• Wes Hazard

Best Biopic I've seen in a Minute



Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Dir. Paul Schrader, 1985)


Every once in a while I'll be watching a movie and around the 20 minute mark I'll think to myself "this one's special". I've only seen a relatively small sliver of the whole thing but already just the beginnings of the visuals and the acting and the soundtrack and the writing have come together to kick my ass into total attention – and hope – hope that the steam won't run out like it does all too often when a brilliant start unravels into disappointment and what could have been. The Fountain rewarded my hope, Solaris did, Dope did. And this past weekend Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters did. It is one of the best biopics I've ever seen about one of the most fascinating subjects with a style so striking that I'd gladly hang a framed still of at least 5 of its scenes in my home one day.


It's co-written and directed by Paul Schrader who's most known for writing Taxi Driver and who's weird directorial effort Cat People (an 80s erotic horror remake of a 40s arty B movie) I enjoyed a long long time ago. I also enjoyed his Hardcore starring George C. Scott when I saw it last summer, but more for its way of showing a very specific scene at a very specific time in LA than for it being an overall great film. From all the films that I've seen which Schrader has written/co-written/directed like it's obvious that he's obsessed with obsessed & damaged men wracked by guilt and with an inability to express themselves in constructive ways. That's very much on display here, except Japanese author Yukio Mishima definitely found some constructive ways to express himself (on top of some deeply destructive ones).


I've never ready any of Mishima's novels or stories (will def be correcting that soon!) but I was familiar with him because of the spectacular manner of his death which involved committing ritual suicide after taking a general officer hostage at a Japanese military base in 1970 and giving a speech about the need to restore Japan to an absolute imperial monarchy. Ostensibly it was an attempt at a coup/imperial revolution but most people seem to agree that Mishimia never thought it was going to succeed and he just wanted to set the stage for a dramatic death that he saw as the perfect union and ultimate fulfillment of his life and his art. That's the kind of thing that can completely overshadow one's actual literary output but the movie makes us appreciate the writer as well as the spectacle by blending both a conventional biopic with heavily stylized scenes from 3 of his books and stories. Finding out just how all of that mixes together is one of the many pleasures of this movie and while I don't think this will be everyone's type of thing by a long shot I can say that if you like it you will REALLY like it and be left thinking about it for a long time after watching.


And the music, by Philip Glass, just...damn. Glass is one of my favorite composers and a go-to artist for me to put on when I'm writing or reading so I'd heard a lot of the score before outside the context of the movie. ADDITIONALLY, as you may or may not know I'm a Truman Show fanatic (truly find that to be an endlessly rewarding/revealing film text) and the opening theme from Mishima is recycled on the Truman soundtrack so it was like 3 levels of weird overlapping appreciation.


Loved it without reservation, will def watch again in a few years, and probably every few years.


Here's Roger Ebert's insightful review from 1985 if you're interested.


As unorthodox as Schrader's approach to Mishima's life may be, I cannot imagine a better one. Like Hemingway and Mailer, Mishima conceived his life and his work as intimately related through his libido. In Mishima's case this process was made more complex by his bisexuality and masochism, and his "private army" combined ritual with buried sexuality; his soldiers were young, handsome and willing to die for him, and they wore uniforms as fetishistic as the Nazis. ... Mishima is his ultimate man in a room. There is the young boy, separated from his mother and held almost captive by a possessive grandmother, who won't let him go out to play but wants him always at her side. There is the writer, returning to his desk every day at midnight to write his books and plays in monkish isolation. There is the public man, uniformed, advocating the Bushido Code, acting the role of military commander of his own army. On the last day of his life, he is ceremoniously dressed by a follower and adheres to a rigid timetable that leads to his meticulously planned and rehearsed suicide, or seppuku. Considering that he is a man fully committed to plunging a sword into his own guts, he seems remarkably serene; his life, his work, his obsession have finally become synchronous. ... [On Mishima in the film] He is insane, yes, but not confused. He thinks with the perfect clarity of the true believer, and in this case his belief is in himself and his statement.

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