Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

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25 November

Yukio Mishima commits seppuku, 1970

On this day in 1970, the Japanese writer/actor/director Yukio Mishima disembowelled himself ritualistically, after having tried and failed to persuade troops at the Ichigaya barracks to launch a coup d’état to reinstate the Emperor’s supreme power. Shortly afterwards, as pre-arranged, his assistant attempted to decapitate him. When this failed, another assistant succeeded in severing Mishima’s head, then performed the same service for the first assistant, who had by now also disembowelled himself. Mishima’s real name was Kimitake Hiraoka and his act brought to a conclusion a life that had been devoted to the idea of the artist as a man of action. A precocious talent as a child, Mishima had shown early promise and had been writing from the age of 12. A novelist, poet and playwright by the late 1940s, Mishima had been a celebrity since his early 20s. He also took up acting, directing, singing and modelling in the 1960s. Though essentially gay, Mishima was strongly against what he saw as the effete culture of art and took up weight training and kendo, which he continued until the end of his life. He joined the Japanese armed forces aged 42, then formed his own private militia a year later, which was devoted to the idea of the Emperor as the divine essence of Japan. He saw himself as a modern samurai and patriot, and as a template for a new form of artist. Famous throughout the world, particularly in the United States, Mishima was considered for the Nobel prize for literature three times. He lost out in 1968, it is thought, because of his radical militaristic, quasi-religious politics.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985, dir: Paul Schrader)

Better known as a writer (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) than as a director, Paul Schrader’s work behind the camera has been wildly erratic but always interesting. See Adam Resurrected – Schrader’s screwy examination of Jewishness. Or The Walker – his quasi noir about his country’s moral malaise. Both are works dealing with difficult subjects and not entirely sure how to get onto the screen the ideas – possibly only half developed – buzzing around his head. With Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, he is on much surer ground, telling the life story of Yukio Mishima in three distinctive chunks. Chunk one shows Mishima’s formative years in black and white. Chunk two is Schrader’s version of significant moments from Mishima’s published oeuvre, all played out in a heightened realistic style in fizzingly bright colours. Chunk three is the last day of Mishima’s life, leading up to his suicide. Like other characters from other Schrader films, Mishima is the troubled hero, difficult, thrust towards a course of action most of us wouldn’t contemplate (think Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver) but which springs logically from his worldview. It’s a remarkable biography because it manages both to tell us about the man in a reasonably factual way, while also sketching in his psyche with poetic, expressionist touches. Schrader co-wrote it with his brother, who lived in Japan and had co-wrote Schrader’s first film, The Yakuza. The set design is by Eiko Ishioka – Dracula, M Butterfly and The Cell (terrible film, great looks) – whose colour sequences alone make the film worth watching. “When a man reaches 40, he has no chance to die beautifully,” says Mishima at one point. Though in Ishioka’s production design the ageing narcissist does at least go out surrounded by beauty, a beauty that, in Schrader’s vision, is analogous to a kind of purity of thought. Whether Schrader is holding such a model of humanity up as an example for the rest of us to admire and follow is never quite clear.

Why Watch?

  • One of the best biopics ever made
  • Like or loathe him, Mishima is a fascinating character
  • Philip Glass’s thrumming score
  • It’s another take on Travis Bickle – self-mythologist, narcissist, nutter

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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