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Film / Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

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"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. 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 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.
  • 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.

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:

  • Adaptation Distillation: Inevitably happens to the adaptation portions of the film, given it's having to truncate four different books into a film with a two hour runtime.
  • Adapted Out: Mishima's wife is not shown or even mentioned due to her vocal opposition to the production of movie and portrayal of his homosexuality.
  • Affably Evil: If you regard Mishima as an Anti-Villain or Villain Protagonist, then he's this. Even when he's getting his followers sign up to his society in their own blood, he cracks a joke, and when he's talking to the left-wing students and they're heckling him violently, he's still patient and good-humoured.
  • Anti-Villain: For most viewers (except right-wing loons), Mishima is this: there's nothing intrinsically wrong with being fiercely patriotic and dedicated to beauty, but most people wouldn't take it as far as forming a quasi-fascist militia group and trying to inspire the army to overthrow the democratically-elected government.
  • Black Comedy:
    Isao: Are there any objections? Is it inconvenient for anyone?
    Follower: If we're going to die, how can it be inconvenient?
    • When Mishima is putting together his Shield Society, he makes everyone sign an oath in blood, and then announces that after they've all signed, they'll drink a blood oath to the society.
  • Brains and Bondage: Osamu certainly thinks so.
  • Byronic Hero: A brooding, intelligent, charismatic, philosophical, unhappy, lgbt+ and an artist that decided he was tired of writing about adventure and live it. And like Lord Byron he died fighting an unwinnable war..
  • Closet Key: The famous painting of a bare-chested Saint Sebastian being pierced by arrows prompts Kimitake'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.
    • Mishima ultimately shares each of these characters traits: Mizoguchi's obsession with an object's beauty and wanting to set it free — in Mishima's case, Japan's traditional ideals from the shackles of materialism, Osamu's masochistic loyalty to his master — in Mishima's case, the master being his ideal vision of Japan, and Isao's ultranationalistic tendencies.
  • 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 by 400 years, didn't get why all other Japanese were so wary of nuclear weapons and idealized the emperor as a living god. Needles to say, it doesn't end well for him.
  • The '50s: Setting of "Kyoko's House." Osamu has few kind words for his fellow Beatniks.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Part of the deal with biopics. Even very strange ones.
  • Framing Device: "November 25. The Last Day."
  • George Lucas Altered Version: Criterion's DVD (and subsequent Blu-Ray) add a brief deleted scene, from the "Temple of the Golden Pavilion" segment in which Mizoguchi talks to an old teacher, back into the main film. There are also changes to the shots leading up to the sunrise and seppuku in the "Runaway Horses" segment, in which the previously real sky is replaced by a deliberately artificial-looking matte painting.
  • 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.
  • Manly Gay: Mishima himself is one of the most striking real-life examples of this.
  • Morning Routine: Kicks off the movie.
  • Pastiche: Schrader deliberately used this as a way of telling the different story strands apart.
    • The scenes set on the last day of Mishima's life are shot in colour, with a lot of hand-held camera, in a quasi-documentary style reminiscent of films by Costa-Gavras, e.g. Z or missing. (1982).
    • The scenes that show earlier episodes from Mishima's life are shot in a much more composed and tranquil style, reminiscent of the work of classical Japanese film-makers such as Yasujiro Ozu.
    • The scenes that show dramatised extracts from Mishima's work are staged like theatrical productions, with colourful indoor sets existing in a black box.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Mishima and Isao. This ultimately costs them their heads, (literally in the case of the former.)
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: "Kurahara! Prepare to die!"
  • 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. He's so into it it even seems to unnerve his tormentor a little.
  • Villain Protagonist: Mishima, for anyone who doesn't agree with his admittedly extreme politics.