Criterion // 1985 // 120 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 7th, 2008
On November 25th, 1970, Yukio Mishima committed an act that shocked the literary world...
"I come out on a stage determined to make people weep. Instead, they come out laughing."
Famed Japanese author and playwright Yukio Mishima was born in January of 1925. He was writing critically acclaimed work by his teenage years. He gained great notoriety, popularity, and praise as his career continued. In 1970, Mishima committed Seppuku (a form of suicide involving disembowelment) in a very controversial and public manner. Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters offers a unique and experimental examination of Mishima's bizarre death, and more importantly, the life that preceded it.
Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is one of the most unusual biopics ever created. It does not follow a chronological timeline, nor does it focus on a central single performance by an actor. Instead, Mishima mixes and matches numerous aspects of Yukio Mishima's life, creating a dizzying film that is simultaneously free-flowing and meticulously crafted. It's also unusual that a very American director like Schrader would be the one to direct a film about one of Japan's most notable figures. Here is a film about a very eastern man crafted by a western director for western audiences who had little interest or knowledge of Yukio Mishima. Perhaps predictably, the film only made a small fraction of its production cost at the box office. This is a film that probably shouldn't exist, but I'm glad that it does. Mishima represents some of Schrader's most ambitious work as a director.
Mishima is an immediately striking film. The first thing that catches your attention is the music. The opening credits spotlight one of the most enthusiastic compositions Philip Glass has ever created, a dynamic main theme soaring over a raging sea of arpeggios. Next, the visuals grab you. Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey provide three different visual styles for each aspect of the film. First up, we have the expected autobiographical aspect. Brief black-and-white segments show us a wide variety of moments large and small from Mishima's life. Second, we see a variety of scenes from the final day of Mishima's life. These scenes are shot in color, in a matter-of-fact documentary style. Finally, there are passages taken from some of Mishima's well-known literary works. These are shot on lavish sets in a very lurid and colorful manner, dazzling the viewer with an abundance of colorful flair.
All of these elements are mixed and matched throughout the film, and are spread across four different "chapters." Each chapter feels somewhat self-contained, largely because each chapter lays claim to a different presentation of a famous Mishima work. The first chapter features segments from Temple of the Golden Pavillion, about a stuttering young man who is overwhelmed by the beauty of a golden temple. The second chapter features selections from Kyoko's House, a story with some sadomasochistic elements. The third chapter spotlights Runaway Horse, about a group of young revolutionaries on a deadly political mission. Schrader weaves these stories through parts of Mishima's life, demonstrating just how closely Mishima's art was tied in to his life. The fourth chapter focuses almost exclusively on the final day of Mishima's life, and the dramatic event that took place on that day.
Each segment is given its own unique look and feel, thanks largely to the very impressive set design of Eiko Ishioka. All of the adaptations are impressive, though perhaps Temple of the Golden Pavillion is the most compelling in terms of both visuals and narrative. Philip Glass scores these sequences with a great deal of flair (even employing surf guitars into the mix during Kyoko's House), while taking a much more restrained string quartet approach to the black and white sequences.
There are at least half a dozen actors that portray Mishima here in some form (either the actual Mishima or a fictional representation of him), but the most notable performance belongs to Ken Ogata, who handles Mishima's final day and several of the black-and-white sequences. Ogata's performance is strangely serene and focused. You would think a man this mentally troubled would appear to be an emotional wreck, but Ogata plays the role with a calm demeanor that is perhaps even more compelling. The fact that Mishima is going where he is going with such a rational attitude is rather unnerving.
One of the refreshing things about the film is the fact that Schrader has no pretensions about his audience. He recognizes that he is a western director, making a film that will primarily be seen in the west, and as such he doesn't attempt to give Mishima the feeling of being a "Japanese film." Yes, almost the entire film is in Japanese with English subtitles, but otherwise the film does feel very western. The theatrical release of the film was narrated by Roy Scheider as Mishima (one of three available narration tracks on this DVD), a very unusual decision that actually works quite well. As I was saying, each of the western elements work because they don't attempt to be eastern in any way. That goes for everything from the score to the editing style.
Criterion has served up a rather beautiful transfer here. It's just good enough to make you beg for more. Criterion will be offering titles in hi-def in October, and this is certainly a film that deserves to be seen in that format...hopefully it's on the docket somewhere. In the meantime, this vibrant and clean transfer should keep everybody happy. Sound isn't quite as impressive. I've owned the Glass score on CD for quite some time, and I was disappointed to discover that it sounds considerably more pinched here than it does on album. Dialogue and narration is top-drawer, but the slighty sub-par presentation of the otherwise terrific score is a little disappointing.
Criterion almost always does a fine job in the extras department, but this set really has some knockout supplements. First up is a new commentary (recorded in 2006, oddly) with Paul Schrader and producer Alan Poul. Fortunately, the two are together the entire time, and have a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes information to share. This is an essential listen. A theatrical trailer is also included on the first disc, but most of the features are available on disc two. My favorite of these was a 44-minute documentary on the making of the film, comprised solely of interviews with John Bailey, Philip Glass, and Eiko Ishioka. Though that may seem disappointing at a first glance, these three are really the ones who provided the strongest contributions to Mishima (other than Schrader, of course). They are all intelligent and thoughtful, and have a lot of interesting things to say. There's also a 22-minute interview with producers Tom Luddy and Mataichiro Yamamoto, plus a lengthy audio interview with co-writer Chieko Schrader. A six-minute piece of archival footage of Mishima isn't particularly noteworthy, other than simply offering a look at the man the film is based on. Much more impressive is "The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima," a 55-minute BBC documentary that is terrific. There's also a small book featuring lots of photos and a superb essay by Kevin Jackson, who beautifully illustrates how Mishima fits in with the rest of Schrader's work.
Though Mishima is a fascinating film, it's a little bit tricky to swallow cold turkey. If you're completely unfamiliar with Mishima's life or work, you may still be a bit confused and lost when the film is over. The film is a brilliant artistic experiement, but it is not particularly accessible. Sure, the film grabs you with it's sheer flair, but you're going to have to meet it halfway in order to fully appreciate it.
Here's my advice: buy this Criterion release of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Watch the film. Then listen to Schrader's commentary, watch the BBC documentary, and check out the rest of the special features. Finally, watch the film again. At the end of this experience, you will feel enriched. This is a textbook example of how to present a film on DVD. Highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary w/ Paul Schrader and Alan Poul
* "Making Mishima"
* "Producing Making"
* Audio Interview w/Chieko Schrader
* Video Interview excerpt featuring Mishima
* "The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima"
* Video Interviews w/John Nathan and Donald Richie
* Optional English and Japanese Narration