Mishima: Sumptous, Iconoclastic

Based on the life of Japanese author Yukio Mishima, Paul Schrader considered his 1985 film, Mishima:A Life in Four Chapters to be the best film he directed. It has never had an official screening in Japan. WFS Committe member Russ Kale saw it first on a grainy ex-rental VHS tape on a small screen. He saw it again at The Embassy last week and was inspired to write this review.

Mishima: Sumptuous, Iconoclastic

Considering how psychologically and politically complex the author Yukio Mishima was, it’s hardly surprising that Paul Schrader’s 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters needs to use different visual styles just to keep things straight. Schrader’s film illuminates several important periods of the author’s life, both through dramatisations of some of Mishima’s novels and a portrayal of Mishima’s attempted coup in 1970. This strategy was also partly necessary because of how veiled Mishima’s life was—in many cases, the only way to access the man is through his novels.

Schrader chose sections of three Mishima novels to adapt—The Temple of the Golden PavilionKyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses— but also drew the details of Mishima’s early life from the autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask. Schrader had initially wanted to dramatise a section of Forbidden Colours, but the rights to the novel were denied by Mishima’s widow. To help orient the viewer, the dramatisations take place on artificial sets and the modern-day sequences are filmed in a more naturalistic style. However, this distinction also serves a thematic purpose, fencing off the excesses of Mishima’s artistic life. It’s almost hard to believe the author of these novels is the same man we see exhorting a platoon of the Defense Force to stage a rebellion. It’s only at the very end of the film that Mishima explains how his art and his political beliefs can only be reconciled at the moment of death.

And Schrader certainly makes death look pretty. For many years, my only experience of Mishima was a grainy ex-rental VHS tape, which I rescued from the Aro Video clearance bin. I committed the ultimate cinema sin, watching it on a small screen at two in the afternoon without even closing the curtains! Even under those conditions, though, it’s the imagery of these dramatisations that has stuck with me. As production designer, Schrader brought in the famed graphic artist Eiko Ishioka. Ishioka’s stark sets—isolated rooms against black backgrounds, and the sumptuous golden pavilion itself – make for indelible images. Schrader’s decision to end each of the dramatisations just before the climax, only to bring each story back at the very end of the film in a dazzling tableau, means that the film is maintaining a complicated balancing act throughout. We’re led to believe that the tension before the catharsis is all we’ll get out of each story, which makes the images at the end feel like successive punches in the gut.

While Schrader considers Mishima to be the best film he has directed, it has never received an official screening in Japan. A successful boycott of the film was mounted due to its presentation of Mishima as a gay man (also the subject of the refused novel Forbidden Colours). Mishima’s widow threatened to file suit against the film, claiming in an interview that her late husband’s novels were “overly simplified to distort the meaning to nothing but homosexuality and violence”. This criticism is surprising, given the restrained way in which Schrader treats Mishima’s sexuality. Mishima’s queer identity seems to have been irreconcilable with the image of the masculine literary lion. Schrader’s film, perhaps deliberately, keeps these two subjects in tension. Mishima as shown on the day of his attempted coup has no sexuality at all—his wife and children are alluded to but not shown; his queer affairs appear only in flashback.

The excerpt from Kyoko’s House is the most explicitly queer of the three novels, but its content is still coded. The vivid and sumptuous sets where queerness is allowed to exist in all its camp glory are also closed boxes, drawing explicit boundaries between the world of emotion and the world of political reality. Schrader treats the three novels as partially autobiographical, but this raises an interesting question I think—did Mishima deliberately intend for his novels to reflect aspects of himself and his personality? Or were these novels a way of distancing and isolating his desires, both for an expansive queer expression and a radical and violent rage? If it is the latter, then Schrader’s film has broken down these walls and brought Mishima’s complicated identity into full view.

Whether you know a lot about Yukio Mishima or are just being introduced, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is the most arresting artist biopic ever committed to film, sumptuous and iconoclastic at the same time.