November 18, 2007

MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985) a film from two countries

MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS
(USA, 1985)

The story of the controversial Japanese author, filmed in Japan by an American director

This is an excellent introduction to the prolific poet, author, film actor, Yukio Mishima. A Japanese writer who dared to stir up debate about homosexuality in a country which still doesn’t widely acknowledge the subject.

Besides becoming widely acclaimed and read internationally, the themes in his writings became his obsessions. Beauty, ageing, Japanese traditions, masculinity, suicide… all collided in his lifestyle as he took up body-building with a vengeance, and started his own private military army dedicated to the Emperor of Japan. His life's work ended in an attempt to incite a military coup, which climaxed in ritual suicide in 1970.

Ken Ogata as Yukio Mishima, in this recreation of an actual photo, as
used in the French film poster

A character this complex makes the dramatic reconstruction of his story, starring Ken Ogata as Mishima, as interesting as the dramatisations of three of his fictional works. Watching it compels me to seek out a biography, as well as translations of his novels. But so much of his work is veiled in metaphors, which takes me back to my days struggling in English literature classes – I might not be very good at deciphering them. I'd rather read interviews, and learn how he lived his life, than attempt to discover meaning through his writings. Like Jean Genet's work, the books baffle me, but his life was fascinating.

The film uses Mishima’s last day as the backbone of the film – as he assembles four of his cadets to visit an Army Headquarters in Tokyo. Black and white flashbacks begin intercutting with these events, to tell his life story. Through wartime, through his early works in novels and plays, up to his time of celebrity which enabled him to even appear in movies. On top of that, three of his most famous stories are interspersed, recreated in vibrant colour in stylised, theatrical sets, in contrast to the realism of the biographical scenes.

This is complex, with two timelines of reality cross-cutting, and blending with his fiction, but it’s easy to follow. His life-story is shot on Japanese locations, while his stories are recreated in beautifully constructed and painted sets, filmed at Toho Studios. The production designer was Eiko Ishioka, who also designed the elaborate costumes in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Cell.

The film is classified as an American one, notably Francis Coppola and George Lucas executive produced. According
to Wikipedia, the film was never officially released in Japan, so presumably the project couldn’t have been made with Japanese money. A full-frontal nude shot of an actress belies the fact that this isn’t a Japanese film, and Philip Glass’s omnipresent soundtrack also reminds the viewer.


But the music is entirely suitable, stirring the film into a compelling and emotional experience. If you haven’t an aversion to his music, that is. Having seen this many years ago, I was later shocked to hear the iconic theme tune crop up halfway through The Truman Show for no good reason. At least when Tarantino poaches film music, it’s for a referential reason.

Directed and co-scripted by Paul Schrader, this is the last good film of his that I’ve seen. He made his name as a scriptwriter with Taxi Driver (1976), and as a director with American Gigolo (1980). But when he followed his successes with a remake of Cat People (1982), the audience he’d found started to flounder. Mishima might very well have finished them off.

Compelled by his hits, I keep dipping into his work, but have been disappointed since the 1980’s. I recently saw the rather flat Auto Focus and the flawed Exorcist: Dominion. His scripts are usually more successful, but only if he doesn’t direct them, like Obsession (1976) or Raging Bull (1980), for example. But with Mishima I’d say everything works, and apparently it’s his favourite directed work as well.

I found it beautiful, compelling and shocking. There is much in his reasoning that I completely disagree with, but to witness such dedication and obsession became a fascinating and emotional experience. Perhaps it's my enthusiasm for Philip Glass - Koyaanisqatsi, Candyman and Kundun are also favourite films of mine.

The last DVD release of Mishima was in 2001 in the US, with an optional American narration. But the dialogue is always in Japanese. I watched the film totally in Japanese – preferring to hear Ken Ogata voice Mishima thoughts, as he reminisces about his life and quotes his works.

The real Yukio Mishima, during his famous last stand


This is an unusual project, proof that a film can work without a foreign cast speaking in pigeon English, like in Memoirs of a Geisha. With Letters from Iwo Jima, and Kundun, it’s also a film that blurs international boundaries or ownership to tell an extraordinary story.


UPDATE, JULY 2008 - Mishima has been released as part of the Criterion Collection, with both the US and Japanese voiceover versions, and bonus doumentaries.

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