Beginning on the last day of Yukio Mishima’s life, November 25, 1970, and ending with his ritual suicide after his failed coup for restoring order in Americanized Japan, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters tells the rest of the story of the conflicted man who sought a “Harmony of Pen and Sword” via a number of meticulously constructed minimalistic montages, including black-and-white flashbacks from his life and highly stylized depictions of excerpts from three of the Japanese writer’s novels, including Runaway Horses (1969), Kyoko's House (1959), and The Temple Of The Golden Pavilion (1956), although a fourth novel—the innately homoerotic autobiographical work Confessions of a Mask (1949)—is cinematically visualized but never actually mentioned by name. Additionally, Mishima’s militant nationalistic autobiographical manifesto/essay Sun and Steel: Art, Action and Ritual Death (1968)—an imperative work for understanding the writer’s ‘body fascism’ and overall Weltanschauung—was also utilized for the film. In addition, the film finishes reenactments of Mishima's direction of his sole film Patriotism (1966)—a work that foreshadows his suicide—as well as depictions of the novelists iconic homoerotic photo shoots with Japanese photographer/filmmaker Eikoh Hosoe. Starring Japanese actor Ken Ogata (Vengeance Is Mine, The Pillow Book)—a man who looks nothing like the novelist—in the role of Yukio Mishima, narration (using Mishima’s actual written words) from American actor Roy Scheider (The French Connection, All That Jazz), and an iconic ethereal soundtrack from minimalist composer Philip Glass (Koyaanisqatsi, The Thin Blue Line), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters certainly has the unmistakable feel of a work created by a racial and cultural outsider, yet one would be hardpressed to find a more seamless collaboration between Yanks and Japs. Featuring immaculate production design from Eiko Ishioka (Closet Land, The Cell), whose highly expressionistic and kaleidoscopic visualizations of novels seem to be in some sort of celluloid nirvana in between the early works of German auteuress Ulrike Ottinger (Madame X: An Absolute Ruler, Freak Orlando) and the films of Japanese experimental Renaissance man Shūji Terayama (Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Pastoral: To Die in the Country), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters certainly owes much of its aesthetically potency and intrigue to members of the Japanese crew, thus making it a work that never could have been contrived on a Hollywood studio lot by garish gaijin.
From the beginning of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, it seems that Yukio Mishima has his own little heaven on earth as he lives on an almost aristocratic homestead that is surrounded by homoerotic European architecture, but as he once wrote and is narrated in the film, “All my life I have been acutely aware of a contradiction in the very nature of my existence. For forty-five years I struggled to resolve this dilemma by writing plays and novels. The more I wrote, the more I realized mere words were not enough. So I found another form of expression.” A sickly boy since his birth, Mishima was taken in by his paternal grandmother, who had aristocratic airs because she was raised in the house of a Japanese prince and whose influence would no doubt rub-off on the novelist, and did not move back in with his immediate family until he was 12-years-old. As Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters depicts, Mishima was always an extremely oversensitive and introverted young man who had better command over words than his body. Despite developing into a muscular and statuesque samurai with his own private army, Mishima—whose father was a stern military minded man that used rather dubious parenting techniques such as holding his son under a moving train in order to desensitize him to fear—suffered the shame of being judged unfit to serve in the Second World War by a young military doctor who misdiagnosed that he had tuberculosis because he had a cold. While Mishima would later develop an affinity for ancient Japanese culture, he was largely influenced by decadent Occidental authors like Oscar Wilde, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Raymond Radiguet, so his transformation from a mere, albeit successful, wimpy writer who wrote about masturbating to ancient paintings of Christian matryrs into a master of both pen and sword was an exceedingly extreme, if not self-deceiving, one as expressed in his narration words, “My life is in many ways like that of an actor…I also wear a mask. I play a role. When he looks in the mirror, the homosexual, like the actor, sees what he fears most. The decay of the body,” and, of course, he made sure to allow himself to physically deteriorate by ultimately embracing death in a manner no less stoic than that of a kamikaze pilot.
