DVD Review of Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/28/10


  The more I have become aware of the works of Paul Schrader the more I am convinced that his great screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver was just a random act. Having read his ill-wrought and puerile book, Transcendental Style In Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, having sat through, to be kind, mediocrities like American Gigolo, Bringing Out The Dead, Affliction, The Last Temptation Of Christ, The Mosquito Coast, and the unfortunate remake of Cat People, I was almost convinced that Schrader was a hack, but a lucky one, at that, to have Taxi Driver on his resume, as a balance to all the naysayers. Now, having watched his 1985 film, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters (fashioned on Mishima’s Sea Of Fertility tetralogy), I am convinced that Schrader is a hack. Now, let’s be clear: hack does not mean horrid, it does not mean terrible; it merely means dull and mediocre, and lacking any real vision or understanding of a thing. And that is a word that applies to all the above mentioned filmic works Schrader wrote and/or directed, and it surely applies to this film. And a hack is the most common sort of artist there is- wait, check that; naturally, a talentless loser is the most common, statistically, making up 90% or so of all ‘artists.’ Hacks come in second at just over 9%. The remaining infra-1%ers are the good to great, with the greats making up less than a thousandth of a percent.

  On a tangent, and one not on the axis of quality, but on the axis of mental stability, is the artistic ‘madman.’ This is an even more noxious thing to be than a hack for being a ‘madman’ means that one is tarring all folks with creativity with the same brush, especially if the madman has some talent. Such is the case with writer Yukio Mishima, whose life is the basis for the film, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters. I’ve only read some brief things the man wrote: essays and the like, never a novel or play, but some folks whose opinions I trust (my wife’s included) inform me that Mishima actually was a good writer, possibly great; making him, in effect, a cross between cult leaders like Jim Jones and Charles Manson and great suicidal poets like Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Hart Crane. I would, though, listening to some of the writing quoted in the film (which is well wrought but over-intellectualized piffle) also link Mishima as an early forerunner to the post-mortem fame attained by death-obsessed no talents turned film icons, Chris McCandless and Timothy Treadwell. The reason for this is that Schrader’s film, well wrought, in individual scenes, never coheres the whole man. Supposedly his widow (who is barely mentioned in the film, as well as his children are ignored) was upset that the film focused only on Mishima’s last suicidal day, and not on his creativity (a flaw almost all artistic biopics share). Yes, Schrader does dramatize scenes from three Mishima novels, but all are de facto stand-ins for biographical moments in the man’s real life: his childhood, his obsession with homosexuality and bodybuilding, and his nutty political beliefs. Of course, all of Mishima’s life seems to have been a fraud, from the use of Yukio Mishima as a pen name (his real name was Kimitake Hiraoka), to his lying to get out of military service, to his arranged marriage with a woman he did not love, to his two children that he had no interest in, to his denials of his obvious sexual predilections, and on and on.

  The film is divided into four parts: Beauty, Art, Action, and Harmony Of Pen And Sword, with the first three centered on three of Mishima’s novels- The Temple Of The Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses, and how the scenes depicted reflect on Mishima’s life. The fourth part follows Mishima’s private army Shield Society’s attempted coup of a military base, on November 25, 1970, Mishima’s being mocked as he gave a speech in defense of the Emperor, and his decision to commit hara-kiri with one of his claimed lovers, in the office of the general he had taken hostage. The whole last day is just so absurd that it truly brings in to question the real connection between talent and intelligence. Yes, if one grants Mishima a great way with word, that’s talent; but if the words advocate idiocy, that is not intelligence; and it’s a crucial difference. Imagine if Norman Mailer had recruited a private army, stormed the U.S. House of Representatives, held a congressman hostage, then demanded that the Constitution be dissolved and the nation return to colony status in the British Empire. That’s how absurd the situation was, and it’s no wonder Mrs. Mishima objected to her husband’s insanity being the basis for the whole film, and not his real talent.

