A little more than halfway through Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a fragmented, multifaceted cinematic biography of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, Mishima expresses nostalgia for an afterlife that existed only in the distant past. “The average age for men in the Bronze Age was 18 and, in the Roman era, 22,” Mishima reckons aloud, in voiceover. “Heaven must have been beautiful then. Today it must look dreadful.” Like the rest of the film’s narration, the passage is quoted from Mishima’s published work, in this case an article he wrote in 1962, eight years before his death at the age of 45 by seppuku. “When a man reaches 40, he has no chance to die beautifully,” Mishima continues. “No matter how he tries, he will die of decay. He must compel himself to live.” In 1984, when he made this film, Paul Schrader was 38 years old. He had just come off the commercial misfire that was 1982’s Cat People, a straightforward studio assignment he tailored to address his signature concerns about sex and death, putting them in the context of a dark fairytale with intimations of incest and bestiality. It wasn’t a good experience. Coked out of his mind for much of the shoot, Schrader fell into a dead-end affair with Nastassja Kinski that he hoped was something more; she wanted nothing to do with him after the movie wrapped, and Cat People‘s disappointing box-office receipts closed the door on his Hollywood career. He thought of suicide. He scurried away from Hollywood, heading first to New York and then to Japan, in search of a life change. That’s where Mishima came in.
The story of Yukio Mishima’s life was originally developed for film by Schrader’s brother, Leonard, who lived in Japan in the early 1970s, but it was a surprisingly good fit for Paul’s preoccupations. Mishima was not just a celebrated literary figure but also a prominent Japanese nationalist. A dedicated weight trainer and student of kendo, Mishima argued that beauty was an expression of ethics, and art could find its purest expression only in violent action. “Perfect purity is possible,” he wrote in his 1969 novel Runaway Horses, “if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.” These beliefs led Mishima, reasonably, to become a bodybuilder. More, let’s say, idiosyncratically, they inspired his formation of a private militia, the Tatenokai, with whom he stormed the Japanese army headquarters in Tokyo in a 1970 coup attempt. Having failed to stir the assembled soldiers into taking control of government and restoring the powers of the emperor, Mishima stabbed himself to death. In the Schraders’ estimation, Mishima’s obsession with beauty led to narcissism, and narcissism kindled a consuming desire for self-immolation.
Well, there’s a lot to reckon with here. Mishima is almost as much lit-crit as biopic, its argument built from a combination of colourful and visually abstract vignettes adapted from Mishima’s fiction, more plainly dramatized events from the breadth of Mishima’s life, and a naturalistic recreation of the events of his final day. Those three levels of narrative–biographical past and present and fictional neverland–constitute separate threads running in parallel through the film’s first three chapters, titled “Beauty,” “Art,” and “Action.” Each of them includes scenes adapted from one of Mishima’s literary works, and all of them are undergirded, via voiceover, by Mishima’s own words. This analytical framework allows Schrader to make assertions about Mishima’s psychology. For instance, the film’s first passage juxtaposes aspects of Mishima’s childhood–depicted in vivid black-and-white–with elements of his 1956 novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion in a way that suggests the development of a deep sense of sexual shame and inadequacy in tandem with an urge towards theatrics. The various threads come together in the fourth chapter, “The Harmony of Pen and Sword,” depicting the coup attempt and Mishima’s suicide in something close to real time, mostly without narration or intercutting. It dramatizes Mishima’s hoped-for merging of art and action, which led him to stage his own death scene as final creative work.
What the film purports to reveal about Mishima is, of course, strongly informed by Schrader’s own predilections. Mishima stands out in Schrader’s oeuvre for its carefully variegated structure as well as its specifically Japanese aesthetics, but he seems barely interested in the ways Mishima’s public presentation was shaped by national politics, or the larger socio-economic trends driving Japanese culture at the time. Beyond the director and DP, production was executed with an all-Japanese cast and crew, with Leonard’s wife, Chieko, translating the screenplay into Japanese. But Schrader’s idea of Yukio Mishima falls in line with the meditations on troubled masculinity that characterize his greater body of work. You could think of the hardline nationalist Mishima (a closeted homosexual), along with Taxi Driver‘s neo-conservative Travis Bickle (a frustrated heterosexual) and First Reformed‘s emerging leftist Ernst Toller (celibate, with stirrings of Passion), as three corners of a triangle defining the unsettled political and sexual scope of Schrader’s corpus.
