Jun 15, 2014
Among his many other countless achievements as quite arguably the greatest Japanese Renaissance man of the 20th century, novelist Yukio Mishima—a true warrior-poet if ever there was one in the post-WWII era—directed a short 30-minute avant-garde black-and-white film that would prophesize his own ritual suicide via seppuku after a failed military coup d'état on November 25, 1970. Indeed, Mishima’s first and sole film, Patriotism, or The Rite of Love and Death (1966) aka The Rite of Love and Death aka Les Rites de L'Amour et de la Mort aka Yûkoku—a work based on the novelist’s 1962 short story of the same name—is not only notable due to its similarities with the creator’s death, but it also happens to feature what is arguably the most poetic, romantic, and emotionally intricate yet strangely visceral depictions of suicide in cinema history. As a work where the Japanese novelist acted as the writer, director, star, producer, production designer, and translator (he apparently made four versions of the film, including English, French, and German language versions where he personally handwrote all the scrolling inter-titles featured in the film), Patriotism is a work that unquestionably personifies an auteur piece in a work that more or less blurs the line between celluloid autobiography and self-mythmaking. While Mishima went to great pains to establish himself as an iconic celebrity in Japan by way of what he described as “pranks” (i.e. wearing goofy Hawaiian shirts and hanging out with transvestites) and was quite successful doing so, the novelist was nowhere near as popular a figure in the Occident and the United States, thus he specially tailored Patriotism in a fashion to appeal to Europeans and Americans in the hope that his reputation would grow abroad. Indeed, while in the visual style of classical Japanese Noh theatre (the film was actually shot on a Noh stage), the film is silent/dialogue-less and features Richard Wagner’s “Liebestod” (aka “Love Death”)—the final music of the 1859 opera Tristan und Isolde, which is associated with the suicide pact of German romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist and his lover Henriette Vogel—as a musical score, thereupon making the work rather more accessible for western audiences. Still today the most monetarily successful short film in Japanese history, Patriotism was not surprisingly taken out of distribution by the director’s widow Yoko (who was originally thought to have destroyed the film) after the novelist committed suicide, but was luckily re-released on DVD in Japan in 2006 and by the Criterion Collection in 2008 after the film’s executive producer Hiroaki Fujii discovered about 40 reels of the film in immaculate condition in a tea box at the late great novelist’s home in Ota Ward, Tokyo in 2005. A sort of lurid yet lavish celluloid love story for cultivated sadomasochists where the auteur obscures his homosexual tendencies, Patriotism ultimately proved that an aesthetically innovative and timeless cinematic masterpiece could be made in a mere two days.
As described in handwritten scrolls featured at the beginning of Patriotism, in February 1936, Tokyo was placed under martial law after a group of enterprising young military officers executed a coup d'état that resulted in the murders of various corrupt cabinet members. Although a young married fellow named Lieutenant Takeyama (Yukio Mishima) was a member of the secret society that carried out the coup d'état, he did not participate in the murders because his comrades knew how much he loved his beauteous wife Reiko (Yoshiko Tsuruoka) and they did not want to implicate him in the crimes. Since Takeyama is a member of the palace guard, it will be his responsibility to execute his friends who carried out the failed coup. Choosing death over dishonor, the Lieutenant opts for committing seppuku instead of killing his friends and his young wife has decided to join him. Before Takeyama can even tell her of his decision, Reiko can tell by the expression on her husband’s face that he plans to commit suicide and she is more than prepared to go with him. After Reiko tells Takeyama, “I will follow you wherever you go,” the Lieutenant responds by stating, “Thank you. We’ll go together to another world then. But please let me die first, and then you follow. I mustn’t fail.” Indeed, the two feel that death is no longer terrifying and Reiko is so giddy about her premature demise that she states that she feels just like she did on her wedding night, as if sex and death bring about the same sort of highly climatic ecstasy. As an inter-title reads: “This is pure and passionate as a ritual conducted before the gods. They are able for the first time in their lives to reveal unabashedly their most secret desires and passions.” Indeed, the two make passionate love one more time before their date with a literally gut-busting sword. Before disemboweling himself with the sword, Takeyama puts on his officer's uniform to prepare himself for the sweet taste of death. When Reiko sees her hubby’s entrails bleed all over the floor of their mostly white home, she weeps like a waterfall yet her face remains stoic and determined. With her white angelic clothing covered with Takeyama’s vital fluids, Reiko leaves the ritual chamber and goes to prepare for her own death by applying her face with make-up (or what Mishima described as her “death mask”), so as to look beautiful for the gods. Upon reentering the suicide room, Reiko proceeds to walk in a pool of blood and entrails, kisses Takeyama’s post-mortem lips, and licks a dagger as if sexually aroused by the weapon. In the end, Reiko drives the dagger into her throat and her dead corpse lands on Takeyama, thus uniting the two lovers in death. As Mishima wrote regarding the conclusion of the film when the female protagonist takes her life: “she bids farewell to the fallen corpse of her husband; then at the moment when she takes her own life, the film leaps from one dimension to the next, spiriting the viewer from a heightened sense of this world to a realm where death and beauty are one. This was my plan, and thanks to Wagner’s music I was able to accomplish it.” Indeed, Patriotism is probably the most controversial marriage between Japanese and Teutonic kultur since the Second World War (interestingly, Mishima also wrote a rather interesting play entitled My Friend Hitler (1968) where he depicted SA leader Ernst Röhm dying needlessly as a result of a sort of hopeless homoerotic loyalty to Hitler).
