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If Mishima was a fictional character, I doubt if anyone would believe or accept such a creation. But he was a real, flesh and blood, human being, which makes the film all the more incredible. Granted that some of the facts have been dramatized or "enhanced" for the screen, but the story is quite factual.
A man of many contrasts: A devoted family man who kept a gay lover. A writer who saw his words being "not enough". A patriotic man at home in the present who yearned for a return to Imperial Japan's past glory. A man who struggled to unite movement with action, and saw everything he strove for fall apart at the most critical moment.
The film is lovingly made, magnificently acted, painstakingly edited and the musical soundtrack by Philip Glass will stay with you for days. The film's tight budget doesn't show at all.
Now available on DVD, this film is a worthy addition to the collections of true cinemaphiles.
My rating: 10/10
The easiest thing to talk about when discussing "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters" is the technical elements of the film. The narrative is superb and fairly original with a fine script by Chieko, Leonard, and Paul Schrader and Schrader's decisions as director are pretty much faultless. Every stylistic turn the film took, every sequence which took a risk, and pretty much the whole time the camera was in motion I was utterly enthralled and fascinated with how well the film works as a film. Paul Schrader may not be as great a storyteller as some of the great directors are but in "Mishima" he proves that he is more than capable of being a wonderful storyteller if necessary. The film moves at an extraordinarily fast pace and one barely notices the passing of the two hours.
I have to say, despite being a literature buff to an extent, I have never read anything by Mishima. I knew one or two things about Mishima, including the big ending to his story (which I won't reveal, to keep this spoiler-free) prior to seeing the film, but not much else. Perhaps this is why I felt, contrary to some others, that the film got progressively stronger and ended with a breathtakingly brilliant final act. I also found it completely refreshing how this biopic took no position on Mishima or the final act of his life- it is simply a portrait of a man, not a comment on his life.
The Phillip Glass score is utterly brilliant. There is very little of this film that doesn't prominently feature it, which can come off as the result of a lack of confidence from the director, but in this case it is used superbly well in the film. The score is original, vibrant, interesting, and memorable- much like the film itself.
"Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters" is a film that is certainly ripe for interpretation and analysis. I am not going to attempt to provide either of those, mostly because I'm not really in a position to, and also because I found this a profoundly emotional experience, a film of such artistry that it is a film that everyone should experience without preconceived notions of quality or content and one that everyone should attempt their own analysis of. It's that special. It's that good.
So says Mishima anyway, a young sheltered boy who becomes a celebrity author. The life of one of Japans most celebrated literary voices, is told from three perspectives, his life just before he and four members of his private army take over a Japanese military base and commit ritual suicide(shown in color), flashbacks(shown in black and white), and scenes from his novels(shown in a kind of dreamy Technicolor set design somewhere between traditional Noh Theater and "the Wizard Of Oz". These stories are often told at the same time, but are edited to reinforce, the slow fusing of Mishima's life with his fictions, until the end(or the beginning) when like the ancient samurai he so admires, he will be at a balance of pen and sword (when his words and actions are the same, and he is a full and "pure" being).
Paul Schrader wrote the screen play for "Taxi Driver", and directed "Cat People"(a bizarre erotic horror film, which left strange impressions on me as a boy), and in Mishima, he comes closest to making a really excellent film.
Whats interesting is to watch the poet, the homosexual, the shy and awkward man with a low body image who overstates his Tuberculosis to get of of WW2 (of which he seems forever ashamed), become a body building, samurai obsessed, a-sexual, media phenomena, all the while still writing prolific amounts of novels, plays, and short stories.
A short and sweet version is to say Mishima has no father, and becomes obsessed with masculinity, beauty, sex and self destruction, in some tragic attempt to feel connected to something bigger than himself, that he was always missing. Watching him with his fellow suicidal cadets, you see him happy, delivering his big paternal speech, giving orders, and loving the control...until the speech itself, the point where pen and sword meet? Of course, this ignores the subtlety of the story telling craft here which makes this transformation so natural and remarkable.
Though the story, fascinating at times, really isn't this movies greatest success. The cinematography, performances, editing,music(by Philip Glass), and set designs, are really what make this worth seeing, and more than a traditional bio-pic.
One day I will pick, up a Mishima book, he does seem to have an ear for prose, and for staging ideas, but for now I'm satisfied with the film.
Those interested in Japanese Literature, and post-war culture, should check out. Fans of inventive combinations of facts and fictions, should enjoy as well.
