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Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Paul Schrader and the movies have never been an easy fit. Though many of his films are very entertaining, almost no individual Schrader film is entirely satisfying, except — and Schrader would agree — for his 1985 masterpiece Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, profiling the career of Mishima Yukio, the (more or less) conservative Japanese novelist who committed ritual seppuku on November 25, 1970. Based on a screenplay by Schrader and his brother Leonard, a Japan authority, Mishima does indeed recount the life of novelist in four chapters, entitled "Beauty," "Art," "Action," and "The Harmony of Pen and Sword." Set to passionate, cascading music by Philip Glass, the film is segmented but perfectly shuffled. There is an account of Mishima's suicide day, in which he breaks into a general's office to stage a military coup with the aid of his own private army. This sequence is shot in a grainy, hand held quasi documentary style. Then there is the trajectory of Mishima's life up to that moment, shot in black and white. Finally, there are elegant, highly stylized Reader's Digest summaries of three novels by Mishima, with costumes and sets designed by Ishioka Eiko. Schrader views the novels as autobiographical, and they give him a chance to get into the mind of Mishima. The style and subject matter of Mishima may have been too sophisticated for American audiences. It wasn't much of a hit in America: the $5 million movie made $450, 000, despite a special award at the Cannes Film Festival. Nevertheless, Mishima is a brilliant, engrossing, unique film. It also continues Schrader's cinematic exploration of the role of the loner in a complex society. Mishima, an Emperor-worshipping right-wing radical who deplored the decline in moral discipline and the elevation of capitalism in the postwar years, is only the flip-side of Travis Bickle, as if the self-destructive cab driver had met with a little bit of artistic success and went with it. And Mishima, in its blend of verité and minimalist artificiality, also reflected or anticipated in an up-to-date way some modern European films such as Germany's The Nasty Girl. Because of this breaking of the boundaries of conventional narrative, Mishima is the most drastic re-thinking of that old cinematic standby, the biopic, ever committed to film, and it's rather sad that Schrader's approach has never been duplicated. By adding significant extras, Warner's August 2001 DVD release of Mishima is a step beyond the Laserdisc released in July of 1998. Chief among them is Schrader's lispy commentary. Sounding like Truman Capote and seemingly having to shout over the movie's soundtrack, Schrader gives a detailed account, both financial and philosophical, of the film's genesis and making (he laments, for example that lead actor Ogata Ken lacks the sexual ambiguity of the real Mishima). It's a superb, educational track. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is excellent, capturing the rich variety of John Bailey's cinematography. In the audio portion of the disc, Schrader has been allowed to correct a great wrong: in English, the movie is narrated by Roy Scheider. For the disc, Schrader has recovered the Japanese narration recorded by Ogata Ken (both English and Japanese are in Dolby 2.0 Surround, while a mono French track is also on board). Other extras include a pleasantly unpolished 10-minute "making-of" featurette by Don Ranvaud, the original trailer (in full-frame), one very short deleted scene, brief production notes, and cast and crew information. Snap-case.
—D.K. Holm

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