In a 1966 interview with Yukio Mishima shot for NHK Television in Japan, the novelist noted: “Rilke writes somewhere that modern man can no longer die a dramatic death. He dies in a hospital room, like a bee inside a honeycomb cell. That’s how I recall it, at least. Death in the modern age, whether due to illness or accident, is devoid of drama. We live in an age in which there is no heroic death.” Of course, as his failed coup d'état attempt (also known as the so-called “Mishima incident”) and subsequent ritualistic suicide indicates, Mishima was longing for death and glory in a zeitgeist of decided deracination (in fact, Mishima biographer John Nathan theorized that the whole coup was a mere pretext for the artist to commit ritual suicide and that he had no plans to survive the ordeal), with Patriotism literalizing the “drama” the novelist spoke of in his interview. It should be noted that Mishima was at the height of his physical and artistic strength at his death, thus more or less becoming a real-life version of Guido Reni’s painting of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, of which the writer revealed reaching sexual climax at the age of 12 in his autobiographical second novel Confessions of a Mask (1949). Of course, the young Mishima of the novel, who is more or less a self-loathing and sexually confused introvert, is quite different from the Mishima who created his own private mercenary army, used that army to carry out a failed coup d'état at the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of Japan's Self-Defense Forces, and had one of his soldier’s decapitate his head with a sword (but not before disemboweling himself, of course). In that regard, Mishima’s self-created persona—his most personal work of art—ultimately transcended his true/original self, with even his suicide being a publicity stunt of sorts. Patriotism is clearly a rehearsal for said suicide as a sort of premature death poem in celluloid form.
Undoubtedly, Patriotism is much like frog fag novelist Jean Genet’s quasi-pornographic sole feature A Song of Love (1950) aka Un chant d'amour in that it more or less cinematically expresses the writer-turned-director’s entire aesthetic essence and distinct Weltanschauung in under 30 minutes. At the beginning of an essay entitled On Patriotism (The Rite of Love and Death) that Mishima wrote in 1966 regarding the production of his film, the writer-turned-director noted: “”Patriotism” was published in January 1961 in the literary quarterly Shosetsu chuokoron. Though fewer than fifty manuscript pages in length, this short story remains etched in my mind, for it brings together in condensed form the basic elements of my writing. In fact, if I were to recommend just one work to a new reader, I would choose “Patriotism” over more widely read novels like “The Sound of Waves”, because it embodies so many of my qualities as a writer, both the good and the bad.” Indeed, I would also argue that the film Patriotism is the perfect introduction to the life, death, and work of Mishima as a highly accessible avant-garde work that demonstrates that the auteur perceived death, especially a death that occurred when a person was at their physical and mental prime, as the height of beauty and majesty. Undoubtedly, the segment directed by British auteur Franc Roddam (Quadrophenia, The Bride) for the opera-themed anthology film Aria (1987), which not only features Wagner’s “Liebestod” but also depicts two young lovers carrying out a suicide pact, is like a cheap Americanized rip-off of Mishima’s film, as it lacks the innate intimacy with death that is quite apparent in Patriotism. For those that consider suicide the way of the failure, pansy, and/or loser, Mishima once summed up the difference between Occidental and Japanese perception of self-slaughter when he remarked: “Hara-kiri is a very positive, very proud way of death. I think it’s very different from the Western concept of suicide. The Western concept of suicide is always defeat itself. Mostly. But hara-kiri sometimes makes you win.” Indeed, in the end, Mishima seemed to win as he never physically and artistically degenerated with age like so many old artists do and people will also remember him as sort of the last samurai of Japan, with Patriotism being a positively poetic reminder of what death meant to the writer's life and work. While Paul Schrader's biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) is certainly a great source for anecdotal details regarding Mishima's life and work, Patriotism will give you a more authentic sense of the novelist's essence, as quite arguably the most darkly intimate and certainly most morbidly prophetic film ever directed by a writer. Indeed, the only thing that could have possibly made Mishima's sole excursion in filmmaking more sincere is if wife Keiko had been portrayed by a tranny.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 12:18 AM
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