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  • Writer's pictureMiles Stephenson

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Paul Schrader [4.5/5]

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

Paul Schrader found his best existential loner in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), asking what does manliness and sexual belonging look like in a 20th Century Japan that has forgotten its imperial past? The story pours through the psyche of prolific Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, living in vignettes of his own fiction (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko's House, and Runaway Horses) which mirror his development before the real life event of his suicide by seppuku in a Japanese Armed Forces office building.

In an interview on The Dick Cavett Show, Schrader remarked that it's hard for Americans to understand the affect this event had on Japan. I'd risk to say it's as if Hemingway himself stormed the Pentagon, took a U.S. General hostage, and demanded that a former President, say Teddy Roosevelt, be reinstated, before shooting himself. Of course, the parallels end there, as Japan's millennia of feudal history elude to a loss of romantic tradition that Americans never had. Yet this was more or less Mishima's plan when he took a detachment of his private army into a government building calling for the Emperor's return.

Interestingly, Mishima has made a revival in the online discourse among right-wing aesthetic accounts on Twitter which advocate for masculinity and body-building on the more superficial end (the kind of accounts which choose marble Greek statues for their profile pictures) and militarism and nationalism on the more radicalized end (BAPism). In a culture that many argue has come to worship ugliness, relativism, and democratic mediocrity, Mishima represents the raw power of traditional man. Surely these accounts aren't aware of Mishima's own self-conflicted homosexuality however, as Schrader's movie explores with empathetic depth.

Schrader collaborated with graphic designer Eiko Ishioka to construct some of the most awe-spiring sets and installations even seen on film. They are kaleidoscopic planes of dreamcore surrealism, often creating more states of mind than physical places. The aesthetic is a kind of proto-Vaporwave with neon pinks and golds while cinematographer John Bailey (The Pope of Greenwich Village, American Gigolo) shoots it with such weightless and sterile lighting as to create digitized liminal spaces.

Ultimately, the film soars above Schrader's other nihilistic suicidal protagonists like those in First Reformed, The Card Counter, and even Taxi Driver (which he wrote but did not direct) because it offers its anti-hero a climactic release, even if Mishima's desired outcome was never achieved. The brilliance of the movie is that although we haven't spent much time with the protagonist by the end, we have spent a great deal of time with the characters he has created, themselves projections of his own psyche. 4.5/5 stars, a visual trip to another dimension and a memorable story about one of Japan's titans and national heroes turned outcasts.

Miles Stephenson

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