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Mishima: A Life in four Chapters

Paul Schrader’s bold, colorful masterpiece receives a timely re-release.

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Originally released in 1985, Paul Schrader’s Mishima chronicles the turbulent life of Japanese author, artist, and provocateur Yukio Mishima. Though Mishima wrote dozens of bestselling books, his fame as an author was eclipsed by his own larger-than-life persona: what began as his own personal dogma of obsessive asceticism and the pursuit of physical perfection eventually garnered him a cultlike group of followers, who supported and abetted him through a series of increasingly extreme public acts.

However problematic the impossibility of separating Mishima’s life from his art may be, Schrader commits fully to his explorations of both art and artist. In the director’s commentary for the original DVD release, he describes seeing in Mishima “the same pathology of suicidal glory” found in Travis Bickle, his fictional Taxi Driver antihero. Ken Ogata, as the titular Mishima, arguably makes an even stronger commitment with his portrayal of such a divisive figure. Supposedly, the original actor intended for the part (Ken Takakura) withdrew after pressure from right-wing groups unhappy with the film’s exploration of Mishima’s sexuality. Ogata embraces the role – which sees Mishima enter an ever-more-severe regime of discipline and austerity, while engaging in a series of increasingly didactic and combative public speeches – with singular focus and intensity.

The film is divided into four sections, titled Beauty, Art, Action, and Harmony of Pen and Sword. Each section uses various points of view to tell the story of its subject, including flashbacks (filmed in black-and-white) and dramatizations of three of Mishima’s novels (filmed in bright pastels and neons that sometimes border on garish). The juxtaposition of these contrary color palettes balances the film’s often-dour subject with a modicum of spontaneity, and the hypnotic soundtrack by Philip Glass – which often carries on quietly beneath character dialogue – further adds to the film’s kaleidoscopic momentum, playing a contrapuntal role not unlike that of Popol Vuh’s soundtracks to Werner Herzog’s films.

Beyond its experiments with color, the film makes great thematic use of the concept of framing: in several flashbacks, Mishima frames shots of himself, positioning and repositioning photographers and cameramen until the perfect shot is attained. The colorful portrayals of his novels, too, use a sort of meta-framing via intentionally stage-like backdrops and lighting, which evoke the painted worlds of Kabuki theater. Many such scenes are filmed from above, with characters pacing between thin walls outside of which lies only darkness, or lying on beds afloat in a sea of black. Rather than distracting from the subject, these instances of butting up against the fourth wall serve as a valorization of the creative process, and effectively illustrate the growing conflict between art and action.

The film often tackles extreme and occasionally brutal subject matter, but while some of the more violent scenes do indeed elicit shudders, Schrader generally opts for implicit violence over explicit, backing off from outright brutality in favor of a more poetic approach. Mishima has famously never been released in Japan, as the author remains an extremely controversial figure in his home country. Schrader’s inclusion of the erotic life and writings of his subject, though sparing for how much controversy they have generated, nonetheless rendered the film toxic in Japan, drawing particuar vitriol from right-wing groups opposed to any implication of homosexual tendencies.

Decades after its original release, a story about an artist whose pursuit of individualism isolates him further and further from society is more timely than ever, particularly given the current ease with which extreme rhetoric can reach a global audience. When does an ascetic practice with fascist overtones cross the line into actual fascism? Can the pursuit of unbounded freedom end up turning into a greater repression? The great accomplishment of Mishima is its ability to examine these questions through numerous lenses – biography, fantasy, history, fiction, memory – in a way that honors the various truths of each without putting its full faith in any of them.

John Peck

Credits

Original title: Mishima: A Life in four Chapters
USA/Japan 1985, 120 min
Genre: Drama, Biography
Director: Paul Schrader
Author: Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader
DOP: John Bailey
Montage: Michael Chandler, Tomoyo Oshima
Music: Philip Glass
Distributor: rapid eye movies
Cast: Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Gô Rijû, Kyûzô Kobayashi
FSK: 16
Release: 28.11.2019

Website

Screenings

Screenings

  • OV Original version
  • OmU Original with German subtitles
  • OmeU Original with English subtitles
English/with English subtitles
All languages

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