The tragic life and death of Yukio Mishima

How Paul Schrader reinterpreted the fascinating story of the revered Japanese author.


Tom Graham

Yukio Mishima was among Japan’s most celebrated post-war authors. His personal life and his art were followed by the whole country, right up to 25 November, 1970, when he and four of his followers entered an army headquarters in Tokyo and took the commander hostage. Mishima demanded the garrison be assembled, then stepped out onto the balcony. Standing over the crowd, he was the very figure of Japanese masculinity, dressed in immaculate, fitted military wear with the traditional white and red hachimaki tied around his forehead. He addressed the soldiers and tried to start a coup, exhorting them to swear their allegiance to the emperor and reinstall a prewar society. At first they listened, then they mocked and jeered. Mishima stepped back inside and committed seppuku, thrusting a short blade into his belly and yanking it from left to right, disembowelling himself.

In his biopic Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader found his ideal subject. Although a successful director in his own right, Schrader is best known for his screenplays. He wrote Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, in which he explored masculinity in the modern world, and how men riven by vanity and insecurity can snap into violence. The protagonist of that film, Travis Bickle, is an existential outsider who finds meaning for his life in preparing for a fatal goal. As soon as he sets his mission, his life crystallises. He narrates his transformation in the dreary monotone of a sociopath. Junk food is out; press-ups are in; he will “wash the scum off the streets”. His mission climaxes in a shootout far messier and realer than he had imagined. At the end he tries to cap his story with a bullet through his head, but the chamber clicks empty.

The parallels between Mishima and Bickle are striking. But Mishima, who was repeatedly tipped for the Nobel Prize for Literature, was much more besides. He was a sickly child who became a dedicated bodybuilder. He was an ardent traditionalist and a bisexual masochist. He was a man of words desperate to be a man of action, and for whom life was but a prelude to death. He was by nature introspective, and his imagination shaped his reality just as much as the opposite was true. There was a Yukio Mishima, but there was also a sustained fiction of “Yukio Mishima”. Both could have been creations of Paul Schrader, but in this instance life was stranger than fiction.

A subject as enigmatic as Mishima could not be fathomed by a conventional biopic. Knowing this, Schrader chose to interweave Mishima’s reality, memory and imagination using three distinct visual styles. The first is relatively ordinary, following the events on the day of Mishima’s death. The second is shot in wistful black-and-white, evoking the golden age of Japanese cinema and delves into Mishima’s past, as recorded by himself. The third style is literally theatrical, shot on a stage with stylised, geometric sets suspended in darkness. It is used to depict scenes from Mishima’s writings, and is accompanied by a soaring, celestial score by Philip Glass. On paper Schrader’s structure may seem complex, but in practice it reveals a perfectly clear thread running through Mishima’s life and art.

What becomes clear is that Mishima was a man whose life and art were indistinguishable. When he wrote, Mishima wrote from himself, as perhaps all writers do. He cut slivers of his psyche and wrote stories around them. Three of Mishima’s novels feature in the film. In ‘The Temple of the Golden Pavilion’ a young acolyte with a stutter becomes oppressed by the overwhelming beauty of the pavilion. After sleeping with a prostitute and losing his stutter, he burns it to the ground. In ‘Kyoko’s House’, a young, body-building actor signs his body over to a woman to pay his mother’s debt. Their affair becomes increasingly sadomasochistic, until they eventually commit suicide together. And in ‘Runaway Horses’, a young cadet with a cell of comrades attempts to purge Japan of its corrupting modernity. The plan fails, but the cadet manages to kill one business man and earns his seppuku, his beautiful death. In one way or another, all three prefigure events in Mishima’s life, and help you understand what drove him to his death.

Mishima’s suicide was the final touch on his greatest work of art: himself. He was obsessed with the artistic possibilities of dying young, beautiful and pure – at his peak. He understood that to destroy yourself before you fade is, in a way, to preserve yourself: “perfect purity is possible if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.” The bizarre failed coup was notionally intended to restore a prewar society, but was really a theatrical flourish to frame the suicide he had been planning all his life. It was the apotheosis of his work, the moment Yukio Mishima became “Yukio Mishima” – a perfect eclipse: “the instant that the blade tore open his flesh, the bright disk of the sun soared up and exploded behind his eyelids.”

Published 25 May 2016

Tags: Japanese cinema Paul Schrader Yukio Mishima

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