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Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Director: Paul Schrader (USA, Japan), Year of Release: 1985

Yukio Mishima was an author, actor and occasional photographic model. He raised a private army which waged war against Japanese capitalism while pledging their loyalty to the Emperor and the armed forces. In 1970, they took a leading general hostage, demanding that Mishima address the troops. After this, he ritually disembowelled himself before a follower chipped off his head. A standard biopic would have a hell of a story to tell about his story. And this is no standard biopic.

The film comprises different types of story telling, which fade in and out to each other. First, there’s the story of Mishima’s childhood. In subdued monochrome, we view a shy man with a stutter, dominated by his grandmother. Then in vibrant technicolour, we roughly follow the plots of three of his novels, and to a degree his life and opinions. Finally, we see him and four of his followers cramming into a small car, on the way to his final showdown at the barracks.

For most of the time, everything is underpinned by a repetitive score, underpinned by a repetitive score by, by a repetitive score by Philip Glass, repetitive score by Philip Glass which slowly develops, score by Philip Glass which slowly develops at, which slowly develops at an increasingly insistent pace. It functions remarkably well, though I can anticipate people who are easily irritated by Glass’s music to become increasingly agitated by the end of the film.

Some of the imagery is astounding, not least a repeated shot of Mishima as Saint Sebastian, wrists bound and strung up to a tree, his ribs pierced with arrows. This is one of a very few allusions to his homosexuality – and even this one is somewhat opaque. Apparently Mishima’s widow’s estate only gave permission for the film to be made if there was little talk of That Sort of Thing.

The occasional performances portraying Mishima’s books are played on a minimal theatre stages, slightly reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s Dogville. They are wonderfully choreographed, in particularly the scene of a meeting where Mishima’s men are plotting to overthrow the government. The plotters are surrounded with plain white blinds, which I presume is typical of Noh theater. Suddenly all the blinds are torn down as the meeting is attacked from all sides by police.

We also get a tinge of Mishima’s strange brand of politics. Mishima claimed to be “neither Left nor Right” (good to know that that old cliché has a long pedigree) and we do see a scene of him addressing what seems to be an exclusively male group of protesting students occupying a classroom. He mainly shouts at them and tells them every way in which they’re wrong and he’s right. They, many of them wearing crash helmets, heckle him back.

Outside this protest and the occasional rant against capitalism, Mishima seems to be much more at ease with a militarised society with the Emperor at the top but a high place in the hierarchy for certain poets. He, and his followers, dress in pristine military uniform – the opening shot shows him slowly donning a khaki battledress. The camera lingers as an aide de camp hands him his jacket, his hat, and finally his white gloves which he slowly puts on one by one.

Mishima was born in 1925, so was just 20 when Japan was finally defeated in the Second World War. This may explain help his obsession with a return to old Japanese traditions. I did worry at some stage that a film written by 2 US-American brothers which spends so much time talking about traditions might be looking at Mishima through Orientalist eyes, but it does fit Mishima’s radical nationalism (plus co-writer Leonard Schrader does at least live in Japan).

Scenes of his early life show a much less secure man. His stutter affects his self-confidence, although a friend with a limp shows him how to use a disability to make women first pity then fall for you. Later, he takes up body building as an obvious attempt to overcome his physical weaknesses (and just possibly to make it easier to attract young men)

I have been aware of Mishima since it came out, which is to say that I knew there was a film of this name by The Bloke Who Wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and it was about a right-wing gay Japanese author who killed himself. For some reason, that was not enough to have me seek it out, and it’s only thanks to a season of East Asian films that I’ve finally got to see it (even though, it’s not really an East Asian film). And it was nothing like my wildest expectations.

Mishima, the film, is sometimes, but not always, much better than I was expecting, at the same time as being an inchoate mess – usually in a good way. And although the film is splattered with a little bit of everything, there is a clear structure leading us up to a climactic ending. Added to this, this visuals are just stunning. It’s like someone opened a paint box and threw paint just everywhere, but with the eye and self-awareness of a Jackson Pollock, not a 3-year old child.

All in all, it’s a bit of a fever dream. A film you’ve got to see when you’re in the right mood, but one that can be thoroughly rewarding if you do.

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