From 1985's "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters."

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters 
December 7, 2021

DIRECTED BY

Paul Schrader

STARRING

Ken Ogata
Kenji Sawada
Toshiyuki Nagashima
Yasosuke Bando

 

RATED

R

RELEASED IN

1985

 

RUNNING TIME

2 Hrs.

A

solitary man erupts. So goes, in abbreviated form, what happens in so many of Paul Schrader’s films: Taxi Driver (1976), American Gigolo

(1980), Light Sleeper (1992), First Reformed (2018), and, most recently, this year’s The Card Counter. With its matching conceit, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) — the film that Schrader maintains is his best-directed — technically belongs to this cohort. Yet it

feels less like a relative than an outsider. The man reaching the breaking point isn’t a figment of Schrader’s imagination; the movie is more aggressively abstract than anything else the filmmaker had (and has) made.

 

Its subject is Yukio Mishima, among Japan’s most prolific and influential writers. Some 50 years after his death, his personal life remains as much a point of fascination as his work. This closeted bisexual more and more obsessed with body-building increasingly became a harshly right-wing traditionalist. So much so that, shortly after forming his own civilian militia (!) with a distinct dogma and custom-tailored uniforms, he attempted a governmental coup. Then, after failing, he killed himself by seppuku as a loyal associate struggled to decapitate him by sword. 
 

This surface scratch of Mishima’s life itself sounds daunting to dramatize. Wisely, Schrader doesn’t approach Mishima’s story with a familiar variation on the comfortable rise-and-fall structure often adopted by biopics. The filmmaker seems more interested in positing how Mishima might have conceived himself than in crafting a satisfying narrative about his life, so we get evocative, visually disparate (and eccentrically beautiful) fragments from it instead— a risky but ultimately inspired move. (Schrader wrote the screenplay with his brother, Leonard.)
 

The movie’s frame story recounts the entirety of Mishima’s infamous last day of life. (He’s played, with vein-popping ardor, by Ken Ogata.) Using that as a starting point, the film sometimes flashes back to Mishima’s upbringing, coming-of-age, and beyond to explain his writerly and ideological developments and fixations. It also sometimes transports us into scenes culled directly from Mishima’s work, dramatizing with some detail The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1959), Kyoko’s House (1959), and Runaway Horses (1969) precisely because their individual thematic concerns bleed into the very-real preoccupations that so possessed their author. The latter move — to include at length its writer subject’s output in an essential rather than supplemental way — might be my favorite thing about Mishima. It’s so rare to see — it’s actually the first time I’ve seen — a filmmaker, in this case Schrader, treat a writer subject’s art as so inarguably inextricable from their identity that it’s weighted with an importance equal to the life they lived in the movie’s storytelling. 
 

Scenes from Mishima’s earlier life are shot in a plaintive black and white; the mini-adaptations of his tentpole works in splendiferous color and on ethereally artificial sets designed by Eiko Ishioka; and the current-day implosion with untouched color so as to avoid glossing over its intensity. Together these expressionistic shards fuse not to form something that’s dramatically forceful but rather as persuasive an account of a character’s interior life as I’ve seen a movie achieve. 
 

You don’t finish Mishima with a holistic sense of who this man was. That doesn’t seem to be what Schrader has in mind, anyway. Instead you feel like you’ve barely managed to survive spending a few hours trawling through his brain, clobbered by his hang-ups and especially his obsession with finding a way to live a life that to his mind had the same kind of grandeur he felt he could easily manufacture on the page. With Mishima, Schrader and his collaborators lay bare — through a bold kind of excavation — the paradoxical way writing can be a both valuable and destructive force for the people whose self-conception lives or dies from their practicing of it. For Mishima, writing helped uncover his passions, desires, and, ultimately, an oblivion of his own making. A