Cult Cinema: Mishima - A Life In Four Chapters & Patriotism

Andrew reviews Schrader's Mishima and Patriotism

"Damn you!!! You forgot
to refill the toilet paper!"
Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is one of the great unseen biopics of the 1980s; an eclectic and highly cinematic investigation into the heart of the world famous and controversial Japanese author, Yukio Mishima.  Considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century, he was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Simultaneously an artist, playwright, poet, actor and filmmaker, the beloved author quickly gained notoriety for his radical imperialist leanings and bisexuality.   On November 25, 1970, he publicly attempted a failed coup d'état at the Tokyo Headquarters of the Eastern Command in an effort to restore the Emperor to political power and committed seppuku.  He was 29 years old.  An unresolved sore spot for many Japanese, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters attempts to answer a still troubling question: was his suicide wanton insanity or the ultimate act of artistic expression?

Produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, Mishima is divided into four distinct chapters with the author (Ken Ogata) loosely narrating his own story (Roy Scheider in the English release version) in black-and-white flashbacks from his youth with his strict upbringing to his commercial success post WWII.  In various stages of his life, the film segues into a highly stylized and colorfully rendered triptych of his books The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses.  Within each dramatization of his books are projections of the author’s personal life as Schrader cross-cuts between Mishima’s past and the last day of his life, forming a compendium of the author’s transcendent aesthetic ambition and unquenchable inner turmoil.  Driving the tension between Mishima’s art, life and yearning for death is an iconic minimalist score by Philip Glass (re-purposed in parts for Peter Weir’s The Truman Show). 

"I suppose if I bite down on this
hose, it won't hurt as bad
when I bash my own brain in."
If any film could preclude Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain in terms of its visual splendor, narrative complexity and achieving transcendence through the conscious acceptance of death, it is Schrader’s Mishima.  Given the difficulty of Japan’s digestion of the famed author’s coup de grâce, the film became the subject of intense controversy upon completion, as Japan’s most polarizing non-subject was rejected almost immediately.  To this day, the film remains to have a formal release in the country.  Things didn’t fare well either in America either, as a young 1980s moviegoer knew little to nothing of the man’s infamy and thus passed on it.  In recent years, however, Mishima’s reputation has grown considerably among cinephiles for the lovely production design thanks to the late Eiko Ishioka and its best-selling soundtrack.  As a biography, Mishima both shed light on one of the world’s most enigmatic artistic figures and broke the mold in terms of how to paint a multifaceted picture of an intensely complex man.  

Mishima doesn’t judge or have all the answers, but is as close to entering the man’s worldview through his life and his art as any non-fiction piece ever created.


"Yes. Cuddles are very serious.
Get some."
A key scene in Paul Schrader’s biopic of world famous Japanese author Yukio Mishima involved scenes of himself on the set of his clandestine seppuku short film, Patriotism.  Shot in total secrecy with some of the top technicians of the Japanese film industry at the time, the film is a Noh theater piece about a soldier (Mishima himself) who partook in a failed coup d'état and is instructed to kill his friends.  Instead, he and his wife make love and commit seppuku.  Set to Richard Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde, and lensed in clean black and white, the short is a fascinating footnote to the Schrader film in that it provides a highly stylized insight into the mind of its creator, Yukio Mishima.  His thirst for Samurai-style death as a singular act of beauty isn’t tonally dissimilar from Nagisa Oshima’s dramatization of the Sada Abe incident, In the Realm of the Senses, and its genital mutilation. 

Incidentally, after Mishima actually did follow through with his obsession with seppuku on that fateful day, his widow demanded all copies of the short be destroyed.  Miraculously, the original negatives turned up circa 2005 inside a tea box warehouse at Mishima’s home in Tokyo and the film was released by Criterion as a special edition DVD.  In a way, you can’t blame his widow for initially withdrawing Patriotism from circulation.  The act of violence borne out of passion and love on display here will no doubt disgust many and Mishima’s own seppuku casts an undeniable dark shadow over the short.  As a standalone piece, it depends on your interest in Mishima and the film’s place as another artistic extension of the man’s life and death.  I’ll leave it as an early moment in the brief film career of Mishima, who would also eventually star in many Yakuza films.  Without having seen the Schrader film or knowing Mishima, it’s difficult to recommend or give a score on this peculiar yet beautiful curiosity.  

-Andrew Kotwicki