Indubitably, the cinematic adaptations of Mishima's novels featured in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters are just as important, if not more important, for understanding the novelist's character and essence as the anecdotal biographical elements from his real-life. For example, in the The Temple of the Golden Pavilion segment, an ugly Buddhist acolyte boy afflicted with a compromising stutter becomes obsessed with the beauty of a pavilion and his irrational urge to destroy, which he inevitably does via arson, thus illustrating Mishima’s youthful fanatical aestheticism as well as pathological self-consciousness and physical weakness and the eventual destruction of his own body when it reach its peak in terms of masculine physique. In terms of Mishima’s transformation into a samurai, his nationalistic right-wing fanaticism, failed coup d'état, and final act of self-slaughter, the segment for the novel Runaway Horses is probably the most eerily foretelling in its resemblance to the novelist's life as it follows a far-right reactionary trained in the samurai code who is involved in the assassination of corrupt business men (Zaibatsu) and eventually commits seppuku. An outspoken nationalist who lived by and actively promoted bushido, the code of the samurai, Mishima was vehemently hated by young Japanese leftists, who he saw as traitors to their own people. Mishima’s attempt at a coup was sparked by his desire to restore order and protection of the Emperor of Japan (which to him was not a literal ruler, but the abstract essence of the Japanese people), so when he and members of the Tatenokai ("shield society"), his own private army, failed to get a response he wanted in restoring honor to the homeland, he committed suicide. In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Mishima’s disillusionment with the future of Japan is made clear when he is shouted down by military men, thus it was only fitting that he, the last prominent samurai in his homeland, would famously commit seppuku, thereupon signaling the end of a period in Japanese history and the reign of modernism.
Although I would not consider myself a Yukio Mishima fanatic, I have read a number of his novels and he is certainly my favorite non-European writer, so my initial viewing of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters was not as a total Mishima novice and I would be lying if I did not admit that Paul Schrader’s biopic was much more impressive and faithful than I expected it would be, even if it is an undeniably flawed work. For one, I see nothing of the essence of Mishima in Ken Ogata, even if the everyday Joe Schmo yellow man looks indistinguishable to me, as the novelist radiated a sort of idiosyncratic charisma inherent only to the spiritual and cultural aristocracy of a nation's elite (especially for a collectivist-minded nation like Japan), hence why his work, unlike that of largely unknown Japanese literary figures, is quite popular even today outside his homeland despite his unrelenting disposition to cultural chauvinism. Judging by interviews I have viewed of Mishima, he speaks more eloquently in English than Ogata seems to speak in his native language of Japanese. Of course, it would have probably been impossible to find any actor that could permeate Mishima’s idiosyncratic essence. A decadent homosexual dandy who morphed into a stoic samurai who meticulously reshaped his body by taking up weight training and a rigorous workout regimen of three sessions per week which never waned for the last 15 years of his life, Mishima was a walking contradiction as a sort of Japanese Gabriele D'Annunzio, a debauched romantic writer who also had his own private army and became a national war hero whose political and aesthetic ideas Benito Mussolini of all people ripped off. Of course, as Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters director Paul Schrader stated himself, “[Mishima] is too much of a scandal. […] When Mishima died people said, ‘Give us fifteen years and we'll tell you what we think about him,’ but it's been more than fifteen years now and they still don't know what to say. Mishima has become a non-subject,” thus his influence on Japan, at least culturally speaking, did not live up to D'Annunzio’s legacy. Of course, as a man who wrote 34 novels, about 50 plays, about 25 books of short stories (around 200 total), at least 35 books of essays, one libretto, and directed an avant-garde film, not to mention his involvement in acting and promotion of traditional Japanese culture and theatre, Mishima’s legacy as an enduring aestheticist is forever secured. For an introduction to the life and art of the last samurai, one cannot do better than viewing Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters—a work that director Paul Schrader even had to admit, “It's the one I'd stand by – as a screenwriter it's Taxi Driver, but as a director it's Mishima.” Indeed, if anything, one will learn by watching Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters that Japanese culture is not just about eels squirting out of vaginal and anal orifices, mass rape, and the 'Nordicizing' of the Jap physique via degenerate anime.