***½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A-
starring Ken Ogata, Kenji Sawada, Yasosuke Bando, Toshiyuki Nagashima
written by Paul Schrader and Leonard Schrader (Japanese screenplay by Cheiko Schrader)
directed by Paul Schrader
by Bryant Frazer A little more than halfway through Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a fragmented, multifaceted cinematic biography of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, Mishima expresses nostalgia for an afterlife that existed only in the distant past. "The average age for men in the Bronze Age was 18 and, in the Roman era, 22," Mishima reckons aloud, in voiceover. "Heaven must have been beautiful then. Today it must look dreadful." Like the rest of the film's narration, the passage is quoted from Mishima's published work, in this case an article he wrote in 1962, eight years before his death at the age of 45 by seppuku. "When a man reaches 40, he has no chance to die beautifully," Mishima continues. "No matter how he tries, he will die of decay. He must compel himself to live." In 1984, when he made this film, Paul Schrader was 38 years old. He had just come off the commercial misfire that was 1982's Cat People, a straightforward studio assignment he tailored to address his signature concerns about sex and death, putting them in the context of a dark fairytale with intimations of incest and bestiality. It wasn't a good experience. Coked out of his mind for much of the shoot, Schrader fell into a dead-end affair with Nastassja Kinski that he hoped was something more; she wanted nothing to do with him after the movie wrapped, and Cat People's disappointing box-office receipts closed the door on his Hollywood career. He thought of suicide. He scurried away from Hollywood, heading first to New York and then to Japan, in search of a life change. That's where Mishima came in.
The story of Yukio Mishima's life was originally developed for film by Schrader's brother, Leonard, who lived in Japan in the early 1970s, but it was a surprisingly good fit for Paul's preoccupations. Mishima was not just a celebrated literary figure but also a prominent Japanese nationalist. A dedicated weight trainer and student of kendo, Mishima argued that beauty was an expression of ethics, and art could find its purest expression only in violent action. "Perfect purity is possible," he wrote in his 1969 novel Runaway Horses, "if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood." These beliefs led Mishima, reasonably, to become a bodybuilder. More, let's say, idiosyncratically, they inspired his formation of a private militia, the Tatenokai, with whom he stormed the Japanese army headquarters in Tokyo in a 1970 coup attempt. Having failed to stir the assembled soldiers into taking control of government and restoring the powers of the emperor, Mishima stabbed himself to death. In the Schraders' estimation, Mishima's obsession with beauty led to narcissism, and narcissism kindled a consuming desire for self-immolation.
Well, there's a lot to reckon with here. Mishima is almost as much lit-crit as biopic, its argument built from a combination of colourful and visually abstract vignettes adapted from Mishima's fiction, more plainly dramatized events from the breadth of Mishima's life, and a naturalistic recreation of the events of his final day. Those three levels of narrative--biographical past and present and fictional neverland--constitute separate threads running in parallel through the film's first three chapters, titled "Beauty," "Art," and "Action." Each of them includes scenes adapted from one of Mishima's literary works, and all of them are undergirded, via voiceover, by Mishima's own words. This analytical framework allows Schrader to make assertions about Mishima's psychology. For instance, the film's first passage juxtaposes aspects of Mishima's childhood--depicted in vivid black-and-white--with elements of his 1956 novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion in a way that suggests the development of a deep sense of sexual shame and inadequacy in tandem with an urge towards theatrics. The various threads come together in the fourth chapter, "The Harmony of Pen and Sword," depicting the coup attempt and Mishima's suicide in something close to real time, mostly without narration or intercutting. It dramatizes Mishima's hoped-for merging of art and action, which led him to stage his own death scene as final creative work.
What the film purports to reveal about Mishima is, of course, strongly informed by Schrader's own predilections. Mishima stands out in Schrader's oeuvre for its carefully variegated structure as well as its specifically Japanese aesthetics, but he seems barely interested in the ways Mishima's public presentation was shaped by national politics, or the larger socio-economic trends driving Japanese culture at the time. Beyond the director and DP, production was executed with an all-Japanese cast and crew, with Leonard's wife, Chieko, translating the screenplay into Japanese. But Schrader's idea of Yukio Mishima falls in line with the meditations on troubled masculinity that characterize his greater body of work. You could think of the hardline nationalist Mishima (a closeted homosexual), along with Taxi Driver's neo-conservative Travis Bickle (a frustrated heterosexual) and First Reformed's emerging leftist Ernst Toller (celibate, with stirrings of Passion), as three corners of a triangle defining the unsettled political and sexual scope of Schrader's corpus.
