Review by Evan Kindley
Posted on 17 December 2008
Source 35mm print
A writer is a voyeur par excellence. I came to detest this position.
On November 25th, 1970, the writer Yukio Mishima committed seppuku in the office of a lieutenant general of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces; in keeping with ancient samurai tradition, he disemboweled himself with a sword, after which he was beheaded by one of his followers. This ritual suicide, for Mishima, was the summation of a lifelong effort to unite “art and action,” the aesthetic and the ethical, his work and his life. Like much of what Mishima did, it was both elaborately planned and deeply enigmatic, at once a social protest, a private decision, and an aesthetic performance. Fifteen years later, Paul Schrader – screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and director of a few films of his own, notably American Gigolo – secured funding from Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas to make a film about Mishima’s life: an uncommercial subject, but for someone with Schrader’s interests (in masculinity, violence, and ascetic self-discipline) an irresistible one.
Mishima valued structure and discipline above all, and Schrader responds by toning down his usual ferocity and making a very controlled, very careful, very Japanese film. Cowritten with his brother Leonard Schrader (who worked in Japan in the 60s as a literature professor), Mishima clocks in at exactly 120 minutes, and is presented, as the title tells us, in four chapters: “Beauty,” “Art,” “Action” and “Harmony of Pen and Sword.” Each of these, with the exception of the last, is further subdivided into three sections which are intercut with one another: a straightforward narrative of Mishima’s life from childhood up to maturity, a reenactment of the author’s infamous final day, and compressed adaptations of three of his novels.
This last device is Mishima’s real innovation; while it seems like an obvious enough idea, I can’t think of another biopic that makes such extensive and imaginative use of it. The advantage of the technique is that, unlike many other movies about writers, Mishima is able to present a great deal of its subject’s own prose directly, without resorting to anything too uncinematic like having characters read aloud from a book. For instance, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, based on Mishima’s 1956 novel, tells the story of two young Zen acolytes who use their physical disabilities (one is “frog-footed,” the other stutters) to seduce women. The dialogue in this story is near perfect, conveying a realistic sense of the characters’ agonized faith while also being studded with lapidary epigrams: “Guys like us are just like beautiful girls. We get sick of always being stared at,” or, even better: “Beauty is like a rotten tooth. It rubs against your tongue, hurting, insisting on its importance. Finally you go to a dentist and have it pulled. Then you look at the small bloody tooth in your hand and say, ‘Is that all it was?’” The crystalline purity of Mishima’s style, and his Western-influenced fondness for metaphor, tell us more about him than we could learn from a dozen biographical incidents.
The adaptations are also the most beautiful parts of the film, visually. The gorgeous sets by designer Eiko Ishioka, each with its own story-specific color scheme, are modeled on Noh theater (which fascinated Mishima); at times they also recall the similarly artificial backdrops for Coppola’s One from the Heart, also filmed at Zoetrope Studios. (Eiko later went on to work with Coppola on Bram Stoker’s Dracula; she also did Tarsem’s The Cell and Björk’s “Cocoon” video.) Faced with these ornate tableaux, cinematographer John Bailey favors slow diagonal pans, letting the camera move from one corner of the stage to another; sometimes he plays those movements off against some horizontal phenomena – a gust of vermilion leaves sweeping across the frame, for example – in a fitting complement to the narrative’s elegant symmetries. (Indeed, the visuals in the adaptations are so sumptuous as to flirt at times with Orientalism, a vice that it has to be said the film generally avoids.) The other two stories, Kyoko’s House (about a young actor’s sadomasochistic relationship with an older woman) and Runaway Horses (about a group of reactionary conspirators) are only slightly less beautiful, but relate more directly to the events of Mishima’s biography; taken together, they provide a contrast to their author’s life as well as a comment on it. Mishima would be worth seeing if only for these segments, each of which stand as short films in themselves, and which have the added effect of making you want to search out their source material.
In the more straightforward biopic sections, the loss of aesthetic richness is compensated for by the performance of the great Ken Ogata, who plays Mishima with just the right mix of charisma and steeliness. These scenes, shot in black and white, have some of the relaxed subtlety of Schrader’s idol Yasujiro Ozu (about whom he wrote, along with Dreyer and Bresson, in his 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film). Unlike Ozu, though, who was always interested in his characters in the context of changes within a broader Japanese society, Schrader is single-mindedly focused on Mishima, whose singular personality is allowed to completely define both the film’s formal limits and its thematic concerns. Schrader presents Mishima throughout as an extreme version of a Wildean aesthete, obsessed with masks and self-presentation: the vain young actor in Kyoko’s House, on deciding to take up bodybuilding (as Mishima himself did in 1955), explains that “then my whole body could be my face.” This familiar Western fixation on physical beauty is given a distinctively Japanese turn by being connected to the samurai tradition of seppuku, or suicide with honor: “Even the most beautiful body is soon destroyed by age,” another character in Kyoko’s House says. “Where is beauty then? Only art makes human beauty endure. You must devise an artist’s scheme to preserve it. You must commit suicide at the height of your beauty.”
