“A Life in Four Chapters”
Yukio Mishima is Japan’s most celebrated writer and Paul Schrader has made a remarkable biopic of his life. It is a fictionalized account, done in four segments. Three of the segments parallel Mishima’s life and are named after three of his novels, “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion”, “Kyoto’s House” and “Runaway Horses”. The fourth segment, “The Last Day” depicts November 25, 1970, the day Mishima took his own life.
The life of Mishima was complex and it was obviously quite a task to put it on film. Schrader has managed to give us one of the best biopics ever made with this film. It finally comes to us on DVD some twenty years after it was originally made. “Mishima” is a feast for the eyes and the ears. The cinematography stuns and the musical score by Philip Glass adds yet another layer to an already excellent film. It is not a literal biography of the man as Schrader and his screenwriter brother, Leonard Schrader have taken several incidents from his life and suicide and give us incidental tableaus that are sparse visually yet beautiful. Mishima’s homosexuality is almost non-existent because, I have learned, of legal threats made by his wife.
Schrader succeeds in combining flashbacks and literature with the day of Mishima’s suicide and he foes so artistically. One critic that I read said “Mishima has already said it all, the film simply repeats”. This is not only a true statement but a very high compliment to the filmmakers. The director does not comment on Mishima; what he does is refuse to examine the uglier implications of Mishima’s public suicide. Mishima was his own greatest critic and the first two chapters of the film are near perfection. They are haunting and subtle and suggestive about the differences between Mishima and the audience that he wrote for.
The movie is made in four chapters and on three levels—flashbacks of the author’s life, dramatizations of his written works and the events of his final day alive. Mishima was so large that had he been a fictional character, a creation like him would never be accepted. But there was Yukio Mishima and he was real and this alone makes the film that more incredible. Even with the fictionalization of some of the events, the story is quite factual.
Mishima was a man of many contrasts. He had a gay lover but was a family man. He saw his words as inadequate. He was patriotic but he dreamt of a return to Imperial Japan’s past glories and he was a man who struggled to make movement and action as one but saw everything that he strove to achieve fall apart at the most critical of moments.
Schrader has made this film with love. It is beautifully acted, edited with an amazing eye for detail and scored with music that pleases. It blends three styles of filmmaking together, black and white, docudrama and stylish color depictions of the author’s novels. It was extremely hard to put a complex story about a complex man on film, especially if the man did not hesitate to die for his ideas. Paul Schrader has managed to accomplish that difficult task.