The Criterion Corner

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Director: Paul Schrader

Year of release: 1985
Running time: 2 hours

Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader's 1985 quasi-biopic of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.  

Paul Schrader's mesmeric examination of Japanese author and enigmatic figure Yukio Mishima, seems like a film lost in time. Part of this has to do with the way this particular story is told; dividing its time between a traditional biopic structure and an unconventional synthesis of Mishima's writings. It's also a film rarely mentioned when investigating Schrader's work, especially seeing as the script for Taxi Driver remains his most celebrated accomplishment. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, however, is his finest hour behind the camera; with elegantly constructed sets, costuming, and rapturous cinematography all throbbing to Philip Glass's piercing orchestral score.

In November 1970, Mishima committed suicide after addressing an army garrison, and the film begins with this fact and works backwards, giving us black and white flashbacks to his younger days as well as stylized interpretations from some of his most famous novels. Mishima's hopes of a prewar society; complete with martial rules and obedience to an emperor, made him a polarizing figure, and Schrader's picture has a rich denseness which holds contradictory impulses in tandem. While the formalism on display here is cold and detached, Ken Otaga's central performance is simmering with humanity beneath the pain and self-righteousness. We may not fully understand Mishima's actions, but Otaga makes us believe he was a tortured individual who was either blindly nihilistic or savagely brave, depending on one's perspective.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is an extraordinary splash of color, sound, and rich narrative construction. It's a film worthy of The Criterion Collection, and one that will hopefully have cinephiles clamoring for a look at Schrader's indelible contribution to cinema beyond God's lonely man.