Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
★★★ / ★★★★

Director Paul Schrader’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” is one of the most original biographies to date because not only does it not cover its subject’s life from birth to death, it also manages to incorporate some of the content of its subject’s books into curious and fascinating dramatizations. It is our job, if we choose, to dissect which bits come directly off the private life of Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata), one of the most celebrated Japanese writers of the twentieth century.

Although the picture is structured into four chapters, there is a theme that percolates through their cytoskeleton. Notice that the varying characters from the novels that represent Mishima end up destroying themselves. Most interesting is that the writers—Leonard Schrader, Paul Schrader, and Chieko Schrader—place particular emphasis on the characters’ vulnerability. In “The Temple of the Golden Pavillion,” the protagonist has a stutter; in “Kyoko’s House,” the subject suffers from narcissism; and in “Runaway Horses,” the main character plans to execute an assassination no matter what the cost.

These strands are told with poetic elegance. It is apparent that they are shot in the studio—particularly the first two—but the material’s power is not at all diminished. On the contrary, the impact is amplified because the stories work on a symbolic level. Together, the images feel dream-like but never opaque, they inspire questions but are never frustrating. As someone who did not know much about the author, I felt I learned about him—the important parts of him anyway—and yet by the end he remains an enigma. The film made me want to look into his work.

The flashbacks in black-and-white are raw and worthy of analysis. The one that stood out to me is Mishima’s relationship with his grandmother when he was a boy. We get the impression that his grandmother raised him in a strict environment with defined rules and perhaps impossibly high expectations. Because her values have become ingrained in him, as an adult, it appears as though he is not well-adjusted, so willing to go to the extremes to convey a message. I found a great sadness in the film’s fourth chapter because in front of us is a man who is way out of his depth, a person who is clearly intelligent and talented but one who is left behind by the times.

Mishima’s homosexuality is diluted for the most part which is appropriate because he—and his countrymen, maybe to this day still—are ashamed of it. One may be able to create a case that if the author had been able to live his life without having to constantly strive to walk the line of what is expected of him, he would have made different choices. Another theme is one’s struggle to always be in control. Leading a healthy life is balancing control and letting go. He seems incapable of the latter.

“Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” engages because it is like learning about a particular person through the way he treats his pets, the people around him, and his possessions. By giving us an indirect way of gathering information, the filmmakers open up the final product for contemplation and discussion. Similar movies of its type are so busy plotting Point A to Point B that the flavor, the drama, and the sense of urgency have been siphoned off by the time the third act comes around.

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