Saturday, July 5, 2008

Breaching the life/art divide: synthesis, style and seppuku in Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and Mishima's own Patriotism

If Japanese author Yukio Mishima seemed unusually anachronistic it may be above all because he staked so much on the equation of aesthetic power and political power, trusting that attaining the one would naturally lead to p
ossessing the other. Yet that he also staked everything on the romantic belief that beauty and destruction must court one and other on equal terms, the former reciprocating the latter in fortitude, gets perhaps closer to the deeper truth of this man, the only genuine key to the mystery. Great beauty, in Mishima’s highly disciplined ontology, could receive no higher honour than to meet with a magisterial death.

Paul Schrader’s remarkable, at once beguiling and grotesque film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) wisely founds every aspect of its complex portrait of the artist within the consideration of this deeper truth, bookending itself with the event that most boldly exemplified Mishima’s aesthetic convictions. On November 25, 1970, Mishima ate no breakfast. He carefully laid out his pristine uniform, the one he had specially designed for his private army. He gathered his closest aides, laid siege to Japanese military headquarters, and attempted to rouse a disinterested audience of soldiers and journalists with appeals for Japan’s return to imperial rule. He then committed ritual suicide, or seppuku, before having his men chop off his head. In the nearly four decades since, Japan still seems unable to process this event.

United by one of Philip Glass’ finest scores, Mishima’s final hours, shot in quasi-documentary style, are interwoven with biographical episodes, shot in black and white, and dramatizations from three Mishima novels—Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses—that help to convey his persona as it paralleled or imitated his fiction. These sections are the most visually extraordinary, vibrantly colourful, highly theatrical sequences that owe as much to the special genius of designer Eiko Ishioka as to the formal brilliance and collaborative skills of Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey. The result, buoyed by the charming, tormented, spookily focused central performance of Ken Ogata, is not a comprehensive bio-pic so much as a study in meticulous self-invention, and an investigation into a very particular psychopathology. As Glass puts it, Mishima is about “how the unimaginable becomes inevitable.”

Watching Mishima on Criterion’s new two-disc set, it occurs to me that the only other movie that shares something of its specific approach to literary portraiture is David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (91), which is more a portrait of William S. Burroughs than it is an adaptation of his famous experimental novel. Both movies fuse their writer’s lives with their fiction, both blur artifice and naturalism, both wrestle with their writer’s complicated relationship to homosexuality in fittingly complicated ways, both fixate beautifully on fetish objects and use the body as the site of drama, and both use death as a catalyst of creative propulsion. I bring up this comparison not to diminish Mishima but rather to try and supply a better idea of just how special the movie is.

Criterion’s supplementary material, generous by even their standards, can of course offer a far better idea. The audio commentary by the always engaging Schrader and producer Alan Poul—recorded two weeks after the death of Schrader’s brother and Mishima’s co-screenwriter Leonard—is especially enlightening and lively. Apparently Schrader’s first idea for a movie about an artist willing himself toward death was a Hank Williams bio-pic, though clearly in Mishima—his brother’s idea—he found a subject that would truly up the ante regarding the themes of narcissism, obsession and death he’d been exploring in Taxi Driver (76) and American Gigolo (80). The bulk of the commentary focuses on the extreme sensitivity of the Japanese toward everything to do with Mishima and the many, sometimes frightening campaigns to shut down production in the country where the film has never been theatrically released to this day. Another highlight is a short video featuring insights from Japanese film scholar Donald Richie, who was also a friend of Mishima’s, and Mishima biographer John Nathan. Both speak eloquently and respectfully about Mishima’s painstaking efforts to stage-manage his own life and construct his own celebrity.

Arguably the greatest example of Mishima’s will to synthesize art and life—outside of his novels—is found in Patriotism (66), the 29-minute film he wrote, produced, directed and starred in, which is also now available from Criterion in a separate package with its own very good array of supplements. Shot secretly with a borrowed crew in silent black and white, Patriotism concerns the double suicide of a Japanese Lieutenant and his wife, based on a real event that occurred in 1936. The film feels wholly disinterested in developing narrative, leaving context and developments entirely to title cards. What we get instead is a stark, theatrical, inventively photographed, eroticized aestheticization of suicide, replete with the spilling of entrails and great splashes of blood on white surfaces. The film, obviously, was one of many unabashed rehearsals for its author’s death.

Besides an informative essay by Tony Rayns, the best material on Criterion’s Patriotism disc comes from Mishima himself, who, in both archival film and audio-only interviews, discusses his ideas on Japan’s defeat in WWII, nationalism, death, literature, the West, and much more. Curiously, Mishima makes consistently compelling arguments for even his most unnerving points of view, and his particular charisma, even weighed against the violence of his life, enchants and entices from beyond the grave.

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