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Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters(1985)

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As the autumn leaves of 1970 fell, Japan stood witness to one of the strangest acts of terrorism yet recorded. Yukio Mishima, one of Japan's most revered writers, commandeered Tokyo's Army HQ and took hostage the commanding general. Clad in the ceremonial uniform of his own private army, the author stood before the assembled troops to deliver a reactionary speech seemingly disinterred from the dust of centuries. Mishima ranted about the role of soldiers in defending the soul of Japan from the corruption of Western influences. When the troops started booing and jeering, Mishima retreated inside to commit seppuku, a ritual of suicide reserved for the warrior class of samurai not seen in Japan in ages.

Shocked and scandalized, the island nation struggled to make sense of the event. To ritually disembowel oneself in the heart of Army headquarters is a fundamentally political act, but Mishima was not known as a political figure and just years earlier had publicly disavowed any interest in politics. Although he claimed to be acting in service of Japan's Emperor, he had not so long ago angered Imperialists by critiquing Hirohito's role in WWII - a war which Mishima avoided by faking tuberculosis when he was called in for the draft. His tough guy persona was a hypermasculine projection by a once scrawny weakling, perhaps an attempt to overcompensate for his secret homosexuality. He was a body-builder who wrote obsessively on the subject of beauty in a form rippled through with an ambisexual mentality, while also posing nude for homoerotic pictures and flying fighter jets with his personal "Shield Society" of loyal neo-samurai cadets. His art was steeped in ancient Japanese traditions, yet he also starred in pulpy gangster flicks. He was a brilliant and sensitive artist, one for the ages, who would forever be remembered for an act of terrorist violence.

The man was a riot of contradictions. His life was a puzzle that simply did not fit together into any coherent whole. Those who thought they knew him were forced by his death to realize he remained permanently beyond their comprehension. His family would deeply resent the way his final day would overshadow and color his life's legacy, yet any serious attempt to understand the man would necessarily have to grapple with his actions.

Given this painful fact, it is astonishing that any attempt was made to film Mishima's life - but given that such a film was made, it is less astonishing that it was American. To this day, the only meaningful biographies of Mishima are English language publications. The Japanese may revere his books, but remain unable to reconcile the embarrassing details of his life - and as such, remain uncomfortable even discussing those details.

In the early 1980s, Paul Schrader was enjoying some success as a Hollywood screenwriter-director. Having written Taxi Driver and directed American Gigolo from his own script, he remained interested in the themes of self-invention and self-destruction, and wanted to pursue a project about a politically motivated suicide. The life and death of Yukio Mishima was all but gift-wrapped for him as a subject. Here was a man who was in every way a constructed, artificial identity. The name "Yukio Mishima" was a pen name for Kimitake Hiraoka, who used his own body and lifestyle as a canvas on which to write a living novel. He was a performance artist who wrote his own biography by living it, a media personality who blurred the line between literature and action. His suicide was a staged event, carefully planned and rehearsed for years to which he even invited photographers! He had planned to take a brush and dip it in his own viscera, to write out his last statement in his own dying blood, but the cold realities of shock precluded this part of his scheme. As it was, his death was a final punctuation mark at the end of a prearranged spectacle-the control freak's ultimate claim to the final word.

Recognizing that there was no valid way to disentangle Mishima's "real life" from his writings, Schrader opted for an unconventional approach in Mishima. His film weaves together different strands, shot in wildly varying styles. There is the cinema-verite staging of his last day, shuffled together with memories of his life filmed in the style of Japanese arthouse classics of the 1960s. These memories are narrated by words culled from Mishima's own autobiography, read aloud by Roy Scheider (the only English spoken in the Japanese language film). Studded into this structure are outrageously stylized theatrical recreations of several of Mishima's most important novels, whose fictional tableaus comment on or foreshadow the events of his biography.

Graphic designer Eiko Ishioka was brought on to design these absurdly colorful and strikingly visual sequences-it was her first film project, and her designs owe nothing to the history of motion picture production design (and were sometimes at direct odds to the practical needs of the crew). For the more realistic stagings of the flashbacks, a separate production designer Kazuo Takenaka was engaged to work in parallel to Ishioka. If it was odd to have two different production designers working separately on different aspects of the film, it was but one small example of the myriad ways Schrader's film pushed its makers beyond their comfort zones into uncharted territory. Schrader did not share a common language with much of his cast and crew, whose different cultural expectations sometimes clashed as well. Musician Philip Glass, himself still rather new to film music, opted not to score the finished film, as would have been usual industry practice, but compose the soundtrack before any footage was even shot, and retrofit that to the eventually edited product. It is a testament to Schrader's cool head and confident command of the overall vision that he pulled these disparate artists together in service of a common whole. The resulting motion picture not only avoids being a train wreck, but benefits handsomely from the underlying sense of danger and experimentation. Mishima was a solo visionary, but Mishima is a team effort ennobled by the unified artistry of its many creators.

Mishima's widow was angry that this upstart American would barge into her private life to sensationalize the darkest shadows of her husband, and she steeled herself to oppose the production. It is interesting to note that she does not appear in the film, nor is her name (Yoko Sugiyama) ever mentioned on the DVD's many lustrous extra features. As villains go, She Who Must Not Be Named proved rather formidable. She was unable to prevent the film from being made, but she did block its distribution in Japan. Mishima has never been released in Japan, and indeed Mishima's controversial nature remains unresolved in his native land.

Not all of the film's censorship troubles can be laid entirely at the widow's feet. Mishima was taken up as a symbolic figurehead by a number of far-right groups, and along the way his life had intertwined awkwardly with certain figures of the yakuza underworld. These complications certainly contributed as well to the decision by the film's Japanese financiers to cut their losses and completely disown the film (they now claim that in fact they did not finance it at all, and Schrader must have just found those 4.5 Million dollars lying around somewhere). Deprived of a Japanese audience, Mishima did find an appreciative if small audience of gobsmacked young American cineastes. The many Mishima posters that went up on dorm room walls in the late 1980s carried some heavy political baggage likely way over the heads of the college kids drawn chiefly to its orgy of style and its celebration of an iconoclast resisting the cookie-cutter pressures of modern consumerism. But if Yukio Mishima was a charismatic cult leader, at least he kept his Kool-Aid to himself.

The widow Mishima, if she ever sees the film, will find it a heartening experience. Schrader has managed a small miracle: even while he places the seppuku at the center of the tale and spins everything else in orbit around it, that one moment never overwhelms the sense of grandeur to Mishima himself. By carefully articulating all of the disparate complications and contradictions to Mishima's constructed, projected identity, the filmmakers keep that one complicated contradiction from stealing the show from the others. Mishima the man remains ever apart from Mishima the mask, and in lovingly studying the contours of the mask, the makers of this wondrous film do much to hint at the face that yet lays hidden behind it.

For more information about Mishima, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Mishima, go to TCM Shopping

by David Kalat