In a practical sense, the big difference between Yukio Mishima and those other characters is that Mishima was a real person; Mishima's widow approved the project early on but balked when she realized she wouldn't be able to influence Schrader's script, which foregrounded his same-sex relationships and focused on the chaos and violence of his last day. Production went ahead, although resistance to Schrader's project among Mishima's associates limited his options. The casting of Ken Ogata, for instance, was a compromise after pressure forced Ken Takakura (the prolific Japanese actor who had starred in Sydney Pollack's 1974 The Yakuza, co-written by the Schraders) to bow out. While Ogata is more than fine in the role, he lacked Mishima's wiry physical build and aura of intellectual refinement. His beefier, movie-star looks don't invalidate the film's biographical value, though it's possible that Takakura, whose build and on-screen temperament more closely matched Mishima’s, might have had an even more impressive take on the character. If Ogata's Mishima is stockier and gruffer than the real thing, it serves to make the character's apparent insecurity even more incongruous with his presentation. Ogata excels, meanwhile, at portraying Mishima as a kind of performance artist, able to flash a bright, lavishly friendly smile for public consumption despite his continually chilly, increasingly morbid internal monologue.
Mishima has a similarly split personality. The deliberately-erected intellectual framework of its biographical sequences is accentuated by the looser, almost expressionist short-story segments based on his work. One of the key differentiators is the stark, colour-coordinated sets from Eiko Ishioka, who served as production designer on the scenes adapting Mishima's fiction. (Kazuo Takenaka, credited as executive art director, was in charge of designing the realistic sets used in the rest of the film.) Ishioka was a Japanese artist with no experience in cinema, and some of her designs required immediate revision as they lacked space to put the camera or failed to accommodate a crew moving it around. But they are distinctive, and they feel less like canny post-modern contrivances and more like creations of instinct. They give the picture an air of mystery and even a low-key sense of wonder. In an interview included on the Criterion edition of the film, Ishioka remembers complaining to Schrader early on that she didn't like Mishima and was therefore the wrong person for the job. Schrader told her she was in fact perfect, explaining, sort of, "What I want to show is my idea of Mishima, not yours." Or anybody else's, probably.
The resulting adaptations of Mishima's fiction are lovely but unsettling. Schrader's imagining of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion takes place largely on a stage dressed with a model of Kinkaku-ji, a famous Buddhist temple in Kyoto, that looms behind characters who circle it as they stroll on nearby pathways. Schrader extracts a section of the novel that shows the relationship between Mizoguchi, an acolyte at the temple, and his friend Kashiwagi, who might be known in contemporary parlance as a pick-up artist. Kashiwagi, who walks awkwardly on deformed feet, leverages women's pity for his condition into sex. He shares his strategy with the stuttering Mizoguchi, who can't fully commit to the scheme. Schrader dramatizes this failure in the most florid way possible, zooming dramatically into the figure of a half-dressed woman lying on her back among the green bamboo trees as Mizoguchi's hand trembles above her naked breast, the golden temple that obsesses him looming ever larger in the background.