None of this is an unfair characterization of Mishima or his philosophy; indeed, most of it comes straight from the writer’s own works. But starting with the second chapter, “Art,” Schrader begins to work the self-creation angle a little too hard. For one thing, from the evidence of the stories’ psychological complexity and even some of the behavior in the biopic sections, there’s more to Yukio Mishima than this. At times, he even seems to loosen up and be funny, as when he tells reporters one moment that his favorite author is Thomas Mann, and the next that the person he’d most like to be is Elvis Presley. How this impish Mishima, who longs above all to be translated in the West, squares with the consummate aesthetic perfectionist is not really explained by Schrader’s constant emphasis on self-fashioning and the writer’s life and body as a work of art. (Mishima’s homosexuality is also underexplored, though this was in part the result of constraints placed upon Schrader by the author’s family.)
In fact, one begins to wonder at times if Schrader isn’t idealizing Mishima – as I think he does Ozu in Transcendental Style – imagining that he had fully solved problems that Schrader himself remains obsessed with. If Mishima is, as Roger Ebert has recently suggested, Schrader’s “ultimate man in a room,” and thus in the lineage of the obsessive protagonists of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver,1 then it may be that, in trying to give us Mishima in all his purity, has made him a little too monomaniacal. Weren’t there moments when Mishima didn’t know exactly what to do, how to shape his life in accordance with his intention? Schrader might have brought to his idol a little of the spirit of sacrilege that animates his script for The Last Temptation of Christ, rather than holding him up as a paragon of the transcendental aesthetic life. In one interesting scene, Mishima claims that he is “consciously calculating,” thinking over the themes and aims of his fiction, until the moment he actually begins writing, at which point his unconscious takes over. There’s no similar moment of release for Schrader in Mishima: he lets everything stay precise and controlled at all times, with only the vaguest sense of the powerful counterforces being held in check.
This becomes increasingly evident in the third section, “Action,” which moves us into the late 1960s, when Mishima began to move to the far right. Wanting to bring back the spirit of old Japan that he feared was being wiped out by modernization, Mishima formed the Shield Society, a nationalist paramilitary organization which pledged to “assassinate the leaders of capitalism [and] restore power to the Emperor.” (Not that this was ever a realistic possibility, and Mishima himself admitted to believing more in the Emperor as a symbol than in Hirohito as an actual political leader.) While we can understand how Mishima’s love of personal discipline might lead him to this quasi-fascist position, the fact that he got close to a hundred young men to enlist in his private army, and four of them to assist him in his final act, begs large questions that Schrader’s tight focus on Mishima’s terminal uniqueness can’t answer. For instance, what was going on in Japanese society at the time? We do get an interesting scene of Mishima trying to gain the support of the student left, whose opposition to capitalism and Westernization he shares, but from a conservative rather than a radical progressive point of view. Further examination of these tensions might have allowed Schrader to make something like a photo negative of Godard’s La Chinoise, which also attests to the link between a certain Orientalism, a moment in the history of youth culture, and political radicalism, although from the opposite side of the political spectrum. But Schrader isn’t really interested in the political situation Mishima was responding to, even as he indicates that it affected the author very deeply. In particular, a little more exploration of the relationship between Mishima and the younger generation of Japanese might have stretched the bounds of the Schraders’ narrative frame, but it would certainly help in making sense of the final chapter.
Especially since here Schrader goes and wrecks everything anyway, with what is by far the least convincing section. In “Harmony of Pen and Sword,” we finally finish the story that has been running all throughout the film: Mishima and his young followers gain an audience with the lieutenant general, tie him up and gag him, demand that Mishima be allowed to address the corps, which he does (inaudibly) before finally returning to the general’s office and committing seppuku in front of him. Stylistically, Schrader is closer to Scorsese territory in this part of the film than he is to Ozu or one of his other “transcendental” masters: a frantic nervous energy, quite unlike what’s gone before, takes over as you sense Mishima trying to bring order to the highly unstable situation he has created around him. If anything, then, this section has the opposite problem to the rest of the film: whereas chapters 1-3 were too close to Mishima, letting him dictate the film’s aesthetics, ethics and dramatic structure all at once, this final chapter is too far outside him, as if Schrader were making the comment that Mishima’s obsessive search for perfection was really impossible after all. But if this is so, it’s just as reductive as saying that Mishima was in fact perfect; it’s still playing by his rules, but just saying he’s lost the game.
Unfortunately, this is not just a matter of blowing the ending, despite the undeniable power of much of what has come before. The problem posed by “Harmony” is the problem of the film as a whole, one that Schrader manages to evade in the earlier sections by letting Mishima speak for himself at such unusual length. That is, how should we regard Mishima, and what he did? Can we accept suicide as an artistic action, or do we have to think about it differently from the way Mishima (and, in a sense, Schrader) is asking us to? Of course the easy answer is that we in the audience should “decide for ourselves,” and that Schrader is to be commended for just presenting what happened rather than editorializing about it. But if the film is more than a tribute to Mishima and his work, if it has some claim to be a work of art itself, then it should give us a little perspective, even at the risk of reducing its subject to a case of something (but of what?). All throughout Mishima, Ogata’s voiceover narration – much of it taken directly from Mishima’s 1968 autobiography Sun and Steel – gives us various impeccably phrased philosophical justifications for his personal synthesis of Hellenism and bushido, but one always senses Schrader’s mixed feelings, even as he dutifully reproduces what his hero wrote and believed. Clearly Schrader wants to stay away from moralizing, and he admires Mishima deeply even as he can’t quite bring himself to glorify him. Probably this essential distance – which is not just the distance between American Calvinist heterosexual director and Japanese Buddhist homosexual writer, though there is that – was inevitable, given the extremity of Mishima’s final act. But I don’t know that it serves Mishima so well for Schrader to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters opens in a limited engagement on December 17 at Film Forum.