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Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) Blu Ray (The Criterion Collection)

A biography of a memorable - but contentious - Japanese artist

Yukio Mishima was a legendary Japanese writer, poet, playwright, actor, film director and political extremist. During November 25, 1970, his life came to a dramatic conclusion when he staged an attempted a coup d'état with the help of his private militia, who were known as the Tatenokai. He took over a military base and attempted to incite the resident garrison to rise up against Japan’s corrupt political establishment and restore the power of the Emperor. When he failed, he ended his life by committing seppuku.

Ken Ogata in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

As the film’s title suggests, this biographical look at his life and some of the works is divided into four chapters: Beauty, Art, Action and Harmony of Pen and Sword. In addition to this structure, the elaborate narrative flips back and forth between three different strands throughout. The first strand documents the fateful final day in his life when he leads his Tatenokai into action. The second, presented in black and white, chronicles his life from his childhood onwards. Within this strand, each chapter focuses on a different stage in his life and features him played by different actors according to his age. The third strand features staged reenactments of specific sections from his books The Temple of the Golden Pavillion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses, using vividly-coloured visuals and elaborate theatrical-style sets.

Watch a trailer:

One of Paul Schrader’s most remarkable works

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is one of writer/director Paul Schrader’s most ambitious and controversial works. It is ambitious for the way in which it presents its account of its subject via four distinctive chapters and three separate, yet thematically interlinked, narrative strands - with each of the latter being marked by their own distinct visual approaches. It is a controversial film (particularly in Japan, where it was never released in cinemas or on home viewing formats), partially due to the fact that Mishima was one of the most noted political extremists from 20th century Japan. Schrader’s film takes the stance of both celebrating his work and presenting him as an integrated, if ultimately severely misguided, personality. During the film’s development, Mishima’s family rescinded their cooperation towards it because Schrader insisted on including scenes which clearly imply that he was gay (or, at very least, bisexual). Schrader’s approach towards his sexual orientation also caused consternation amongst many of the man’s right-wing admirers.

Whatever you think about its perspective on Mishima’s life and attitudes, it is undeniable that Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is, for the most part, a remarkably cohesive and cinematically beautiful work. The core theme running through the whole film is that of how the artist expresses a viewpoint towards perceived malaises afflicting his surrounding world but ultimately has to take action if he really wants a shot at changing it. The final chapter, called Harmony of Pen and Sword, focuses mostly on the 1970s strand and marks the day when he finally took action towards making his true imprint on the world. Another notable sub-theme running throughout is that of gender identity and sexuality, as marked through various scenes such as one where the young Mishima sees an androgynous Kabuki actor for the first time, and another taking place during his adult life where he frequents a gay bar.

Schrader has always been noted as more of a thematic director than one possessing any consistent signature style - unlike, say, Martin Scorsese, who directed his script for Taxi Driver (1976). With this in mind, however, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a notably stylish film, albeit with different stylistic motifs used for each of the three story strands.

The 1970 scenes play out like a political or crime thriller from the period, with a constant feeling of tension imbued via free-wheeling camerawork and matter-of-fact realism. The flashbacks to earlier years consist of more static, composed monochrome imagery in the style of classical Japanese cinema. The recreations of key segments of Mishima’s novels, meanwhile, feature the eye-burningly rich colours of Japanese paintings and theatre along with some decidedly dreamlike sets. There’s one particularly memorable example of visual design featuring a couple on a bed which is floating amid random pieces of furniture in a sort of black nothingness. The one stylistic constant here is the memorable classical score by Philip Glass. It is both soaring and haunting, a reflection of both Mishima’s pure determination and sheer impact on Japanese culture as well as the pure misguided folly of his tragic final act.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Whether Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is perfect or 100% successful in its portrayal of its subject’s soul is open to question. While it hangs together about as well as a picture this ambitiously structured can be, it still meanders at times and doesn’t quite maintain the intensity of focus on what drives a man towards a violent climactic act as perfectly as Taxi Driver’s narrative managed to do. However, by the time we get to the stunning and devastating final sequence, intercutting Mishima’s own seppuku suicide with the climaxes of the three featured novels (most notably, the similar act carried out by Isao at the end of the novel Runaway Horses in front of the burning orange-red of the Rising Sun), we know that we have just witnessed the cinematic equivalent of a great art show. Thus, by nature, it is idiosyncratic, it features some individual works which leave more impression than others, but we are still blown away at the end regardless.

Runtime: 122 mins

Dir: Paul Schrader

Script: Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader

Starring: Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Hiroshi Mikami, Junya Fukuda, Shigeto Tachihara, Junkichi Orimoto, Naoko Ôtani

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

The Criterion Collection’s 4K digital transfer does the film’s stunning visuals and memorable soundtrack justice. It’s an absolutely breathtaking print, especially during those ultra-colourful adaptations of sections of Mishima’s novels.

Extras

Enclosed Booklet

This lavish booklet features plenty of colourful stills from the film plus a number of articles. The essay Pen and Sword by Kevin Jackson provides a detailed examination of the film. He also discusses how the real-life figure of Yukio Mishima and this biopic fit into Paul Schrader’s overall thematic body of work. Banned in Japan, as the name suggests, takes a look at how the film never got a Japanese release. Sadly, it seems that death threats from a vocal right-wing minority had a lot to do with it. Even one of the film’s co-production companies, Toho-Towa, ultimately disowned it. On Set by Eiko Ishioka features excerpts from the artist’s book Eiko on Stage related to his work on the extraordinary sets which were built for the film’s novel reenactment sections.