The second adaptation draws on elements of Mishima's 1959 novel, Kyoko's House. (Schrader was barred from using Mishima's semi-autobiographical Forbidden Colors, which dealt more directly with both homosexuality and misogyny.) In this excerpt, Osamu, an actor, becomes a kept lover of Mitsuko, a wealthy middle-aged woman who draws him into an abusive relationship as repayment for a debt owed by his mother. This portion of the film is perhaps the most aggressively stylized--the hot pinks of Mitsuko's pillbox-like apartment and the deep, almost liquid fuchsias that bathe Osamu and Mitsuko during a hotel-room dalliance, neon signs blazing hot outside the windows, suggest overbaked carnality, while garish pastels satirize the coziness of Osamu's mother's teahouse. The third book adapted, the aforementioned Runaway Horses, is about Isao, a young student of kendo sword-fighting who gets wrapped up in a reactionary political faction plotting to assassinate members of the zaibatsu--the dominant Japanese business conglomerates that controlled much of the national industries. ("We'll assassinate the leaders of capitalism, burn the Bank of Japan," he promises. "At dawn, law will restore power to the emperor." ) This section is shot like a political thriller from the 1970s, with shadowy compositions dominated by oranges and blacks. It also explicitly foreshadows the events of Mishima's last day. The story seems to be inspired in some part by the writings of Ikki Kita, a right-wing ideologue who had advocated an attempted coup to return power to the emperor in 1936 (as chronicled in Yoshida Yoshishige's 1969 film Coup d'Etat), though Mishima didn't entirely endorse Ikki's thinking. Specifically, Mishima remained profoundly disappointed in Hirohito for renouncing his claim of divinity after World War II for his entire life, feeling it meant Japanese soldiers who had willingly sacrificed their lives for a god-emperor had died in vain.
By necessity, the balance of Mishima features only selected episodes from Mishima's biography. In one, his grandmother takes him to the theatre, where he spies one of the onnagata through a briefly opened backstage door. ("The theatre is very stimulating," she assures him.) Often, the film seeks to illuminate the degree to which Mishima suffered self-doubt and insecurity. After the budding 18-year-old writer claims that he dreamed of fighting in World War II and "dying for the emperor," we see him escape military service by overstating the severity of a tubercular condition. Later, the adult Mishima expresses dissatisfaction with his status as one of the most famous writers in all of Japan by complaining, "What good is it if I'm not translated in the West?" In the most scandalous episode, he dances at a gay bar with a partner who teases him: "You're so flabby!" Mishima storms out of the club. "I can't even look at myself," he later declares, "so don't make jokes like that again." This business is unavoidably reductive, Rosebud-level analysis, but it feels like a complete psychological study; every scene either responds to something we've seen previously, or anticipates an episode yet to come. Osamu's body covered in scars from his sado-masochistic relationship with Mitsuko recalls Mishima's boyhood fascination with images of Saint Sebastian, which anticipates Mishima's flamboyant pose as Sebastian during a photo shoot. His embarrassment on the dance floor prefigures his wholesale embrace of bodybuilding. His shame over his failure to serve in the Imperial Japanese Army plants the seeds that lead him to attempt to restore it, and his enduring dissatisfaction over the state of his body probably contributes to his decision to kill himself before he grows old and infirm. It's to the movie's great credit that it doesn't seem to explain or make excuses for Mishima's behaviour as much as it seeks to understand and illuminate it. And that's a hell of a trick.
It's easy to see where Mishima fits Schrader's preoccupation with sexual repression and downward spirals; Mishima's life story is soaking in repression, and the film becomes more troubled and fatalistic as it progresses. The sense of impending doom is both cowing and fascinating--you hate to see it happen, but you can't bear to look away. Despite that almost voyeuristic appeal, Mishima is off-puttingly cerebral at times. The regimented, episodic structure and heavy reliance on voiceover almost ensures it, and even the fictional segments feel too purely didactic to reveal much meaning in Mishima's work beyond its reflection on events in his life. Moreover, the film works too hard to make something noble of Mishima's philosophy--to romanticize his compulsions. At best, it soft-pedals the most troubling particulars of his politics; at worst, it's an apologia for fascism.