Ironically, this approach hurts the film precisely because Mishima himself was capable of much more perceptive self-criticism. In the first two chapters -- "Beauty" (THE GOLDEN PAVILION) and "Art" (KYOKO'S HOUSE) Schrader's work is nothing short of brilliant. With great subtlety, he interweaves black and white scenes from Mishima's early life with lush full-color scenes from his early novels. What makes these sections so haunting are the subtle, suggestive differences between Mishima and the people he is writing about. For example, Mizoguchi, the acolyte who destroys the Golden Temple, is not a homosexual, nor is he a talented writer. His stammering could be a metaphor for those things, or it could be a metaphor for nothing at all. The mystery of creation and imagination, wordless and inexpressible, really seems to come to life here -- particularly in the dissolve where the schoolboy Mishima "morphs" into the slightly older Mizoguchi.
The problems start in the third chapter, "Action." Here Schrader films scenes from Mishima's RUNAWAY HORSES (one of my personal favorites) as if they are not just similar, but absolutely interchangeable with Mishima's militarist activities with the Shield Society. Schrader seems to assume that the hero of the novel, Isao, is simply a stand in for Mishima. How can you tell? Because Schrader cuts out precisely those sections of the novel in which Mishima actually analyzes Isao's emotions and his illusions. The Isao of this movie is merely a straw man who spouts platitudes about the emperor and Japan's greatness. The Isao of the book is a courageous, unselfish, but very human teenage boy, whose callous and narrow-minded parents are unable to love and who plainly have had a crushing effect on his psyche. Mishima, whether consciously or not, included some truly vile scenes of parental cruelty and manipulation in this book precisely because he understood on some level that Isao's decision to end his own life was not entirely unselfish. The connection between the sordid ugliness of Isao's loveless home and his desire to die a violent death is clear enough in the book. But it is absent from the movie. Oddly enough, Schrader thinks he is protecting Mishima in the last section, by not moralizing about the suicide, but he is actually diminishing him as an author.
The RUNAWAY HORSES section is by far the weakest of the movie. The final scenes, in which Mishima at the moment of death attains "oneness" with his heroes, really are quite exhilarating. But they would have been still richer if Schrader had taken a more nuanced approach to RUNAWAY HORSES, instead of just viewing it as a "blueprint" for the last events in Mishima's life.
This is unquestionably a brilliant, inspiring film, but it's not quite flawless.
The same is not true for the actual film, which devolves into a stylized melodramatic mess that recalls much of Akira Kurosawa's late film, Dreams, as well as being filled with the most mind-numbing platitudes about art imaginable. Yet, equally bad is what is missing, above and beyond any portrait of Mishima's family life; such as his manifest Napoleon Complex. Mishima was only 5'1" tall and severely lacking in macho confidence, so much so that he insisted on only marrying a woman shorter than he was. Yet, any connection between these elements and those depicted is left for only the curious- and that likely will not be most people who watch this film. Thus, since the film fails on most artistic fronts, and does not generate any real further interest for its audience in its main subject matter, the very reason for the film is a puzzle, unless one feels Schrader is positing himself into a Mishima-like role. Not that it would matter, since Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters portrays its lead as a rather unsympathetic and idiotic character, albeit one with likely more talent than Schrader has.
If only someone like an Ingmar Bergman, or even Michelangelo Antonioni, who started out as a documentarian, would have tackled this subject matter, the film would likely have been shorter, tighter, more purposive, and coherent, for if there was one thing that even his biggest critics could not hold against Mishima it was that he was driven and almost monomaniacal. Schrader is the opposite, desperately larding his film with almost everything that plays up his vision of the writer as madman and ignoring all that went into the artist as a man, something Schrader seems not to really get, which reaffirms my idea that his great screenplay for Taxi Driver was a fluke, that blindfolded, over the back toss of a dart that somehow hits the bull's-eye. Yet it was that lucky moment which doomed the rest of us to decades of profoundly dull and vapid films churned out on the strength of that one toss. Lucky Schrader. Unlucky us. As for Mishima? The real man's somewhere around, just as he must be in the film, right? Right?
Paul Schrader isn't an accomplished man in terms of creating novel visions. But he is an alert and active thinker of things cinematic. Whatever he does is worth pondering, even when the picture itself is flawed in some ways. (And even when one of his Italian director friends changes his ideas.)
In this case, we have what I consider his most complex notion: a film about a man who lived his life as if it were a film, moreover a film that he could and did write.
Even that idea could have been handled in a pedestrian manner, by showing the man and his life. But except for the final suicide episode, Schrader doesn't show the `real' life -- instead he stages episodes from the writings, mostly in a Kabukified dream manner.
Schrader's commentary on this DVD is one of the best I know. It remarks that though this life was based on fabrication, the movie was mandated to be based on truth. But the original fiction the subject created is preferred by the Japanese authorities (and apparently the public, still) so the thing has never been released in Japan and the Japanese financiers have denied being so.
