Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters Review

In 1970, Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima took troops from his private force to army headquarters, held the camp commander hostage and, after addressing the assembled troops and urging them to follow the samurai Bushido ethic and pledge allegiance to the Emperor, committed seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment) in the commander’s office. As the practice of ritual suicide had disappeared from Japanese culture after the war, such an action by a respected writer and well-known public figure caused shock and incomprehension all over the world.

The Nobel Prize winning Japanese author, Kawabata described Mishima as “a literary genius that humanity produces only every two or three hundred years”. In the year before his dramatic death in addition to spending 4 hours daily finishing his tetralogy The Sea Of Tranquility, he had plays performing in the two major Tokyo theatres, wrote a traditional Kabuki play, a libretto for an opera, a ballet in which he also performed, acted in a film, conducted a symphony and wrote numerous newspaper articles. He maintained a rigorous fitness programme of body-building, trained with his own private army corps, put on a Kendo exhibition and flew a F102 jet plane.

Paul Schrader’s film is incredibly ambitious in its scope – to present a rounded portrait of the life and death of a complex personality and an examination of several of his major works and tie it all into his actions on 25th November 1970. The film succeeds brilliantly in all of its aims, and it is an incredible achievement that it manages to do it all within a 2 hour film and remain a coherent piece of film-making.

The story is told in a framework of three interweaving strands. Colour scenes of Mishima’s actions on the day of his very public suicide are intercut with black and white biographical scenes and highly stylised colour adaptations of three of his major works. Such a framework is potentially confusing for the viewer, but each strand has its own distinctive look and music (a string quartet for biographical scenes etc…) and a narration is presented in Mishima’s own words, using excerpts from his extraordinary autobiographical novels, so we are guided naturally through the sequences of events.

By using scenes from Mishima’s novels and his own ‘commentary’ as the narrator of the film using autobiographical excerpts from Confessions Of A Mask and Sun And Steel, the film ties Mishima’s works inextricably with his life. This is most certainly the only way to examine such a complex personality as Yukio Mishima, and indeed the film successfully parallels actions in his novels with events in his life. Mishima fervently believed in everything he wrote and not only believed in it, but believed in turning these ideas into actions. With hindsight, his attempted coup and suicide should therefore have come as no surprise to anyone who has read the novels he wrote around this time. In many ways, Mishima’s works were templates for beliefs that he lived out with fanatical devotion.

The film presents stylised dramatisations of three of Mishima’s most famous novels. Temple Of The Golden Pavilion is the story of an acolyte suffering from a deformity, who becomes obsessed with the beauty of the golden temple and destroys it. The film relates this to Mishima’s stuttering and physical weakness as a child and his self-disgust at his own body. Kyoko’s House relates to Mishima’s obsession with the body, body-building and physical perfection. Runaway Horses (written a year before his suicide) relates to Mishima’s devotion to the Emperor as the spirit of the Japanese people and tells the story of a Kendo fencer who becomes part of a group who plan the assassination of senior public figures in an attempt to restore the Emperor to power. The adaptations are short and concentrated but brilliantly capture the essence of the books, or at least the essential themes that Schrader felt to be particularly relevant to the author’s life and death.

But this is not a dry and academic documentary-style bio-pic. It remains compelling even for a viewer who may never even have heard of Yukio Mishima. The film never drags but leads you through the key incidents that made up Mishima’s life, propelled along by Philip Glass’s wonderful score – surely one of the finest original soundtracks ever composed for a film. The director worked closely with the composer on the score, editing and re-cutting the film around the score to create a definite rhythm.

The film is presented on DVD with a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer and Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. The picture, for the most part, is brilliantly clear. Black and white sections are clear and sharp and strike a stunning contrast against the bold, vivid, stylised colours of the literary dramatisations. The film looks ever more impressive seen in this light. There are some dust specks and grain seen in places, but very few and nothing to detract from the overall quality of the film.

The sound, presented in the original Dolby Digital 2.0 is clear but can only be described as adequate at best. It doesn’t do full justice to the Philip Glass score, which sounds rather thin. A re-mastering of this would have been wonderful. There is quite an amount of hiss and voices and sound-effects can sound a little harsh at times.

I am somewhat confused by the English narration track. It sounds like Roy Scheider’s original narration has been replaced but his name still remains on the credits at the end of the film and I can’t find any reason why it would have been changed, but after a comparison with my VHS copy of the film, it undoubtedly has. As an example, the opening line of narration in the original 1985 film is as follows:

Recently I have sensed an accumulation of many things which cannot be expressed by an objective form like the novel. Words are insufficient.

On the DVD a different narrator reads the following:

All my life I have been acutely aware of a contradiction in the very nature of my existence. For 45 years I struggled to resolve this dilemma by writing plays and novels. The more I wrote, the more I realised that words were not enough.

This is a substantial change, and it leads me to suspect that possibly there were contractual problems with the rights to the translations. Paul Schrader’s commentary refers to Scheider’s narration, but doesn’t make any reference to the change in the narration track. What has been presented for the first time however is Ken Ogata’s original Japanese narration. This has never been heard before, as the film was never released in Japan due to “political pressure”. This means that you can listen to the film with the actor playing Mishima doing the voice-over in Mishima’s own words, making the narration seem a little more integral to the film. However, the lack of the original English narration is a major disappointment.

Subtitles are fixed on the film for Japanese language sections and optional for the narration. Any other subtitle selection displays the foreign language titles at the top of the screen.

The extras are far more than one might reasonably expect for a budget release of a film that is not a blockbuster by any means. We are treated to a feature-length commentary by Paul Schrader, who has a lot of interesting points to make about the film and its subject and his commentary is well-planned and delivered. There is a short deleted scene from the Temple Of The Golden Pavilion adaptation, presented in anamorphic widescreen, which is rather grainy and scratched but nevertheless wonderful to see preserved and there is 10 minute 4:3 ratio ‘Making Of’ featurette. The trailer is also presented in 4:3, but is of good quality. The only other extra that could improve this would be a documentary on Yukio Mishima himself, but that is wishful thinking and I couldn’t really complain with what we have here.

A film of this quality and subject matter could not have been made without the financial support of George Lucas and Francis Coppola, the executive producers on the film who lent their support to a number of admirable projects around this time, most notably Kurosawa’s later films. As Paul Schrader comments – they had the luxury of spending $5 million on a film that they believed no-one would see. It would be nice to think that with this DVD release, a few more people might discover what I believe to be one of the finest and most original films ever made.

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