The idea of self-fashioning—of deliberately taking the raw materials of one’s body and mind and transforming them into a work of art—has been with us at least since the Renaissance. Yet no one, not even Oscar Wilde, has so rigorously pursued that grail as Yukio Mishima. Wilde may have quipped about living up to his blue china, but he let his once graceful body grow slack and bloated, and his delicate features droop into jowls. Mishima spent countless hours at the gym, turning himself from a sickly, scrawny youth to a powerful muscleman. Wilde talked subversively, but allowed his subversion to seem like a mere game of naughty jokes and paradox mongering; Mishima turned his strange political ideals into action, and became the general of his own private army. Wilde ultimately allowed the forces of intolerance to catch and ruin him; Mishima composed the final act of his life in his head, and then wrote it in his own blood with a samurai sword. However much that gory act might repel us, it had a terrible lucidity.
Paul Schrader’s beautiful, complex, and at times even thrilling film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is intent on exploring that arduous path to self-transformation: it is a work of art about a man who tried to become a work of art. In his lifetime, Mishima was the only modern Japanese author to enjoy a significant reputation in the West, and it was not with any idea of belittling his literary accomplishments that Schrader (who considers Mishima a great novelist) explained to interviewers that he was less engaged with any of Mishima’s conventional fictions than with the sustained fiction that was “Yukio Mishima.”
For if Mishima had not existed, Schrader might have been obliged to invent him. In the early years of his career as a screenwriter and director, the typical Schrader hero—think of Travis Bickle hardening his spare, scarred body with weights and flames in Taxi Driver, or Julian Kay diligently learning foreign languages as he works out in American Gigolo—was obsessed with preparing himself for some unusual mission or some fatal role. He was an ascetic, cut off from experiencing true pleasure even when his profession, like Kay’s, was to deliver it; a loner, incapable of compromising his essential solitude; a kind of perverse or lethal artist. In short, an existential outsider. (The young Schrader read a great deal of Sartre.) Mishima is very much like these fictional creations, save that he is also a genuine artist.
More routine biopics about writers and artists, whatever their other virtues, tend to play a fairly simple game of causes and effects. Here is the thing that happened in the author’s life; here is how it was reported in his work. Van Gogh is mobbed by a bunch of angry crows in a cornfield; van Gogh paints a cornfield with crows. Business as usual. But when your biographical subject so consistently obscured those neat boundaries between art and life, and when his imagination may have shaped his life significantly more than vice versa, more ambitious methods are required. So Schrader, who collaborated on the screenplay with his brother Leonard and sister-in-law Chieko, came up with a tripartite approach to Mishima’s life and art, designed to interweave reality, memory, and imagination.
The reality strand, shot in color and somewhat in the manner of a Costa-Gavras political thriller, shows the events of November 25, 1970, when Mishima and a team of young men from his private army set out to stage a political provocation at the headquarters of the Japanese army in Tokyo. They break in to a general’s office, bind and gag him, then Mishima steps out onto a balcony and begins to harangue the troops. But the middle-aged Mishima is sorely out of touch with these westernized youngsters, and they jeer at and heckle him. Retreating to the interior, he commits the ritual act of suicide vulgarly known as hara-kiri but more properly termed seppuku. Perhaps he had intended this bloody finale from the outset.
Threaded through this account of Mishima’s last day is a series of autobiographical memories, narrated for English-speaking audiences by Roy Scheider and by the leading actor, Ken Ogata, in the Japanese version. These sequences, shot in ravishing black and white by cinematographer John Bailey, evoke the golden age of Japanese cinema—Ozu, Naruse, and Mizoguchi. (A critic before he became a director, Schrader is exceptionally well versed in the history of Japanese cinema, and has written a searching essay on Ozu.) We encounter the five-year-old Yukio, a frail child living with his grandmother; Yukio the adolescent, stirred by early homosexual yearnings and aroused by a picture of the martyred Saint Sebastian (patron saint of gay men); and then the near adult candidate for military service who, despite his dreams of dying for the emperor, lies about his medical condition to avoid active service.
In the following sets of flashbacks, we see the origins of Mishima’s career both as a writer and as an obsessive bodybuilder; soon he is muscular enough to pose as Saint Sebastian himself. He becomes famous, learns how to fly a jet plane, founds and trains his private army, and lands himself in arguments with radical students. We also, briefly, see him dancing with a man in a gay bar, though most other aspects of his erotic life remain implied rather than shown. (Mishima’s family fought hard to keep Schrader away from the homosexual aspects of the writer’s life and denied him the right to incorporate scenes from one of Mishima’s more overtly gay works, Forbidden Colors.)
