July 1, 2008



Reviewer: Erin Donovan
Rating (out of 5): ****½

Paul Schrader -- having internalized the criticism he faced after Taxi Driver of pouring his obsession with ritualistic suicide into an illiterate, mentally ill Vietnam veteran -- explores the real life (and gruesome death) of one of Japan's most revered literary figures, Yukio Mishima. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters exists in Schrader's eclectic directorial body of work squarely between the Cat People re-make and the odd Joan Jett/Michael J. Fox vehicle Light of Day. And even though he would go on to direct the widely commended Affliction and the intriguing Auto Focus, Schrader has always maintained (rightfully so) that Mishima was his greatest work.

The film follows the traditional trajectory of a biopic: his dysfunctional upbringing, romantic endeavors, romantic failures, political radicalization and self-discovery but the wikipedia-approach is not the main objective. Schrader (always more respected as a screenwriter than director, then and now) understands that a writer's work and fantasy life hold the key to understanding the choices they make in the terrestrial realm.

To that end Schrader translates the four chapters of Mishima's story (Beauty, Art, Action, Harmony of Pen & Sword) in three different styles: traditional black and white filmstock shot on locked-down cameras for memories, hyperreal theatrical productions for Mishima's written works and the final day of Mishima's life in loose, cinema-verite style.

So many "shocking" experiences we have these days are just choreographed events for commercial purposes; there are few things in America's culture or history to draw comparison to Mishima's last day and it's easy to understand Japan's continuing ambivalence over his life and work. On the day of his death he donned a military uniform and employed a group of his devotees to seize a general's office and read his manifesto demanding the Emperor's powers be restored. Hoping to inspire a military coup among the soldiers who watched below. When his words were met with ridicule and scorn he returned to the general's office and disemboweled himself with a sword and was then beheaded by one of his fellow protestors -- a practice commonly referred to as "seppuku."

The film's unique score will be familiar to even first-time viewers. Unable to pay famed composer Philip Glass his going rate but wanting his unique fingerprint, Schrader struck a deal unusual then and now, paying him a lower rate but allowing Glass to maintain the rights to his work. Since then the score has appeared in Peter Weir's The Truman Show (for which it won a Golden Globe) and numerous commercials.

Despite winning numerous awards at Cannes, the film was a box office bomb in the States and was barred from having any official release in Japan due to some (extremely tame) homosexual content.

The almost daunting collection of DVD extras on Criterion's rich new two-disc set include a new commentary track from Schrader with producer Alan Poul and optional voice narration by the recently deceased Roy Scheider (in English) and Ken Ogata (in Japanese). The bonus disc includes a 55-minute BBC documentary about Mishima, making-of featurettes that include interviews with the film's cinematographer, production designer and producers; as well as featurettes with Mishima biographers and audio interview with co-screenwriter Chieko Schrader.

See also: Patriotism, All that Jazz, Dogville, Titus, The Aviator, Protagonist, Frida, The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On.

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Posted by cphillips at July 1, 2008 8:52 AM
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