The coup de grace of Yukio Mishima’s life is delivered exactly when and where he wished but possibly quite different from how he would have ideally wanted it to be. Paul Schrader’s extraordinary biopic of this most eccentric of Japanese authors captures the essence of the many faces of Mishima through a series of stunning vignettes from his life and work but by the time it arrives at it’s denouement, where art, life and celebrity finally converge in one fleeting moment, Mishima, one of Japan’s greatest ever writers has only desperate banalities to offer in front of a crowd of wildly disapproving soldiers. This call to arms is riddled with cliché and seems more empty rhetoric delivered by a rabble-rousing charlatan (and an unskilled one at that) than the words of a literary genius. It ends with a rueful resignation of “I don’t even think they heard me” that is shatteringly poignant, leaving the viewer with an inescapable sense of loss, emptiness and futility, more so in contrast to the unfettered brilliance of his provocative art that we have witnessed before through the prism of Schrader’s own striking vision.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a great achievement for a multitude of reasons, not least among them being it’s ability to rise so spectacularly to it’s towering subject, one who is not so much a single person as he is a confluence of multiple personae, flawed, fascinating and rife with conflicts. The literary persona in particular, which reveals as much about the author as it possibly could (though not everything, particularly in Mishima’s case), is rendered in inspired fashion with Schrader creating a visual style that is just as bold, confrontational and uncompromising as the literature it seeks to bring alive on screen.
Inter-cut with a dramatized account of events on the final day of Mishima’s life are grand and gloriously colorful versions of parts of three of Mishima’s novels; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses. A common thread runs through the protagonists of the first two stories. Young narcissistic men with fragile physiques, with such a heightened sense of beauty and aesthetics and consequently, of their own shortcomings in comparison that their narcissism becomes an almost masochistic obsession, their idea of perfection and beauty overpowering their senses, and release coming only through destruction, violence and death. The two stories are neatly narrated in parallel with the concurrent phase in Mishima’s own life, his own senses numbed by the beauty of the human body, both male and female, his childhood and adolescence as a sensitive poet at odds with his implacable desire to be a “man of action”, his insecurities as a young artist, and a then-nascent desperation to reconcile the beauty of his words with his own physical ideal of beauty. The last of the three stories, Runaway Horses is about Isao, a strong and defiant ex-samurai, an idealistic youth rebelling against the sands of change in Meiji period Japan, and seduced by the idea of giving his life for the cause. This character predictably evokes Mishima’s own words which we have heard earlier, “A man’s determination to become beautiful is always a desire for death” and this story, especially it’s inevitably fated conclusion foreshadows Mishima’s own obsession, which he regards as the ultimate apotheosis of his life and it’s biggest statement. The quest for the harmony of pen and sword, as the last of the four chapters is called, leads Mishima into his country’s own past, that of the samurai, of warriors who kill but are required to do so with elegance and beauty, of men of nobility and scholarship, but whose chief duty is to still die for their masters. The spiritual kinship that Mishima feels with the inherently dual and contradictory nature of the myth of the samurai is hardly surprising, considering his own relentless drive. When Mishima creates his personal army, the so-called “Shield Society” which swears by the decidedly anachronistic code of the samurai, it can’t help but look ridiculous yet the powerful thrust of Mishima’s personality and conviction (“Somewhere there must be a higher principle that reconciles art and action”) somehow gives it a curiously transcendental purity and this whole episode is acted with masterful acuity by Ken Ogata.
But it is the end that stays with you longest after the final credits roll. After having given us a glimpse of the final moments in Mishima’s life, the movie returns back to one final image of the sun, the ocean, and of Isao, all married to Philip Glass’ mesmerizing score and above all, the magical poetry of Mishima himself.
“The instant the blade tore open his flesh, the bright disk of the sun soared up behind his eyelids and exploded, lighting the sky for an instant.” It is these words more than anything else which remind us with more than a hint of sadness that as hard as he tried, Yukio Mishima’s life and actions fell some way short of attaining the genius of his art. You can dismiss the man as insane, even demented but you cannot deny the power of his words, of his personality, of his almost fanatical obsession with his singular idea of perfection. He paid the ultimate prize for it, willingly so, though it is impossible to shake off the feeling that his words made his points way better than he his actions ever could.