An extension of helmer Koji Wakamatsu’s ongoing examination of political extremism in Japan, “11/25 The Day Mishima Chose His Own Fate” reps an attempt to understand the ultra-nationalist ideology that prompted novelist Yukio Mishima’s failed coup and subsequent seppuku in 1970. Devoid of drama and shorn of superfluous technical flourishes, the pic uses characters as mouthpieces for political ideology in a manner as indigestible as raw potatoes. Hard going as cinema, yet admirable as an unbiased analysis of misplaced idealism at a particular moment in history, the pic is a worthy study topic but likely commercial suicide for distribs.
Wakamatsu rejects outright both the biopic format and the postmodern pastiche of Paul Schrader’s 1985 “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.” Controversial aspects of Mishima’s life, such as his homosexuality and fetishization of the male physique are also excised. Rather, the film features a straight-ahead narrative unembellished by flashbacks, interior monologue or any reference to the ideas or content of Mishima’s fictional writing, and dives headlong into his last few years to demonstrate the inevitability of its dramatic conclusion.
At 41, Mishima (Arata Iura) is basking in fame and material comfort, but is gnawed by a sense that something greater than literary accomplishment awaits him. Indignant about the weakness of Japan’s constitution and the nation’s subordination to the U.S., he undergoes training within the Self Defense Forces in 1964, and later establishes the self-funded nationalist private militia Tatenokai (Shield Society).
Whether sitting in a classroom or sweating in a sauna, the men espouse their political views ad infinitum, signing manifestos with their own blood. Their actions underline their anger with the government’s apathy, and frustration over not being allowed to help shape their country’s future, thus making death the only way to grab attention and instigate change. (The fact Wakamatsu starts the film’s title with “11/25” is likely to draw a parallel with the 3/11 earthquake, an event that left the Japanese population feeling disempowered in the nation’s decision-making process, just as Mishima felt in 1970.)
Wakamatsu’s personal history with the United Red Army, enriched by comprehensive usage of archival footage, enables him to position Mishima’s ideology as evolving in response to, and not necessarily at odds with Japan’s exploding left-wing student movement and youth protest culture.
Compared with the visceral rawness of Wakamatsu’s indictment of savage internal purging in “United Red Army” and WWII imperialism in “Caterpillar,” the dry and turgid “Mishima” can leave auds at a loss as to how to react. Employing hard cuts, long immobile camera movements and conventional framing, the utilitarian style underlines Wakamatsu’s desire to suspend his own subjective judgment and to adopt a film language that mirrors the protags’ asceticism.
The payoff comes in the final act, when the Tatenokai members take a hostage in an attempt to incite the Self Defense Forces to rise up and reinstate the emperor as a deity. The docu-like account allows auds to enter the mindset of the insurgents, which finds perfect logic and purpose for what publicly was considered fanaticism. The conscious omission of graphic shots of Mishima’s final act lends gravitas and poignancy to the futility of his gesture.
Iura, who dropped his romanized stage name, Arata, and reverted to his Japanese given name specifically for this role, gives a dignified portrayal, conveying Mishima’s growing resolve as much through an upright, unyielding posture as through formal manners. Shinobu Terajima (breathtaking in “Caterpillar”), cast as Mishima’s wife, Yoko, appears briefly in impersonal exchanges with Iura as Mishima, reflecting how women exert no influence on these men’s lives. Other supporting thesps deliver dead serious perfs, but only Shinnosuke Mitsushima (brother of “Love Exposure” star Hikari) makes his zeal and devotion to Mishima seem moving rather than ludicrously naive.
Tomohiko Tsuji’s HD lensing, uses low contrast and limited color, combining for solemn effect with a score that features ancient gagaku palace music.