Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

(USA/Japan - 1985)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Hiroshi Mikami, Junya Fukuda, Shigeto Tachihara, 
Genre: Drama
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenplay: Chieko Schrader, Leonard Schrader, Paul Schrader
Cinematography: John Bailey
Composer: Philip Glass
Runtime: 121 minutes

When thinking of this film, one wonders how it ever got made. At the same time, one wonders why films this exceptional can't be made more often. Well, it's pretty simply really; most people don't want to see a complex and ambitious film and won't give a subtitled art film about a foreigner a chance no matter how beautiful it is. In spite of it's greatness the film, reportedly made for $10.5 million, it only grossed $450,000 domestically so good luck to the next guy who needs a lot of money to make a great film.

Yukio Mishima was a highly acclaimed Japanese author and playwright who thought of his life as a work of art so he created himself. He valued the body over the mind, putting him in opposition with his intellectual colleagues. In an effort to bond with the physical world, he took up a strict workout regiment, never missing a tri weekly weight lifting session and becoming a master swordsman (kendo). In many ways he was a walking contradiction. Known for his nililism, he longed to die for his country yet exaggerated an illness to get out of the army before it could happen.

The film is set on 11/25/70, the day Mishima holds a general hostage so he can try to convert the troops from the capitalist ways back to the traditional ways of imperial Japan and then commit seppuku (ritual suicide). These scenes are shot in color, but it's up to you to decide if that's because it documents "the present" or because his final act was glorious. It's not richly colored like the scenes from his books, so maybe it's in between? As was the case in The Yakuza, Paul's brother and co-author Leonard, is able to convey his understanding of the Japanese ways, both past and present.

The reason this movie works perfectly is Paul Schrader seamlessly goes between the final day and the various versions of Mishima. We have black and white sequences that show his life. The private Mishima is a weak lonely boy with a speech impediment that built himself up both mentally and physically. The public Mishima has turned himself into just the opposite, a well spoken muscular leader of his army, the Shield Society, who manipulates himself to fame and notoriety far beyond what a normal writer of his stature would have attained. The author Mishima wrote stories where he was, whether admittedly or not, seemingly he's the main character. His character's actions seem to be things he's in some way experienced or contemplated doing. These scenes that give you the gist of three of his novels, and moreso define Mishima, are brought to life in stunning, richly colored, fantasy like fashion by designer Eiko Ishioka (Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Cell) and veteran Schrader cinematographer John Bailey. All of this helps us decided what this complicated man was striving for, and whether his symbolic death was worthwhile.

Paul Schrader is the right director for this material because he knows how to make us think. Actually, Schrader said Mishima is the kind of character he might create if he didn't already exist. He's such a complex character that you are never sure if he's brilliant, insane, some of both, or just overly troubled. Does he kill himself because he wants to die beautiful and simply use his last day to go out with as much of a bang as possible? Has he already given up on dying beautiful (supposedly a man has to die before the age of 40 to do so and Mishima was 45) and simply believes he's important enough that his death will set change in motion? Will his control of self, art, and society grow with his death or will it rot with his corpse? Schrader is not out to manipulate us or provide us with the answers, he lets Mishima do that the way he tried to during his life and just challenges us to decide whether Mishima made any sense.

What makes this a better film than Paul Schrader's other classics is the overall production. Schrader generally surrounds himself with a strong cast (he did make the mistake of using Richard Gere once, leading to his only mediocre film), which fits his directorial style of letting the actions play out realistically with the writing and performers carrying the piece. This film succeeds in the usual areas, challenging the audience and with the performances. In particular, Ken Ogata does a standout job as Mishima, creating a larger than life and equally conflicting Mishima. The movie also succeeds as an art film. Thus, it's a good departure from his usual presentation, benefiting tremendously from a great soundtrack by Phillip Glass (Koyaanisqatsi, Kundun, The Truman Show) that perfectly supports the visuals as well as the aforementioned work by Ishioka and Bailey. The three won the Best Artistic Contribution award at Cannes and Schrader was nominated for the Golden Palm, but, as usual, Schrader was dogged domestically.

Paul Schrader is well respected for the scripts he's penned for Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Bringing Out The Dead, and the upcoming Dino). Unfortunately, in spite of the outstanding quality of this, Light Sleeper, Affliction, and reportedly Blue Collar, he remains one of our most underrated directors. This film, like his others, might not be the most entertaining, but unlike most any other film it's hard to envision how it could have been any better.


Web rbmoviereviews.com

* Copyright 2001 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *