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

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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)

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