Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Yukio Mishima is not a subject to be approached lightly, especially in a biographical film. At once Japan’s foremost literary figure and an ardent fascist with his own private army, he was a domineering figure who lived at a critical time in Japan’s history. Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a hybrid film, combining “present-day” scenes leading up to the author’s suicide with black and white flashbacks to his childhood and scenes adapting parts of his books. Though the juxtaposition of fictional scenes with more straightforward biography might seem strange, it seems the only way to tell a visual story about Mishima, whose unrelenting quest for “unity of the pen and the sword,” between art and action, dominated his life. Framed by Schrader’s camera with a sense of cold detachment, which is only enhanced by Philip Glass’ minimalist score, the film strives to depict Mishima as a man of unresolved contradictions.
Three of the film’s titular four chapters are meditations on themes that connect a certain Mishima book to events in his life. The scenes taken from Mishima’s works are the visual highlights of the film, abstract, theatrical spaces that the film serves up as “dreams” for the audience to interpret. In the other Paul Schrader film I’ve reviewed, Hardcore, California’s crimson-lit brothels serve as oneiric settings for moral conflict between the Calvinist protagonist and the libertine society around him. Here, too, the colorful sets, which reek of excess compared to the austerity of the rest of the film, serve to show a society in decay. A major thread that emerges from these scenes is the destruction of beauty. A young Zen acolyte who finds himself alienated from women because of his speech impediment burns down the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. The son of an indebted woman sells his body to a creditor and lets her cut his toned skin. The leader of a group of student anti-government conspirators, trained in the art of the sword, commits suicide while the sun rises. Beauty, it seems, can only emerge in death and destruction. Freudian psychosexual undertones pervade the film, with Mishima’s character noting that, when men seek beauty, they inevitably seek after death. Implicitly invoking Freuds thanatos or death drive, the film observes Mishima and his literary avatars seeking to transcend their limitations and petty contradictions and emerge, in a burst of flame and blood, into a pure land.
To Mishima, Japanese society had degenerated into crude materialism, its people weakened and feminized/infantilized through their subjugation to foreign impurities. As portrayed in the film by Ken Ogata, however, he discovers himself on a trip to Greece, admiring their grasp of the ideal human form. While his attraction to Western culture is certainly more sublime than the rampant importation of American products and culture, he is still “impure.” His private army might dress in white uniforms, but De Gaulle’s tailor had a hand in creating them. His urge to purge all vestiges of the West from himself and his country, therefore, can only end in suicide, a pure act of will that, to him, unites his art and life in a single moment.
Mishima never flinches when depicting its subject’s fascist views. At no point does the film demonize or even strongly criticize these views, though there are moments of clarity throughout. Schrader, a filmmaker who also wrote criticism and theorized a cinema of transcendence, sees Mishima as a fellow traveler in some sense. Perhaps he even envies the writer’s sense of purpose and discipline. Both Schrader and his subject are noted interrogators of social corruption–Taxi Driver’s right-wing assassin bears more than a little resemblance to Ogata’s performance here, albeit stripped of the latter’s serene dignity. The director also grew up in a Puritanical Calvinist setting, and the intense work ethic and insistence on purity and depravity seem to resonate with the rarefied spirit-driven world Mishima wants to create. Both Calvinism and extreme nationalism are idealized ways of dealing with the existence of evil or impurity in the world. The former insists on the total depravity of everything and absolute dependence on the divine, while the latter places the same faith in the “spirit of the nation.” Both of these notions are creations of faith, abstracted and removed from the actual unfolding of history. Nevertheless, as we see here, they can be sources of intense energy and creative genius.
At a certain point, however, the kinship between Mishima’s vision and Schrader’s stops being fascinating and becomes disturbing. In an article for Cinéaste published two years before Mishima was released, critic Ken Eisen classified Schrader as one of the “young misogynists of Hollywood,” citing the lack of agency displayed by characters in his remake of Cat People and his well-known collaboration with Richard Gere, American Gigolo.¹ This film would have made a perfect source for Eisen’s theory, since its female characters are invariably sadistic black widows, passive objects–one literally describes her own body as a “mirror” for a man–or domineering mothers. In the Freudian logic of the film, Mishima’s lack of a father seems to produce not only his homosexuality but also his inability to relate to women. Even in a scene depicting a left-wing university rally, during which Mishima comes off as the “sane” one despite his extreme views, Schrader only depicts male students. That seems exceedingly unlikely, though I am not familiar enough with the gender balance of the zengakuren and other radical leftist groups to know for sure. Though women of course participated in the film at all levels, including Eiko Ishioka contributing her astonishing production design, the film’s politics are regressive. While it certainly gives an accurate portrait of its subjects views, it aligns with them too closely in its depiction of women. Before seeing the film, having only watched Hardcore in the past, I tended to defend Schrader from charges of misogyny, but I can say that this film has a strong anti-woman tendency.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a beautiful exercise in style, and unfortunately is also a good example of what Walter Benjamin called an “aestheticization of politics.”² That is, its aesthetic skill only serves to obscure politics and agendas which are anything but progressive. Yukio Mishima, for all his achievements, is not someone who should be celebrated, since he dedicate his life and life’s work to the cause of fascism. The only concrete expression his idealized views could find is violence. As Benjamin writes,
All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.³
Mishima’s condemnations of capitalist materialism, as shown in the film, are mere moralistic phrases, since the alternative society he wants to construct is reminiscent of modern Japan and not the Japan of an imagined primeval past. When he addresses the radical leftist students at their rally, he is right when he says both he and they want to change Japan. Though he would call the students naïve, the irony is that he was the more naïve one, believing that a perfect world could be brought into existence through the militarization of society. Considering the direction in which today’s Japan seems to be going under Shinzo Abe, we should take heed. There are more like Mishima out there, radical nationalism has always had a foothold in Japan (even if the paperwork tells us that it is a pacifist nation), and there is always the risk of people finding these sorts of people attractive. For its accurate portrayal of a fascist threat and its considerable aesthetic virtues, Mishima is essential viewing. Its distressing positivity about its subject, on the other hand, stops it from displaying a full understanding of Japan’s history and Mishima’s role in it.
1. Ken Eisen, “The Young Misogynists of American Cinema,” Cinéaste 13, no. 1 (1983). This gives more evidence to my notion that, though American auteur cinema is more stylistically daring than standard Hollywood fare, it also tends to replicate Hollywood’s gender politics to a disturbing degree. Note that, despite the rise of the militant women’s movements in the 1970s, the standard narrative of the New Hollywood is entirely male-dominated.
2. Another director who seems to be Schrader’s heir as a master chronicler of male violence and social ills is Nicholas Winding Refn. A comrade reviewed his Valhall Rising, which has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as Mishima despite their vastly different content.
3. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm.