With 40 novels, 18 plays, 20 volumes of short stories, and numerous major essays under his belt when he died at age 45, it is a puzzle to any writer how the Japanese author Yukio Mishima ever found the time to step away from his desk. But the true mystery about Mishima is the rich, blustery life he lived, and the grim way he chose to end it. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four young members of the Shield Society, his private army (yeah, you read that right), seized a Tokyo garrison of the national Self-Defense Forces in an attempted coup d’état. The five men were able to seize the fortress’s commandant, but when Mishima failed to exhort the 800 soldiers stationed to join his revolution, he committed ritual suicide.
Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)–which opens a week-long run next Wednesday at Film Forum, in an enhanced version–is understandably preoccupied with its tortured subject’s final hours. But Mishima was a gifted writer, not just a prolific one, and his work deserves to be remembered for reasons other than the circumstances surrounding his death. The genius of Schrader’s expressionist biopic is the way he seamlessly unites Mishima’s life and art. Dramatizations of scenes from the author’s books (which take place on gorgeous, boldly-colored minimalist sets) serve as a gloss on the story of a sickly boy-poet who transforms himself as an adult into a compulsive bodybuilder and expert swordsman. The more salacious aspects of Mishima’s biography (including the ongoing debate over the nature of his sexuality) are addressed but not dwelled upon.
Schrader remains best known as Martin Scorsese’s former screenwriter of choice (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) and, among cinephiles, for a seminal 1972 essay on film noir. But he has also assembled a fascinating, if uneven, body of work as a director of movies–American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, Auto Focus–about driven, single-minded men. (His latest, Adam Resurrected, opens tomorrow). Mishima, however, continues to be Schrader’s most satisfying film, due to its ideal marriage of auteur and protagonist. In Mishima, Schrader fully convinces us of his character’s heroism–even if that heroism is obsessive, destructive, and ultimately, impossible to comprehend.–Benjamin Strong