Here is a work of art, a great one even, about a man who tried to make himself into a work of art — but perhaps not a great one, and at the cost of no small part of his humanity. Yukio Mishima was not content merely to be a post-WWII literary figure of Norman Mailer-esque proportions: novelist, playwright, filmmaker, actor, cultural gadfly, social butterfly. He wanted to carve himself into the cultural consciousness of the world or die trying. He achieved both.
Paul Schrader's 1985 film Mishima, cofunded by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, uses both the man's literary art and public theater to bring us to him from the inside out. As with all film biographies, it leaves out as much as it gives us, and it tends to reduce a man of great complexity to a few broad, basic notions. But Mishima himself trafficked in such sweeping gestures, the movie argues, and it argues for this by way of visionary images that make up one of the finest American — and Japanese — films of the 1980s.
A design for living (and dying)
The most notorious facts of Mishima's life are about the end of it. On November 25, 1970, as part of an act of political theater he had been plotting for months, he and a hand-picked cadre of associates went to the Eastern Army Headquarters and held hostage a JSDF commander. Their demands: that the Japanese government reinstitute the emperor as the seat of absolute political authority. All this was met only with laughter and morbid curiosity by the soldiers garrisoned there. Mishima returned to the commander's office, committed seppuku in front of him, and was beheaded by one of his own comrades.
Mishima uses that last day as the trunk of its narrative tree, with the branches being two kinds of set-pieces: his life story, from his lonely childhood to his life as an author and, in time, a flamboyant and reactionary public figure; and scenes from three of his novels — Runaway Horses, The Temple Of The Golden Pavilion, and Kyoko's House — staged in a highly theatrical, mid-century Technicolor fashion. Each "chapter" of Mishima's life — "Beauty", "Art", "Action" — is framed by one of the books, with the last day arching over all and providing the "Harmony Of Pen And Sword" that concludes the film. All of it is further framed by Philip Glass's restless, arpeggiating score, like so many waves crashing against the goings-on.
From the beginning Mishima's life was one of contradistinction. Shy, crippled by a stammer, raised in near-isolation by his overprotective grandmother, Mishima felt all the further split off from society by his nascent longings. Not just those that sprung from his homosexuality, but his longing for "Death and Night and Blood," as he put it in his semi-autobiographical Confessions Of A Mask. Writing was one of the few places he could put such things — to know himself better, to find a niche in society, and to provide him with a vehicle for his ambitions of self-transcendence. The boy who could barely speak two words became one of Japan's best-selling and most highly regarded novelists through the 1950s and 1960s, known at least as much for his dapper dress, freshly muscled physique, and aggressive self-promotions through multiple circles of high society as he was for his books.
But under all that lay another motive force, one that had been lingering ever since the end of WWII in his adolescence: his fascination with the Emperor-centric, reactionary-nationalist strain of politics that had fallen into disfavor, and his distaste for the late-capitalist phase Japan was headed into full-steam. For Mishima, embracing all this was another way to contradistinguish himself. He tangled with far-left student protesters, wrote voluminously on the glories of the samurai code, and formed his own private army — the "Shield Society", regarded by most others as a pretentious self-indulgence. But through it he found a circle of young loyalists who were willing to follow him to the bitter end of a plan that was more important to him now than any novel, or even his own life.
Lines of poetry written with splashes of blood
It's hard to make a good movie about an author, because the act of writing is often so uncinematic. That Mishima had such a frenzied life makes the job easier. But Schrader wanted to show how Mishima's concerns were embodied in his work, and he did that by way of dramatizing in miniature three of his most famous novels. Each one ends up becoming a nod towards a different aspect of the man that we see elsewhere and throughout. All of them fed into him; no one of then alone can define him.
Temple Of The Golden Pavilion, based loosely on a true story, involves a disturbed young man with a stammer. Schrader is not being subtle here; he cuts straight from young Mishima to the first shot of the character. He falls under the influence of an amoral, sexually mercenary friend, and eventually burns down one of Japan's temples in an impulsive act of self-affirmation. The argument seems clear: From that disturbed young boy we can draw a straight line all the way to the man who would metaphorically immolate himself in the eyes of the world to make himself unforgettable.
