I recently reviewed Wagner's Tristan und Isolde for DVD Talk, and mentioned the bizarre German fascination linking love with death, perhaps best exemplified by Wagner's own "Liebestod," (Love-death) written for that opera. Imagine my surprise, then, to hear Wagner's elegy bursting forth from Patriotism, a Japanese art film by author and playwright Yukio Mishima. And yet it made and makes perfect sense--Mishima was a man entranced by death, especially death as a result of ritual suicide, too often mischaracterized by Westerners as hara-kiri, when Mishima and other purists preferred the term seppuku. Patriotism is most likely a film that will appeal to a select few interested in Mishima the man, but the good news is it deals with its thesis in a mere 27 minutes while Wagner's opera takes hours to unfold.
Patriotism is, for all intents and purposes, a silent film with an added orchestral soundtrack. It is told in epigrammatic segments interspersed with long, detailed interstitial expository texts. The black and white feature has only two actors, Mishima himself as an army lieutenant, a member of the Imperial Guard who has been secretly involved in a coup which has failed. The Emperor has decreed that the lieutenant's cohorts be executed and the lieutenant himself has been appointed that task. Unable to disgrace himself and his friends that way, he has decided ritual suicide is the only way out. He is supported fully in that decision by his new wife Reiko, played by the lovely Yoshiko Tsuruoka.
The film is simply the depiction of the couple's last evening together, one consisting of long langorous looks at each other leading to lovemaking, and then their successive deaths. It doesn't sound like much, but Patriotism casts an almost dreamlike spell that is not easily forgotten. As strange as it may sound, though this film is played in kabuki style as if in a Japanese N'oh performance, and with Wagner's music blaring from the soundtrack, Patriotism reminded me most of two of Alain Resnais' masterpieces, Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. Patriotism shares Resnais' love of beautifully arranged tableaux with little if any action, with a similar doting love of the human form in close-up. Mishima, directing as well as starring and writing (in the only film he ever made), obviously had full control on the very minimalist style presented here, and it works in often unexpected ways. Note, for instance, how Mishima's eyes are never seen throughout the film, lending his character an almost inhuman and certainly dissociative presence.
The death scenes, Mishima's especially, are horrifyingly graphic and, matching Wagner's music, completely operatic. Mishima spent a life fascinated by suicide (his first novel "Tozuko" featured suicide as a major plot element), and of course he is probably best known to westerners for his own ritual suicide in 1970, after, as is perhaps presciently portrayed in Patriotism, an abortive attempt at a coup. After Mishima's death, his widow had all prints of the film recalled and destroyed and the film was presumed lost in the intervening decades. The negative was evidently saved and recently resurfaced, and Criterion has released the film on DVD for the first time, making it available for a new generation. With Paul Schrader's biopic Mishima (which contains a segment on the making of Patriotism) about to be released by Criterion, this release will serve as a fascinating companion piece.