Sunday, June 13, 2010

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

This is a film that shouldn’t work.

An American filmmaker, best known for writing gritty films like Taxi Driver, makes a biography of a Japanese author of godlike renown, in Japanese, in Japan, but is limited by the estate of the author in such away that the film can not deal with his homosexuality nor other bits of nastiness the family would rather not have shown in public. One would think that the film would wither and die, however the film is instead a grand triumph.

What is the film?

The film is Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. The film maker is Paul Schrader. The effect of seeing the film is similar to getting kicked to the curb. What Schrader has done was to take the last day of Mishima’s life and graft on to it flash backs to the earlier parts of Mishima’s life and then mix that with excerpts from Mishima’s work. Its an odd fantasia on the man, and one that makes me feel as though I know the man better than any biography of him that I’ve read.

It is a film that leaves me emotionally shaken each time I see it.

The film starts out on the day Mishima tried a coup which he hoped would rally the Japanese people to rise up and return to the glory of yesterday (it failed). The film then flashes back to scenes of his life and into sections of some of his stories which resonate with echoes of Mishima's life. Its a film biography unlike any other and film that affects me on a molecular level.

To be honest I don't know what it is that affects me so much. I don't really know why it is either. All I know is that after every viewing I find that the people around me ask me if I'm all right since I appear to be badly shaken. I feel alright but some how charged up.

I know that much of the film's success comes from the filmmaking. Paul Schrader's color coded film moves us on a visceral level. The stunning sets help us travel into the interior space of the artist.

Speaking of the artist Ken Ogata cuts an imposing figure as the man himself. Many people didn't want to play the part because of noise raised by the Mishima estate that made people wonder if they would ever work again (I told you Mishima was godlike in some circles) . Ogata waded in and took the role by the throat and becomes Mishima. He's so good I find I now confuse the two men.

And then there is Philip Glass's music which drives the film forward with an certainty that life never has. I'm up and down on Glass's work, often finding that a little bit goes along way, however there is something here that really shines. Probably my favorite piece is the opening music which is gloriously soaring.

As I've said I have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what it is that makes this film so emotional for me but I haven't been able to do so. I'm sure its a combination of all of the factors I've mentioned. I also think there is something about the story of the man himself. What is it about a person who is so set in his way and being so sure that he is right that he follows his heart and feelings to the very bitter end that I find so fascinating? This is not to say that I admire Mishima's end, rather I admire his strength of conviction, even if its wrong. I mean he had to know he was not going to get the result he was asking for from the public, its pretty clear that Mishima was in love with the idea of committing hari kari.

This to me is one of the best biographies ever committed to film. As I've said it's not a film typical bio, with names and dates and places, rather it's a biography that will get you into the mind of its subject.

This is a must see film.

Currently out on DVD in a regular edition and a special edition from Criterion.

(When this was released by Criterion they released separately Mishima's own short film Patriotism which is about a couple that commits suicide together when a coup goes wrong. It does make for an interesting double feature)

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