True experiments with the form of narrative film are very rare. Even the difficult European directors whose films are avoided by most Americans usually are not really experimenting, but are working in known, but less popular, forms. Even more rare than true experiments are successful ones. Most bold attempts are too bold. It generally takes a few tries before the new ideas really work. What pleases me most about Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is that its director, Paul Schrader, has tried something original, and has made it work.
Mishima is a biographical film, one of the less likely areas for experimentation, one might think. Biographical film has been more or less dominated by the Warner Brothers model from the 1930s, where Paul Muni dressed up as someone famous and acted noble. Gandhi, for instance, works from this model. So does such a film as Coal Miner's Daughter. They treat their subject from a purely narrative point of view, starting at the beginning and going to the end. (Little touches like the framing assassination scenes in Gandhi really don't change the basic structure.) This model is so prevelent that many people might wonder how else one would do a film biography. An examination of the purposes of biographies reveals otherwise. Yes, sometimes biographies are meant to tell a story, but many of the best biographies have the central purpose of illuminating what was important in the life of their subject, demonstrating why his life is worthy of note, what can be learned from him, what truths he embodied. This is the sort of biography Schrader wanted to do, and he found a form that allowed him to do it.
Yukio Mishima was perhaps the greatest author of post-World War II Japan. He wrote novels, plays, and short stories in great numbers. His works were very popular in Japan, and widely translated. But Mishima's life was not lived totally within his writings. Mishima believed in the ancient Japanese principle of the harmony of pen and sword, a creed which calls for a blending of art and action. Deeply traditional in many ways, Mishima saw much that he disliked in modern Japanese life, and he took action to change things in a uniquely Japanese way. When combined with a rather morbid attitude towards life and beauty, and a confused sexual identity embracing homosexuality and sado-masochism, Mishima lived a life and died a death that are unlike those of any other.
Schrader chooses to take an intellectual, almost literary approach to his subject. The film is divided into four chapters, Beauty, Art, Action, and The Harmony of Pen and Sword. Each chapter consists of intertwined threads of action. The last day of Mishima's life is presented in realistic color, in sequence. Mishima's past is treated, also sequentially, in a naturalistic fashion, but shot in black and white. The first three sections of the film also each contain a condensed version of one of Mishima's novels, The Legend of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko's House, and Runaway Horses. These episodes are filmed in lush color using stylized sets. Bits and pieces of the three threads are woven together to make a surprisingly smooth whole, a thesis on the major motivating forces behind Mishima's life.
I am not familiar enough with the life and works of Mishima to determine if Schrader's explanation of Mishima is too simple, or even close to correct. But I do know that Schrader presents a convincing case. He takes actions which most of us could not understand and produces an extremely plausible explanation, while at the same time displaying an interesting and important view of the relationship between art and life. Schrader directs Mishima with the confidence of a man who knows precisely what he wants. He directed his other films (Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People) this way, too, but in Mishima he finally succeeds in showing the audience what he had in mind, and convincing us that it is a valuable vision. Schrader also collaborated on the script with his brother, Leonard, a great admirer of Japanese culture. The invention that went into the screenplay provides the base on which Schrader, as director, works, and demonstrates again that Schrader is one of the great active screenwriters. At times, Schrader achieves effects of near breathtaking cinematic beauty, both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. I only hope that Mishima is an artistic breakthrough for Schrader, and that he has more to show us.
All involved with Mishima make exceptional contributions. Foremost is Ken Ogata, in the role of Mishima. Ogata lives in the part in a way almost foreign to Hollywood film. While familiar to Japanese audiences, and fans of Japanese cinema, Ogata isn't well known to most American audiences, which enhances his disappearance into the role. The supporting cast is also uniformly excellent. The acting styles between the biographical segments and the novel excerpts is rather different, and it is heartening that both are handled well.
Philip Glass contributes an excellent score. It is strongly supportive without being intrusive, and an interesting change from the standard orchestral scores of Hollywood productions. The art direction, by Kazuo Takenaka and Eiko Ishioka combines somewhat stark realism with lushly artificial surroundings for the novelistic excerpts. The design is magnificent in its details and blends together very nicely when, at the end, Mishima's life, art and action begin to converge on a single point. John Bailey, the cinematographer, has the dream assignment of displaying three totally different styles in a single movie, and pulls it off brilliantly. The editing of Mishima also deserves special commendation, as the editor is required to supply continuity between three different time lines while preserving the thematic relationships between events in the various settings.
Mishima has an uncommercial subject and is made in Japanese, with English subtitles and narration by Roy Scheider (which is excellent, both in writing and delivery). Foreign language films frequently put off many filmgoers, but dubbing Mishima is nearly unthinkable, as the film relies on an aggressive Japaneseness which could not be achieved by actors speaking in English. I urge all to see Mishima anyway, as it is an unusual and important film. It may not find a large audience, but it is certain to prove highly influential to American films in the next decade.
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