Adds another level of fabrication to an already rich project.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
It must be a triumph when you learn you've landed Philip Glass; but then you have to get something out of him. Glasses score offers not a whit of distinction from his other work, nor does it provide the film any perceptible value. In 2010 it should be clear to anyone that Schrader squandered his career on work of no impact or importance (Cat People, AutoFocus, Light Sleeper, Patty Hearst, American Gigolo). He can bore you to pieces, and kill the momentum of a movie, quicker than anyone else. Schrader has made a resume full of lousy, amateurish films.
I think the most wonderful parts (literally, full of "wonder") are the excerpts from his works. The sets (especially designed to work with the camera) are amazing....stylized, beautiful and effective. They could be used as exemplars for any set designer. I woke up at night dreaming of the Golden Pagoda.
The stories were powerful explorations of the nature of man and of art. After watching this film, I wanted to learn more about the works of this artist.
I highly recommend this movie for anyone interested in art, poetry, theater, politics, or Japanese history.
John Bailey deserves a lot of credit for the lustrous visual quality of this film.
I suspect that many people will find this film to be boring pretentious and art-house. I respect that, this is not a film for people who want action and a strong story line. If on the other hand you are the kind of person who relishes the opportunity to penetrate the mind a bizarre man while watching his life story told in collage of beautiful pictures set to music by Philip Glass, you will love it. I loved it.
The film is incredibly arresting, the style different for each mode, each with its own visual language and manner of exploring Mishima. His past, in harsh black and white, is shown in an un-probing way, in a near historical-recollection fashion, and we simply follow his life. At first the novel sequences are quite jarring, they are so vibrant, raw and colourful, full of telling compositions and beautifully crafted, hyper-stylised sets. They are all rooted in total blackness, like they've just sprung up in Mishima's mind (occasionally the novel sequences are preceded by a scene of Mishima writing), the absorbing artificiality of it all is at odds with the shut-out realistic style of his past. It's a bold move to blend such opposite visual storytelling techniques, but the events of his past amalgamate with the beauty and emotional forwardness of the novel sections to fully conjure up Mishima. Neither would work on its own, but together they work as one and fill in the gaps that they other left out, the lack of expression in his past is filled with the constant rampage of passion found in the novel sequences, and the lack of conjunction of each novel sequence is an irrelevance as they compose of crucial elements we are now able to see reflected in Mishima's past life, and most importantly his final day. Starting with Mishima getting ready, there's a roaming kineticism to the camera. The focus is stuck on Mishima, gliding over his immaculate army uniform and watching him button up in close up. It's a very finalised way of shooting, like everything is being seen for the last time so is given a grand send-off. He is followed documentary style, hand-held camera and tracking shots structured in real-time. This almost displaces Mishima in the external world, in some ways casting him in a different light, making him seem like a determined mad man in a world full of coasters. Philip Glass' score is outstanding, punctuating Mishima's fixed path with absorbing rushes of sound. Like Mishima, the score has an evocative presence, a complicated array of short stabs of strings and bells, repeated over and over again but never faulting in aiding the visual climate.
The film is an interpretation of Mishima, but is surprisingly without conclusion. This is not a flaw, Schrader bravely chooses to avoid judgment or criticism, putting Mishima in an as-close-to objective light as possible. Through the sociological fundamentals of sexuality, political action, art, and the body, Mishima attempted to perfect himself. He achieved great literary success, he body-built himself into a towering statuesque figure, he formed a private army of dedicated fellow traditionalists. What conclusions can be drawn from these achievements? Many, but I believe that Mishima is a man who never lost his childlike yearning to change the world. He carved his own destiny out of his body and his work, set his mind on a clear path early on and obstinately followed it to the glorious end. Whether or not one agrees with his life's work, I cannot help but admire his yearning for fullness. Someone who is so rigid and immovably confident in everything he does may seem unlikable, and he most certainly isn't a likable character in the strictest sense. He is, simply put, a self-formed piece of art. A piece of art that I cannot help but be fascinated by. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters does the impossible and shows a life eternally connected to art, a life defined and destroyed through art, and fittingly it is a colossally profound and ambiguous work, a ravishing exploration of a man who melded integral desires of creation and impact together to shape something unique and special in himself, in death he was his own vision of perfection, even when the world was not.
All Schrader's films (and the ones he wrote scripts for) are basically stories of inside conflict within a man that doesn't belong in an environment he lives in. That also goes for Mishima, who, apart from Japanese military school upbringing is brought up with love for theater and words. His demise consisted of both of these key points in his life, it was about words and theatrical ending in a life long play. Film like this comes along once in a long while, and most will have to wait a lifetime to reach this beauty. 20 out of 10!!
and it's got the music from the truman show on it. george lucas helped produce it. what more could you want?