Directed by Paul Schrader
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 120 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround Japanese/English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: July 1, 2008
Review Date: July 5, 2008
Film biographies are tricky propositions to pull off under any circumstances, and one that attempts to cover an entire life from childhood to death is an even riskier and more difficult proposal. Thus, it’s not surprising that Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters often seems more like a highlights account of an extraordinary life than a movie all of a piece. That being said, for a life this unique and for a film produced under such excruciatingly difficult circumstances, Mishima is better than it has any right to be.
Internationally celebrated Japanese writer Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata) was born Kimitake Hiraoka, and during his forty-five years of life, metamorphosized himself into a well honored novelist, playwright, bodybuilder, martial artist, actor, singer, director, producer, and militarist. His literary output totaled some 35 novels, 25 plays, 200 short stories, and 8 volumes of essays. He married and sired two children but was well known for having male lovers both before and during his marriage. He seemed to have spent the better portion of his life wishing for his beloved Japan an escape from the over-commercialism of Western mores and a return to the more nationalistic pride in its homeland through support of imperial rule and a search for inner purity and outer strength of character. His own life’s journey took him through changes in body and spirit that led on November 25, 1970, to a run on a military base where the Army’s general was taken hostage while he attempted to get the nation to rise up against communism and other foreign influences. Shouted down by his countrymen and in disgrace, he and his male lover Morita (Masayuki Shionoya) took their lives in the general’s office via ritual seppuku.
In visualizing the incredible life of this fascinating but highly unusual enigma, writer-director Paul Schrader has divided his life into four acts, pretty much representing the stages of development his persona underwent during his tumultuous existence (Art, Beauty, Action, and The Harmony of Pen and Sword). Due to his contract with Mishima’s widow (who nevertheless railed against the film during production and had its release blocked in Japan), Schrader wasn’t able to do more than minimally suggest his subject’s homosexuality, and his wife is mentioned once at the beginning of the film and never again. Instead, we’re offered snippets from pivotal moments of Mishima’s life as a 5-year old taken from his mother by a demanding grandmother, a young teen discovering his first sexual yearnings, an older teen lying to avoid military service (a decision he would regret the rest of his life), and a young man discovering body building and martial arts which led to his interest in forming his own private army. With many of his novels possessing autobiographical elements, three of them have been selectively dramatized as we are presented with reflections of the books’ protagonists with Mishima’s own growing interests in developing his mind, his spirit, and his body.
Mishima was undoubtedly an ambitious undertaking, made with an almost totally Japanese cast and crew, and the arrangement of biographical elements with the parallel fictional counterparts requires an alertness to catch references and allusions from fact to fiction. To aid in sorting out this kaleidoscopic arrangement of sequences, Mishima’s last day activities are filmed chronologically in color and placed at the beginning of each of the four sections. The flashbacks to the four stages of his early years are filmed in black and white. The book excerpts have been filmed in a hyper-stylized manner on stage sets with luminescent color and separate casts for each story. Through it all, Schrader keeps attention high even when some of the action in the book excerpts (particulary The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) gets overly symbolic and thickly managed.
Though he was not ideal casting, Ken Ogata plays Mishima through much of the film‘s running time. There is a delicacy and softness in manner seen in actual footage of Mishima that is completely absent from Ogata’s performance, and he’s also (at age 47) too old in certain sections of the film once he takes over from the youngsters who play him in the childhood and teen years. All of the other roles were cast from the cream of Japanese cinema of the time, but their roles amount to little more than cameos in the movie so squarely is the spotlight on the fascinating title character. I did find Go Riju who plays Mishima as a late teen absolutely perfect for this part of the story.
The film’s 1.85 aspect ratio is presented in a wonderfully solid anamorphic transfer. The black and white segments are beautifully delivered with crisp contrast that brings out the outstanding grayscale design of the movie. Blacks are very impressively deep, and whites only bloom when done deliberately for effect. Sharpness is also exemplary in the black and white sections and only a tad less so in the color sequences. The color sequences are richly hued and impressive throughout, even in the stylized book segments which feature much more saturated color than the 1970 sections. The white subtitles are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 27 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround track has some outstanding moments though the major use of the surrounds is in delivering the very individualistic Philip Glass score in fine fashion. Unfortunately, I did notice some flutter on the track on occasion and some light hiss in quieter moments. By the way, the disc offers three choices for the brief narration elements during the movie: English by Roy Scheider, Japanese by Ken Ogata, and a third English narrator unidentified used as a guide for Scheider's recording. I chose the Scheider track since this was how the film was released in the United States.
Each disc in this two-disc set contains some outstanding bonus material.
Disc one features an audio commentary with director Paul Schrader and associate producer Alan Poul. The two men have many production stories to relate and feed off one another’s memories quite memorably in one of the better two person commentary tracks I‘ve heard in quite a while.
The original theatrical trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs 1 ½ minutes.
Disc two contains the majority of the supplemental material.
“Making Mishima” is a 44-minute anamorphic set of interviews with cinematographer John Bailey, production designer Eiko Ishioka, and composer Philip Glass as they talk about their individual jobs on the film.
“Producing Mishima” brings together (in separate 2008 interviews) producers Tom Luddy and Mata Yamamoto discussing the extreme difficulties of getting the film financed, setting up production at the Toho Studios (who didn’t want them there), and dealing with the hostilities from Mishima’s widow and the extreme right wing protesters who didn’t want anything about Mishima produced.
Chieko Schrader, who is the sister-in-law of director Paul Schrader and who both wrote the Japanese translation of the script for the film and aided in directing the Japanese actors on the set, contributes a 26-minute audio interview about working on the movie.
Mishima biographer John Nathan and Japanese expert Donald Richie each talk about their views on Mishima’s life and works in an interesting 26 ½-minute anamorphic featurette.
“Mishima on Mishima” is a 1966 interview for French television with Mishima publicizing the publication of his new book After the Banquet in French. This 4:3 speech lasts 6 ¼ minutes.
The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima is a 1985 BBC documentary that pretty much covers the biographical story of the man from birth to death, a valuable documentary if the film’s more quilted arrangement of scenes causes some confusion. The 4:3 feature runs 54 ½ minutes.
The enclosed 57-page booklet contains both black and white and lovely color film stills and production photographs, a celebration of the film by professor Kevin Jackson, and a reminiscence by production designer Eiko Ishioka, along with a brief summary of the difficulties the producers faced getting the film made and released.
One of the more unusual film biographies you’ll ever see about one of the most unusual people you‘ll ever meet, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is well worth checking out.