Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Director: Paul Schrader
Screenplay: Paul Schrader & Leonard Schrader (Japanese script by Chieko Schrader)
Stars: Ken Ogata (Yukio Mishima), Masayuki Shionoya (Morita), Junkichi Orimoto (General Mashita), Gô Rijû (Mishima, age 18-19), Yuki Nagahara (Mishima, age 5), Haruko Kato (Grandmother), Yasosuke Bando (Mizoguchi), Hisako Manda (Mariko), Kenji Sawada (Osamu), Reisen Lee (Kiyomi), Setsuko Karasuma (Mitsuko), Toshiyuki Nagashima (Isao)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1985
Country: U.S. / Japan
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Mishima: A Life in Four ChaptersPaul Schrader is simultaneously the least likely and most obvious person to have directed a film about Yukio Mishima, the prolific and controversial Japanese writer who committed public suicide in November of 1970. Because of the insular nature of Japanese culture, it is rare for a Westerner to be given the opportunity to create a portrait of one of its national icons, much less one as notorious as Mishima (it is no surprise that he still has no official Japanese language biography). Plus, Schrader’s previous films as a director--the gritty dramas Blue Collar (1978) and Hardcore (1979), the stylish mystery American Gigolo, and the fantasy-horror remake Cat People (1982)--made him seem an unlikely candidate for a biopic of a foreign artist.

Yet, even with those seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Schrader was, in fact, the perfect person--at least, the perfect Westerner--to direct a film about Mishima. He had several strong connections to Japanese culture: his brother, Leonard Schrader, with whom he cowrote the script, was living in Japan at the time of Mishima’s suicide; his first produced screenplay was The Yakuza (1974), an action film about Japanese gangsters; and his first mark on the cinematic world was his book Transcendental Style in Film, a major portion of which focused on the films of Yasujiro Ozu, “the most Japanese of Japanese directors.” More importantly, though, Schrader’s own thematic interests paralleled Mishima’s life in numerous ways, particularly his fascination with single-minded protagonists who are hellbent on some form of self-destruction as transcendence, however perverse (think of Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver’s suicidal avenging angel, or Jake La Motta, the troubled pugilist in Raging Bull). As Schrader said in an interview, “Mishima was the sort of character I’d like to have created if he hadn’t already existed.”

In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Schrader doesn’t so much recreate the external life of Yukio Mishima as he explores the artist’s inner world. In this regard, Mishima is a unique and masterful film biography that avoids all the conventional cinematic clichés and instead focuses on the intersections between the man’s lived experiences and his art. No film, no matter how long, can fully encompass someone’s life, which is why so many biopics that attempt to do just that feel contrived and formula-bound. Schrader captures the essence of Mishima without resorting to such tactics by making the film about what was most important to the man: his art.

Scored with operatic music by Philip Glass, Mishima is organized around passages from several of the writer’s key novels, which are performed in a highly stylized, purposefully theatrical manner. The production design by Eiko Ishioka (who would later design Bram Stoker’s Dracula for Francis Ford Coppola and both of Tarsem Singh’s films) is extraordinary in both aesthetic beauty (the colors are so intense that many viewers assume they are the result of filters or special film stock) and abstract expressiveness. Each of these sequences, while derived from one of Mishima’s fictional works, has autobiographical undertones, thus they open a window into both the author’s life and how he used it in his art. Moreso than most artists, Mishima saw himself--not just his work, but his physical existence--as part of his artistic endeavor, and we can see in his protagonists his own trajectory from shy, timid, and weak to powerful, hungry, and determined.

The stylized fictional passages are intercut into the film’s controlling framework, which is the last of day of Mishima’s life in which he and several cadets from his personal army took control of the army headquarters in Tokyo, attempted to foment an uprising by the soldiers as part of his larger aim to return Japan to its traditional feudal past, and, failing that, committed ritualistic suicide (seppuku) as his final statement in life. These scenes are shot with a raw, handheld quality that brings us directly into the action; in stark contrast to the metaphorical nature of the fictional sequences, these scenes are decidedly present tense, and in staggering them throughout the film, Schrader gives the otherwise collage-like nature of the narrative a fully throttled directionality and suspense, even if you know where it all ends.

Throughout the film Schrader also gives us black-and-white flashbacks to various points in Mishima’s life--the “defining moments,” you might say--that helped shape his identity and worldview. These include his early childhood, which were spent with a sick, aristocratic grandmother (Haruko Kato) who constantly referred to him as “fragile” and refused to let him go outside; his army physical exam in which he faked being sick to avoid the service in World War II that, deep inside, he always wanted; and his eventual obsession with feudalism and the samurai code, which would come to define his national outlook and his rejection of Western capitalist values in favor of symbolic emperor worship. However, even as Mishima delved deep into a reactively conservation nationalism, he still craved appreciation in the West, which is just one of his many contradictions.

