s not very strange either. The eccentric novel adaptations provide most of the weirdness, but their context is a rational exploration of the writer’s imaginarium and the subjects that most haunted him.

COMMENTS: In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader is resolutely not interested in crafting a conventional biographical film; instead, he attempts to capture the essence of Yukio Mishima. This is the most distinctive and notable aspect of the movie. The black and white segments, which come closest to traditional biopic, follow Mishima’s course from his childhood as an alienated and sickly boy to his rigorous bodybuilding habit and the formation of his traditionalist private army. These scenes are succinct and concise, because they are complemented by the other sections. One is a similarly realistic account of Mishima’s last act on his final day with his militia, a coup d’état where he famously committed seppuku in the tradition of the samurai class of feudal Japan. The others are dreamy interpretations of passages from three of his books brought to life by vivid colors and operatic flair.

The approach is like a guided tour through Mishima’s mind. Each section’s themes interlock and complement each other so that a coherent picture of the author’s beliefs, desires, preoccupations and identity emerge from the whole. Such a method, while unconventional, provides an infinitely more personal exploration of its equally unique and unorthodox subject, and is so fluid and logical that it actually feels like the most natural way of portraying him. There is a sense that each scene, with its implications and images later mirrored by other segments, is meant as a meaningful contribution to the kaleidoscopic portrait of Mishima and thus, no moment gives the impression of being an obligatory stop in a stroll through the author’s life; the film is simply too dedicated to its subject for that sort of pedestrian storytelling.

Yukio Mishima was one of the most acclaimed writers of post-war Japan, nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he was also a very controversial figure, especially from the 1950’s on, where he started to fanatically espouse a traditionalist worldview that worshiped and fetishized the ways and aesthetics of feudal Japan, the strict code of honor of the samurai class and its devotion to the Emperor. It’s crucial to note that in post-war Japan, at the height of western influence, his nationalist and conservative leanings were more contrarian to the mentality of his countrymen than ever. The first scene shows an apprehensive but determined Mishima waking up in the morning, preparing himself for the act that he has been working on, not only as a political statement but as the culmination of his life, his most dedicated work of art. Throughout these early moments, as well as most of this section, Ken Ogata confers an ever-present austerity to his Mishima, and the other sections dealing with his formative years and artistic work, could be seen as peeling off this rigid exterior to explore the sensibility behind such an idiosyncratic figure.

The dramatizations of the novels are the most dreamlike of the styles: wonderfully beautiful and theatrical, with artificial set design and an extremely bright color pallet, they give the film a great visual richness and an oneiric aura. Mishima’s work was full of neurotic ruminations and anxieties, often communicated by troubled characters meditating on themes such as the nature of beauty, the Self, and, of course (and particularly in his later work), nationalism and the decadence of modern Japanese society with a wistful, melancholic longing for the glorious past. All of these preoccupations are present in the film; the writer’s relationship to them, and how they shape his life, takes center stage.

As such, the film is accessible to those unfamiliar with Mishima (although, naturally, more rewarding to readers), while encouraging further exploration. It potentially serves as a good starting point to hos work. As a fan of Mishima (which may give me a slight bias towards Schrader’s film), I couldn’t be more satisfied by such a devoted and organic portrait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a dreamy, hypnotic meditation on the tragic intersection of Mishima’s oeuvre and existence that takes place as much in its subject’s fevered imagination as the outside world.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (Blu-ray)