Ten years into my ‘cinematic education’ after creating The Peoples Movies, the education continues and the latest film lesson is Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters. My quest was to open my heart to films and genres I wouldn’t have blinked an eye in the past.
Paul Schrader’s 1985 film is regarded by some critics as an ‘underrated masterpiece’ often neglected by others. Maybe the fact is this film is a biopic but not in the conventional sense. Unless you have an knowledge on Japanese Literature, Yukio Mishima may not be a name you may be familiar with. However, this leads you to the magic of film and Criterion Collection opens the doors to this film. A chance learn about figures we may not always know about.
Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters is a visually idiosyncratic portrait of one of Japan’s acclaimed writers and Playrights, Yukio Mishima (played by Ken Ogata). Dazzinglingy delivered in 4 vignettes, not just about Mishima’s life but what things meant a lot to him. He was someone who wanted to find harmony among self-art and society in general. Punctuated by extended flashbacks of the writer’s life through the evocation of his fictional works. Also through his inner turmoils and contradictions of a man attempting to find himself in a society, he loves disintegrating around him.
When we first meet Mishima, we meet him on his last days when he famously attempts a public Seppuku (suicide). It was a very bizarre, shocking death that some believed were just another one of his many public arts protests. Sadistically he performed his final ritual in full military regalia, accompanied by three young men in uniform. True or not some said it was all part of a right-wing ‘coup’ to take over the then ruling government he saw responsible for Japan’s downfall.
No one can argue, Mishima was a strange fellow who was an obsessed narcissist bisexual man who took many things on face value. Very proud of his country’s old traditions who felt the Way Of The Samurai (The Bushido Code) was the way forward for Japan. Every day he felt more frustrated as the ruling government eroded the cultural identity fuelling him to put pen to paper or some new art. He objected to America’s post world war two occupation of his country, a sentiment many Japanese still have today with countless U.S bases still in Japan.
With a man with such a complexed life, Paul Schrader has successfully kept the narrative simple and straightforward. What was truly unique and wonderful about the film was its approach to the sets. He opts for a labyrinth of theatrical sets which fit nicely into Mishima‘s sensibilities. His traditions clashing with modernist is like his complicated mindset.
The sets are deeply rich in vibrant colours that reflected the schemes of the era. All inspired by the books with Confessions Of The Mask biggest inspiration to the film (it’s autobiographical). The Temple of The Golden Pavillon, Kyoko’s House, Runaway Horses all give us an insight into the mind of our protagonist. They give us an idea of what drove him and what his desires where. You could argue the film or even his books had clues which lead us all to Mishima’s extraordinary death.
Schrader didn’t hide from the fact the sets looked like theatre style sets. Minimal and all designed by Eiko Ishioka, amazingly her first film art direction (The Cell, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Immortals). All gorgeous work was all helped by the exquisitely shot cinematography by John Bailey. This was a film of firsts and this was also the first feature narrative score for legendary Composer Phillip Glass. As ever hypnotic and absorbing.
Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters was never a straightforward film to make or even tell. It’s amazing to think this film was shot in Japan with a Japanese cast and crew. The film was banned in the country and to this day its still not received any form of distribution. Even Yukio Mishima’s estate didn’t first approve of the film, with the scene in a gay bar which angered them.
Up until Criterion Collection sent me the film, I had no idea who Mishima was. I still may not call this a ‘masterpiece’, yet a gorgeous fascinating film. Avant-Garde in nature, an unconventional biopic that was radical and surreal at times. A film about an obsessive egotistical man whose life was like one big canvas or stage play. Not an easy watch, nevertheless a spellbinding account of a literally genius who was a troubled soul.
Biography, Drama | USA, Japan, 1985 | 15 | 11th June 2018 (UK Blu-ray) | Criterion Collection | Dir.Paul Schrader | Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Hiroshi Mikami, Naoko Ôtani, Kenji Sawada, Junkichi Orimoto, Masato Aizawa
Picture & Sound |★★★★★
Criterion Rarely disappoints when it comes to their films and this one delivers the goods. They present this one in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with a 1080p transfer. The film varies in colour schemes from the monochromatic early scenes of Mishima as a boy to the later scenes of neon, vivid colours. No matter what scheme they both are equally bold throughout. This is also a 4K Restoration and that restoration has been approved by Schrader and Bailey giving the overall film a crisp organic feel.
The sound we have several options to pick from. All presented with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio Soundtrack and if you’re a fan of Phillip Glass soundtrack, you will be in dreamland. There are two English Language narrations with one from Roy Scheider. Next, to that, we have commentary from producer Alan Poul and Paul Schrader himself
Extras | ★★★★
The extras for this one come with a number of archival interviews. Including ones from DoP John Bailey, Producers Alan Poul, Tom Luddy, Mata Yamamoto, designer Eiko Ishioka and Phillip Glass. Mishima Biographer John Nathan (2008) interview with Donald Richie talk about their personal accounts with the man in general. Chieko Schrader the films wrote the Japanese language version of the script shares his meetings with Mishima. We even get an extract from the man himself talking about his work in 1966. There is also a BBC Documentary called The Strange Case Of Yukio Mishima about the author, aired in 1955. The film’s book features an essay from critic Kevin Jackson all about the film’s censorship in Japan.