Friday, November 26, 2010

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

I saw one of the best films I've seen in 2010 on the day before Thanksgiving at the Castro Theater.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters starring Ken Ogata; directed by Paul Schrader; Japanese with subtitles; (1985)

The pedigree of the film is impeccable. Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplays for Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, directed Mishima. This is the third film directed by Schrader which I've seen this year. At Not Necessarily Noir, they screened Blue Collar and Hardcore.

The soundtrack for Mishima was composed by Phillip Glass, one of the most influential musical composers of the 20th century. Much of the soundtrack in Mishima was performed by the Kronos Quartet, a noted San Francisco based classical quartet (two violins, one viola and one cello). The producers of Mishima include Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.

The screenwriters for the film include Schrader, his brother Leonard and Leonard's wife Chieko. The Schrader brothers had previously written The Yakuza (1975) starring Robert Mitchum and directed by Sydney Pollack. That film was set in the Japanese criminal underworld. Leonard Schrader had lived in Japan and married a Japanse woman. Leonard Schrader had numerous screenwriting credits for Japanese films including The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979).

The Castro advertised that a newly restored 35mm print of the film would be screened. Unfortunately, due to a shiping mistake, the print did not arrive so they screened a DVD (presumably hi-def). As a result, the lowered the admission price from $10 to $7.50. I prefer to watch films in their original format but my preferences are not so immutable as to refuse to view a DVD version of the film. According to the cashier, some patrons refused to watch the DVD screening.


Yukio Mishima (a pen name) was an avante garde novelist, poet, playwright, actor and film director whose primary creative period spanned the 1950s and 60s. Internationally acclaimed (three nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature), Mishima espoused a retro brand of Japanese nationalism which glorified the bushidō code of honor practiced by the samurai. He also advocated restoring full power to the emperor as well as his god-like status. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four members of his private army gained access to the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of Japan's Self-Defense Forces. The held the commandant hostage in his office and Mishima demanded to address the troops. He gave a speech which he hoped would inspire the troops to join him in a coup d'état. Instead, they jeered and mocked him. After giving his speech, Mishima retired to the commandant's office where he committed seppuku, a ritual suicide.


Mishima: A Life in Four ChaptersMishima: A Life in Four Chapters was structured into four parts as the title suggests - Beauty, Art, Action and Harmony of Pen & Sword. Each chapter blended elements from Mishima's last day (filmed in realistic colors) and his earlier life (black and white). In addition, portions of his novels or plays were depicted (pastel hued colors). The effect was to blur the line between Mishima and his characters which was appropriate because many of his works were semi-autobiographical and he seemed to live his life as if he were a character in a play. Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey used muted colors when filming the "fictional" scenes. In particular, many of the sets were salmon pink which would match the color scheme or Mishima's private army. Finally, Phillip Glass added an evocative score with hints Wagnerian flourish.

The film had an elegiac tone which seemed to be the way Mishima lived his life. He practically made a promise to die before age 40 (he was 45 at the time of his death). Schrader's skill at interweaving Mishima's works with his life are evident throughout the film. Mishima had a number of contradictory elements in his life. Mishima hints at the man's sexuality until he removes all doubts with a scene where he is dancing with another man. Mishima projected an image of hypermasculinity but was henpecked by his mother and grandmother, was bisexual and engaged in lurid S&M activities. All the women in the film are shown as grotesque in appearance or behavior which reflected Mishima's loathing of women.

Mishima combines the fascinating works by the author with the fascinating life of the man with the fascinating mythology of the legend. The result is a fascinating film which kept riveted for two hours.

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