American director Paul Schrader is no stranger to grim subject matter. Since breaking into the business as a screenwriter in 1974, the iconoclastic filmmaker has made a career out of seedy underbellies and obsessive behaviors. After penning hits for up-and-coming heavy-hitters like Sydney Pollack (The Yakuza, 1974), Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, 1976), and Brian De Palma (Obsession, 1976), Schrader made his directorial debut in 1978 with Blue Collar, which featured Richard Pryor in a rare dramatic role. The film was a box office success and gained rounding critical acclaim, putting Schrader on the map as a new voice in American cinema.
His next two directorial efforts—Hardcore (1979) and American Gigolo (1980) continued where Taxi Driver left off by exposing dark underworlds rarely seen by civilized society. Drawn to film noir’s obsessive heroes and fatalistic tragedy, exploring the bleak and the wretched had begun to define Schrader’s milieu. By 1985, though, the director had found a subject to dissect who lived in the open— and was, in fact, a celebrity—despite his fringe beliefs and obvious preoccupation with death.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is presented as a survey of how Japanese author Yukio Mishima’s most famous works prophesied his self-glamorizing death by seppuku in 1970. Using stunning palettes of deep, bright colors and stylized set-pieces resembling those found on theatrical stages or impressionist paintings, Schrader walks us through Mishima’s conflicted personality towards his last day.
Less interested in why the real Mishima lived and died as he did, Schrader opts instead to depict his evolution from a sickly, sheltered child to the celebrated writer he became, and finally to the reactionary militant he died as by using the author’s own words as weapons of chilling prediction. The film’s first three chapters—“Beauty,” “Art,” and “Action”—draw comparisons between Mishima’s novels with his upbringing, awakening, and politicization using dramatizations taken from Mishima’s autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask (1949), interviews, and other writings to plot his course and progression through a world bent by self-delusion and an increasing contempt of Westernization.
The fourth chapter—“Harmony of Pen and Sword”—details the author’s fact-based final hours, who by 1970 was also the commander of a small private army dedicated to a symbolic return to traditional Japanese customs and anti-Western, anti-capitalist ideals. It’s plain to see how each chapter represents a gradual slip towards Mishima’s grisly fate by unlocking a corner of his psyche, but it goes deeper than that. By contrasting the artificiality of the set pieces with “real world” flashbacks of Mishima’s upbringing and professional life, his conflicted soul begins to take form. Whether it be his fixation on masculinity but his struggle with homosexuality, or his preoccupation with beauty but disapproval of his own appearance, Mishima batters away at a man on a collision course with a destiny wholly his own making.
Now considered largely a pariah in his native Japan (the film has never been screened there), Mishima was both a rebel and a traditionalist, spending his life in pursuit of physical, spiritual, and artistic beauty. This impossible endeavor created opposing forces battling for his mind, body, and sexuality, and it’s through these contradictions that Paul Schrader’s film comes to life in a manifestation of violent confession told through vivid color and dreamlike artifice.
Schrader does not idealize the author’s slide into right-wing ideologies nor does he dwell on his burgeoning homosexuality, largely due to evidence that the author was never ashamed of either in any way. In fact, in the 1960s, he even fetishized the two in a series of commissioned hypermasculine and homoerotic photographic portraits of himself. More importantly, Schrader focuses on how, like Travis Bickle, the “hero” of Taxi Driver, Mishima strived to actualize a romanticized version of life and justice that ran contrary to reality, and in doing so, left much havoc and bloodshed in his wake.
Chapter One “Beauty” The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1956
Based on the true story of a young Buddhist acolyte who burned down the Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan in 1950, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion mirrors Mishima’s obsession with beauty and his feelings of extreme physical and mental inadequacy. In the story, the acolyte, who suffers from crippling self-consciousness, as Mishima did, is so consumed by the temple’s beauty that it interferes with nearly every aspect of his life. He grows to resent the structure and its power over him, eventually vowing to destroy it with the declaration, “Beauty is now my enemy.” Schrader presents this chapter with bright orange, green, and gold colors that, when first viewed, offer a jarring contrast from the story so far, as it becomes clear that we have now entered the mind and psyche of both artists, and watch as one unravels while the other shines.
