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Film: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

"All my life I have been acutely aware of a contradiction in the very nature of my existence. For forty-five years I struggled to resolve this dilemma by writing plays and novels. The more I wrote, the more I realized mere words were not enough. So I found another form of expression."
Yukio Mishima

Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters is a 1985 film directed by Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver) and co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. It is a complexly structured biography of Japan's most famous modern writer, Yukio Mishima (portrayed by Ken Ogata,) and consists of four chapters (Beauty, Art, Action, Harmony of Pen and Sword) which are made up of three stylistically distinct threads woven together throughout each:

  • The last day of Mishima's life. From waking up for the last time to taking a small group of cadets from his private army to the headquarters of the Japanese military and finally attempting a coup which fails miserably and ends in his suicide via seppuku. The basic anchor for the movie.
  • Flashbacks of crucial moments from his life including his lonely childhood, literary success, brushes with homosexuality and his physical and patriotic reawakening. These parts are shot in black and white and feature a much more subdued and relateable Mishima.
  • Selected scenes from three Mishima books meant to illuminate the internal conflicts that lead him to write them in the first place. They are starkly stylized, full of vibrant colours and make no attempt to mask their artificial nature- reflecting the artistry of their source material and role as allegory for Mishima's inner life.

The Mishima novels visited (except Confessions of a Mask, which is semi-biographical and blends in with the other flashback sequences) include:

  • Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The story of stuttering temple attendant Mizoguchi, his highly cynical club-footed friend Kashiwagi, the eponymous temple, and a case of Stendhal Syndrome/Schizophrenia induced arson.
  • Kyoko's House. While originally following four characters, the movie focuses on only one of them for brevity- Osamu. A narcissistic two-bit actor who gets into a sadomasochistic relationship with a female loan-shark after she harasses his mother's cafe. He ends up committing murder/suicide with said lover in accordance with his nihilism and perception of life as ultimate art. A sentiment strikingly mirrored by Mishima toward the end of his life.
  • Runaway Horses. A decade before WWII the young right-wing aligned Isao conspires to wrest control of the government from the capitalists and give it fully back to the Emperor. He raises a small contingent of youths, has a saccharine honor-and-duty speech on a styrofoam set, gets arrested, begs for torture only to get an educational pep-talk, escapes, kills a man and commits seppuku. Again, something eerily imitated by Mishima himself in real life.

Due to the movie being Japanese with subtitles (except for the English narration) and the demands it placed upon its viewers, the movie failed to turn into a commercial success, instead becoming a favorite of critics and winning the award for Best Artistic Contribution at the Cannes Film Festival. It is also notable for having a simply stunning score composed by Philip Glass, a significant part of the film's beauty.

Trailer here.

This movie contains examples of:

  • Banned in China: Not exactly banned, but the movie has a very low profile in Japan because the far-right doesn't like the candid way Mishima's homosexuality is portrayed.
  • Bishōnen: Osamu, who is played by Japanese singer and all around pretty boy Kenji Sawada.
  • Black Comedy:
    Isao: Are there any objections? Is it inconvenient for anyone?
    Follower: If we're going to die, how can it be inconvenient?
  • Brains and Bondage: Osamu certainly thinks so.
  • Closet Key: The famous painting of a bare-chested Saint Sebastian being pierced by arrows prompts Kimtake's first act of masturbation.
    • "I trembled with joy, my loins swelled, my hands unconsciously began a motion I have never been taught."
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Pretty much every main character and Mishima himself.
    • Mizoguchi is obsessed with the Golden Pavilion, and wants to "set it free". This includes wishing that American bombers will blow it up and ultimately, burning it down himself.
    • Osamu decides that being cut and beaten by a cruel woman is actually a pretty good place in life, and commits mutual suicide with her.
    • Isao wants to kill "capitalists" and restore the Emperor to power - or rather, an idealized version of the Emperor and the purity of Japan that he had made in his own mind.
  • Cue the Sun: How the movie begins and ends.
    • Mishima has his final epiphany while the fighter plane he is in breaks out of the clouds and towards the sun.
  • Cynical Mentor: Kashiwagi to Mizoguchi.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The flashbacks.
  • Fatal Flaw: Yukio Mishima was one of the most gifted writers of his time - and a raging right-wing loon who wanted to turn back time 400 years, didn't get why all other Japanese were so weary of nuclear weapons and idealized the emperor as a living god. Needles to say, it doesn't end well for him.
  • The Fifties: Setting of "Kyoko's House." Osamu has few kind words for his fellow Beatniks.
  • Foe Yay: Kimitake had a crush on the boy he wrestles during recess, you wouldn't know it unless you read the book however.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Part of the deal with biopics. Even very strange ones.
  • Framing Device: "November 25. The Last Day."
  • Katanas Are Just Better:
    Officer: You have firearms?
    Isao: We'll only use swords. Our best weapon is purity.
  • The Lancer: Morita to Mishima.
  • Large Ham: Mishima when addressing the garrison.
  • A Man Is Not a Virgin: Mizoguchi stops stuttering after having sex for the first time and becomes much more self-assured. Which is to say, self-assured enough to finally burn down the Golden Pavilion himself. For all the good it did do him in the end.
  • Manly Gay: Mishima himself is probably one of the most striking real-life examples of this.
  • Morning Routine: Kicks off the movie.
  • Not So Different: Mishima says this about his own "Shield Society" and the radical leftists who occupied Tokyo University - except that the Shield Society has the Emperor on their side.
  • Patriotic Fervor: What ultimaley costs Mishima and Isao their heads (literally in the case of the former.)
  • Seppuku: Shown and conversed multiple times.
  • Shrinking Violet: The young Mishima in the flashbacks, there still addressed by his real name - Kimitake.
  • Silly Rabbit, Romance Is for Kids!: Osamu is a proponent of this.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Osamu.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: One of the reasons Mizoguchi burns down one of Japan's most treasured temples.
  • Too Kinky to Torture: Osamu is cut by a razor, and decides that it feels good. Later, he's shown with bigger scars and bruises, and says that stage blood is not enough for him.

MetropolisRoger Ebert Great Movies ListMon Oncle
M.A.S.K.Films of the 1980sMoving Violations

alternative title(s): Mishima A Life In Four Chapters
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