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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters - Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters - Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Criterion // R // May 22, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted May 18, 2018 | E-mail the Author

Great biopics absolutely need an interesting person in the spotlight...so why not an influential right-wing Japanese writer, playwright, actor, film director, and model who left behind a staggering body of work after committing ritual suicide during his failed attempt to overthrow the government? Said man is Yukio Mishima (alias of Kimitake Hiraoka), played by Ken Ogata in Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), who did all those things and many more before he died at the ripe old age of 45 on November 25, 1970. Schrader's film uses creative set design, outstanding music, and dramatic recreations of Mishima's life and work -- specifically, his novels The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko's House, and Runaway Horses -- to examine the life of an intense, vulnerable, and dangerously misguided soul.

One of Mishima's most obvious strengths is the creative backdrops by late production designer Eiko Ishioka, who would later serve as costume designer for projects ranging from Bram Stoker's Dracula to multiple Olympics during the 2000s. Uniquely colorful and very period-specific, they also served as inventive cost-saving measures that also give each of the three novel dramatizations an extremely memorable appearance. The soundtrack by prolific composer Philip Glass is yet another highlight, which combines sweeping textures with a rigid, percussive undertone that often shifts moods drastically; the climactic pre-credits seppuku music cue would later be re-purposed (to much happier effect) for the closing moments of Peter Weir's The Truman Show. Not to be outdone, of course, is Ken Ogata's central performance as Mishima himself, a potent blend of fierceness and vulnerability that anchors much of the film's emotional weight. Together, they create a memorable collage that was almost doomed to failure: it was likely too Japanese for American audiences at the time...and perhaps too bitter a pill for the Japanese, even those who staunchly agreed with Mishima's beliefs.

Mishima was never officially released in theaters...or to the best of my knowledge, even exhibited at all in Japan, due to backlash from Mishima's widow and like-minded members of far-right political groups. That, combined with a woefully lackluster theatrical performance in the US (which wasn't aided by the addition of an English narration dub by actor Roy Scheider) all but guaranteed an eventual resurrection on home video. Sure enough, the film's enduring reputation among critics -- and Paul Schrader's insistence that Mishima is the favorite among his own films -- has grown even more since the release of Warner Bros.' 2001 DVD and Criterion's more elaborate 2008 DVD set, which debuted a "Director's Cut" with one restored deleted scene and a handful of rather drastic color shifts. That version is preserved here for their new Blu-ray, which is essentially a straight port with the addition of a new 4K-sourced transfer and lossless audio.

Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is sourced from a new 4K transfer supervised and approved by director Paul Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey; for now, it appears to be exclusive to Criterion's Blu-ray and obviously shows improvements over the studio's own 2008 DVD set. Black levels are consistently good, the film's color palette appears accurate (at least in comparison to Criterion's DVD, as Warner Bros.' disc looked much different during the "Runaway Horse" segment), image detail and textures are strong, and the film's grain structure is represented perfectly well from start to finish, which results in a natural, crisp, and spotless appearance. That said, Mishima takes place in different periods and its look can vary a bit, but this is a consistently good presentation for what it's worth. No obvious digital imperfections or heavy manipulation (compression artifacts, interlacing, excessive noise reduction, etc.) could be spotted along the way. I can't imagine Mishima looking much better on Blu-ray than it does here, so die-hard fans and newcomers alike should be extremely pleased with Criterion's efforts.


NOTE: The images on this page do not necessarily represent the title under review.

Like Criterion's DVD, this Blu-ray features three different PCM options: the original Japanese narration by Ken Ogata, alternate English narration by actor Roy Scheider, and an earlier "guide track" for Scheider by actor Paul Jasmin (please note that all three options are still mostly in Japanese with removable English subtitles). Dialogue and background effects are crisp and clear without fighting for attention, while Philip Glass' memorable music cues feature many strong moments of separation. To the best of my knowledge, this lossless stereo presentation is true to the source material and purists will enjoy the lack of surround gimmickry. Again, optional English subtitles are included during the film only.

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Criterion's interface is very smooth and easy to navigate with access to a timeline, chapters, and bonus features. The disc is locked for Region A players only; it's packaged in a beautiful super-shiny digipak case that's basically identical to Criterion's previous DVD with vivid artwork by Neil Kellerhouse. The interior Booklet features an essay by film critic Kevin Jackson, a piece on Mishima's censorship in Japan, notes on the restoration, and photographs of Ishioka's sets.

Everything from Criterion's terrific 2008 DVD set, now condensed onto a single Blu-ray. These recycled goodies include an Audio Commentary with director Paul Schrader and producer Alan Poul, the 44-minute behind-the-scenes documentary "Making Mishima", the 55-minute 1985 BBC doc "The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima", a few Interviews (featuring the likes of biographer John Nathan, film historian Donald Richie, Chieko Schrader, and Mishima himself), and the film's Theatrical Trailer. As such, the bonus features from Warner's 2001 DVD -- an older solo audio commentary with Schrader, a short promotional featurette, and a deleted scene with optional commentary -- are still not here, presumably for rights issues. (Again, the last item has been restored as part of this "Director's Cut", so it's not exactly a huge loss.)

Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters stylishly sheds light on a short-lived but notable Japanese writer during his youth, adulthood, and final hours. It's told in a way that should appeal to those already familiar with him; anyone largely unaware of Mishima's exploits should do some reading first. The film uses creative set design, superb music, plus dramatic recreations of Mishima's life and work to examine an intense, vulnerable, and dangerously misguided soul. Fittingly, Criterion's Blu-ray builds upon their terrific 2008 DVD set with a new 4K-sourced transfer and lossless audio, but everything else is the same. Highly Recommended, especially to those stuck with the old Warner Bros. DVD.


Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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