  What Schrader does well, though, is intersperse biographical elements of Mishima’s life (in black and white, as contrasted to the rest of the film’s color sequences) but, as mentioned, these only serve to build up the legend of Mishima the Madman, not Mishima the Artist. At the end of the 120 minute film there still is no coherent picture of Mishima, at any deeper level than he was a vainglorious and delusional madman who happened to also have some real writing talent. But, is there any real exploration of the man and his work? No. Like almost all biopics, this film takes the cynical, lazy, and easy way out. If less time had been spent building the outrageous and stylized sets that evoke a cross between Art Deco and Surrealism, and more time was invested in the screenplay, and development of the characters of Mishima and his family, as well as his real intellectual pursuits, this film could have been a feast that synthesized all the best aspects of the man. As is, the film is just a sweet puff pastry that leaves no aftertaste, and a grumbling stomach. Worse, despite Schrader’s fascination with the man, the film likely turns off far more potential readers than it encourages, for the author is portrayed as anti-intellectual, emotionally overwrought, and definitionally psychotic (as the scenes of his being mocked as he speechifies, demonstrate).

  The film, produced by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, was written by Schrader and his brother Leonard, with dialogue penned by Leonard Schrader’s wife, Chieko. But, as stated, the film is structurally a mess, and a shallow one, at that, filled with airheaded bon mots meant to be taken as ‘deep.’ Equally problematic are the film’s visuals- the cinematography by John Bailey is often inventive, but the over the top stylized set decoration, by Eiko Ishioka ill serves the project, although it seems just as random a thing as all the rest of the film’s facets. The best part of the film is likely Philip Glass’s score. Glass is usually very hit and miss with his soundtracks, but this one really underscores the wackiness of its lead subject matter. The film is narrated by actor Roy Scheider, in the American version, and by actor Ken Ogata (who plays Mishima) in the non-English language version.

  The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, has some good features, including an insert booklet with several essays- none of note. It is a two disk set. Disk One has the film, shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with voiceover options mentioned above, as well as the original theatrical trailer, an audio commentary track by Schrader and producer Alan Poul. The commentary has its moments, but for such a meager work it is a bit over the top in its self-congratulation. Schrader does make a nice point in connecting Mishima with his Travis Bickle character, from Taxi Driver, as well as the historical artist he initially wanted to profile, Hank Williams, Sr., before his brother turned him on to Mishima. Disk Two has video interviews with cinematographer John Bailey, producers Tom Luddy and Mata Yamamoto, composer Philip Glass, production designer Eiko Ishioka, Mishima biographer John Nathan, and Japanese film historian Donald Richie, as well as an audio only interview with dialogue writer Chieko Schrader. There is also a brief video interview excerpt featuring Mishima talking about his writing, and The Strange Case Of Yukio Mishima, a 55 minute long BBC documentary about the writer. Overall, the DVD package is quite good, excepting Criterion’s usual decision to go with white only subtitles for its black and white sections. And given Schrader’s choice to use an English language voiceover in non-Japanese versions of the film (to avoid double subtitles in some shots), one wonders why the main body of action was not filmed in English, or at least dubbed? Schrader briefly tackles this in his audio commentary, and the main reason seems to have been financial.

  The same is not true for the actual film, which devolves into a stylized melodramatic mess that recalls much of Akira Kurosawa’s late film, Dreams, as well as being filled with the most mind-numbing platitudes about art imaginable. Yet, equally bad is what is missing, above and beyond any portrait of Mishima’s family life; such as his manifest Napoleon Complex. Mishima was only 5’1” tall and severely lacking in macho confidence, so much so that he insisted on only marrying a woman shorter than he was. Yet, any connection between these elements and those depicted is left for only the curious- and that likely will not be most people who watch this film. Thus, since the film fails on most artistic fronts, and does not generate any real further interest for its audience in its main subject matter, the very reason for the film is a puzzle, unless one feels Schrader is positing himself into a Mishima-like role. Not that it would matter, since Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters portrays its lead as a rather unsympathetic and idiotic character, albeit one with likely more talent than Schrader has.

  If only someone like an Ingmar Bergman, or even Michelangelo Antonioni, who started out as a documentarian, would have tackled this subject matter, the film would likely have been shorter, tighter, more purposive, and coherent, for if there was one thing that even his biggest critics could not hold against Mishima it was that he was driven and almost monomaniacal. Schrader is the opposite, desperately larding his film with almost everything that plays up his vision of the writer as  madman and ignoring all that went into the artist as a man, something Schrader seems not to really get, which reaffirms my idea that his great screenplay for Taxi Driver was a fluke, that blindfolded, over the back toss of a dart that somehow hits the bull’s-eye. Yet it was that lucky moment which doomed the rest of us to decades of profoundly dull and vapid films churned out on the strength of that one toss. Lucky Schrader. Unlucky us. As for Mishima? The real man’s somewhere around, just as he must be in the film, right? Right?


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Spinning Image website.]


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