Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is an American/Japanese film co-written and directed by Paul Schrader in 1985. Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas served as executive producers.
The film is based on the life and work of Japanese writer Mishima Yukio, interweaving episodes from his life with dramatizations of segments from his books The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko's House, and Runaway Horses.
The film sets in on November 25 1970, the last day in Mishima's life. He is shown finishing a manuscript. Then, he puts on a uniform he designed for himself and meets with four of his most loyal followers from his private army.
In flashbacks highlighting episodes from his past life, the viewer sees Mishima's progression from a sickly young boy to one of Japan's most acclaimed writers of the post-war era (who keeps himself in perfect physical shape, owed to a narcissistic body cult). His loathing for the materialism of modern Japan has him turn towards an extremist traditionalism. He sets up his own private army and proclaims the reinstating of the emperor as head of state.
The biographical sections are interwoven with short dramatizations of three of Mishima's novels: In The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a stuttering aspirant sets fire to the famous Zen Buddhist temple because he feels inferior at the sight of its beauty. Kyoko's House depicts the sadomasochistic (and ultimately fatal) relationship between an elderly woman and her young lover, who is in her financial debt. In Runaway Horses, a group of young fanatic nationalists fails to overthrow the government, with its leader subsequently committing suicide. Frame story, flashbacks and dramatizations are segmented into the four chapters of the film's title, named Beauty, Art, Action, and Harmony of Pen and Sword.
The film culminates in Mishima and his followers taking a general of the Japanese armed forces as hostage. He addresses the garrison's soldiers, asking them to join him in his struggle to reinstate the Emperor as the nation's sovereign. His speech is largely ignored and ridiculed. Mishima then returns to the generals office and commits seppuku.
Although Mishima only visualizes three of the writer's novels by name, the film also uses segments from his autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask. At least two scenes, showing the young Mishima being aroused by a painting of the Christian martyr Sebastian, and his secret love for a fellow pupil at school, also appear in this book. The use of one further Mishima novel, Forbidden Colors, which describes the marriage of a homosexual man to a woman, was denied by Mishima's widow. As Schrader wanted to visualize a book illustrating Mishima's narcissism and sexual ambiguity, he chose the novel Kyoko's House (which he had translated for him exclusively) instead. Kyoko's House contains four equally ranking storylines, featuring four different protagonists, but Schrader picked out only the one which he considered convenient.
Mishima uses different colour palettes to differentiate between frame story, flashbacks and scenes from Mishima's novels: The (1970) contemporary scenes are shot in subdued colours, the flashbacks in black-and-white, the The Temple of the Golden Pavilion-episode is dominated by golden and green, Kyoko's House by pink and grey, and Runaway Horses by orange and black.
Roy Scheider was the narrator in the original movie version and on the early VHS release. On the 2001 DVD release, Scheider's voice-over was substituted with a narration by an uncredited actor. The 2008 DVD re-release contains both Scheider's and the alternate narration (plus Ogata Ken's for the Japanese version). In a commentary on Amazon.com, Schrader explained this was a manufacturing error in 2001 and that the voice belonged to Paul Jasmin (not the actor of the same name).
The film closes with Mishima's suicide (which actually took longer than the seppuku ritual dictates). His confidant Morita, unable to behead Mishima, also failed in killing himself according to the ritual. A third group member beheaded both, then the conspirators surrendered without resistance. Roger Ebert approved of Schrader's decision not to show the suicide in bloody detail, which he thought would have destroyed the film's mood.
The film was withdrawn from the Tokyo International Film Festival and never officially released in Japan, mostly due to threats by far right wing groups opposed to Mishima's portrayal as a homosexual. In an interview with Kevin Jackson, Schrader commented on the fact that his film has still not been shown in Japan: "[Mishima] is too much of a scandal. […] When Mishima died people said, ‘Give us fifteen years and we'll tell you what we think about him,’ but it's been more than fifteen years now and they still don't know what to say. Mishima has become a non-subject."
Schrader considers Mishima the best film he has directed. "It's the one I'd stand by – as a screenwriter it's Taxi Driver, but as a director it's Mishima."