Still, aesthetics elevate the story at every turn, as Schrader envisions what Mishima's particular brand of insanity might look like from the inside. John Bailey's cinematography is both precise and poetic, running the gamut from grounded fly-on-the-wall naturalism to startling, clarifying moments of visual prose and poetry. He does it all without ever seeming to show off, which was just Bailey's style. I was delighted by the rock-and-roll instrumentation (electric guitar, high-hat percussion) that kicks Philip Glass's score up a notch as "Kyoko's House" gets underway. And there's a terrific scene about two-thirds of the way through in which Mishima takes up the challenge of addressing a hostile room full of leftist students at Tokyo University. Schrader stages and shoots the scene documentary-style, somehow investing it with a terrific verisimilitude. The assembled cast of extras is nothing short of amazing; freeze the frame and examine any given tableau and it seems like the image is infused with the eclectic entropy of a real event. And Mishima finds its apotheosis in the nick of time, as it interrupts Mishima's frankly embarrassing call to imperial arms, delivered to a mass of indifferent Japanese soldiers, with a strangely rapturous monochrome sequence in which he suddenly imagines himself soaring in a jet at 45,000 feet, "the silver phallus of the fuselage floated in sunlight." Here, Mishima sees outer space as a kind of metaphor for death, and voices a hope that he may finally be on the verge of reconciling the conflicting urges towards art and physical action. Mishima never quite sells the tragedy of Mishima's life, but it gives him this in oblivion: "No more body or spirit, pen or sword, male or female." As Mishima imagines his new trajectory through the upper atmosphere, Mishima finds its own resting place, and the sleepy drone of Glass's organs swells on the soundtrack, both eerie and comforting--anthem, hymn, and requiem.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion's well-regarded 2008 DVD release of Mishima gets a handsome improvement in the new 2018 Blu-ray edition, which at last upgrades picture and sound quality for the HD era and appends some extra historical material to boot. According to liner notes, the new HD transfer, presented in 1080p at 1.85:1, was created under the supervision of Criterion's Lee Kline, DP John Bailey, and director Paul Schrader, from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. Digital restoration took place first at American Zoetrope, then at Criterion. The usual regimen of dust-busting, de-warping, noise-managing, etc., seems to have had nothing but positive impact on the image. Film grain is apparent but unobtrusive and feels organic to the image. Contrast is fairly aggressive, especially in the monochrome sequences, with inky blacks the constant in scenes featuring both high- and low-key lighting styles. Colour rendition is frankly pretty dazzling, considering the difficulty level. Check out the scene from "Golden Pavilion" where a woman in peach-coloured pants and blouse lays on a reddish-pink blanket stretched across brown ground with dark green grass and lighter green bamboo trees; in the background, even lighter greens and golds dominate. In Criterion's hands, the scene harmonizes beautifully. Or try the love hotel, bathed in a wash of colour textured by the arrangement of shadows cast by the Venetian blinds, giving it the feel of a ripe, pornographic film noir. Saturation is perfect, never hot or blooming. Only one moment feels unnatural: When the protagonist of the third runs through the woods and toward a beach, the sky and sea have been digitally tweaked (per Schrader's audio commentary) to improve the original day-for-night photography, with slightly uncanny results.
The quality of the audio is similarly impressive, at least where the original, all-Japanese audio track is concerned. Encoded here as DTS-HD MA 2.0, the track's matrixed surround information unfolds nicely into the centre and rear speakers. Dialogue and sound effects are crisp and clear, including Ken Ogata's Japanese-language voiceover, and the Philip Glass score has a rich, expansive sound with a surprising amount of highly directional instrumentation. Liner notes indicate "the 2.0 surround soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm magnetic print master," followed by a hefty helping of digital restoration. Presumably those notes refer only to the main audio track, the one with Ogata's voiceover. Criterion offers two more soundtrack options, the first replacing Ogata's readings of Mishima in Japanese with Roy Scheider's in English (Schrader was trying to minimize the film's reliance on subtitles for its original release), the second replacing Scheider's English-language reading with one by photographer Paul Jasmin, a friend of Schrader's. The latter was apparently intended as a temp track, but accidentally became Mishima canon when Warner Brothers inadvertently used it--instead of the Scheider version!--on DVD. Confused? Stick with track 1, which is dramatically easier to listen to than the other two. Where the Glass score is rich and sonorous on track 1, it's thin, bright, and muddy on tracks 2 and 3, not to mention wet with reverb. There are moments where you actually can make out more detail in the audio on track 2 (maybe the noise reduction on track 1 is occasionally too aggressive), but the huge step down in overall fidelity is hardly worth the trade-off. This is bad news for Scheider fans, who will probably want to listen to the sub-par track regardless.
