An extraordinary film even by the standards of Criterion’s UK catalogue, Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is your go-to film to counter accusations that biopics are inherently stuffy, stylistically conservative Oscar-bait. And it’s all thanks to Hank Williams. After surviving the excesses of the ’70s New Hollywood, it was perhaps inevitable that Schrader would become fascinated by the archetype of the self-destructive artist, so he wrote a script about the legendary country and western pioneer. But he became uncomfortable with the amount of compression and fictionalisation required to turn Williams’s life into a three-act screenplay, and the solution he found is emblazoned in the finished script’s title: Eight Scenes from the Life of Hank Williams.
It was never made, but Schrader held onto the idea. Eventually he remembered another artist who offered an even more tempting subject: even more self-destructive than Williams, and intelligent enough to analyse and dissect his impulses. It was Yukio Mishima, the legendary Japanese novelist who committed hara-kiri after a failed coup attempt at a military base. Schrader’s brother Leonard was living in Japan at the time of the suicide, and they began working on the screenplay together with Leonard’s wife Chieko translating it into Japanese.
The result is a staggering elaboration on the central idea of the Williams script. Each chapter is titled after a theme from Mishima’s life and work – Beauty, Art, Action and “Harmony of Pen and Sword”. There are also three visually differentiated strands running through the first three chapters. One – a monochrome retelling of Mishima’s life and career – is closest to a conventional biopic, although there is still a lot of dark wit and creativity here. Schrader introduces the theme of Mishima being unfulfilled by literary success with a deliberately banal montage of him accepting awards, all shot in listless head-on fashion.
After this scene, Mishima says his success in Japan is nothing without success in the West – a curious opinion, given his extreme nationalist views. The question of what really drove him is answered by the second strand, a series of luridly colourful dramatisations of scenes from his novels. The phantasmagorical sets are the work of Eiko Ishioka, who would go on to provide similarly exuberant designs for Francis Ford Coppola and Tarsem Singh. At the time, though, she was an art designer for major fashion labels who had never designed sets before. Her unfettered imagination provides the film with a series of indelible images. Lighting changes and scenery moves in-shot, a murderer runs through a forest of blood-red trees, a golden pavilion opens up like a doll’s house, a far-right revolutionary cell plot in a room whose corners curl outwards in a womb-like, organic fashion.
Schrader knew Mishima’s work invited this kind of commingling of art and life. The novels that broke Mishima internationally – Confessions of a Mask and Forbidden Colours – are essentially autobiographical, and Schrader even plunders an anecdote from Mask concerning the young Mishima masturbating over a painting of St. Sebastian for the black and white segments. Schrader’s version of Mishima is a man who lost himself in his art so thoroughly that he began to see himself as a project. His media appearances, his physical fitness, his far-right politics – everything was part of his body of work. He directed one film, Patriotism, which now looks like a dress rehearsal for his suicide. Schrader shows him acting out the seppuku, then cheerfully joking with his cinematographer about how it needs to be shadowy because it’s premiering in Paris and “the French love shadows”.
As Mishima, Ken Ogata is truly incredible. When he needs to be, he can be as chilling as he was playing a serial killer in Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine. But he can also be charming and personable, allowing the audience to understand how a man with such disturbing ideas could become part of the international literati. Frankly it’s hard to think of any film which has such a world-class set of collaborators; Ogata’s lead, Ishioka’s sets, John Bailey’s versatile cinematography and Philip Glass’s pummelling, chiming score. It would, perhaps, be too rich a stew if it wasn’t for the unnerving simplicity of the third and final strand.
This is a documentary-style account of Mishima’s final day, which opens every chapter before forming the entirety of the movie’s final quarter. In the extras, there’s an Arena documentary on Mishima’s life which allows you to check Schrader’s staging of the failed coup against actual newsreel. It looks uncannily similar, although the low Dutch angles of Bailey’s camera add an impish touch of Citizen Kane to Mishima’s farcical ‘victory’ speech. After being jeered and heckled by the soldiers he hopes to lead, Ogata’s Mishima goes back into the base and prepares for a visually discreet but emotionally devastating suicide.
I’m normally resistant to films like The White Ribbon and The Childhood of a Leader which analyse fascism as a psychosexual, rather than political, phenomenon, but in Mishima it feels completely appropriate. Mishima’s fascism really was a product of his own psyche, rather than any current of contemporary Japanese society. Perhaps there were people in 1970s Japan who longed for a return to militaristic Emperor worship, but they certainly didn’t want to be led by an upstart novelist, in the same way that modern British fascists don’t exactly yearn to be led by Martin Amis. After a lifetime of stringently exercised control over everything from his literary practice to his six-pack, Mishima realised he didn’t have the same power over the rest of the world. The outcome was inevitable.
That control extended beyond his death. Schrader’s first choice for the title role, Ken Takakura, left the project after getting death threats from Japanese fascists outraged at the idea of a foreign director portraying their idol as a homosexual. Mishima’s widow, too, refused the rights to his most explicitly gay novel Forbidden Colours, and the extraordinary way the Schraders got round this is retold in the disc’s hefty extras package. I was particularly struck by Ishioka’s account of her first meeting with Schrader, where she says she tried to talk him out of giving her the job by admitting she hated Mishima. That was fine, said Schrader. He wanted her to help him explore what Mishima meant to him, rather than who Mishima actually was. Maybe this is what every biopic is, deep down – but no other film has explored it with this much invention, awareness and literacy.