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Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
Directed by: Paul Schrader
Starring: Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Hiroshi Mikami
Running Time: 2h
TMM Score: 5 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Directorial Vision, Cinematography, Production Design, Acting, Score
WEAKNESSES: Are you kidding? Who could find a weakness in this film.
The great Japanese author and social leader, Yukio Mishima, prepares for his greatest work; of art and of action.
From the opening strains of the score, I knew I was in for something special. As the story of Mishima’s life began, as he reminisced, and as his literary world was opened, I gasped. The curtain which separates reality from memory was pulled aside with a sublime directorial gesture and the naked beauty of art itself which the artist alone may know, was unclothed, revealing a grandiose truth.
This is a film which makes you want to talk like that. It leaves you grasping for words to describe it, and then frustrates you when you read it back and realize you haven’t said anything at all resembling what you were straining to relate.
To say that this film plays with story structure is like saying that Frank Lloyd Wright made some pretty good drawings of buildings. This film revels in dismantling the story structure to emphasize its themes of art, beauty, action, and identity. It startles with it’s lack of concern for conventional transitional elements and plot devices. It comes to the cliff of theatricality and leaps as far into space as it can and lands somewhere unseen and undreamed of.
Yet, I was never lost for where I was in the plot. I was never confused whether an action was owned by Mishima or one of his fictional proxies. I was never in doubt about what he intended, but always on the edge of my seat to watch it happen.
The planning that must have gone into this film is daunting and the skill to edit it is simply brilliant.
The story itself is simply the story of an author, growing up from childhood and the experiences he had which informed his writing. The way the story is told is remarkable as, rather than show the straight story acted out, director Paul Schrader (First Reformed) chooses to show several key episodes of Mishima’s life through theatrical portrayals of Mishima’s works (the chapters referred to in the film’s title). His reason for doing so was that he felt you could know the facts of an author’s life but if you never experienced any of their works, you would not really know them.
Through this unique approach, the film had me wanting to read Mishima and know more about him, though I feel in some small beginning ways, I have been introduced to an interesting man.
I can’t write about the camera work and the design separately. They merge into one in so much of this film. There comes a moment when Mishima, as a child, crosses a fence and begins to walk a path following a friend and as the path turns, it is like a world opens up. It’s like a another dimension of reality unfolds before your eyes in a simple complexity I cannot begin to relate. It must be seen.
As the film continues to pass by your eyes, you are time and time again, blown away by the visual language employed. Vibrantly colorful sets made topper both as facades in a stage play but in a sense more real than the scenes which take place in the “real world.”
An Art Movie Hater, Converted
Amongst my friends, I am known for hating films which are about art. They almost always seem pretentious to me. For some reason, even halfway through this meditation on art, I knew that I loved it not just regardless of its theme but precisely because of its theme and the way it is handled.
Many films will tackle the subject of art, its value, its shortcoming, its difficulties, its consuming nature, and its corruptibility. This film approaches art in a different way. It holds up art not against true action but as an example and companion of true action. The film is saying something about the symbiotic relationship that art and life share, and how empty one is without the other.
As a Christian, I found this film especially moving in this regard. Its challenge to fully integrate one’s life and art stabs its finger at everything in me that is a contradiction with in my life, beliefs, values, and artistic expressions.
The film is a call to consistency, purity, and wholeness in a way that seems lavish and austere at the same time, yet never feels contradictory, simply challenging. It is a film that opens you.
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