Criterion Files #432: The Blood-Splashed Poetry of ‘Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters’

By  · Published on May 4th, 2011

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of Guest Author month at Criterion Files: a month devoted to important classic and contemporary bloggers. This week, David Ehrlich, whose bimonthly column Criterion Corner was a favorite at Cinematical, takes on Paul Schrader’s incredible biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. Tune in next week as Adam Charles returns Criterion Files to its usual rotation, and in the meantime you can take a look at the previous entries from guest contributors here.

Infamous Japanese iconoclast Yukio Mishima once said “I still have no way to survive but to keep writing one line, one more line, one more line…,” a sentiment which suggests that his eventual suicide came only once his creative resources had run dry. Yet, as Paul Schrader’s sublime film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters so fluidly illustrates, Mishima ended his life with a self-administered sword thrust to the chest not because he was out of words, but rather because the page had never been a sufficient canvas for his artistic expression, or one to which he had ever intended to confine himself.


In his novel “Runaway Horses” (the second installment of the informal tetralogy referred to as “The Sea of Fertility”), Mishima articulated: “Perfect purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.” Those words ostensibly belong to the novel and not the novelist, but Mishima’s fevered yearning for a harmony between pen and sword demands that we accept the consistent ideology of his heroes as that of their creator. Whereas most authors are encouraged to write what they know, Mishima wrote who he was, assigning names to the slivers of his persona so that his novels wouldn’t read like manifestos.

Buried within Criterion’s appropriately gilded DVD set is an anecdote about Mishima’s funeral, whereat mourners were supposedly surprised to learn that they each knew him less than they had thought. A textbook case of being unable to see the forest for the trees, I imagine, as those who knew Mishima were likely too close to recognize that he couldn’t be understood via face-time, but rather only when seen through a kaleidoscope. But for all of the false verisimilitude with which he conducted his social life, Mishima was hardly a man of secrets. In fact, he might be the most public man to have ever lived. Extremely candid fragments of his persona were sold by the millions in bookstores across the world, definitive clues to a mystery no one recognized until Mishima – on November 25, 1970, the day of his seppuku – staged a coup d’état intended to restore political power to the Emperor of Japan.

So far as Mishima was concerned, his own life and physical being were the purest forms of artistic expression – finite and ephemeral, perfect and complete. Not a facsimile or a distillation, but the real thing. It wasn’t a sustained piece of performance art for the sake of keeping up appearances – Mishima wasn’t the Chinese illusionist from the beginning of The Prestige or a precursor to Lady Gaga, he was simply of the mind that ideals were best communicated through expressive action.

So what does that make Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters? Of what value is a biopic about a man for whom art was ultimately a shadow of life itself? In those terms, it seems a tacitly reductive exercise, like streaming an IMAX presentation over a webcam – any film about him, it would follow, is ostensibly shackled to an antagonistic relationship with its subject. And yet, despite (or because) of its complicated dynamic with its namesake, Mishima remains the greatest movie ever made about a historical figure.


Schrader’s masterstroke was to devise a tripartite structure that speaks to Mishima’s fractured persona without necessarily submitting to his ideology. Here’s how it works: The film begins with a blurb of text that reveals Mishima’s eventual fate, thus preemptively muting any suspense and compelling the audience to look beyond the mere facts of Mishima’s life. Then, the first thread: Mishima on the day of his ritualistic suicide. He wakes up, throws on a sparkling blue robe (one of the film’s only nods to Mishima’s controversial homosexuality, a matter that his widow insisted Schrader leave alone), and then prepares his military apparel. This is filmed in garish and unromantic color, recalling the Maysles Brothers’ later documentary work.

Plaintive voiceover (much of which is borrowed from Mishima’s biographical essay “Sun and Steel”) then begins to coax out some context, slipping us into the shiny monochrome of Mishima’s early years. We see him as a young boy forced to care for his vaguely vile grandmother, and watch as he blossoms from an introverted wallflower into an imposing physical figure. And then – abruptly and most critically – the screen is alit by searing streaks of gold and green as text invites us into a dramatization of Mishima’s 1956 novel “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” the first of three novels that Schrader will bring to life. The sets for these sequences are wildly artificial – scale is askew, colors are unnaturally expressive, and rooms and buildings split apart and slide about on visible rails. Tying all of this together is Philip Glass’s fluid score, an immersive, swirling, even celestial body of music, which helps unify Schrader’s three aesthetics into a single cohesive portrait of a man who was more than an aggregate of his facts.


If it sounds complicated on paper, in practice it unfolds like a clear biographical antecedent to Inception. And – even more so than in Nolan’s blockbuster – Mishima fuses form and function to the point where its very structure is hugely expressive of its subject. A trite and true biopic of the conventional mold (think Amelia, if you can) would have implicitly drawn a line between Mishima and his image, whereas Schrader’s approach blends it all together, uniting man and myth in much the same way as Mishima ostensibly harmonized pen and sword.

But if the film assumes the fractured shape of Mishima’s ideology, Schrader is equally careful that he’s never beholden to it. Schrader doesn’t cooperate with Mishima so much as he uses him to reach a higher strata of portraiture. The eloquence of the film’s abstractions and artificiality reveal Mishima to the viewer in a way that a chronological account of his life never could – indirect but complete. Mishima was a man who was introduced to millions but only known to himself, and so fevered dramatizations of his novels (especially such revelatory works like “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” which scalps its author’s parallel understandings of beauty and destruction), are not only more penetrating than a conventional narrative, but also potentially more honest or “real” than even unmediated documentary testimony. It’s a notion that can be traced back to Andre Bazin’s “Myth of Total Cinema” – the closer the cinema inches to the mirage of facts, the further it will sprint from truth (see also: Herzog, Werner). Schrader meets Mishima on the latter’s terms, and in the process puts so much emphasis on form that the particulars of Mishima’s nationalistic martyrdom are scattered rather than enshrined. As a result, Schrader is able to respect his subject without having to also sanctify him in the process.

Having said that, the film forges a relationship between Schrader and Mishima that isn’t only complimentary, it’s practically symbiotic. Mishima – motivated by nationalistic ideals – gave his life to incite a moment’s harmony between pen and sword, and Schrader’s film lucidly captured that brilliant flash on celluloid (perhaps more comprehensively than Mishima himself might have thought possible). Mishima looked beyond the arts to etch his self-portrait, and Schrader looked to Mishima’s self-portrait to craft a biopic that obliterates the genre entirely. Through the film, the demonstrative relationship Mishima shared with the various texts of his creation is reborn in the relationship that artists share with those who interpret their work, a universal notion that supersedes the militaristic pageantry of Mishima’s death and goes straight for the implicitly human narrative that lead him there.

If all lives tell a story, Mishima simply wanted to write his own. Schrader created an electrifying testament to the idea that – for all of his wayward foibles – Mishima lived his masterpiece, and in doing so the great mustached filmmaker gave us one of his own.

Put down the sword and read more Criterion Files

When David Ehrlich isn’t staging a coup d’état, he’s busy making movies (you can see a trailer for his latest here) and writing various Criterion-related musings on his Criterion Corner blog. You can, and should, follow him on twitter @davidehrlich and @CriterionCorner.

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