After nearly a quarter century, the paradox of “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” remains that even though director Paul Schrader went out of his way to make the controversial biopic in Japanese with a Japanese crew using Japanese techniques, the film has still never been released there. At the same time, Schrader’s approach made the enigmatic figure all the more foreign to Western audiences (critics, however, delighted in Schrader’s hyper-intellectualization of his subject and curious puzzlebox structure), and it’s only now, with all the bells and whistles of a Criterion release, that mainstream viewers have sufficient context to appreciate this beautiful, yet flawed film.
This is the “Pulp Fiction” for arthouse snobs, an ambitious, fragmented narrative oozing with nods to Japanese helmers like Ozu and Mizoguchi as well as overt homages to Euro works such as “The Conformist” and “Performance” — a postmodern pastiche released the same year Tarantino landed his first video clerk job. But the great irony of Schrader’s style is that Yukio Mishima was among Japan’s most Western-minded writers, a deeply image-conscious artist who would have likely been flattered by a more traditionally Hollywood treatment. As Mishima’s career progressed, he became increasingly preoccupied with his public persona, transforming his own life into a form of performance art through photography and film, notoriously culminating in an act of seppuku enacted before rolling newsreel cameras.
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Though Schrader may be conscious of Japanese traditions in a way few American audiences are (a perspective enhanced by the participation of his expat brother, Leonard, and Leonard’s Japanese wife, Chieko), his primary interest in Mishima is through the lens of the author’s suicidal “affliction.” As he explains in a new commentary (recorded shortly after his brother’s death), following “Taxi Driver,” Schrader was criticized for “writing down to this character, of using an illiterate to express my suicidal neuroses on.”
But for all “Mishima’s” superficial Japonism, Schrader imposes a fundamentally Western view upon his subject — namely, that of the 20th-century psychoanalyst. Like a dutiful Freudian, he glimpses into Mishima’s motherless childhood and schoolyard humiliations for clues, weighs the author’s homosexual and sado-masochistic tendencies as supporting evidence and arrives at the conclusion that Mishima, like Travis Bickle, was the suicidal type (albeit for different reasons).
The same could be said about thousands of young Japanese soldiers who gave their lives for their emperor in World War II. Especially intriguing in Mishima’s case, the author expressed a career-long interest in mortality, first writing about it, then posing in a series of photographs depicting “the male in death” (including his famous recreation of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian) and eventually staging it onscreen in his short film “Patriotism” (a valuable artifact in its own right, also censored in Japan and available separately from Criterion, which reveals Mishima’s natural magnetism, a facet muted in Ken Ogata’s later portrayal).
Where suicide is marked by shame in the West, honor and, sometimes, glory traditionally accompany the act in Japan, a cultural contradiction Schrader grapples with throughout the film: He wants to understand whatever “pathology” drove Mishima to take his own life, even as he admires a man who made the ultimate sacrifice for his art (and also for his radical politics). “The reason why his life is really worthy of examination is he realized fairly early on that the role of the writer in the new media age, meaning television, was also the role of a personality,” Schrader explains. “If you turn your own body into the canvas in which you enact a public media death, how do you take the idea of performance art any farther than that.”
Structurally, “Mishima” is as ambitious a biopic as they come, giving even Todd Haynes’ recent “I’m Not There” a run for its money. In Schrader’s view, Mishima was also prone to a schizophrenic identity, reflected in the way the writer kept his social circles apart. But instead of casting multiple actors, Schrader examines Mishima through the lens of his work, staging three of his novels as stylized theatrical pieces within the film (all the more breathtaking for Eiko Ishioka’s production design). He intercuts these with scenes of Mishima’s past (rendered in traditional black and white) and present, depicting his final day with the documentary-like style of Costa-Gavras.
As the commentary progresses, Schrader distances himself from a strictly psychological approach, engaging with a more poetic interpretation of his subject. In the film’s first three chapters, we see Mishima’s progression through three stages, from aesthete (or writer/artist) to bodybuilder to militarist. Rationally speaking, each stage was critical to his final performance: For all his preoccupation with beauty, without the transformation through weightlifting, Mishima would not have achieved his goal of leaving an exquisite corpse (to die old or scrawny would be a shameful alternative to taking his life at his physical peak).
Given the complexity of Mishima’s character, it’s no wonder his widow withdrew her support from the production. In a separate audio interview, co-scenarist Chieko Schrader explains how they originally courted Madame Mishima’s permission: She flaunted Japanese custom and called his widow directly, stressing that she would receive no better offer than a film produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola to be directed by “Taxi Driver’s” Schrader. To their surprise, she acquiesced, giving them permission she had already denied to the likes of Japanese directors Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima.
According to her wishes, Schrader agreed not to fabricate any words or events not explicitly documented from Mishima’s life. Hoping to focus the scope of their portrait in a duly reverential way, she denied them access to his openly homoerotic novel “Forbidden Colors” and the semi-autobiographical “Confessions of a Mask,” but Schrader still found sufficient support for the more sensitive aspects of Mishima’s personality that interested him. And so it happened that Schrader allowed his hands to be tied by the conventions of a society that ultimately rejected his interpretation of their conflicted national hero — a shame given the sheer aesthetic and intellectual beauty of his endeavor.