“Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” the 1985 masterpiece by director and screenwriter Paul Schrader, documents the life of legendary Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata) and his obsessive quest to transform himself into a work of art, destroying himself in the process. While most biopics simply tell the story of their subjects’ lives from beginning to end, “Mishima” is far more ambitious and unconventional in both narrative structure and visual style.
The film seamlessly moves between three facets of Mishima’s life. The first is his childhood memories, which are rendered in black and white. The second facet is the plots of his novels, which Schrader paints in fantastical colors with dollhouse-like miniature sets. The film depicts three of Mishima’s works: “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” (1956), “Kyoko’s House” (1959) and “Runaway Horses” (1969). The final facet is the events of the last day of his life, which is shot in a more realistic color palette. On Nov. 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima and a few of his devotees attempted a coup d’etat against the Japanese ministry of defense, which ended in Mishima’s death by suicide.
Yukio Mishima was a fervent Japanese nationalist who despised the cultural shift away from the intense devotion that defined World War II-era Japan. He lived his life under the traditional samurai code of Bushido and advocated for an absolute monarchy under the emperor. In the opening scene of the film, Mishima dons his well-ironed military uniform, getting dressed for what he knows will likely be his final day, with no sense of anxiety about what is to come. Through scenes of Mishima’s childhood, which shows him dealing with his emotionally abusive grandmother (Haruko Kato) and his budding homosexuality, Schrader reveals to us that this machismo is simply a facade for Mishima’s deep-seated insecurities. The young Mishima became obsessed with changing the world, desperate to free himself from his feelings of inferiority.
“My need to transform reality was an urgent necessity, as important as three meals a day or sleep,” Mishima recalls. “I wanted to explode, light the sky for an instant and disappear.”
Schrader transitions from the dull grey tones of the past to an explosion of gold and crimson as he introduces Mishima’s first story. The protagonist of “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” is a young monk (Yasosuke Bando) who suffers from a debilitating stutter, much like Mishima did in his lonely childhood apartment. The monk, who initially found the titular golden pavilion beautiful, becomes disgusted by its permanence and chooses to burn the temple to the ground. “That’s the p-p-power of beauty’s eternity,” the monk says. “It poisons us. It blocks out our lives.” The novel is based on the true story of a young Buddhist acolyte who torched the 600-year-old temple of Kinkaku-ji in 1950.
Schrader pairs each story with events in Mishima’s life to contextualize both reality and fiction through Mishima’s ideals. “Golden Pavillion” deals with Mishima’s beliefs that true beauty must be fleeting and that his stuttering protagonist can overcome his insecurities through the destruction of the eternal. “Kyoko’s House” highlights Mishima’s thoughts of his body as another work of art to be perfected and destroyed, and his notion that true expression must extend beyond art to the real world. This aligns with his belief that any man over the age of 40 can no longer die a beautiful death, and it is better to burn out at the height of one’s beauty. “Runaway Horses” demonstrates Mishima’s journey to acknowledging that true purity can only be achieved through action, not words. He began to despise his work as a novelist and wished to transcend his medium by committing his devotion into action as a filmmaker, though he again became disillusioned by the inauthenticity of art. He transcended art entirely through his attempted coup against the Japanese military, the very real stakes of his situation providing the purity of spirit he so desperately sought.
Using three stunningly beautiful visual styles, Schrader masterfully provides insight into the life and mind of Yukio Mishima such that the seemingly disparate parts of the film come together to paint a complete picture of who Mishima was and what he believed. All of these insights into Mishima’s psyche and beliefs provide us his motivation for his actions on that fateful Nov. 25. Mishima, standing above the crowd of soldiers below, speaks to them about how the Japanese spirit is dying, and how the military is the last hope to keep Bushido and his ideals of purity alive. However, the soldiers reject Mishima’s message. Having done all he can do, Mishima cuts his stomach open, killing himself. His life and death became his final work of art. At the height of his beauty, he purified the spirit of Japan, sacrificing himself for his ideals in the process.
In the final scene of the film, we see Mishima and his protagonist from “Runaway Horses” committing seppuku at the same time, the same determination in their faces. The film closes with Mishima’s own words from “Runaway Horses”: “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.”
With the 50th anniversary of Mishima’s death approaching, “Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters” is a masterpiece of a character study that cannot be missed.