Yukio Mishima was a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor and leader of the private militia, the Tatenokai or Shield Society. Paul Schrader’s 1985 film, Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters, attempts to shed light on the development of this complex figure, famous for the circumstances of his death as much as for his literary work.
Schrader paints Mishima as a modern-day Byron, forever cultivating his celebrity image while seeking to fuse art with action and social change. The story mixes episodes from Mishima’s life and work and is told in flashback over four chapters. The fourth chapter depicts Mishima’s infamous siege of the Japanese Self-Defense Force headquarters while the earlier chapters go back to the past events that could have motivated him. Sequences in black and white indicate episodes from Mishima’s early life while hyper-stylised, hyper-colourful studio scenes represent the world of Mishima’s fiction.
Despite considerable aesthetic ambition, Mishima always feels more like a writer’s film than a director’s. I say this not just because it is about the life of a writer, but more because it is obsessed with the processes of writing and story-telling. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in itself, but it becomes one as Schrader’s literary obsessions smother the cinematic potential of the film. (One is reminded that Schrader also wrote Taxi Driver, but that it was the cine-love evident in Scorsese’s direction that really made this film a classic). The scenes from three of Mishima’s novels that Schrader crams into the narrative are flat, repetitive, and nauseatingly over-staged. As episodes, they serve only to point out obvious parallels between Mishima’s life and work, and to contribute to a whole that is already too wordy, too codified, and too bogged down with information. The manically stylised images are entirely at the service of narrative information and intellectual ideas; they have no real feeling or truth of their own.
The fourth chapter is admittedly better, as Schrader drops the camera acrobatics and focuses more on the action of Mishima’s final work in all its mad, heroic glory. This is the only place in the film where there is space to really look at the mature Mishima, to ponder what he was all about, and to feel genuine fascination at his enigmatic personality. It perhaps just saves the film from being completely bloated and boring, and leaves it standing as an informative introduction to an impressively dedicated life.