Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Studio: Criterion

Jul 18, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Yukio Mishima remains one of Japan’s most eminent and controversial public figures, even nearing fifty years after his notorious public suicide. His work as an author, essayist, actor, and director gained him international recognition due to his signature blend of contemporary and traditional techniques and tropes exploring sexuality, death, and political change. This influence subsequently aided in his nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968. While an outwardly beloved (or reviled) figure, a prominent voice in Japanese nationalism and for resurrecting the samurai code, the man was far more complicated than the myth that has sprung up around his legacy in subsequent decades.

Mishima would also go on to found the Tatenokai (a personal right-wing militia) in 1968, even receiving training with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. His militant political activism would culminate in 1970, when he and three other Tatenokai members attempted a coup d'état to restore the Emperor's pre-World War II powers. After being dismissed by the army and the public-at-large, Mishima and Masakatsu Morita (the Tatenokai's student leader) committed seppuku, a ritualistic suicide via disembowelment with a sword. The national scandal soon became known as the Mishima Incident, and branded Mishima forever as a highly contentious historical figure.

While there now exists more works on Mishima and the Mishima Incident, the first to encapsulate Mishima’s labyrinthine personality in a feature film adaptation was the seminal American filmmaker and critic, Paul Schrader. Fresh off the mixed success of his 1982 feature Cat People, Schrader would enlist his brother Leonard in the scripting of Mishima’s life story. While constantly battling between Japanese and American production companies, scraping together funds, and clashing cultural attitudes surrounding Mishima, the end result, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters plays as one part biography, one part adaptation, and one part fantastical dreamscape.

Shot in Japan with an all-Japanese cast and crew, the film is constructed from three of Mishima’s novels (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko's House, and Runaway Horses), with Schrader also using segments from Mishima’s autobiography Confessions of a Mask; and though he sought to use scenes from the novel Forbidden Colors, he was denied by Yoko Sugiyama (Mishima's widow). The blending of fiction and fact heighten the stylistic choices of the filmmakers, utilizing a wide gradient swath of color schemes and Eiko Ishioka’s otherworldly set pieces to construct the inner world of Mishima. The fantastical narrative flirts with perspectives ranging from the ecstasical to the Kafkaesque, all buttressed by Philip Glass’s amazingly ruminant original score. Most naturalism is thrown by the wayside for the emotionally raw and the surrealistically introspective, and Mishima continues to stand as one of the more stylistically powerful films of the early 1980s.

The film was constantly bogged down during production by protests at the behest of Sugiyama, death threats by far right-wing groups, and on-set creative conflicts that threw any certainty of finishing into a constant state of limbo. The original lead actor chosen to portray Mishima (Ken Takakura) even backed out of the project earlier on due to similar threats and pressure, eventually being replaced by Ken Ogata. When the film eventually did premiere in 1985, it was withdrawn from the Tokyo International Film Festival, and has never been officially released in Japan. Despite all of this, Schrader has continually championed the film as his best effort, saying, “It's the one I’d stand by – as a screenwriter it’s Taxi Driver, but as a director it’s Mishima.”

The Criterion Collection has re-released Mishima on Blu-ray, primarily built from its original DVD version in 2008, but with some key changes. This director’s cut has been newly restored in digital 4K, supervised and approved by both Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey. Interviews with key members of the cast and crew (including an audio recording of co-screenwriter Chieko Schrader), and Mishima biographers pepper the supplemental features. The 1985 documentary The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima is buttressed by archive footage of Mishima in 1966; with all of it rounded out by a booklet comprising two essays (one by film critic Kevin Jackson), and numerous photographs of Ishioka’s spellbinding sets.

While the film career of Paul Schrader has been highly checkered commercially, he has managed numerous cultural milestones that have stood the test of time a true classics of American cinema. While the highly-stylized presentation and controversial subject matter of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters may be a turn-off to the more casual film fans, this film and its massive treasure trove of supplemental features stand as an absolute necessity for collecting cinephiles.



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