The final strand of Mishima steps directly into the writer’s imagination, with dramatized extracts from three novels. In The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a young acolyte who suffers from a disabling stutter grows increasingly oppressed by the overwhelming beauty of the pavilion; after making love to a prostitute and losing his stutter, he sets fire to and destroys the building. In Kyoko’s House, a young actor, bent on improving himself through weight training, signs his body over to a woman in payment for a debt incurred by his mother. Their affair soon becomes intensely sadomasochistic, bordering on suicide. And in Runaway Horses (the second book of Mishima’s late tetralogy The Sea of Fertility), a young army cadet forms a cell of would-be assassins, ambitious to purge Japan of its corrupt modern ways. Police break up the cell, but the cadet escapes, kills a businessman, and then prepares his own death.
These scenes from Mishima’s fiction glow and blaze with such intense colors that many viewers—those given to curiosity about such things, anyway—assume that some kind of special film stock must have been used. In fact, the effect is achieved wholly by John Bailey’s lighting and by the brilliant sets and costumes created by the film’s production designer, Eiko Ishioka—who went on to design Bram Stoker’s Dracula for one of the producers on Schrader’s film, Francis Ford Coppola. She contrived for each of the three fictional strands to be dominated by specific pairs of colors: the first by green and gold, the second by pink and gray, the third by orange (more exactly shu, a particular hue of orange used in temples) and black.
Schrader shuffles these varying narrative levels so deftly (also incorporating passages from Mishima’s autobiographical Sun and Steel in the voice-over to the flashbacks) that what might sound confusing in outline is always quite clear and utterly compelling. Mishima’s fictions anticipate, rehearse, and shape the events of his life; the events of his life are modified for the purposes of fiction. Yukio Mishima gradually becomes identical with “Yukio Mishima.” At the film’s brutal yet exalted climax, the previously unseen final moments of the three novels crash together like giant waves as their author screams in his death agony and draws a finish to all his works. Consummatum est.
What renders this finale all the more overwhelming is the manner in which the film’s perversely elegant gallery of fire and blood is borne along by an incongruously triumphant, yet somehow entirely apt, musical score—composed, of course, by Philip Glass. Today, more than two decades after his work on Mishima, Glass is so regularly employed as a composer of movie scores that it is hard to remember that he was comparatively new to the discipline in the mid-eighties; at that time, his most prominent work in the field was for Koyaanisqatsi. (One of Schrader’s invaluable gifts as a director is his keen eye and ear for rising talent. It was Glass’s track record of biographical operas—on Einstein, Gandhi, and Akhnaten—that prompted Schrader to approach him.)
That Mishima remains one of Glass’s most popular and widely cited scores—it is readily available on CD and often used in advertisements—must owe something to the unusual nature of his collaboration with Schrader. Glass began by composing a complete independent score, consulting drafts of the script but not seeing any of the rushes, and then handed it over to the director. Schrader played around with this primary score, extending or shortening some parts, repeating others, and cut the film to these musical extracts. Glass was then presented with this edited version, which he could recompose, taking into account the film’s narrative needs. The outcome is an uncommonly sensitive score, as well as an unusually powerful one.
All good films issue from a confluence of talents, and to the credits of Glass, Bailey, Ishioka, and, to be sure, Mishima himself must be added that of Ken Ogata, who plays the author not only with an absolutely necessary dignity and forcefulness but also with unexpected, at times almost boyish, charm. Still, the largest credit belongs to the man who brought these talents together, Paul Schrader. The themes of isolation, introspection, and self-destruction that had given such force to the likes of Taxi Driver and American Gigolo were brought to a new pitch of subtlety when he found a real-life character in whom the opposing forces of self-creation and self-destruction fought a strange and, in the end, terrible battle. The result is one of Schrader’s best works, and one of the greatest of all biographical films.
Kevin Jackson is visiting professor of English at University College London. He edited the Faber & Faber volume Schrader on Schrader, writes regularly for Sight & Sound, the Guardian, and the Sunday Times, and has published about twenty books, including Invisible Forms, Letters of Introduction, and The Language of Cinema. His forthcoming publications include a biography of the Victorian writer John Ruskin and a cultural history of moose.