Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)


Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader
Leonard Schrader
Chieko Schrader
Director of Photography: 
John Bailey

Running time: 115 minutes

An extraordinary film about an artist’s desire for political change brought about by his art. The multidimensional way in which the tale presented to us is vibrant but by no means attempts to give a complete picture of the man.

The story is played out in three distinct parts that are woven together throughout the film: present (1970), in colour; past (pre-1970) in black and white; imaginary, in very bright colours. Of course, it is no coincidence that the present and the imaginary are both shown in colour, and by the time the film reaches its climax, the pure expression of Mishima’s ideal that art and action somehow be fused is visualised magnificently onscreen, accompanied by the music of Philip Glass, without whom this film would not have had the same energy.

The film is based on the real-life individual, Yukio Mishima, a writer, director, actor and admirer of the samurai traditions. The content of his own novels forms the backdrops for the episodes in the film. These episodes – the four chapters of the film’s title – are labelled as “Beauty”, “Art”, “Action” and “Harmony of Pen and Sword”.

The different novels on which the film draws, and whose visual representations in the film are nothing short of breathtaking, are The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses. Naturally, the omission of such a novel in the final part of the film implies that the episode itself, directed by Mishima, is another kind of novel, although he seems to achieve in real life what had eluded him in his fiction: the fusion of words and action.

Director Paul Schrader’s treatment of Mishima’s sexuality does not aim for sensationalism; on the contrary, it provides one of many points of coherence between the different story lines, and the story lines do sometimes overlap, in the manner of the opening credits sequence of Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (whose soundtrack was also composed by Philip Glass).

While director Paul Schrader took great pains to portray this Japanese story with Japanese actors, performing in Japanese, he opted for an English voice-over because he felt the amount of subtitles would otherwise be unbearable for the viewer. Perhaps this is true, but his solution to the problem – an American voice-over whose speaker pretends to be Mishima – damages the film’s otherwise impeccable handling of the material.

The music, as much a contributing factor as Schrader’s direction, enthuses the viewer even when the thread of the present – and its inevitable conclusion (seppuku, or harakiri: suicide by disembowelment) – might have provoked a very different reaction. And in those closing moments, when the different stories finally culminate, the viewer will recognise that Schrader has a masterful grip on the material and that the transcendent power his main character speaks of during the film is powerfully evoked.

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