When one character in Yukio Mishima’s story Runaway Horses tells the fanatical hero that there is no such thing as purity, the hero replies, “Purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.”
The scene, recreated in Paul Schrader’s strange film biography of Mishima, captures the essence of Mishima’s life and death. The writer, who disemboweled himself in a ritualistic suicide in 1970, found that words were not enough – he tried to make his life a part of his art, by merging his intellectual powers with bloody action. In his final act, at least, he succeeded.
Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, which he co-wrote with his brother Leonard Schrader, is not really much of a biography. We don’t learn a lot about the facts of Mishima’s life. What Schrader is really interested in is the issue of art and action, and how the artist can affect the world, or how he can’t, through the act of creating.
The film is divided into four distinct sections, all of which contain scenes from Mishima’s life (shot in black-and-white) and scenes from the day of the suicide. The first three sections each contain one of Mishima’s stories, dramatized in bold, stylized colors.
Fragments from Mishima’s actual biography – his childhood, his mid-life obsession with bodybuilding, his increasing devotion to the traditional samurai ethic and emperor worship – echo the scenes from his novels. Obviously, Schrader wants the fiction to rebound off the real life, and for the most part, it does. Sometimes Schrader’s points are too bluntly drawn; he’s not known for his light touch.
But the individual stories, designed by art director Eiko Ishioka, are strikingly mounted and eerily colored. John Bailey – who also worked with Schrader on American Gigolo and Cat People – photographed, and catches some haunting images. There’s one scene of a man running toward his death, with muted green grass and blazing red bushes, that doesn’t quite look like anything you’ve ever seen.
The mesmerizing music, by Philip Glass, doesn’t try to ape Japanese forms, but it’s odd-enough sounding to fit almost any culture or period. In fact, Schrader may be guilty of relying a bit too much on the music for dramatic effect.
Mishima is played with authentic obsession by Ken Ogata. And Schrader knows something about obsession. This is, after all, the guy who wrote Taxi Driver. Even with Schrader’s sometimes heavy touch, that identification gives Mishima its propulsion.
You’ve got to admit that the sheer fact of its existence is impressive. Who in their right mind is going to subsidize an American film about a Japanese writer with an all-Japanese cast (speaking Japanese, except for the narration in the English version, which is spoken by Roy Scheider) – especially when the hero commits suicide in the end?
Schrader got some help from his friends George Lucas and Francis Coppola, who are credited as executive producers. Even with their names above the title, the film will have tough time enticing audiences. But, if it’s sometimes fuzzy-headed, it’s also very compelling. After the movie, you may find yourself, as I did, intrigued enough to check out a novel by Mishima, which suggests that the film has accomplished at least part of its mission.
First published in the Herald, September 1985
My enthusiasm for the film is stronger now, in my memory, than in this review. At the very least the movie is an amazing objet d’art, thanks to the people mentioned. Almost 35 years later, Schrader’s career, even with some rough patches, is impressive.