Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters DVD review

An extraordinary man gets an extraordinary cinematic biography from Paul Schrader...

Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters

Paul Schrader’s 1985 epic on one of last century’s most extreme intellectual figures is about to be re-issued, re-mastered and in an exclusive director’s cut, on dvd.

It is visually stunning, set in Japan’s recent past and with curious stylized set pieces which are supposed to give us an insight into Mishima’s mind, the subtexts of his plays and novels and how they mirrored his own existence.

Yukio Mishima was a controversial figure: a stern traditionalist who harked back to a time when national pride and a worship of white weapons were the key to the Japanese psyche, he was also a poet and writer who produced dozens of plays and put together a private army made up of followers and martial arts enthusiasts sworn to protect the Emperor.

The movie is structured in four parts: “Beauty”, “Art”, “Action” and “Harmony of Pen and Sword”. Each of these begins with a thread in the present: his attempted coup in 1970, which ended with his humiliation and consequent seppuku (self-disembowelment) to wash away the shame of failure. In the course of the movie, Mishima is played by different actors representing different stages of his character’s development as well as different ages. This can get a little confusing when representations of his plays and novels which involve alter egos espousing his philosophy are intercut with the biographical story.

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Death, sometimes in the form of ritual suicide, was a constant in Mishima’s literature, perhaps (it is suggested) unravelled by his relationship with his controlling and emotionally manipulative grandmother, who took him away from her daughter, shielded him from other children and even from the sun for years and had him look after her when she was sick. As a result of this sheltered upbringing, the young Yukio was sickly himself, and probably as a reaction, worked hard to develop and maintain a strong physique, in line with his strong military beliefs and his fascistic leanings.

The Mishima presented to us is an unemotional, striking, witty and intelligent man, Schrader succeeds in provoking our empathy with the man despite his traditionalist ethos which made his figure a slight anachronism. In fact we are somehow manipulated ourselves to feel empathy for a man who appears to be very “black and white”, resists change and is intent in preserving the status quo and the imperialist ways of his country no matter what the cost.

Of course, his ultimate sacrifice is what propelled him into modern icon status. He certainly knew what he was doing, although he is probably more famous for his suicide than for his numerous writing accomplishments.

The film’s cinematography and soundtrack are outstanding. The striking Philip Glass score make the film stand out and yet it does not intrude, it enhances the images. With this movie Schrader manages to homage a controversial man and he also makes a style statement of his own, a film that is, one way or another, hard to forget.


4 stars

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is out now.

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4 out of 5