Criterion has ported over the supplements created for its 2008 DVD, starting with a dense and informative commentary track by Paul Schrader and his associate producer Alan Poul, who actually speaks Japanese. The duo covers a lot of behind-the-scenes ground, notably the difficulties they faced making the film in Japan. "We did not put any words in Mishima's mouth," Schrader vows, claiming that his own writings were the source for everything Mishima says in the film, and that there is evidentiary support for every event in the film--including the scene depicting his hurt feelings at the gay nightclub. Schrader became concerned at one point that Ogata's performance needed to be more ambiguous sexually, and Poul remembers that Schrader tried to give him better direction by relating an anecdote about John Wayne's ass. "It was one of the hardest pieces of translation I've ever had to do," Poul says. The commentary also features a pretty lucid summary of at least one facet Schrader's thinking on Mishima: "He realized, fairly early on, that the role of the writer in the new media age--meaning television--was also the role of the personality," Schrader says. "You could become famous as a writer...by becoming also a media personality. And the media part of your work was part of your creative life. And he embraced this."
Also brought over for this version is "Making Mishima" (44 mins., 1080i upconverted from SD), a talking-head documentary featurette with John Bailey, Philip Glass, and Eiko Ishioka discussing their individual work on the film, as well as the intersection of their creative processes. It's illustrated with clips from Mishima as well as some tantalizing still photography and glimpses of video B-roll from behind the scenes. Bailey describes an overall camera strategy that deliberately sought not to borrow too much from Japanese filmmaking style, in addition to practical production decisions, like shooting all of the required exteriors first so that filming was safely indoors on soundstages before public outrage against the production could build. Glass marvels at Schrader's "radical[,] outrageous" approach to Mishima's story, but says he relished the opportunity to combine the different narrative threads through music. His collaboration with Schrader involved a back-and-forth where Glass would submit music without having seen any footage, Schrader would edit picture to score, unavoidably "mangling" it in the process, and then Glass would rewrite his original work to match the cues in the Schrader edit. Ishioka describes selecting the colour schemes that would so forcefully define each fiction segment, along with her determination to make the sets work harder to be part of the narrative themselves, rather than just background. She remembers that Schrader asked her to incorporate "bad taste" into her set designs for the "Kyoko's House" scenes; she was stunned to see her deliberately tacky designs win such praise, but perhaps it's appropriate: "I personally think that that bad taste exemplified Yukio Mishima himself," she says. "I think Mishima was a man of very bad taste." Glass is a little more circumspect. "There's an intensely romantic person buried inside this very complicated person," he says, "and what the music does is [it] speaks to that person."
"Producing Mishima" (22 mins., 1080i upconverted from SD) gets an encore on Blu-ray; producers Tom Luddy and Mata Yamamoto speak in a similar talking-heads-plus-production-stills-and-B-roll format. They take a more detailed look at the production difficulties, starting with the story of how the whole thing almost collapsed when funding for the modest $5M budget disappeared before shooting started, despite Francis Ford Coppola's willingness to attach his name to the project as executive producer. The Schraders and John Bailey flew to Tokyo to begin planning without a budget in place; George Lucas eventually came to the rescue, convincing Warner Bros. chair Terry Semel to complete the financing as a personal favour. They also discuss the lack of participation by Mishima's widow at some length, noting her specific objections to the script's depiction of Mishima's sexuality and its focus on the final day of his life. (Unfortunately for her, the agreement she signed did not give her script approval.) Yamamoto says that Coppola, Lucas, and Schrader offered to screen the finished film for Mishima's widow and entertain any requested edits, with no response; their last payment was refused.
In a 2008 audio interview (26 mins.), associate producer (and writer of the Japanese-language screenplay) Chieko Schrader, who was married to Leonard Schrader from 1977 until his death in 2006, describes her own work on the production, and it's more extensive than you might guess. "I had a very difficult choice--family or career," she says, explaining that her husband pressured her to drop her own project and help with the film because he badly wanted to work again with his brother. Once committed to the project, she was the first point of contact with Mishima's widow. She remembers travelling to Tokyo and waiting in a hotel for a month before hearing back from her. She sealed the deal (after enduring some verbal abuse) by decrying the "sensational and cheap" movies other producers would seek to make of Mishima's life, telling her, "You will not find a better offer until you die." On set, she says, she was charged by (Paul) Schrader with directing the Japanese cast, since he didn't speak the language. And she takes credit for suggesting the inclusion of that moment in Mishima's final reel when Mishima has the nine-mile-high epiphany that brings the whole film together--which is no small achievement. She also remembers being caught in a vindictive relationship between the Schraders and various stressful "cultural conflicts" between Paul Schrader and the cast and crew that caused her great anxiety. "It was both amazing and horrible at the same time," she says.
