Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters [1985]

8/10 | 2.Apr.12
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

DIRECTOR: Paul Schrader | WRITERS: Chieko Schrader, Paul Schrader, Leonard Schrader | CAST: Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Junkichi Orimoto, Kenji Sawada |

Seeing Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters again for the first time since the movie was in first release was a curious experience. I was struck first by how much of the film I remembered from my sole previous viewing of it 27 years ago and how catching a glimpse of something would vividly bring back my memory of the scene now unfolding in front of me. That’s due in no small part to the film’s spectacularly good production design by the brilliant Eiko Ishioka. The second thing that struck me is how dated and inappropriate the score, by Philip Glass, really was. It sounds specifically mid 1980s, which is not good for a movie whose “present day” is 1970 and whose “past” ranges from the 1920s through the ’60s.

What really struck me about Mishima is how effective Paul Schrader’s tripartite structure* for the biography really was: straightforward color (and acting and production design) for the “November 25, 1970” scenes; gorgeous black and white with self-consciously “art film” acting, design, and especially camera work for flashbacks; and lurid ersatz Technicolor and exaggeratedly stylized acting and visuals for the enactments of autobiographical scenes from Mishima’s autobiographical fictions. Everything about Mishima was surface and self-referential playacting: with this supremely egocentric narcissist there was only more surface beneath the surface, no “real” Mishima to be found behind or beneath his banal philosophizing and surrender to fetishized Japanese nationalist kitsch.

*The four chapters of the title correspond to the present day (the day of Mishima’s seppuku: November 25, 1970), and flashbacks to him at 5, as a teenager, and as an adult. But the film is visually tripartite as I mentioned above. What the hell, let’s check what error prone Roger Ebert has to say about Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters:

As a boy, Mishima was afflicted with a paralyzing stutter, was weakly, was the target of bullies. The film’s biographical sequences show him being advised by a friend who limps to exploit his own disability as a way of making himself attractive to women.

No, Roger Ebert, the part in the movie where a stuttering Mishima-like character’s limping friend does any such thing is in a sequence set off by the title “TEMPLE OF THE GOLDEN PAVILION Published 1956” and shot in brilliant colors. If it were a biographical sequence it would have been black and white. You just finished saying so yourself:

In black and white, we see formative scenes from his earlier years. In brilliant colors we see events from three of his most famous novels. And in realistic color we see the last day of his life.

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