Criterion // 1966 // 27 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 10th, 2008
On February 26, 1936, a group of soldiers stormed government buildings in Tokyo, murdering the Finance Minister and the Inspector General of Military Education. The young men were pressing for the complete dismantling of the Japanese parliament and the restoration of absolute power to the Emperor. Their coup d'état failed when the military remained loyal to parliament after the Emperor's tacit rejection of the rebels. Those involved in the February 26 Incident were arrested by their military brethren and executed.
One of the February 26 Incident conspirators, Lieutenant Takeyama's (Yukio Mishima) comrades insisted he not take part in the attempted coup because of his intense love for his new bride, Reiko (Yoshiko Tsuruoka). Now that the plan has failed, Takeyama knows he will be required to arrest his friends and participate in their executions. This is not acceptable. He and Reiko resolve to maintain Takeyama's honor in the only way that remains: They make love one last time, Takeyama commits seppuku, and Reiko follows him into death.
Japanese author and playwright Yukio Mishima was an extravagant personality in a country where extravagant personalities are rarely appreciated. His flamboyant public image coupled with his idiosyncratic ideas about nationalism and dedication to bushido ensured that he was disliked at both ends of the political spectrum and that his literary output wasn't taken as seriously during his lifetime as it should have been. Among Mishima's behavior that Japanese found bizarre and off-putting was his fascination with bodybuilding, patronage at gay bars, and frequent publicity stunts (among other things, he formed his own private militia, known as the Tatenokai, or Shield Society).
The last of Mishima's publicity stunts (or "pranks," as he called them) occurred on November 25, 1970. During a visit to a Tokyo military installation with members of the Shield Society, Mishima tried to convince the soldiers to participate in a coup with the same goal of restoring imperial power that was espoused by the February 26 Incident conspirators. When the soldiers were unmoved by Mishima's rhetoric, he committed seppuku. It remains unclear whether Mishima really wanted rebellion or if his speech was designed to elicit the exact sort of scorn from the soldiers that it did, paving the way for his true goal: ritual suicide. Either way, the similarities between Mishima's death and the events depicted in Patriotism elevated Mishima's only film (an adaptation of his own short story) from fine work of art to prophesy.
Austere, elegant, and fiercely Japanese, Patriotism appropriates simple Noh staging to emphasize the erotic and romantic ties between husband and wife, the physical relationship between sex and death, the ability of duty and honor (read: ideas) to give meaning to action, and the ability of action to grant power to ideas. There is no greater mark of Patriotism's quality as a film than that it evokes all of this in a dialogue-free 27 minutes.
By his own account, Mishima made Patriotism (his only film) because he felt too close an attachment to the short story to leave it to the whims of another director. Despite Mishima's inexperience as a filmmaker and the ultra-brief two-day shooting schedule, Patriotism has none of the telltale signs of an amateur job. Mishima had made contacts in the film business both through the adaptations of his other writings and through the tiny bit of acting he'd done. As he meticulously planned the Patriotism, he assembled a talented team to assist him, including producer Hiroaki Fujii (The Burmese Harp), cinematographer Kimio Watanabe (The White Heron), and the relatively inexperienced but expressive actress Noriko Yamamoto, whom he renamed Yoshiku Tsuruoka.
The resulting film, running just under 30 minutes, is tightly staged, expertly lighted and shot, elegant, and expressionistic. Divided into five chapters set off by long and detailed intertitles -- "Reiko," "The Lieutenant's Return," "The Final Love," "The Lieutenant Commits Hara-kiri," and "Reiko's Suicide" -- the formalism of the film's structure mirrors the ritualized and "wholeheartedly sincere" actions of Takeyama and his wife.
This formalism acts as a frame for Mishima and Watanabe's beautiful and searing imagery. After an establishing long shot, "The Final Love" plays out as a serious of abstracted close-ups of the lovers' bodies: hands, stomachs, fingers, faces, lips. It's a stunning, soft intimacy that stands in stark contrast to the graphic ritualized violence on display in "The Lieutenant Commits Hara-kiri" -- perhaps the most startling recreation of seppuku ever committed to film. These two central sections of the movie give meaning and power to each other. The coming suicide intensifies the love-making, adds to its beauty. In turn, the love between husband and wife gives the deaths a greater moral force, a tragic triumphalism in line with Mishima's famous observation that embracing death through ritual suicide "sometimes makes you win."
In bringing Patriotism to DVD, the Criterion Collection started with the film's 35mm negative, which underwent a digital restoration. The results are pleasing, to say the least. The black-and-white film is framed at its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Contrast and detail are both excellent. The transfer is only limited by the standard definition presentation and the age of the movie.
While void of dialogue, the events of Patriotism unfold to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The recording came from Mishima's private LP collection and is loaded with pops and crackles. Mishima claims to have tried but failed to find a newer recording of the music while in London on business. In his liner notes for this DVD release, Tony Raynes tells a different story: Mishima selected the LP he did because it was recorded in 1936, the same year as the February 26 Incident. Either way, Criterion's 24-bit restoration of the original analog mono track likely cleared away loads of age-related hiss, while leaving behind the original pops and crackles from Mishima's record. It's a supple and sensitive revamp of a warts-and-all audio track.
The set's best supplements are of the text variety, contained in a hefty booklet that sits beside the disc's digipak in a stylish paper slipcover. First, there's Rayne's previously mentioned essay, which is a brief but thoughtful introduction to the movie. Next is "On Patriotism (The Rite of Love and Death," a lengthy essay by Mishima in which he describes in detail nearly every aspect of the film's production. The wealth of behind-the-scenes information probably explains why the disc has no audio commentary -- when Mishima's finished, there's not a lot more to say. Finally, there is an English translation of Mishima's original short story, Patriotism.
The disc itself contains Japanese and English versions of the film. The movie is the same in both instances, except that the intertitles introducing each section are in Japanese and English, respectively. This was planned by Mishima, who wanted the film to be exposed to an international audience. He also produced a French cut, writing the intertitles for each version of the film in his own hand.
Two Days with Yukio Mishima is a 49-minute making-of documentary that reunites Patriotism's crew to reminisce about its production. It's excellent. The presentation is full frame. Audio is Dolby stereo surround in Japanese with optional English subtitles.
A "Mishima on Mishima" option on the main menu leads to a trio of interviews -- two video interviews shot for NHK Television in 1966, and an audio-only speech and Q&A by Mishima at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in April of 1966.
I have to confess that I'm a little baffled as to why Criterion released this 27-minute short film separately from and on the same day as Paul Schrader's related feature documentary Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Why not a single 3-disc set? Particularly in light of Judge Clark Douglas's observation in his review of Schrader's film:
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 experiment, but it is not particularly accessible. Sure, the film grabs you with its sheer flair, but you're going to have to meet it halfway in order to fully appreciate it.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is too good to be treated as a mere supplement to Patriotism, but each film offers needed context to the other. Why release them separately?
Accepting that Criterion opted to release Patriotism separately from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, this set doesn't leave a lot of room for complaint. The film is excellent, as is its presentation. And the extras are plentiful (they'll take you a lot longer to work your way through than the feature) and substantive.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 27 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Japanese and English Versions of the Film
* Two Days with Yukio Mishima
* Mishima on Mishima
* "The Word Made Flesh," Essay by Tony Raynes
* "On Patriotism (The Rite of Love and Death)," Essay by Yukio Mishima
* "Patriotism," Short Story by Yukio Mishima