The last of the extras transported from the earlier DVD is an interview with Mishima biographer John Nathan (Mishima: A Biography) and film critic Donald Richie (27 mins., 1080i upconverted from SD), both of whom knew Mishima personally. (They are interviewed separately, but their observations are interspersed.) Nathan describes young Mishima as a "great prodigy" who was writing regularly by the age of 12 and turning out seriously impressive work at 16. "Mishima had decided very early on that he was going to, with his pen, give the reader a world of Japanese beauty and elegance that nobody else had access to," Nathan says. He goes on to discuss the influence of Mishima's mentor, Yasunari Kawabata, as well as Mishima's love of The Tale of Genji, a Japanese classic that dates to the early 11th century. As far as Mishima's death goes, both men seem to believe that the dramatic nature of his suicide was more important to him than the professed ethical reasoning behind it. "The apparently abrupt and unprecedented development in Mishima of some kind of political consciousness...is one of the things that led me and has led others to conclude that this apparently political ending was some kind of ruse, and that explaining it would require looking deeply into his own personal motivations," says Nathan. Richie concurs: "He really wanted a big final scene. He had determined he was going to kill himself, but we wanted to have a plausible reason for doing this." Richie's recollection of his final dinner with Mishima, and his perception of the part he played in helping make the myth surrounding the man, feels particularly insightful.
New to this edition is "Mishima on Mishima" (6 mins., 1080p), a subtitled short piece from 1966 featuring Mishima being interviewed (and speaking in both French and his native Japanese) on the publication in France of his 1960 novel After the Banquet. The material covered isn't especially illuminating ("You might define the general trend in my work as a synthesis of aesthetics and psychology," etc.), but it's interesting to see Mishima functioning as literary diplomat, flashing that same sudden, ingratiating smile Ogata captured so perfectly in the film. Also making its Criterion debut is "The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima" (55 mins., 1080i upconverted from SD), an engaging episode of the "Arena" documentary series first aired by the BBC in 1985. It contains plenty of documentary footage of Mishima himself, including the original material that inspired some of the scenes in Schrader's film, with John Hurt providing readings from Mishima's work. I was frankly relieved to find the BBC taking such a skeptical stance on Mishima's legacy. Two different interviewees refer to him as a gangster; one calls him a clown and declares his death "a political embarrassment" to the entire nation. Even director Nagisa Ôshima drops in briefly to dunk on him, calling his suicide "an over-elaborate gesture which failed to satisfy our Japanese aesthetic."
This program even excerpts from Mishima's own 1965 short film depicting the ritual of seppuku, "Patriotism" (a.k.a. The Rite of Love and Death," a separate Criterion release). Mishima wrote, directed, and stars as a young lieutenant who guts himself on a minimal, Noh-inspired stage; after he's dead, his wife draws her own dagger and licks the blade suggestively before the BBC tastefully cuts away from the action. The doc sees the increasing militarism of Mishima's final decade partly as a reaction to the student protests of 1960 and partly as a response to funding and encouragement from the country's right wing, closing with evidence that his death influenced a resurgence in Japanese nationalist sentiment. Of course, this aired in '85, eons ago when it comes to global politics and Japan in particular; Criterion's package makes no attempt to assay his influence in the year 2018, amid the current worldwide resurgence of hard-right politics. Perhaps that would have broken the budget of what is otherwise a top-shelf disc, even by Criterion standards.
The super-sized 54-page booklet bundles three different essays: "Pen and Sword," written by the English critic Kevin Jackson, makes a strong, concise case for Mishima as "one of the greatest of all biographical films"; "Banned in Japan" is a three-page article describing the difficulties the film faced in Japan, including its abrupt disinvitation from the Tokyo Film Festival; and two more pages are dedicated to "On Set," an excerpt from Eiko Ishioka's 2000 book Eiko on Stage. The balance of the insert is given over to credits, liner notes, and production stills that furnish closer looks at many of Ishioka's sets. The BD itself snaps into a handsomely-crafted digipak printed with reflective orange and gold coatings; that digipak, in turn, slides into an even shinier slipcase, its own design colour-coordinated to match the film. This is an altogether gorgeous package.