"Ambitious, highly stylized drama […] Long, difficult, not always successful, but fascinating." – Leonard Maltin
"[…] a triumph of concise writing and construction […] The unconventional structure of the film […] unfolds with perfect clarity, the logic revealing itself." – Roger Ebert
"Schrader may have finally achieved the violent transfiguration that he seeks along with his protagonists; the film has all the ritual sharpness and beauty of that final sword. […] There is nothing quite like it." – Chris Peachment, Time Out Film Guide
The film premiered at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival on May 15 1985 where it won the award for Best Artistic Contribution by cinematographer John Bailey, production designer Eiko Ishioka and music composer Philip Glass.
In Paul Schrader’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (1985), the Japanese writer and cultural warrior Yukio Mishima is played by the cocky, square-jawed Ken Ogata, an actor best known to Western audiences as the businesslike serial killer in Shohei Imamura’s “Vengeance Is Mine” (1979). It’s a difficult role, because Mishima himself was always playing Mishima: a fantastic character of his own invention.
Mr. Schrader’s movie, which the Criterion Collection is releasing on Tuesday in a handsome, superbly restored edition, does a fine job of describing how the sickly, withdrawn Kimitake Hiraoka, the son of a minor government official, recreated himself under the pen name Yukio Mishima as a modern-day samurai and omnipresent media figure.
In between writing some of the most popular and critically respected novels of postwar Japan, Mishima bulked up through weight lifting; appointed himself the head of his own private army (with uniforms he designed himself, “with help from de Gaulle’s tailor”); starred in a series of action films (for directors like Yasuzo Masumura, Kinji Fukasaku and Hideo Gosha); displayed his toned physique in book and magazine photo layouts; and expounded his peculiar brand of Japanese nationalism, which managed to offend both the right and the left.
In American culture Mishima’s only equivalent as an author-exhibitionist is Norman Mailer, and even Mailer could not equal the audacity of Mishima’s final gesture. On Nov. 25, 1970, he led four of his recruits into the Tokyo headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, took a general hostage and made an impassioned speech to the troops, urging them to rise up and reclaim the glory of imperial Japan.
When the troops laughed and jeered in response, Mishima returned to the general’s office and committed seppuku, ritual suicide, by disemboweling himself. It was a gesture he had imagined many times before, most notably in his 27-minute film, “Patriotism” (1966), in which he plays an army officer who takes his own life. (Criterion is also releasing “Patriotism” on Tuesday, on a disc that includes some fascinating Mishima material.)
Mr. Schrader’s film takes that November day as its point of departure, and spins a complex structure around it, with flashbacks to Mishima’s smothered youth and visualizations of three of his novels: “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” (1956), “Kyoko’s House” (1959) and “Runaway Horses” (1968). Moving between biography and fiction, Mr. Schrader (who wrote the screenplay with his brother, Leonard) underlines the similarities between Mishima’s life and his work, but also draws important distinctions.
While the biographical material is presented in realist terms, the fiction is extravagantly stylized, broadly acted and shot on constrained studio sets designed in bold colors by Eiko Ishioka. Mr. Schrader’s camera sometimes looks over the top of these four-walled constructions as if peering into the compartments of Mishima’s brain, where his characters are doomed to endure forever, endlessly repeating the same gestures and reliving the same stories.
Mishima might have been his own greatest creation, but he’s also the ultimate Paul Schrader character: a wounded visionary, a compromised saint, a seeker of truth and transcendence. Like the protagonists of “Taxi Driver” (Mr. Schrader’s most perfect screenplay) and of “American Gigolo,” “Light Sleeper” and “Affliction” (to name three of his best films as a writer-director), Mishima is brought back to earth by the sordid facts of material existence: the need to make a living, to get along with other people, to eat and sleep and deal with the whole range of inconvenient human appetites.
Ours is no longer a world, Mr. Schrader suggests, that tolerates saintly ambitions; psychological wounds and physical circumstance drag such men down, turning would-be heroes into monsters, and messiahs into figures of ridicule. His triumph in “Mishima,” his most completely satisfying film, lies in creating a seeker who is aware of his own absurdity, and who is willing to embrace the ridiculous on his way to the sublime.