In a practical sense, the big difference between Yukio Mishima and those other characters is that Mishima was a real person; Mishima’s widow approved the project early on but balked when she realized she wouldn’t be able to influence Schrader’s script, which foregrounded his same-sex relationships and focused on the chaos and violence of his last day. Production went ahead, although resistance to Schrader’s project among Mishima’s associates limited his options. The casting of Ken Ogata, for instance, was a compromise after pressure forced Ken Takakura (the prolific Japanese actor who had starred in Sydney Pollack’s 1974 The Yakuza, co-written by the Schraders) to bow out. While Ogata is more than fine in the role, he lacked Mishima’s wiry physical build and aura of intellectual refinement. His beefier, movie-star looks don’t invalidate the film’s biographical value, though it’s possible that Takakura, whose build and on-screen temperament more closely matched Mishima’s, might have had an even more impressive take on the character. If Ogata’s Mishima is stockier and gruffer than the real thing, it serves to make the character’s apparent insecurity even more incongruous with his presentation. Ogata excels, meanwhile, at portraying Mishima as a kind of performance artist, able to flash a bright, lavishly friendly smile for public consumption despite his continually chilly, increasingly morbid internal monologue.
Mishima has a similarly split personality. The deliberately-erected intellectual framework of its biographical sequences is accentuated by the looser, almost expressionist short-story segments based on his work. One of the key differentiators is the stark, colour-coordinated sets from Eiko Ishioka, who served as production designer on the scenes adapting Mishima’s fiction. (Kazuo Takenaka, credited as executive art director, was in charge of designing the realistic sets used in the rest of the film.) Ishioka was a Japanese artist with no experience in cinema, and some of her designs required immediate revision as they lacked space to put the camera or failed to accommodate a crew moving it around. But they are distinctive, and they feel less like canny post-modern contrivances and more like creations of instinct. They give the picture an air of mystery and even a low-key sense of wonder. In an interview included on the Criterion edition of the film, Ishioka remembers complaining to Schrader early on that she didn’t like Mishima and was therefore the wrong person for the job. Schrader told her she was in fact perfect, explaining, sort of, “What I want to show is my idea of Mishima, not yours.” Or anybody else’s, probably.
The resulting adaptations of Mishima’s fiction are lovely but unsettling. Schrader’s imagining of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion takes place largely on a stage dressed with a model of Kinkaku-ji, a famous Buddhist temple in Kyoto, that looms behind characters who circle it as they stroll on nearby pathways. Schrader extracts a section of the novel that shows the relationship between Mizoguchi, an acolyte at the temple, and his friend Kashiwagi, who might be known in contemporary parlance as a pick-up artist. Kashiwagi, who walks awkwardly on deformed feet, leverages women’s pity for his condition into sex. He shares his strategy with the stuttering Mizoguchi, who can’t fully commit to the scheme. Schrader dramatizes this failure in the most florid way possible, zooming dramatically into the figure of a half-dressed woman lying on her back among the green bamboo trees as Mizoguchi’s hand trembles above her naked breast, the golden temple that obsesses him looming ever larger in the background.
The second adaptation draws on elements of Mishima’s 1959 novel, Kyoko’s House. (Schrader was barred from using Mishima’s semi-autobiographical Forbidden Colors, which dealt more directly with both homosexuality and misogyny.) In this excerpt, Osamu, an actor, becomes a kept lover of Mitsuko, a wealthy middle-aged woman who draws him into an abusive relationship as repayment for a debt owed by his mother. This portion of the film is perhaps the most aggressively stylized–the hot pinks of Mitsuko’s pillbox-like apartment and the deep, almost liquid fuchsias that bathe Osamu and Mitsuko during a hotel-room dalliance, neon signs blazing hot outside the windows, suggest overbaked carnality, while garish pastels satirize the coziness of Osamu’s mother’s teahouse. The third book adapted, the aforementioned Runaway Horses, is about Isao, a young student of kendo sword-fighting who gets wrapped up in a reactionary political faction plotting to assassinate members of the zaibatsu–the dominant Japanese business conglomerates that controlled much of the national industries. (“We’ll assassinate the leaders of capitalism, burn the Bank of Japan,” he promises. “At dawn, law will restore power to the emperor.” ) This section is shot like a political thriller from the 1970s, with shadowy compositions dominated by oranges and blacks. It also explicitly foreshadows the events of Mishima’s last day. The story seems to be inspired in some part by the writings of Ikki Kita, a right-wing ideologue who had advocated an attempted coup to return power to the emperor in 1936 (as chronicled in Yoshida Yoshishige’s 1969 film Coup d’Etat), though Mishima didn’t entirely endorse Ikki’s thinking. Specifically, Mishima remained profoundly disappointed in Hirohito for renouncing his claim of divinity after World War II for his entire life, feeling it meant Japanese soldiers who had willingly sacrificed their lives for a god-emperor had died in vain.
