Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters

Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Writers in the west tend to have a detached, somewhat sedentary image. They might occasionally make barbed comments about the Iraq war, embark on messy affairs or conduct feuds through the Sunday supplements - but they’re not really the sort of people you’d expect to take over a military HQ (backed by their private army, of course) then hold a general hostage and deliver a call to rebellion from the balcony before committing ritual suicide.

But that’s exactly what Yukio Mishima – novelist, poet, playwright, actor, photographic model and samurai-worshipper - did on November 25, 1970. The incident was a landmark in Japan’s post-war history and ended a career which had seen Mishima become one of the first Japanese writers to be feted in the West, and attract opprobrium and fanatical devotion in roughly equal measure.

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It’s undoubtedly a tale with rich cinematic possibilities, but nobody had tried it until Paul Schrader – writer of Taxi Driver and a long-time friend and associate of Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and the other ‘movie brats’ of the Seventies – delivered a four-part ‘meditation’ on the fateful day, interspersed with dramatised excerpts from three of Mishima’s most famous works.

It was produced through Coppola’s American Zoetrope company, and one can see why some of the major studios might have backed away; in Japanese with subtitles and with no Western (or even well-known Eastern) actors attached, and dealing with a subject who, whatever his literary talents, espoused politics that most audiences would regard as fairly repugnant.

That the result is a striking and fascinating one-off is probably due to Schrader’s affinity for the protagonist and the similarities in their life and work. Both had strict upbringings with a dominant mother figure and sought refuge in the imagined worlds of literature, theatre and movies. And the strict Dutch Calvinist background that Schrader rebelled against (but which continued to inform his work) has parallels in the bushido code of self-discipline and achievement of a higher state through death that so obsessed Mishima.

Schrader’s brother and fellow-screenwriter Leonard had taught in Japan and his wife, Chieko, wrote the biographical sections of the screenplay; the brothers’ first major screenwriting credit was on Sidney Pollack’s The Yakuza, which dealt with the Japanese criminal underworld; and there’s more than a trace of the samurai about Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver; obsessed with violence as a ritual, deliberately submitting his body to pain in order to strengthen and ‘purify’ it and wishing for a stronger, cleaner world in place of the decadence and degradation he sees around him.

But Taxi Driver, for all its groundbreaking elements, is still a recognisable urban thriller. Mishima is a very different beast: a consciously ‘arty’ attempt to replicate Japanese literary and theatrical structures in a cinematic framework. It constantly cuts between scenes dramatising the events of Mishima’s last day, black and white flashbacks to his earlier life and heavily-stylised depictions of key scenes from the three featured works in a manner that disorients the viewer and seems almost deliberately to work against any idea of narrative cohesion.

All of the featured works are concerned with violence, rebellion and the undermining of traditional relationships, often with a side-order of homoeroticism or sadomasochistic sex; it’s far from an easy watch at times and there are undoubted longeurs. But it looks fantastic, courtesy of cinematographer John Bailey and costume/set designer Eiko Ishioka (who would later do an equally striking job on Coppola’s Dracula). There’s a magnificent, haunting score by Philip Glass and, in the title role, Ken Ogata is a mesmerising presence; his unchanging expression and calm, modulated voice as he looks back on his life and goes about the business of ending it are absolutely compelling.

There’s some good support from Masayuki Shionoya and Naoka Otani as his devoted acolytes and Junkichi Orimoto is convincingly bemused, then terrified, as the hapless general realising there’s nothing in the manual that quite covers this. But in all this, there’s little attempt to get under Mishima’s skin and analyse what led him to such extremes. To do so might have shed some interesting light on the post-war character of Japan as a whole and raised interesting questions on perceptions of the writer; in the western tradition at least they’re more generally thought of as sensitive, ‘right-thinking’ types, rather than death-obsessed militarists.

Instead, Schrader seems content to uncritically depict Mishima’s life as an aesthetic, existential quest for purity in whatever form. There’s only a cursory reference to Mishima’s wife and family and no consideration of what effect his actions had on them. And how much you feel Schrader buys into the Mishima philosophy of attaining spiritual awareness through violence, subordinating individual thought to order and discipline, and perfecting the annulment of the self by plunging a knife into the stomach, will no doubt fuel many a post-screening debate.

In the end, the Mishima enigma remains elusive, which is perhaps the point. Definitely not a Friday night unwinder and possibly not to everyone’s taste even if they admire Schrader’s other work. But he’s called it the film he’s most proud of as a director. And there are several memorable moments when you can understand why.

Reviewed on: 09 Jul 2009
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The controversial life and shocking death of one of Japan's most famous authors.
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Director: Paul Schrader

Writer: Chieko Schrader, based on the book by Yukio Mishima

Starring: Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Gô Rijû, Masato Aizawa, Yuki Nagahara, Naoko Otani

Year: 1985

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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