Paul Schrader’s film about Yukio Mishima remains perhaps the greatest “biopic” ever made, mainly due to the fact that it disregards most of the conventions of the genre. The only aspect that resembles a typical biopic is that it uses Mishima’s last day as a narrative tool to connect the rest of the film. Mishima’s final day was November 25th 1970, when he and his militia attempted a coup d’état to the restore the Japanese emperor’s pre-war powers. It ended when Mishima committed ritual suicide by seppuku.
Besides his bold exit from life, Mishima is primarily known as one of the most well-known writers from Japan (Haruki Murakami is arguably better-known at this point). Through a series of novels, short stories, plays, political essays and even a film, he challenged the form and norms of post-war Japan. Mishima was also relatively open about his homosexuality, despite being married to a woman with whom he had two children. His widow has always denied his homosexuality, however, which is the main reason why the Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters to this day has never had a release in Japan, except for a festival screening. He was also a quasi-fascist who spouted a very individualistic brand of nationalism, but was equally hated by the more mainstream nationalists of Japan and the leftists, even though his body of work is greatly admired by the left.
Schrader decides to tell Mishima’s life story mostly through excerpts from his novels Runaway Horses (part of his Sea of Fertility series), The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and the still untranslated Kyoto’s House (it was personally translated for Schrader) through extremely stylized segments. Each segment gets its own visual palette, with deliberately artificial sets that are truly breathtaking. The fact that he chooses to use his fiction is inspired, because it really gets you into the mind of Mishima far more than a conventional biopic would. His work was interspersed with plenty of autobiographical elements, and it’s a technique that David Cronenberg would also use with his “adaptation” of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. 2012 saw the release of a more conventional biopic of Mishima’s final months titled 11.25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate, which has yet to see a home video release outside of Japan and not been seen theatrically in the English-speaking world. It would be fascinating to compare the two.
The film’s release was pretty much non-existent, despite having a “presented by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas” credit when it came out in 1985. Its largest release was a limited arthouse run in the US (at its widest, it was playing 14 American theatres) and it wasn’t even released theatrically in the UK til 2009. It did get a mangled VHS release and a showing on Alex Cox’s pioneering and much missed Moviedrome in the UK. Despite that, the reviews from the beginning hailed it rightfully as a masterpiece and as Schrader’s greatest achievement as a director (an assessment that Schrader agrees with), and even won an award for “Best Artistic Contribution” at the 1985 Cannes film festival. It was discovered by many more people when Criterion released it on DVD in 2008, although my father saw it at some point in the ’80s.
It remains Schrader’s greatest achievement as a director due to the combination of the visuals, the subject matter, and Philip Glass’ finest score (which has often been used as a temp track.) The film is flawless, despite the fact that actor Ken Ogata is far too stocky for the lead role and looks nothing like Mishima. Initially Ken Takakura was set to play him, but he bowed out due to pressure from far-right groups in Japan.
It’s a perfect time to see it for the first time, or to revisit it, since Schrader’s most acclaimed film in years— First Reformed—is set to come out shortly. The Blu-Ray, which has also been released by Criterion, ports all of the previous special features over. These include three audio narrations of the film, including Schrader’s preferred Japanese track and the Roy Schneider track, a commentary from Schrader and producer Alan Poul, interviews with numerous crew members, interviews with Mishima biographers, an archival interview excerpt with Mishima and the excellent 1985 BBC documentary on Mishima. The only shame is that they decided not to include the excellent companion release of Mishima’s film Patriotism, which could easily have fit onto the disc.