Paul Schrader is best known for his work as a screenwriter with credits such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Rolling Thunder however he has made his fair share of forays into directing with great success. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters stands among his greatest achievements. Shot completely in Japan and acted mostly in Japanese it is an incredible accomplishment. The film follows the final hours of Yukio Mishima a prolific Japanese author, playwright, actor, and film director with strong political ideals. Intercut with the main narrative are flashbacks to his past and vignettes from four stories he wrote. The picture speaks multitudes on the nature of beauty, the struggle for self-acceptance, and what it means to take a stand for what you believe is right.
The film is highly formalist not only being broken down into four chapters, “Beauty”, “Art”, “Action”, and “Harmony of Pen and Sword,” but further being separated into three different narratives within each chapter. One takes place in what is the present according to the diegesis of the film, the second is that of Mishima’s past, and the third is three stories which parallel portions of Mishima’s life. The form is Gordian at first, but it soon becomes clear and the transitions seamless. The segments are further differentiated stylistically. The narrative that takes place in Mishima’s present is steeped in realism as he preps for his great act of Seppuku. Each of the three vignettes based on Mishima’s writings are beautifully stylized, filled with rich colors and exquisite set and lighting design. Finally, there are the flashbacks to Mishima’s past. Shot in perfect black and white and seamlessly integrated, the transitions are never jarring. It is a brilliant piece of writing in which the form is used to further the understanding of the three-dimensional character a miss fit, a romantic, an extremist.
Thematically Mishima is a bit convoluted. Although politics play a significant role, the film is not necessarily political. Yes, Mishima did plan a failed Coup d’état, and committed ritual suicide known as, Seppuku to make a statement, but that is simply one small facet of the movie. More so, the film is about the nature and preservation of beauty. Mishima was a deeply romantic man, willing to go to the utmost extreme to preserve beauty. Body image is a struggle each of the characters struggle with. They all wish to be beautiful, and Mishima’s unique philosophy comes out. He views the human body as a work of art in and of itself with no need to be reproduced. However, the only way to preserve a man’s beauty is for him to commit suicide at the peak of his splendor. It is an extreme yet beautiful concept, and may be an inarguable truth.
Mishima is a spectacular film packed with philosophical thought and jaw dropping visuals. When Schrader created the film he had yet another strike of brilliance yet for unknown reasons it has not garnered the same level of success or exposure as some of his other films. It is a much watch for any cinephile, and should be for members of the general public as well.