Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Dir. Paul Schrader
Starring: Ken Ogata, etc.
9/10

I strongly recommend this to Kevin. Then I would almost as strongly recommend this to Grace, Mitchell, Penny and Chris. If you think you’re going to see it, I recommend reading no further. I would probably also recommend this to Tony, although I know so little about his taste. Not recommended to Marc, Don, Joel, Jill or Larri. I enjoyed watching this film, and I also think it is objectively terrific. It would probably make my best films of the 80s list. An excellent choice for the 1001 book.

**
I’m becoming less and less interested in bio-pics, especially since they often feature musicians whose stories seem to the be the same, but I have to say this was one of the most fascinating, creative and successful—both in terms of subject matter and filmmaking—that I’ve ever seen. The film is about Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. I knew of Mishima before seeing this film, but I never read any of his work. I also knew one other key thing about his life (which I won’t mention)—but there were a lot of other fascinating details the film revealed about him that I didn’t know, and I think will fascinate the idiots I recommended this film to. One of the main issues that Mishima seemed concerned with—the dissatisfaction with art, especially in relation to real life actions, and the desire to merge the two—really resonated with me—which is one of the reasons I enjoyed the film so much. In any event this is a terrific film—even a great one. Everything comes together in this film, which remarkable given the ambitious concept. The direction is really fabulous—and it is major oversight if this film didn’t at least receive nominations—and in some cases did not win outright—for several categories, like direction and art direction. Schrader pulls off a very ambitious and bold approach, and in that way ranks with up there with Fellini’s 8 ½ and Fosse’s All That Jazz–although the former is not really a bio-pic, but more about the creative process. I also thought of Naked Lunch which was equally ambitious, but not as coherent and therefore not as successful in my view.

***(spoilers)
Can a work of non-fiction be considered great art? This film would be exhibit A that it can and should. I viewed the film not so much as a film about Mishima so much as a film providing important context for one of his key “works.” Indeed, it’s not a very good film biography—although it makes you want to find out more—but it does provide an interesting take on his final “work.” And I really loved Schrader’s approach to doing this—namely, using excerpts from several novels and shooting them like plays with fabulous set pieces by Eiko Ishioka (award worthy). Not having read any of Mishima’s work, knowing anything about his life or being Japanese national, I can’t judge the success of this approach—at least not in the sense of providing an accurate context. But the excerpts provide clues that organically create a reasonable “explanation” of Mishima and his suicide. Still, there are a lot of unanswered questions or questions not answered fully, so those looking for a more comprehensive depiction of the man or more definitive (if that’s possible) explanation are bound to be disappointed. Indeed, I can imagine dissatisfaction from people familiar with Mishima and his work. But I do think it is a good “appetizer” and does pose an interesting context for Mishima’s final act.

There are other details about Mishima that the film doesn’t convey so well, but I learned about in the commentary (which was worth listening to). For example, Mishima combined art, literature, the media and reality in a way that is normal for many artists/performers (think Madonna). I didn’t get that from the film, but it’s something that makes me want to learn more about him.

Criterion did a nice job with this film. I also liked the commentary. This is one dvd I wouldn’t mind owning.

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