Criterion Review: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters


On 25 November 1970, Yukio Mishima, one of Japan’s leading authors, attempted a coup d’etat with three members of his private army before committing seppuku. Paul Schrader’s stunning biopic follows Mishima over the course of that day, punctuated by flashbacks of his real life and dramatised segments of his novels.

The final day of Yukio Mishima’s life is so equally bizarre and fascinating that any director worth their salt could wring a good film out of it. Yet Schrader, with a wonderful mixture of non-linear structure and surreal production design, transcends the generic boundaries of the biopic towards something approaching psychological portraiture.

Opening in 1970, Mishima, played in this segment by Ken Ogata, prepares his lieutenants for the coup. We then flash back to Mishima’s early childhood, now shot in period-accurate 1930s cinematography. Formative experiences, such as being raised by his grandparents and not being allowed outside, inform the psychology both of Mishima (played as a young boy by Yugi Nagahara), and the characters of his future novels and plays. Moving forward in time, the film snaps back into colour to adapt a sequence from Mishima’s 1959 novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. With each narrative jump, Schrader moves further away from realism and into the depths of his subject’s mind, conflating the inner life of the author and those of his protagonists.

The film’s structure provides fertile ground to explore Mishima’s psychology, but it is Eiko Ishioka’s groundbreaking production design, combined with John Bailey’s cinematography, where the film truly flourishes. Ishioka designed the sets of each of the film’s novel segments as theatrical sets – impressionistic spaces for the imagination to work: the result is transcendently beautiful. The effect is heightened by John Bailey’s masterful cinematography, contrasting the vivid colour of the novel segments, the documentary-style 1970 segments, and the black and white flashbacks.

Unifying the visuals is Phillip Glass’ tremendous score. Strings dominate the flashbacks to create at once a sense of creative exhilaration, tragedy, and inner subjectivity, while the percussion of the 1970 segments privilege Mishima’s militaristic nationalism. Schrader’s greatest success here is in putting the lie to the notion that for art in cinema must come from the mind of the auteur – Mishima is a masterpiece of collaboration, each of its constituent parts contributing to a singular voice.

Over the course of the film, Mishima’s fascination with death is gradually revealed, one which informs his nationalist political ideology and fixation on restoring the Emperor as the symbolic Godhead of Japan. For Mishima, destruction and creation are embodied in the same act through death, and through this lens, the film frames his coup and subsequent as inseparably political, philosophical, and aesthetic. Mishima does not try to give an objective, dispassionate account of the author’s life, but rather an interpretation of it that brings us to an understanding that transcends the literal retelling of events.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell

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