As portrayed by Ken Ogata, Mishima is many things at once--sympathetic, humane, determined, charismatic, isolated, brilliant, disturbed--but always larger than life. What so many biopics try to do is distill complication and contradiction into something neat, understandable, and reassuring, which is why they have such conventional narrative arcs and are consistently popular with audiences. Schrader rejects that approach outright and embraces Mishima’s complications (his refusal to ignore Mishima’s homosexuality, which is directly referenced in one brief scene in a gay bar, ultimately cost Schrader the cooperation of Mishima’s widow). Thus, Mishima is an elaborate, thought-provoking, and constantly challenging portrait that ultimately offers more questions than answers, which is why it is one of the few biopics that can be said to be genuinely honest about its subject.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters Criterion Collection Director-Approved Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioJapanese Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary with director Paul Schrader and producer Alan Poul
  • Making Mishima documentary
  • Producing Mishima documentary
  • New video interviews with Mishima biographer John Nathan and friend Donald Richie
  • New audio interview with coscreenwriter Chieko Schrader
  • Video interview excerpt featuring Mishima talking about writing
  • The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima BBC documentary
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring a new essay by critic Kevin Jackson, a piece on the film’s censorship in Japan, and photographs of Eiko Ishioka’s sets
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 1, 2008

    While Mishima has been available on DVD from Warner Bros. since 2001, Criterion’s two-disc set features a new, restored high-definition digital transfer from a 35mm interpositive and the original 35mm camera negative that was supervised and approved by director Paul Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey, hence we can only assume that this is the best possible presentation of the film currently available. In comparison to the Warner Bros. disc, the Criterion transfer has more saturated colors and a generally brighter image, albeit one that is slightly softer in appearance owing to the edge enhancement on the Warners disc. The overall image is quite beautiful, particularly in the almost surreal novel sequences, which feature colors that are unlike almost anything I’ve ever seen in a movie. The liner notes make note of the fact that this is a “director’s cut” of the film, but outside of color correcting one sequence (changing a blue sky to orange-red), I don’t know what, if anything, has been altered from the original theatrical release. The image has been cleaned up with the MTI Digital Restoration system, and Apple Shake and Imagineer Mokey were used to reduce flicker and picture instability, which is somewhat surprising given that the film is just 23 years old. The original stereo soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the original 35mm LT/RT magnetic master track and it sounds beautiful. Philip Glass’s majestic musical score genuinely soars. The disc also both the Japanese voice-over narration by Ken Ogata and the English language narration by Roy Scheider.
    The subtitle for this two-disc set could have easily been “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Yukio Mishima … But Were Afraid to Ask!” The Criterion set has replaced the audio commentary by writer/director Paul Schrader from the 2001 Warner Bros. disc with a new commentary by Schrader and producer Alan Poul. While not always screen-specific, it is a very informative track, offering all kinds of intriguing background information on the production of the film (and the difficulties associated with it owing to the controversial standing of Mishima in Japanese culture) and the life of the man himself. More production information can be gleaned from the 45-minute documentary Making Mishima, which features new video interviews with cinematographer John Bailey, composer Philip Glass, and production designer Eiko Ishioka, as well as behind-the-scenes footage and photographs of the production. There is also the 22-minute documentary Producing Mishima, in which producers Tom Luddy and Mata Yamamoto discuss the various economic and political difficulties involved in making the film. There is also a new audio interview with Chieko Schrader, the wife of Leonard Schrader who wrote the Japanese language script for the film. For those interested in the life of Yukio Mishima, you can’t do much better than the 55-minute BBC documentary The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima, which was broadcast in 1985 and includes quite a bit of photographs and footage of Mishima from various interviews, as well interviews with his acquaintances, lovers, and friends. Further information about Mishima can be taken from interviews with his biographer John Nathan and film scholar Donald Richie, who met Mishima when he visited the U.S. in 1952. Finally, Mishima himself appears in 6 minutes of excerpts from a 1966 interview that appeared on French television in which he discusses his writing. The insert booklet features a new essay by critic Kevin Jackson (editor of Schrader on Shrader), an article on the film’s censorship in Japan, and a set of beautiful photographs of Eiko Ishioka’s sets.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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