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Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)


Definitely an intense guy...
Definitely an intense guy...

Genre: Drama (USA, Japan)

Starring: Ken Ogata (The Ballad of NarayamaThe Pillow Book)

Directed By: Paul Schrader (American GigoloCat People (1982))

Overview: An artistic biography of one of Japan’s most famous writers, focussing on three of his novels and the events that led up to his kidnapping of a military general.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters opens with a bold written declaration:

Yukio Mishima was Japan's most celebrated author. On his death, he left a body of work consisting of 35 novels, 25 plays, 200 short stories and eight volumes of essays. Both his personal life and artistic works were closely followed by the general public.

On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four cadets from his private army entered the Eastern Army headquarters, forcibly detained the commander and addressed the garrison.

Next, we are shown the four chapters of this life we are about to follow:


"Temple of the Golden Pavilion"


"Kyoko's House"


"Runaway Horses"

harmony of pen and sword

Those succinct titles serve as a nigh-perfect picture of how the film’s themes unfold. Mishima’s life is focussed on those ideas - on beauty, on art, on action, and on their perfect union; the script keeps those themes tightly wound around this author throughout Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters. The topics are presented visually in an original poetry: his childhood and his past captured in black-and-white; his present life and the day’s goal unfolding in colour; his life’s parables and principles mirrored through his novels in elaborately designed sets.

And when he needed to make a point...did he ever.
And when he needed to make a point...did he ever.

Yukio Mishima’s life was anything but sedentary. He wrote, he acted, he was an activist, and through it all he sought to find a union of Art and Action, of the medium and the message, of the said and the done. Beginning and ending on the events of November 25, 1970, the first chapter also follow his childhood, his pursuits and philosophies on beauty, his budding homosexuality. We explore the parable that mimics his philosophy, scenes from his fifth novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, literally “played” out theatrically on exquisite stage sets, reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s theater scenes in The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom or Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep and Be Kind, Rewind. Chapters two and three follow this same formula, comparing Yukio Mishima’s own life and ideology with those of the characters in his novels: Kyoko's House touches on sex and sadomasochism and on the fear of aging; Runaway Horses beautifully introduces us to the final climactic chapter with its complement of disenchanted military characters. Above all, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters teaches us less about Mishima's life and works than his inner self, his personal philosophy, his psyche and his fears, all brought to us through the novels’ scenes as opposed to those of his personal life.

All my life I have been acutely aware of a contradiction in the very nature of my existence. For forty-five years I struggled to resolve this dilemma by writing plays and novels. The more I wrote, the more I realized mere words were not enough. So I found another form of expression.  - Mishima

Although I’m full of praise for the film’s aesthetic and tone, there was still something about Yukio Mishima’s story itself that eluded my interest. Though beautiful, well-written, and especially brilliantly-constructed in theme, the novels featured in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters didn’t inspire me to go to the library for more. The stories may have been Nobel-worthy and cutting edge in the 60s, but aren’t particularly poignant today. I found them to be common human dramas that belonged to an era I never knew from a country I’ve never known. On the other hand, I can't imagine any fan of Asian culture finding this any less than enticing.

Did I mention the awesome sets? Oh, only twice...
Did I mention the awesome sets? Oh, only twice...

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 8 Plot: 7 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 80% (A Life Worth Exploring)

What surprised me most of all was Mishima: A Life In Four Chapterss film crew. It’s a Japanese-language film about a Japanese man living in Japan, but it’s very American. It’s a Lucasfilm production; we’re talking Hollywood icons George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. The music is composed by the formidable Philip Glass of Koyaanisqatsi fame. This author’s story is directed by American Paul Schrader, famous for his own writing, most notably the script for Taxi Driver – the thematic connection between Mishima’s life and Travis Bickle’s is obvious.

It saddened me a little to realize how little sense this production made. Today, a large studio like Lucasfilm making a foreign language film would surely be considered a gross misuse of company resources. Even the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book calls this production “an anomaly, a lavish American art movie in the Japanese language”. It’s clearly one of the reasons it exists in that grand tome of mine, and for this unique characteristic, I was glad to have seen it.

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