The novelist Yukio Mishima has been a controversial figure in Japan both before and after his suicide in 1970.
He spent much of his life as a beloved novelist, crafting works dealing with the pursuit of beauty and the trials of everyday life — typically basing his pieces on contemporary events. He would become a celebrity not only for his novels but also as an actor and model.
It was in the final years of his life that he showed himself to be a staunch anti-progressive, creating his own personal military to defend the emperor of Japan who he saw as the core of the Japanese identity.
He began to practice the art of kendo and grew into a kind of modern-day samurai, believing them to be the perfect bridge between the beauty of art and the beauty of action.
“Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” explores this multi-faceted man in three layers. At the surface we watch his final day on Earth as he and four other members of his personal military unit attempt a coup, hoping to rouse the conservative, pro-tradition sensibilities of the actual military.
To this day Japan has a unique blend of traditional Japanese sensibilities combined with modernity and westernization.
Though Japan has historically had an air of superiority about themselves that led to the deaths of proponents of Christianity during isolationist times and leaked into the right-wing factions of the military in World War II, the Meiji Restoration and the influx of westernization in the late-1800s forced Japan onto the world stage and flooded a country steeped in history and tradition with technology and commerce the country had to adapt to in order to survive.
Modern Japanese history is a compelling tale of the romantic ideals of bushido encountering the brutal realities of modern capitalism.
Yukio Mishima grew his ideology in the post-War years when Japan’s right wing had been a failure, Japanese superiority was tempered by western dominance in the Pacific Theater and reconstruction meant an even further dive into capitalist society.
The Japan portrayed in this film can be likened to America as many see it today. In an especially poignant scene, Mishima goes to a college campus to espouse his right-wing, nationalist ideas and faces the jeers of the progressive students.
Addressing the military during his coup, he faces the same criticism and jeers in what appears to be a world far removed from the days of bushido and ritual suicide.
Below the surface level of the final day of Mishima’s life is his internal monologue discussing his youth. Shot in brilliant black and white, these portions show Mishima as being an outcast who dreams of dying in a blaze of glory.
But when given the chance with World War II, he feigns illness to get out of service. He is not a man of action; he is a man of words. In his writing, he mentally prepares himself for action that could have the power of the things he writes, but it will be years before Mishima works himself up to committing an action worthy of the beauty of his prose.
Throughout the film, Mishima deals with his repressed homosexuality. He pins his first longings toward men on a Renaissance-era painting of a martyred religious leader dying on a tree.
This piece serves as the impetus for Mishima’s feelings toward men, his search for beauty, as well as his conclusions that the ultimate symbiosis of the beauty of words and action is in death.
Mishima himself cannot act on his longings through his life because he has no confidence in his own beauty(he is shown to be prone to depression when a potential lover criticizes his flabbiness).
The self-hatred of himself and his form informs the themes of his works and leads him to become a regular at the gym. Again, we can see the man finding symbiosis between pen and sword as he grows distasteful of those intellectuals who claim the mind to be stronger than the body.
The third and final layer of the movie takes excerpts from Mishima’s novels and presents them on a soundstage in extremely unique and aesthetic ways to help elucidate the feelings and troubled philosophy of the writer. These vignettes mirror, in some respects, the stagecraft of kabuki theater that Mishima grew up watching.
This was another aspect of his childhood that informed his life, especially the fact that men were playing female roles. This fluidity and conformity of the body to adapt to either gender may have been a big factor in his lack of understanding beauty in the physical sense.
The staged adaptations of his novels are the most striking visual elements of the movie and the most dream-like.
The three layers of this movie are each directed in a different style that heightens the inner scrutiny of Mishima. That top layer of Mishima’s final day is shot in a modern documentary form with the camera shaking and following the man around — the camera itself acts as a character.
The reflections on his past are shot in black and white in a more traditional style reflecting Japanese classics like 1953’s “Tokyo Story”. The stagecraft of that third layer is especially reminiscent of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 film “Kwaidan”.
This movie, perhaps to the chagrin of the far-right faction Mishima was inspired by, was a collaboration between the east and west with Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver) helming the project as writer and director.
Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas financed the project (as they had a few late-career Kurosawa pictures). Regardless of the big western names attached, “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” retains an extremely Japanese feeling.
Schrader’s love and understanding for Yukio Mishima, as well as Japanese filmmaking, makes it feel impossible that the movie isn’t a product of Japan. On top of that, the entire project is peopled with Japanese actors speaking Japanese, the wonderful Ken Ogata playing the title role of Mishima.
In his final moments, standing before the jeering crowd of military and reporters, Mishima’s mind had to be impossible to read. His coup was a failure, his words did not reach the progressives, the action and speech he had built his entire life up to was nothing more than a joke.
Though Mishima was resolved to take his life regardless of the result of the coup; the negative response certainly cemented his idea that true beauty was in death.
“Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” is not a biography that celebrates nor criticizes. It allows the viewer to make his own conclusions. Paul Schrader’s film is one of the most complicated, challenging, symbolic and ultimately rewarding portraits of a single man to ever be made.
And as those countries that fought against the rise of radical nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century find themselves emulating those countries they defeated, this film is more poignant than ever.