Prior to receiving The Criterion Collections recent Blu-ray of Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, I had never seen the film. Sure, I’d heard good things about it, but I didn’t heed them. I thought it would be a typical biopic, and I thought the best way to approach its complex subject, Yukio Mishima, was through his literary work. I was wrong to hold out!
Any of you within the sound of my voice, if you haven’t seen Schrader’s film, get to it! But you don’t like biopics? Don’t worry! Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is an artful, thoughtful, provocative exploration — rather than simple telling — of many facets of the life and work of the Japanese author.
Mishima was one of Japan’s most acclaimed authors for two decades before, on November 25, 1970, he tried to inspire a coup d’état to reinstate the Emperor and, upon failing, committed a ritual suicide.
Schrader’s film begins in the early morning of that November day. We slowly approach the beautiful home. We enter and see tidiness and beautifully arranged traditional Japanese art and artifacts. Then we go the bed, see Mishima (played by Ken Ogata), and watch him arise and prepare, ritually, for this do-or-die day. This lengthy attention to preparation, mental and physical, is reminiscent of Schrader’s screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, where we see Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta prepare for their own violent conflicts, exemplifying focus and serenity.
Dressed and deliberate, Mishima marches out of his own house, past some windows, and on to his fate.
Meanwhile, we see a young bystander:
Schrader then goes into a reverse shot, with us expecting to see Mishima walking past this window. However, instead, we not only jumped perspectives, but we also jumped back in time, to another street, to another bystander, watching some young boys playfully fight in the street.
This, we learn, is the young Mishima, cloistered in his grandmother’s walls. This window will soon be covered by the curtains. He’s quite different from the man we met when the film began. Here he is protected, presumed to be weak, shy, unable even to meet the eye of the camera taking his portrait.
Such a flashback is not unique to biopics, of course, though Schrader’s use is particularly masterful. The film becomes something additional when we make additional jumps, this time from the past to literature.
As the film goes on, we transition (often with a clear cue) from the life of Mishima to three of his novels: Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses. Mishima’s November death day is portrayed in natural color, his past in black and white; his novels, though, are told with brilliantly constructed artificial sets. Here is the first we see, the one for The Golden Pavilion.
And so the film goes back and forth in time and back and forth from reality to fiction, showing how porous the borders are, that each plane influences and practically exists in the others.
What’s most impressive is how naturally this structure serves to engage with the complexities of Mishima’s life and work. Here we see a man who comes to embody the masculine ideal of the time: he’s physically perfect, he’s militaristic, he’s single-minded, he’s virile. Here we also see a young boy who is none of those things, along with a poetic work that confronts the internal struggles that turn such a youth into a man willing to sacrifice himself for what becomes his poetic philosophy.
The visuals are gorgeous and compelling, and it certainly helps that the score is by Philip Glass, who is really at his best here. Everything comes together wonderfully. Indeed, for my tastes and desires, this film is the quintessential biopic, able to dig deeply into its subject while considering the confluence of his life and his art.
And now for a bit of effulgent praise for the Criterion edition: this edition is one of their best, certainly sitting in the same tier as their most enjoyable releases in terms of physical beauty (the box is itself a lovely, shiny delight) and careful, loving, thorough supplements. The new Blu-ray does appear to contain the same materials as the original 2008 DVD release, but, as this was my first time through it all, I can assure you it’s very satisfying by any standards. After watching the film, I really wanted a chance to keep engaging with it, and the set as a whole hit the right notes.