Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, biographical film, biography, review, biopic

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

The structure of Paul Schrader’s biopic of Yukio Mishima could easily have led to a disjointed film about the Japanese author and occasional actor. As its title indicates, the film is divided into four chapters, each exploring a different aspect of the man’s obsessions – Beauty; Art; Action and Harmony. It then audaciously segments these chapters further by using three distinct motifs to distinguish the current action from flashbacks of Mishima’s life and dramatisations of his work. Though the end result may not be perfectly seamless, the threads that bind the various elements permit a flow of sequences that is hypnotic, underscored by Philip Glass’s otherworldly composition.

A pre-credit title hints at the seemingly contradictory nature at play, stating that on November 25 1970, Japan’s most celebrated author led members of his private army into the Eastern Army Headquarters and forcibly detained its commander. Using this event to frame the story, the film opens that morning with Mishima casually preparing for the ‘little drama’ to follow. He is observed by his younger self, heralding the first of many black and white flashbacks incongruously narrated by Roy Scheider. Raised by a grandmother who feared he was too fragile to cope with the outside world, Mishima enters school a ripe target for bullying. Though a physical contest demonstrates he may not be as weak as he seems, Mishima is unable to give voice to his victory. A quick cut to the stuttering protagonist of ‘Temple of the Golden Pavilion’ precedes a heavily stylised dramatisation of Mishima’s novel.

Thus ends Chapter One. While each subsequent chapter opens with the gradual progression of Mishima’s plot against the military, the flashback and dramatisation sequences intersect more fluidly. The autobiographical elements of ‘Kyoko’s House’ enable its lead character and author to share the same gymnasium, albeit in differing colour palettes. Chapter Three employs a different method, introducing the act of seppuku (aka hari-kiri) to link flashbacks with the dramatisation of ‘Runaway Horses’, the plot of which bears unmistakable similarities to Chapter Four.

In addition to Glass’s score, Eiko Ishioka’s jaw-dropping production design and John Bailey’s cinematography further delineate the film’s disparate elements. Yet remarkably this piecemeal depiction of Mishima’s life and work coalesce to provide a compelling, if distancing, study of a man who nevertheless remains something of an enigma.

Ken Ogata, Yukio Mishima
Ken Ogata
Ken Ogata

as Yukio Mishima

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patriotism

The only scene recreation from Mishima’s handful of films is the act of seppuku (hara-kiri) performed in his short film Patriotism, which he wrote, co-directed and starred in.