Tuesday, November 24, 2009

TOERIFC: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

[This review is prompted by the latest discussion for The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, which is about Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters this month. The discussion can be found at Krauthammer's blog Crips and Mutes; go there to read along and join the discussion with your own thoughts.]

The writer Yukio Mishima seemingly lived his life with a single possibility always in mind, an impossible ideal towards which he was always working. In Paul Schrader's evocative biopic of the influential Japanese author, this ethos is summed up with literary expressiveness as the desire to "turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood." Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters chronicles the author's continuing attempts to reach this ideal, to achieve his obsession with uniting art and action, words and the world. In order to reflect this goal, Schrader shifts fluidly between multiple layers of reality, memory, fantasy and fiction: the film is a collage of Mishima's final day on earth, flashbacks to his childhood and youth, and stylized enactments of stories from his novels.

Mishima's life famously ended with his attempt to trigger an army coup to restore the Emperor to power in Japan; when the coup failed, he committed ritual suicide, seppuku. Schrader's film opens with the writer (played as an adult by Ken Ogata) preparing for this attempt, dressing in a military uniform — the uniform of the private army society he'd founded and led — and meeting with his accomplices. Scenes from this important day, Mishima's last, weave throughout the film, providing a structuring foundation for Schrader's examination of the author's ideas, preoccupations and troubled life.

These scenes, filmed in flat, naturalistic color, are juxtaposed with flashbacks to Mishima's youth, filmed in black and white, and scenes from his novels, which are heavily stylized with bright neon hues and blatantly artificial, fragmentary sets. This structure creates a constant interplay between fiction and reality, between the past and the present, suggesting the ways in which Mishima's entire life led to its last moment, and the ways in which his art prepared him for his final act. Schrader selected three novels to work into his film in this way. The Temple of the Golden Pavillion is based on the true story of a stuttering, unattractive Buddhist acolyte (Yasosuke Bando) who, wishing to destroy something beautiful, burned down an ornate ancient temple. Kyoko's House combines the stories of four young men, and Schrader selects one of these, about a vain actor (Kenji Sawada) who becomes involved in a sadomasochistic relationship and eventually commits suicide with his lover. Runaway Horses is the most obviously prophetic of the three works, since it concerns a young man (Toshiyuki Nagashima) who leads an attempted coup to reinstate the Emperor to power; within the film, Mishima calls this book a rehearsal for his own final act.

The scenes from Mishima's novels are presented with a stylized, theatrical sensibility that emphasizes their unreality. These scenes are bathed in bright colors, often a hysterical, oversaturated pink hue. Frequently, the boundaries of the sets are revealed within the frame: jagged, disconnected interiors float within a sea of blackness, like abstract designs scrawled across the screen. These sets often have a staggered design like a lightning bolt, as triangular segments of walls or jail bars fan outwards from a center point at the horizon. This triangular uniformity perhaps suggests the quest of the film's hero towards purity and perfection, towards a clean, aesthetic ideal that seldom occurs in reality.

In fact, one of the film's prominent subtexts is the disconnection between art and reality, an assertion that Mishima was looking for the impossible. That's why the excerpts from Mishima's novels present a romanticized, obviously artificial dream, a fantastic idealization in which every action is dramatic and meaningful. The reality is more mundane, as the film's final chapter reveals: as Mishima's actual last act plays out, and his dream of fomenting a glorious samurai revolt comes to naught, it becomes clear that the "purity" he desired was achievable only in art, not in action. Schrader, though, gives Mishima his redemption at the moment of death, retreating back into the bright, beautiful world of fictional dreams, recalling the epic dramatic moments of the author's books. Mishima's life, and the sadness and pointlessness of his death, are merged with the beauty of his art, so that the film's final image is not the freeze frame on Mishima's agonized face as he cuts his stomach open, but a stately image of the golden sun rising into a red sky.