Chapter Two “Art” Kyoko’s House, 1959
Bathed in pink and gray, “Art” compares Mishima’s Kyoko’s House—in particular the chapter about a young actor who strives to increase his desirability through bodybuilding before falling into a sadomasochistic love affair that ends in a double suicide—with the author’s real life conflict between self-consciousness and self-aggrandizement. After a male lover remarks that he’s become flabby, Mishima proclaims that “Creating a beautiful work of art and becoming beautiful oneself are identical,” and begins to obsessively lift weights to control his appearance. Then, in a dramatized scene from the novel, an artist friend remarks to the protagonist (if such a thing can exist in such a gruesome story) that, “You must commit suicide at the height of your beauty.” Taken together, these lines begin to form the crux of the author’s turbulent thinking, and clearly foretell his eventual demise at the age of forty.
Chapter Three “Action” Runaway Horses, 1969
By the late-’60s, Mishima’s path towards right-wing militancy was solidified, and his march toward destiny was set in stone. The 1969 novel Runaway Horses details both a historical Japanese uprising against Western influence and the banning of wearing swords in public (1876) and the fictionalized attempted coup d’état by radicalized students in 1932. These students worship the ex-samurai of the 1876 rebellion (known as the League of the Divine Wind) and, like them (and Mishima), wish to restore Japan’s traditional values, set down by the Bushido code by assassinating bankers and politicians associated with increasing Westernization and reliance on capitalism. Also like the League, the young students know their rebellion is likely to fail, and thus commit to performing seppuku in accordance with their beliefs.
Schrader contrasts set pieces of black and ominous backgrounds with those depicting heavenly bodies to symbolize the difference between earthly doom and spiritual reward. As the students stand on blissful clouds, overlooked by ancient and beautiful shrines, they chant out their divine mission statement: “One: We vow to go forth to death to purge our nation of capitalist evils. Two: We hereby vow to forge eternal friendship among ourselves. Three: We hereby vow to restore His Imperial Majesty.”
In life, Mishima had by this time formed his own militia of sympathizers and worshippers. Called the Tatenokai, or Shield Society, they capitalized on Japan’s small but growing right-wing backpedaling, and asserted themselves as protectors of the values once espoused by the now-deposed Emperor—who they saw as a symbolic divine entity. Art and life were about to collide with a grand spectacle.
Chapter Four “Harmony of Pen and Sword” November 25, 1970
The film’s final chapter follows Mishima on the final day of his life. As his obsession with beauty mixes fully with his fatalistic notions of death and destiny, he chillingly states that “When a man reaches forty, he has no chance to die beautifully.”
On November 25, 1970, Mishima and a small contingent of his Shield Society entered the Army base in Tokyo. After taking the commander hostage, Mishima takes to the balcony to address the garrison. His speech, meant as a rousing cry to take up arms against the capitalists who have destroyed Japan’s spirit, is met with derision and ridicule. Mishima then reenters the commander’s office and commits ritual suicide by hara-kiri, or seppuku.
As he dies, Schrader then reveals the final moments of each of Mishima’s literary protagonists. The young acolyte is surrounded by flames in the Golden Pavilion, terrified and delighted with his actions. Then, the bodybuilder lies dead on the floor, bruised and lacerated from the ritualistic abuse he’s suffered. Next, on a cliffside in 1932, the reincarnation of the Divine Wind dies by his own hand while gazing at the beautiful rising sun over the ocean. Finally, Mishima himself grimaces in defiant glee as he plunges a knife into his own stomach.
The director confirms visually what the author had been writing for years: that his life and literary career were a personal, spiritual, and political journey towards a death that only seemed shocking to those who weren’t paying attention. While not overly graphic, the final moments of Mishima are an intense display of pain and emotion that put an exclamation point on what Schrader has been driving us toward the entire film, and possibly his entire career, before and since: fanaticism can come in all shapes and sizes, and span political, cultural, and economical spectrums. Like Bickle’s mohawk in Taxi Driver or Ernst Toller’s suicide vest in 2017’s First Reformed, Schrader has proved adept at exposing men possessed by frailty, fealty, and finally all-consuming fervor that leads them to desperate, public acts of devastating devotion. His heroes aren’t to be admired, and they certainly aren’t to be taken lightly.