But Schrader leaves the door open just wide enough for doubt, much as Mishima himself seems to have. Runaway Horses dealt with Iinuma, a fiery young reactionary in Japan's 1930s who becomes determined to instigate a quasi-coup that he believes will help restore the authority of the emperor, after which he and his colleagues will commit suicide. The easy analysis is to compare the young man's mission to Mishima's — do the right thing, even if the heavens fall and take you with them. Action trumps words. But perhaps Iinuma is not a daring critic of a corrupt cultural order, someone whose life is "a line of poetry written with a splash of blood," as Mishima himself put it, but a hothead, a punk who uses the righteousness of his proclaimed cause as a cover for a grotesque self-indulgence. "Contemplate the danger of a man who thinks only of himself," Iinuma's kendō teacher warns him. Maybe Mishima wrote those words, a scant couple of years before his death, to see if the ironies of fiction at its best would have any influence on his ultimate decision to emulate his character.
On the other hand, few people dispute that Mishima always wanted to find a glorious way to die — or at the very least, a death infused with a passion only he could understand. Hence Kyoko's House, where a would-be actor and playboy (Kenji Sawada) searching for meaning in his life, first turns to bodybuilding to improve himself. Then he discovers the culmination of his inchoate passions lies in selling himself to the woman holding the debt on his mother's bar. From that revelation stems another, even more consuming one, that both the master and the slave have just been looking for someone else to die with in the right way.
Schrader films all three segments in blazing color and with deliberately stagy set designs, by fabled production designer Eiko Ishioka. They bring to mind the same approach Seijun Suzuki used, here to heighten both the vividness and the unreality, the self-conscious theatricality of Mishima's inner life. It also offsets the rest of the film, where everything from Mishima's birth to shortly before his last day is in Godard-esque black-and-white. Only his imagination and and the events of November 25, 1970 are in color. Everything else is unreal to him by the end; everything else has become merely memory.
The art of our lives
Mishima was the first Japanese author I encountered in English. It would have been hard for him not to have been, as he was one of the few such figures to have any kind of casual awareness in the West at the time I took an interest in Japan (the 1980s). And while he was worth encountering and savoring for his use of language, I found he was also worth growing past. Most of what he had to say only seemed profound or moving when there was little else by way of comparison, and after I discovered the likes of Natsume, Dazai, Tanizaki, Oe, and both Murakamis, the bloom fell off his rose altogether. That said, Horses and Pavilion are two of his better books; Kyoko's House was never translated into English. But even when Mishima the writer was showy and narcissistic, Mishima the man was fascinating, and the movie understands that he wanted to be seen and understood through his art in whatever form it took.
Movie biographies always lie somehow. Most of the lies here are by way of omission: Nowhere is there any mention of Mishima's wife or family, most likely at their insistence. The most direct nod towards his homosexuality is by way of a cabaret scene that Mishima's estate allegedly withdrew support from the film for including. But I can't fault the movie for casting Ken Ogata as Mishima, an actor who embodies tremendous repressed energy. He was the notorious serial murderer in Vengeance Is Mine, always smiling at something terrible that only he could find delightful, and I brought that role back to mind often while watching him here. He actually does not resemble Mishima all that much, but it hardly matters; he convinces us of this man, driven and storied as he is.
Mishima remains a difficult subject in Japan. Schrader's film was blocked from release there, disowned by several of its own investors. Only very recently was there an actual biography of him produced by one of his countrymen. Before that it fell to not one but two foreigners, albeit both acquaintances of Mishima's — John Nathan and Nathan Scott-Stokes — to produce such work. From that, I suppose, flowered the idea that it was only from the outside of the outside, as it were, by way of a foreigner, that Mishima could be done justice. But the movie works as hard as it can to give us him from the inside, and maybe also from the inside of the inside.