More than a mere account of an artist’s life, Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters attempts to visualize the aesthetic and spiritual arc of its subject, the postwar Japanese author Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata). The film opens on the day of the artist’s failed coup d’état and subsequent suicide, then traces his life to that point via flashbacks. Schrader juxtaposes the sight of the author in military regalia with younger images of a frail, sickly child, gradually charting how the young Mishima turned to both writing and exercise to overcome his sense of weakness. The flashbacks move in a linear fashion, tracing the artist’s radical evolution from stuttering, isolated young man to physically fit reactionary whose objections to American postwar occupation and cultural influence inspire a devout cult of militaristic men.
Complicating this relatively straightforward narrative are Schrader’s elaborately theatrical stagings of some of Mishima’s novels. Befitting Mishima’s own style, Schrader’s realizations of the author’s work are a mix of traditional and modernist formal sensibilities. Shot against vast but minimal backdrops on a soundstage, these segments replace the naturalistic colors of the 1970-set scenes and black-and-white flashbacks with florid colors and angular, surreal production design. The adaptation of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion sees the set’s walls painted in glowing orange interspersed with paintings of verdant mountains and plants overlooking a small walkway of floorboards over a sketch of a pond. This segment’s evocation of Japanese traditional art contrasts sharply with the modish look of Schrader’s take on Kyoko’s House, which crackles with splashes of electric pink that illuminate interior sets that connote the seedy influence of Western culture.
By folding these vignettes into the larger narrative of Mishima’s life, the film illustrates just how much his art reflected his changing attitudes and beliefs. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion presents its young, repressed protagonist, Mizoguchi (Yasosuke Bando), as frail and skittish. The miniature of the Buddhist temple that torments Mizoguchi is scarcely taller than he is, but it seems to loom over him with ominous intent. The cultural history represented by the temple terrifies the immature, repressed Mizoguchi, but that fear of Japan’s history has morphed into fascistic protectiveness of it in Schrader’s adaptation of Mishima’s later novel Runaway Horses. The warm colors of the Golden Pavilion section are replaced by stark reds, whites, and blacks befitting Mishima’s reactionary militarism, and the image of a temple recurs again in the background as the cult leader played by Toshiyuki Nagashima addresses his own, Mishima-esque private army on a beach. This time, though, the temple looks tiny, scarcely visible as it sits squarely behind the revolutionary who faces away from the building to speak to his men. Organizing a coup to nominally preserve Japan’s old culture, the leader subconsciously backgrounds an icon of that culture to place himself front and center.
With these segments, Schrader illustrates aspects of Mishima’s personality that are handled more reticently in the character’s flashbacks. The author’s complicated, uncertain sexuality pokes around the margins in his reminiscences, but Schrader’s adaptations more thoroughly probe the subject. The director leans heavily on the tortured sadomasochism of Kyoko’s House and fascistic homoeroticism of Runaway Horses to intimate aspects of Mishima’s own character. Similarly, Schrader uses his takes on the novels to visually explore the changes in Mishima’s internal mindset, charting a clear artistic shift from impressionable naïveté into stubborn machismo that seems a belated response against the perceived weakness of Mishima’s younger self. The film does not shy away from the tragic farce of Mishima’s final day, but in exploring the author’s art, it takes seriously the creative and intellectual journey that led to that point and marks one of Schrader’s finest efforts in documenting his characters’ impulses toward self-annihilation.
Mishima’s varied color palette is resplendent on the Criterion Collection’s restored transfer. The black-and-white flashbacks show even contrast and much more stable black levels than they did on Criterion’s 2008 DVD, with close-ups capturing naturalistic facial textures and deep-focus shots of Mishima’s cluttered domestic spaces retaining detail well into the background. The vivid color schema of the film’s adaptations of Mishima’s novels are boldly rendered, from the pulsing orange haze of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion to the seedy neon pink of Kyoko’s House. These segments have the same level of detail as the monochrome scenes, and grain distribution is consistent throughout. The soundtrack clearly captures dialogue and Foley effects, but its principal selling point is its boisterous, resonant mixing of Philip Glass’s score. Percussion skitters at the margins of the mix, while the looping violins and keyboards fill the entire speaker range with blissful, meditative white noise. Small touches of subliminal, contrapuntal instrumentation can be easily sussed out, resulting in an aural experience as densely crafted as the film’s images. The disc also comes with the option to listen to the track with Japanese narration or with one of two English narration tracks, including the original theatrical recording of Roy Scheider.
Criterion's disc comes with an audio commentary, recorded in 2006, featuring Schrader and producer Alan Poul, the latter largely there to keep the irascible director on track. Schrader's occasional lurch into pettiness (he audibly bristles at Glass retaining the rights to his score and thus licensing it into ubiquity) adds amusing flavor to an otherwise informative track, which contains copious insights into the production of the film and the director's thematic preoccupations. An hour-long documentary on Mishima for British television covers the life of the controversial author, while an interview with Mishima conducted for French TV shortly before his death collects some of his own thoughts on his work and his view of Japanese society.
Mishima biographer John Nathan and film historian Donald Richie examine how the film tackled the subject of the author's life, while writer-producer Chieko Schrader discusses her experiences throughout the film's production. Interviews with various crew members, including Glass and cinematographer John Bailey, delve deeper into various aspects of the film and its making. The most fascinating of these interviewees is costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who recalls initially wanting to turn down the job due to her dislike of Mishima and his beliefs, only for Schrader to assure her that her objections made her ideal for the task. A booklet comes loaded with production stills, as well as an essay by Kevin Jackson that analyzes the film's experimental structure and how it illuminates, rather than obscures, Mishima's life.
This avant-garde portrait of one of Japan’s most renowned and controversial authors is Paul Schrader’s most ambitious illustration of his core theme of men driven to self-annihilation, and this gorgeous film shines on Criterion’s restored 4K digital transfer of the director’s cut.