Masterpiece – Mishima: A Life in four chapters (1985)

The Masterpiece Series is a fortnightly series that gives me a chance to gush to you about my favourite films of all time. We begin with Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

Before the recent glut of prestige biopics (see: The Theory of Everything, The Mercy, The Imitation Game), but after Gandhi and Amadeus initiated that concept, lies a beautiful and bonkers box-office flop titled Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. It gloriously dismisses the genre’s foundations, paints a delirious portrait of a deeply nationalist, and in turn, controversial Japanese figure, and directly transmits his flamboyant and flamboyantly contradictory psyche into its viewers via lucid dream. It is as impossible to define in director Paul Schrader’s body of work as it is wholly defining. It also happens to be my favourite film of all time.

A natural trapping of the biopic genre is its forced objectivity: the movie’s narrative is dictated by the life its subject led, while any attempts to cram in a more dramatic, commercially-friendly thrust varies from strained to damningly artificial. Here, Schrader – continuing his fascination of the tortured and self-torturing male anti-hero that began with Taxi Driver and evidently remains with this year’s First Reformed – finds it much more productive to do away with genre convention and all this silly linear storytelling.

He argues – quite rightly – that retelling a figure’s life allows the audience to learn about them. But to evoke that figure – to peel back their exterior while keeping it intact – allows the audience to understand them too. Neruda aside, this decade’s slew of biopics haven’t quite taken Mishima’s approach to heart, but prioritising the remarkable over the humdrum and viscerality over staunch truth-telling is what makes Mishima so damn special – and why it leaves the current crop of by-the-number biopics in its blood-splashed wake.

And so we begin not with our protagonist at their deathbed and the promise of a decade-spanning flashback, a structure defined by Citizen Kane and rigidly adhered to since, but with the cryptic image of a black slate of sea and grass, and a red dot threatening to breach the skyline. Philip Glass’ accompanying score teases bouts of bells before the title card appears, and its symphony crescendos: Mishima opens with infectious euphoria, though we’re not sure what we’re supposed to feel euphoric about just yet.

The film returns to this setting in due course – right at its end, in fact – where the source of this ecstasy is revealed. For now, Mishima fades to black, and lays out its structural backbone: four chapters, each labelling one of the man’s ideals, and their subsequent destruction: ‘Beauty’, ‘Art’, ‘Action’ and ‘Harmony of Pen and Sword’, are forewarned with white text.

These chapters are split up further, in a kaleidoscopic razzmatazz of form and timelines and thematically-drenched dramatisations. Mishima is a biographical character study of a controversial Japanese figure, delving into his politics, writing and narcissism; to address them in turn, in linear fashion, would be to dismiss the collective force behind his beliefs. Instead, Schrader substantiates each facet of his ideology – his determination, upbringing, self-obsession et al – by conveying his life using three methods: the present, on the day he commits death by seppuku, his past, relayed to us in black and white in standard biographical fashion, and through surrealist visualisations of three of his plays that each mirror his life and portray the breaking down of the aforementioned ideals.  

Frequently Schrader toes the line between evoking Yukio Mishima and commending him. Repeatedly, the question of how devoutly Mishima, and subsequently, the film believes in the ideology he purports – that modern Japan is losing its way, and must be met with the revival of imperialism – is brought to the forefront. One of his first few lines, for instance, belittles the political resonance he supposedly seeks to convey via seppuku by referring to it as ‘our little drama’.

A conflict is established – is Yukio Mishima’s theatrical display truly a way to transmit ideology, or is it simply that: a theatrical display? The film frames his vanity and commitment to ideology as one and the same, and that this vanity wasn’t ambiguous but fundamental to Mishima’s character; Mishima needn’t convey the ambiguity of this ideology because its subject did that all himself.  Thus, Schrader can fully submit to the man’s beliefs without necessarily advocating them, and can transmit an ideology without feeling the need to dismiss it. It’s a sticky approach: presenting and wholly commiting to an argument that contradicts almost the entirety of its viewers’ beliefs is bound to be met with wild misinterpretations and accusations. But Mishima is clearly a creative endeavour rather than an economical one, and all the more fascinating for it.

In fact, Mishima is a creative endeavour that needed to be directed not just by a Westerner – Yukio Mishima is largely reviled in Japan, and possessed an infatuation with the West in spite of his dismissal of their ideals, which Mishima enables – but by Schrader himself. Mishima represents the birth of creativity, the fusion of idea and practice, where its components are not linked via chronology or narrative but by theme. Schrader, a self-doubting perfectionist enamoured with internal conflict translated into grandiose actions, is essentially Mishima’s Western-director-doppelganger, and here he can lay bare the machinations of his creative process through the controversial figure.  

And so as the narrative flitters between the present, shot harshly with a hand-held, documentarian quality, the past, its static camera and low angle framing appropriately evoking Ozu, and the dramatisation of his plays, each emblazoned with lurid palettes and imagined in blatantly surreal, stage-like fashion, it’s difficult not to notice the the sheer conviction of Schrader’s direction, and how each choice – whether that be through symbolism, dialogue and cinematography – help to piece together an idea of Mishima and the language of creative synthesis that encapsulates him.

The chapter ‘Beauty’, for instance, envisions Mishima reckoning with the impermanence of beauty, and how its meaning can only be realised at the point of its destruction, and before its inevitable decay – at once both suggesting justification for his decision to commit seppuku at the age of 45, and tying into the second ideal, ‘Art’, where the body is seen as a blade’s canvas. In this chapter – its dramatisation of his novel, ‘Kyoko’s House’, swimming in purposefully tacky greys and pinks – narcissism is confronted as Mishima and his novelised counterpart obsess over their bodies, and give them up before their expiry date.

If ‘Beauty’ is Mishima realising that the destruction of that ideal is an act of art, and ‘Art’ is Mishima comprehending how that concept can apply to himself, ‘Action’ is exactly what it suggests: putting those core beliefs to work, and thus culminating in a demonstrative and symbolic act of self-inflicted violence, or, a ‘Harmony of Pen and Sword’. By the time Mishima haplessly preaches to a choir of disinterested Japanese youth, and plunges the blade into his abdomen, the viewer can understand his actions, if not necessarily reconcile with them.

Glass’ stirring score is the thematic adhesive, the throughline that stages Mishima’s ideology as more than the mad ramblings of a defeated narcissist. Alternating in style dependent on timeframe, where the past is met with a string quartet, the present with percussion, and the dramatisations of Mishima’s plays – fittingly – with a full-blown symphonic orchestra, the score is the beating heart of Mishima and his beliefs, his conviction emphasised as each dramatisation switches instruments and keeps hold of the same, glorious, overbearing melody.

The euphoria experienced as the score rised to its first crescendo is finally given substantive weight as Mishima comes to a close: this is the setting of the final dramatisation, ‘Runaway Horses’, where Yukio Mishima’s literary parallel has just committed seppuku and is staring into the horizon. This setting may bookend the film but this is not a cyclical moment – not quite.  That red dot has appeared in full glory, a sanguine sun smacked into the middle of the frame, a sublime symbol of Japanese tradition. It’s a moment of triumph – the dark haze of uncertainty that opened up Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is now lit in splendour by the very thing Yukio Mishima stood for, and sought to revive. The character, post-seppuku, collapses to the floor. But that fleeting moment – where ‘the bright disc of his sun soared up behind his eyelids and exploded’ – that moment is all that matters.

-Gus Edgar-Chan