Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters: Criterion Collection
July 14, 2008
Initially, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) seems like the odd man out in writer/director Paul Schrader’s filmography. It takes a complex look at the life of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima who ended his own life by committing the ritual act of suicide in a very public and bizarre fashion. However, through Schrader’s eyes, Mishima becomes one of his trademark existential loner protagonists like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), who disciplined his body through weights, or Julian Kay in American Gigolo (1980), learning foreign languages. Mishima was obsessed with what Kevin Jackson points out in the DVD liner notes, “preparing himself for some unusual mission or some fatal role.”
At the end of his life, Mishima no longer found words to be a sufficient form of expression and saw death as the only solution. Schrader employs flashbacks that consist of a five-year-old version of the author, a frail boy living with his grandmother, a teenager discovering his homosexual tendencies, and a near adult candidate for military service.
There are heavily stylized scenes from his past, or is it his imagination? A golden hued house with obviously fake reeds on a soundstage intentionally draws our attention to itself and suddenly the Golden Pavilion splits apart as Mishima experiences some kind of an epiphany. The young boy scenes are shot in black and white and in the style of master Japanese filmmakers like Ozu and or Naruse while the teenage and near adult scenes are in colour and utilize a very unconventional style.
Schrader also dramatizes extracts from three of Mishima’s novels: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses which adds another layer of complexity to the film but it also offers additional insight into the artist’s life. These fictional strands each have their own vivid colour scheme: green and gold for the first one, pink and gray for the second, and orange and black for the last one. The film’s production designer, Eiko Ishioka, would go on to work on Francis Ford Coppola’s stylish take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). With Mishima, Schrader has created a challenging, experimental biopic that tries to get inside its subject’s head and see the world through his eyes.
The first disc features an audio commentary by director Paul Schrader and producer Alan Poul. Schrader starts off, logically enough, by talking about the origins of the film. His brother, Leonard, had gone to Japan to escape being drafted into the Vietnam War and became interested in the works of Mishima. Poul talks about how he got involved. The two men discuss the challenge of getting Mishima’s widow’s approval. Initially, she consented but when she found that he was going to depict her husband’s homosexual tendencies, she reneged and tried to kill off the project.
Also included is a trailer.
There is also the option of Japanese, Roy Scheider or an alternate English narration for the film.
The second disc starts off with “Making Mishima,” a 43-minute retrospective documentary with interviews with director of photography John Bailey, production designer Eiko Ishioka, and composer Philip Glass. They all talk about how they got involved in the film and their impressions of Mishima and Schrader. They also talk about their approaches to the material.
“Producing Mishima” features producers Tom Luddy and Mata Yamamoto talking about the difficulties they faced getting this film made. Luddy talks about Francis Ford Coppola’s involvement and how it came together. Yamamoto talks about the Japanese side of things.
“Chieko Schrader” is an audio interview with the wife of co-screenwriter Leonard Schrader and who also helped write the film’s script. She talks about Mishima, working with her husband and on the film itself as well as several other topics.
“John Nathan and Donald Richie” are interviewed. They both knew Mishima and talks about the man and his work, providing fascinating insight into the artist.
“Mishima on Mishima” is an interview with the author conducted in January 19667. He speaks very eloquently about Japanese literature and his own work.
Finally, there is “The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima,” a 55-minute documentary made by the BBC in 1985 about the man and features all kinds of archival footage as well as interviews with those who knew him. It is a nice contrast to Schrader’s stylized biopic