Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

One of the most visually-stunning biopics ever made, this complexly-layered work about art, politics, memory and imagination is arguably Paul Schrader’s finest moment as a filmmaker. 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Dir. Paul Schrader
1985 | USA/Japan | Biography/Drama | 120 mins | 1.85:1 | Japanese
M18 (passed clean) for nudity

Cast: Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Hiroshi Mikami
Plot: A fictionalized account in four chapters of the life of celebrated Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.
Awards: Won Best Artistic Contribution & Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Source: American Zoetrope

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Mature
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Spoilers: No

Paul Schrader may be better known as a screenwriter than director, but in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, he has directed what could be his finest film ever. 

This visually-stunning biopic centers on the life of Yukio Mishima, a highly controversial figure in modern Japanese literary and cultural history.  (The film is still infamously banned in Japan today.) 

A complexly-layered investigation on art and politics, Mishima moves away from the traditional biopic by pursuing a more unconventional path.  It is not beholden to depicting chronological milestones of its subject’s life.

Rather, it tries to peel the layers of an enigmatic artist in order to reveal a greater enigma—that is, despite going deeper into the psyche of a complicated soul, we are never closer to understanding Mishima in any way, but Schrader’s work offers us a way in

“Even the most beautiful body is soon destroyed by age. Where is beauty then? Only art makes human beauty endure. You must devise an artist’s scheme to preserve it. You must commit suicide at the height of your beauty.”

Broken up into four main chapters—’Beauty’, ‘Art’, ‘Action’, and ‘Harmony of Pen and Sword’—the first three of which are dramatisations of segments from three of his novels, the film cleverly alternates between imagination and memory, as well as present and past, with Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey capturing the crisp and poetic visuals in both colour and black-and-white. 

More astonishing is famous graphic designer Eiko Ishioka’s work on production design, especially in the surreal dramatisations where minimalistic sets and the exaggerated use of colour become physical, sensorial statements of art’s conflation with the state of mind. 

The title of the final chapter very much captures Mishima at the height of his power (or madness), but whatever you feel about his ideology or action, one could appreciate that Schrader’s film very much shares a similar rebellious sensibility in its stylistic and narrative provocations. 

Mishima is an artistic triumph in all senses of the word, and I haven’t even mentioned Philip Glass’ breathtaking score, which ranks as one of his most pulsating efforts. 

Grade: A+




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