Of pen and sword

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Like the man it depicts, Paul Schrader’s electric 1985 masterpiece Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is full of compelling contradictions. This utterly original take on the life of Japanese novelist, playwright, filmmaker, militant and would-be samurai Yukio Mishima was an American production shot in Japan, with an American director and a largely Japanese crew.

It was also a box-office disaster, even at mini-vanity-project prices, and controversy over a scene depicting the closeted Mishima in a gay bar prevented the film from being screened in Japan, presumably its biggest market (Mishima, a writer steeped in Japanese traditions, rarely penetrated into the West).

Director and co-writer Schrader breaks Mishima’s story into four chapters, illustrating the dominant themes in his life and work, which were ultimately inseparable. Schrader shoots scenes from Mishima’s life in black and white, then counterpoints them with dramatizations from his novels, shot in luscious Technicolor on highly stylized sets.

The effect is a delirious swirl of lucid biography, critical analysis and highly entertaining cinematic style. One particular shot of an assassin creeping through the woods and slashing into his victim’s home through a painting on the wall ranks as one of the most memorable shots I’ve ever seen in a film.

Mishima’s sweeping contradictions—especially his conflicting urges to preserve and destroy beauty—ultimately led to his death by ritual suicide, which he regarded as his final work of art. They also make him the ultimate Paul Schrader loner: He has the surface aesthetic of Julian Kaye from American Gigolo; the well-intentioned, quasi-terrorist ideology of Travis Bickle; Jake LaMotta’s penchant for greatness and self-destruction; and a tortured writer quality reminiscent of, well, Paul Schrader.

Criterion’s new two-disc DVD comes with numerous extras: a 2006 commentary by Schrader, a BBC documentary on Mishima, and a phalanx of interviews, including one with the actual Mishima.