Schrader's film is thus not so much a direct biography as an attempt to come to terms with this man's life and death, to understand why he did what he did, what it meant for him. The flashbacks are not a straightforward life story but a series of incidents, elliptical and fragmentary, that trace the author's development: from a sickly, isolated boy in thrall to his overbearing grandmother, to a shy and literary young man, to a right-wing reactionary, yearning for the lost golden age of samurai honor. For Mishima, life and art were ideally unified, and in order to reflect this Schrader brings Mishima's art into vibrant reality while treating his past as a foundation for his art. Sometimes this is literalized in abrupt transitions from reality to fiction. A shot of the stuttering child Mishima cuts directly to the stuttering acolyte from The Temple of the Golden Pavillion, while later Schrader cuts from Mishima walking into a gym shower to a very similar image of the protagonist from Kyoko's House showering. The switch from black and white to lurid, pink-lit color is jarring and startling, while the continuity between the shots makes a connection between mundane reality and its dreamlike counterpart in Mishima's fiction. In this way, Schrader underlines the idea that Mishima's art was a glorious, oversaturated dream of what his own life could be.

What's especially interesting about this film is its complex structure, which as the title itself suggests, divides Mishima's life into "four chapters." Although the film's flashbacks do follow a general forward momentum, from childhood to adulthood, its four chapters don't neatly correspond to one segment of the protagonist's life. Instead, each chapter is organized around a central concept and its importance to Mishima: "beauty," "art," "action" and "harmony of pen and sword." These chapters deal with, respectively, Mishima's conflicted view of aesthetic beauty, his engagement with artistic pursuits, his increasing political mobilization, and finally his attempt to create a unified ideology in which his art, his politics and his life are one. The incorporation of the writer's works is similarly segmented, so that the first chapter, dealing with beauty, weaves in The Temple of the Golden Pavillion, an allegory about the intimidating effect of idealized beauty on human acts. Chapter two, "art," coincides with the story of the actor who makes his bruise-adorned body into physical art, while the third chapter's examination of "action" naturally works in Mishima's fictional "rehearsal" for his own political action. The final chapter, in which Mishima finally puts his ideas into practice, sheds this structure, relying only on real events without any recourse to fiction: it's only in Mishima's final moments, after his action has failed to accomplish what he intended, that he returns to the world of artistic expression in his last dreams.

Schrader's Mishima is a fascinating and sumptuous film, exploring the nature of artistic expression and the ways in which one man's life and art coexisted and bled together as he struggled to perfect the balance between them. Mishima was a contradictory and complicated figure, in his politics, sexuality and aesthetics. Schrader's film, in grappling with this complex artist, creates a complex and sensual artwork in its own right.


DavidEhrenstein said...

It's a very good film. Originally Paul wanted to make a straightforward biopic -- but was prevented from doing so by Mishima's widow. By staging excerpts from his writing and using the preparations for his suicide as a framing device, teh film tells Mishima's story in a much more interesting way. It's also a nice digest of his wrtitings that serves as a good general introduction to those unfamiliar with them.

Ed Howard said...

Hard to imagine that Schrader wanted it to be more of a conventional biopic, but I'm glad he didn't go that route, even if he was forced to rethink it by necessity. I did hear that Mishima's widow forbade him from using some of Mishima's more explicitly homosexual writings and from stressing that element of the writer's life too heavily. It shows up only sporadically as is, in the gay bar scene of course and also in that wonderful scene from which I took my top screen capture, in which one of Mishima's protagonists is asked to imagine replacing parts of his body with a woman's.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Even in this form she barred the filom from being shown in Japan for many years.

Poor deluded creature. Who did she think she was fooling?

Sam Juliano said...

Arguably the most magnificently ornate packaging in the entire Criterion Collection houses this stylistically unconventional film that as you say, concerns multiple layers of reality, memory, fantasy and fiction, and yes I would have to agree with you that it's a 'collage of Mishima's final day on earth, flashbacks to his childhood and youth, and stylized enactments of stories from his novels."

The use of black and white and color is exemplary (the latter of course used for the visualized excerpts from the novels).

Kudos to you Ed on this gem:

"Mishima's life, and the sadness and pointlessness of his death, are merged with the beauty of his art, so that the film's final image is not the freeze frame on Mishima's agonized face as he cuts his stomach open, but a stately image of the golden sun rising into a red sky."

But I must say I do have some issues with this film. Mishima's humanity is never really explored, or it's observed from the surface. His 'ideals' as you yourself note here are examined within the fabric of the narrative, but the inner persona and psychology is never really explored in the film as it might have.

On balance of course it's an exquisite, captivating film, but it's not quite a masterpiece.