By necessity, the balance of Mishima features only selected episodes from Mishima’s biography. In one, his grandmother takes him to the theatre, where he spies one of the onnagata through a briefly opened backstage door. (“The theatre is very stimulating,” she assures him.) Often, the film seeks to illuminate the degree to which Mishima suffered self-doubt and insecurity. After the budding 18-year-old writer claims that he dreamed of fighting in World War II and “dying for the emperor,” we see him escape military service by overstating the severity of a tubercular condition. Later, the adult Mishima expresses dissatisfaction with his status as one of the most famous writers in all of Japan by complaining, “What good is it if I’m not translated in the West?” In the most scandalous episode, he dances at a gay bar with a partner who teases him: “You’re so flabby!” Mishima storms out of the club. “I can’t even look at myself,” he later declares, “so don’t make jokes like that again.” This business is unavoidably reductive, Rosebud-level analysis, but it feels like a complete psychological study; every scene either responds to something we’ve seen previously, or anticipates an episode yet to come. Osamu’s body covered in scars from his sado-masochistic relationship with Mitsuko recalls Mishima’s boyhood fascination with images of Saint Sebastian, which anticipates Mishima’s flamboyant pose as Sebastian during a photo shoot. His embarrassment on the dance floor prefigures his wholesale embrace of bodybuilding. His shame over his failure to serve in the Imperial Japanese Army plants the seeds that lead him to attempt to restore it, and his enduring dissatisfaction over the state of his body probably contributes to his decision to kill himself before he grows old and infirm. It’s to the movie’s great credit that it doesn’t seem to explain or make excuses for Mishima’s behaviour as much as it seeks to understand and illuminate it. And that’s a hell of a trick.
It’s easy to see where Mishima fits Schrader’s preoccupation with sexual repression and downward spirals; Mishima’s life story is soaking in repression, and the film becomes more troubled and fatalistic as it progresses. The sense of impending doom is both cowing and fascinating–you hate to see it happen, but you can’t bear to look away. Despite that almost voyeuristic appeal, Mishima is off-puttingly cerebral at times. The regimented, episodic structure and heavy reliance on voiceover almost ensures it, and even the fictional segments feel too purely didactic to reveal much meaning in Mishima’s work beyond its reflection on events in his life. Moreover, the film works too hard to make something noble of Mishima’s philosophy–to romanticize his compulsions. At best, it soft-pedals the most troubling particulars of his politics; at worst, it’s an apologia for fascism.
Still, aesthetics elevate the story at every turn, as Schrader envisions what Mishima’s particular brand of insanity might look like from the inside. John Bailey’s cinematography is both precise and poetic, running the gamut from grounded fly-on-the-wall naturalism to startling, clarifying moments of visual prose and poetry. He does it all without ever seeming to show off, which was just Bailey’s style. I was delighted by the rock-and-roll instrumentation (electric guitar, high-hat percussion) that kicks Philip Glass’s score up a notch as “Kyoko’s House” gets underway. And there’s a terrific scene about two-thirds of the way through in which Mishima takes up the challenge of addressing a hostile room full of leftist students at Tokyo University. Schrader stages and shoots the scene documentary-style, somehow investing it with a terrific verisimilitude. The assembled cast of extras is nothing short of amazing; freeze the frame and examine any given tableau and it seems like the image is infused with the eclectic entropy of a real event. And Mishima finds its apotheosis in the nick of time, as it interrupts Mishima’s frankly embarrassing call to imperial arms, delivered to a mass of indifferent Japanese soldiers, with a strangely rapturous monochrome sequence in which he suddenly imagines himself soaring in a jet at 45,000 feet, “the silver phallus of the fuselage floated in sunlight.” Here, Mishima sees outer space as a kind of metaphor for death, and voices a hope that he may finally be on the verge of reconciling the conflicting urges towards art and physical action. Mishima never quite sells the tragedy of Mishima’s life, but it gives him this in oblivion: “No more body or spirit, pen or sword, male or female.” As Mishima imagines his new trajectory through the upper atmosphere, Mishima finds its own resting place, and the sleepy drone of Glass’s organs swells on the soundtrack, both eerie and comforting–anthem, hymn, and requiem.