Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
Written by Leonard & Paul Schraeder
Directed by Paul Schraeder
I don’t know much about Yukio Mishima, and after watching Paul Schrader’s film, I still can’t say I developed a vast knowledge of his history. My comments in this review on Mishima come from additional research I did to try and give myself a context for what happened in the film. This adaptation of the Japanese author’s work and life is aesthetically brilliant. I particularly love Paul Schraeder’s choice of colors and cinematography to differentiate the past, present, and the dramatization of Mishima’s novels. However, he doesn’t provide the needed history and context for a Westerner to fully understand what is happening. I don’t like overly expository films, but I think just a bit might have been needed here.
Yukio Mishima was a writer, model, actor, and finally, a right-wing nationalist who founded his own cult-like militia, the Tatenokai, which tried to strictly adhere to the code of bushido. His goal with the army was to restore power to the Japanese Emperor, which was less about honoring that ruler’s office than imposing a strict hierarchy of class in Japan and regressing the growing egalitarianism. Schraeder does little to comment on Mishima’s political beliefs and tries to frame them within his aesthetic ideology, but there are hints of the writer’s core principles seeded throughout the picture. A scene where young Mishima attends the opera with his grandmother has her sneering at the “commoners” in the lobby who weren’t allowed there when she was younger.
The “present” day section of the film follows Mishima as he prepares to lead a small group of his Tatenokai in a coup of a military base in Tokyo where he will implore the soldiers to rise up and overturn the 1947 Japanese Constitution. This post-war document established the Japanese parliament, reduced the role of the Emperor to a ceremonial one, and increased the rights to due process, speech, and labor immensely. It can definitely be argued that this document was forced upon Japan by Western powers and that the United States, in particular, took advantage of the weakened nation. But the restoration of the monarchical fascist society that existed at the time of World War II would not have been the right path either. Mishima’s perspective was that the old way was the better way.
So much of what the film presents of Mishima’s ideology reads like the same over-romanticized alt-right fascistic bullshit you come across on the internet daily. There is this call to an old, seemingly lost noble way of doing things that only appears that way because of the lack of introspection. It’s is an ideology that appeals to adolescent males who don’t really have a method of coming of age in a post-modern society. I have always understood why some boys are drawn to this way of thinking but recognize that if you apply even the slightest bit of scrutiny, not getting caught up in the cult-like mentality, you see it fall apart before your eyes. Mishima delivers his passionate speech to the soldiers that have gathered while he holds a general hostage. Instead of rallying to his declarations, they mock him and shout for him to give up. Mishima realizes he has failed in his bid and commits seppuku.
Mishima seems caught up in the typically fascist concept of the individualist hero. You see this in Ayn Rand’s writing as well. It also fuels so much of the superhero comics world, which is what has led to my discomfort with a lot of that content as an adult. The singular person rising above the fray of the unwashed masses is such a destructive concept, and as you can see in Mishima, it leads to his self-annihilation. Now, he saw this as a tragically beautiful act, but I read it as a waste of so much cultural influence and a betrayal to his family. I don’t think suicide is some sort of unforgivable sin, but to die in the name of such a shallow cause drains all worth from it. There is definitely a psychic dissonance caused by the world’s shift into this post-modern landscape, primarily fueled by systems that try to leverage economic oppression into the illusion of freedom. Mishima’s desire to move back to feudal monarchy wouldn’t solve those problems, but they exist as a result of centuries of humanity living in those very oppressive structures. The mental breakdown of our times comes out of cultures centered on individuals, kings & emperors. My personal belief is that more egalitarian and collectivist we become, the less our psyches will be strained by the breakdown of longstanding structures and systems. But thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.
Schrader does an excellent job of communicating the aesthetics of fascism throughout Mishima. The highly artificial and staged adaptations of Mishima’s writings are stylized to an extreme level. The writer is obsessed with physical beauty, which seems to override any other subclassification of beauty in his mind. In particular, Mishima is captivated by male physicality. He was bisexual but had a wife and children; however, his life’s focus seemed to be on being in the company of men and objectifying his own body. Fascism feels more religious to me than political in that it is hyperfocused on iconography and symbols. There is so much symbolism throughout the movie, mainly in the novel adaptations, everything means something else. I think this is a crucial insight into the fascist mind. For example, climate change, which should be entirely politically neutral because it is about the survival of the human race and our planet, is twisted into a political issue by extreme right-wingers. This is a scientific event outside of the artificial constructs of American party politics yet is turned into a firestorm for partisan rhetoric by fascist-leaning pols.
Mishima was a profoundly complicated person who sought out deceptively simplistic solutions to his psychological problems. That seems to be the M.O. for so many youths pulled into the dark side of things these days. How little it changes. It is easier to subsume oneself in empty talismans and mysticism that hearkens back to an imagined history than to grapple with your own personal issues. The elevation of other classes of people is often perceived as a threat by these people who fail to realize they were never part of an elite power class. They have possessed more privilege but could not see how far below the actual structure of concentrated hegemony they were. Mishima remains a tragic figure, one open for valid criticism but also a sad waste of a remarkably talented writer.