The Japanese have a storied tradition of writer suicides, but the reams of foreshadowing and grand-gesture media spectacle of Yukio Mishima’s outro set something of a gold standard. On November 25, 1970, the man who was perhaps his nation’s most famous postwar author held the commanding officer of a Tokyo-defense base hostage, aided by a cadre of followers from his “Shield Society,” a nationalistic private militia. After delivering a speech-harangue—theoretically meant to incite a military coup—to an assembly of confused and jeering soldiers, the author committed seppuku, unraveling his guts on the general’s carpet.
Director Paul Schrader identifies his 1985 Mishima as a thematic cousin to Taxi Driver, the screenplay he’d written a decade prior: Both works accomplice self-mythologizing isolationists who write as though sharpening knives. Schrader applied ultra-formalist technique to later biopics of the kidnapped Patty Hearst (captors in anonymous silhouette-play) and TV star Bob Crane (imperceptible erosion into handheld breakdown), but it’s Mishima‘s diagrammatic structure that most perfectly suits its subject, defined by his will to harmony. Henry Scott Stokes, an early Mishima biographer, cried plagiarism—more likely, it’s impossible to retell Mishima’s life without following the detailed stage directions he left.
Schrader’s Mishima collaborates with Mishima, symphonizing a life conceptualized as a total work of art—the infamous narcissist would approve (though he would’ve preferred to play himself). The author’s last moment is uncritically staged just as Mishima visualized it: as his masterpiece, a moment of complete synchronicity that makes his self-slaughter sublime.
Mishima‘s radical empathy with its subject’s “aesthetic nihilism” is just one unlikely thing about this project. It took a remarkable feat of self-confidence (or presumption) for a gaijin to attempt the story of such a singly Japanese figure—in Japanese, no less. (Prior to this, Schrader, who co-wrote the script with his Nipponophile brother, Leonard, had been planning a film on another self-sacrifice, Hank “Never Get Out of This World Alive” Williams, which would’ve arguably put him in an even more foreign milieu.) Initially cooperative, Mishima’s estate eventually rejected the project; to date, it has never had a proper Japanese release.
The film is divided into four movements (a nod to Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy), each of which takes place on three planes: a vérité recounting of Mishima’s last day; a fragmentary chronology of the author’s life (many scenes from his autobiographical Confessions of a Mask, in staid black-and-white); and stylized passages from his novels, illustrating the honing of his worldview. These theatrical interludes begin with balcony views of Eiko Ishioka’s sets—for Schrader, “little glowing rooms [that] simulate the writer’s vision”—as Philip Glass’s score thrums, pulse-like. The result is a sumptuous austerity, paralleling Mishima’s disciplined decadence. The shock of submersion into these clean, bright hatbox spaces is delirious, as in the entry to Kyoko’s House: all pink and bruise-purple; an actress reading Romeo & Juliet; silvery, scourging guitar sounds; a solemn beatnik smoker.
We see Mishima’s unusual position as a public intellectual, conversant in the language of mass culture, using multimedia venues to advocate traditional imperial fealty. A shut-in, bookish child, Mishima weight-trains himself into the camera-ready stoic hero of his mind’s eye, Gide’s Sensualist by way of Travis Bickle (though Mishima fetishizes antique katana, not firearms). He has himself photographed as a beefcake samurai, a Derek Jarman St. Sebastian. He dabbles in filmmaking—his one directorial effort, Patriotism, was a dry run for his suicide in Noh mannerism. His image appears on the posters for lowbrow genre fare—credits include an appearance as a human statue in Kinji Fukasaku’s Black Lizard, alongside female impersonator Akihiro Miwa, with whom he had an affair (Schrader muffles references to Mishima’s ambivalent adult sex life to one scene in a Ginza gay bar).
It’s difficult to make a real Mishima stand out in his hall of mirrors of literary surrogates, but Ken Ogata (who died in October)—taut, with a glimmer of juvenile glee—provides that human continuity. Facing down student demonstrators, he’s the picture of sardonic counterrevolutionary chic, secretly savoring the anticipation of his own death.