Audio Commentary

Director/co-writer Paul Schrader and associate producer Alan Poul (from 2006) provide a superb commentary track here. Paul reveals that he got the idea of making a documentary about Mishima from his brother Leonard, who had become interested in him after relocating to Japan in order to dodge being drafted to Vietnam. He also goes into the complex politics which surrounded its filming in the country, as well as talking about the painstaking attention to accuracy which he invested in the 1970s scenes.

Of particular interest is the discussion of the filming of the climactic coup attempt, which had occurred at a military base in Ichigaya, Tokyo Prefecture in real life. The crew was refused permission to film at the real base (although they managed to sneak a few exterior shots of it), so they had to scout for a similar building which they could then modify to look like the original. They only found one of its kind in Japan and, had its owners also refused permission, the next alternative was one in Korea, which they would have had to shoot using Korean actors as the soldiers! Luckily, they were able to use the Japanese location. However, since the shooting took place during cherry blossoming season, they had to defoliate all of the trees in the vicinity so that the blossoms wouldn’t blow onto the set!

Another notable point is that Schrader puts to rest the myth that the act of seppuku (ritual suicide via disembowelment by sword) was a cultural norm in Japan during this period. Since this practice had mostly died out following the samurai era, the fact that Mishima had carried it out came as a genuine shock in the country.

Making Mishima

This interesting 44-minute documentary (from 2008) features interviews with cinematographer John Bailey, production designer Eiko Ishioka and composer Philip Glass. Bailey discusses how he achieved the hyperreal colours of the novel adaptation sections. He also confesses that he was keen to meet Japanese filmmakers on the Toho set (including Kon Ichikawa) - but never got the chance as they were keen to distance themselves from an American film around such a contentious figure in their national culture. Ishioka talks about her set design efforts as well as mentioning the challenges she had in understanding Schrader’s intellectual use of English. She recalls asking Bailey only for him to reply that he didn’t always understand him either!

Producing Mishima

Producers Tom Luddy and Mata Yamamoto talk about how they came to make the film in this excellent featurette. Luddy recalls that Schrader pushed ahead with relocating himself and his then-pregnant wife to Japan for the shoot, despite the fact that they had only raised the Japanese half of the co-production money. He struggled to get American finance until he approached George Lucas, who was able to get funding from Warner Brothers - ironically because he had previously fallen out with them (he even dubbed them “The Evil Empire”) and they wanted to bury the hatchet. They hired production designer Eiko Ishioka when they were impressed with her work on the Japanese posters for Apocalypse Now. However, since she had no experience working on film productions, she made some fundamental mistakes such as building a prison cell set without an access door for the cameraman.

Chieko Schrader

An audio interview with the wife of Leonard Schrader and brother-in-law of Paul. Since the latter didn’t know any Japanese, she was heavily involved in collaborating with both cast and crew on the set. She talks about the differences between Japanese and English (the former is intuitional and the latter practical, and both use opposite sides of the brain) as well as discussing how she met Leonard (she was a student at a university in Kyoto where he was lecturing). The most interesting section of the interview comes when she discusses how she managed to get Mishima’s widow to agree to their treatment of his story. She ended up having to give her an unsolicited phone call (something which was considered extremely extremely rude at that time in Japan) and, after she yelled at her for about 15 minutes, she explained that the Schrader brothers’ treatment was a rare chance to get her deceased husband’s life portrayed in a non-exploitative way.

John Nathan and Donald Richie

Nathan worked with Mishima on the English-language translation of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Richie, a film historian, met with him in 1952. They go into detail about the author’s body of work and tell us their thoughts on what drove him to his self-induced demise in 1970.

Mishima on Mishima

French journalist Jean Prasteau interviews Yukio Mishima for a 1966 French TV programme. It’s a rather brief (6-minute) affair but of minor interest as a glimpse of the author in person. Mishima notes the symbiosis of Western literary influences and Japanese tradition which is typical within his country’s written work.

The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima

The best of the extras here is this 55-minute 1985 British documentary about the man and his life, which was shown as part of the long-running BBC TV arts series Arena. It features plentiful archive footage, including much of Mishima himself taking part in English-language interviews as well as TV camera footage of his final speech at Ichigaya military base. It also examines much of his work, with actor John Hurt narrating some of his poetry and literature.

As a whole, the doc goes into greater depth about Mishima’s connections with the Samurai Bushido code, the surprising revelation that - despite his hearkening back to Japan’s Imperial era - he criticised the Emperor in one of his poems, his work on Noh and Kabuki plays, his relationships with female Kabuki impersonators, his later tendency towards body exhibitionism and the appeal of his Tatenokai militia towards the country’s right-wing contingent.

It provides the most complete picture of the man and the artist and is the ideal companion piece to the film itself.

A trailer and an alternative version of the film (with an English-language narration courtesy of Roy Scheider) round out the extras here.

Overall:

As a complete package, The Criterion Collection’s release of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is about as close to faultless as it is possible to get. The film itself is a classic, the print is absolutely stunning and the extras delve deeply into a man who was a truly complex, contentious and idiosyncratic figure in Japanese culture.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆☆

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