Yesterday’s movie was the recently re-released 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, another one I missed when it came out and have been wanting to see for a while. It was actually in my Netflix queue, but when it showed up at Anthology Film Archive I decided to see it there instead. I’m glad I did, since sitting right in front of a big screen made it easier to succumb to its odd mix of intensity and abstraction, chaos and control.
Paul Schrader, who directed the movie and co-wrote the script with his brother and sister-in-law, gets the setup out of the way with a couple of title cards, telling us that Yukio Mishima was one of Japan’s most popular postwar writers, the author of scores of novels, short stories, essays, poems, and plays. This may be a biopic, but it avoids every cliché of the genre, roaring past boilerplate like courtship and marriage and eschewing psychobabble like the childhood trauma that explains everything. Instead, Shrader uses Mishima’s own writings to construct four chapters (“Beauty,” “Art,” “Action,” and “Harmony of Pen and Sword”) centered around cornerstones of Mishima’s philosophy. Together, the four trace the evolution in his thinking that led him to take his own life, gathering the young acolytes in a paramilitary group he had formed and driving onto a military base to commit seppuku.
Each of the four chapters is divided into three parts: Mishima (Ken Ogata) on his final day, filmed in naturalistic color; a scene from his past, filmed in black and white; and a theatrically staged scene from one of his novels, acted out on a highly stylized set with background colors and costumes in the flat, saturated tones of a ’50s detergent ad. Despite the wildly disparate styles of the three sections, their content melds together so seamlessly that it’s sometimes hard to remember what was said by or to Mishima and what by or to one of his semi-autobiographical fictional characters. The Philip Glass score that runs under it all also helps knit it together, amplifying a sense of unease that crescendos to intense suspense as Mishima and his boys drive up to the base in the final chapter.
After a while, I felt so far inside what felt like Mishima’s fever dream that I could easily picture the author himself behind the camera, feeding the actors their lines. That felt right, partly because he sometimes acted in movies (he even co-directed a movie in which his character committed seppuku, a scene Schrader works in wittily). More importantly, it jibes with what Schrader portrays as his mania for control, which, along with his obsession with beauty and his horror of decay, led him as far as directing his own death.
That obsession with control also plays out in one of the stories from his novels, in which an aimless young man finds meaning in a sadomasochistic affair. The film alludes only in passing to Mishima’s own love life, mentioning both his wife and children and his interest in men (Mishima was possibly bisexual but probably gay). That elliptical mention of homosexuality was apparently enough to alarm his latter-day political followers in Japan, who have kept the film from being released there. At the other extreme, some of the film’s Western reviewers objected to Shrader’s failure to address Mishima’s sexuality head-on.
That would have bothered me too in a standard biopic, but it feels more like respect than avoidance in Mishima, which also distinguishes itself from the pack with its refreshingly narrow focus. This movie never promises to deliver its subject to us neat, complete, and tidily explained. Instead, it turns a hot, bright light on just one part of his life (his love affair with death) and leaves the rest alone, enigmatic and ultimately unknowable.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.