Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Warner Bros. // R // $19.98 // August 7, 2001
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted August 20, 2001
Highly Recommended
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Paul Schrader is not a filmmaker known for his visual style. His filmography is populated mostly with stories of lower-middleclass, down-and-out Americans inhabiting grey, dour urban landscapes (Blue Collar, White Palace, Light of Day, his Taxi Driver screenplay). For those familiar with those films, however, his Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) is a revelation. Based on the incredible story of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, the film is as visually striking as it is rigidly structured.

In order to tell the story, in which Mishima, who Schrader compares in literary stature to Norman Mailer, forms a right-wing militia and tries to take command of the Japanese military, Schrader created several formal distinctions. First, he split the film into four parts: The first, "Beauty" deals with Mishima's struggle with the world around him. "Art" finds Mishima translating his experiences into his writing and other art forms. "Action" shows his increasingly political strategy, which includes the formation of his own army. "The Harmony of the Pen and the Sword" contains Mishima's final attempt to join the different worlds in which he exists. Additionally, the first three chapters contain staged excerpts from Mishima's stories. These scenes comment on the man, his mind, and on the climate around him.

Another way the film is structured is in the way it is filmed. Mishima's back story, from age 5 on, is filmed in a beautiful, grainy black-and-white style. The final day of his life, when his political action culminated, is in color. The scenes from his books are staged and shot in extremely stylized ways: The colors pop, the roofless sets dance, and the camera work is worthy of Vincent Minelli. These sequences are so beautiful and surprising that it is hard to believe that they came from the same director who washed Los Angeles in grime in Hardcore. By distinguishing these different sequences Schrader gives the audience immediate cues as to where they are (not unlike Soderbergh's use of color in Traffic) but he also continues to make statements on Mishima's state of mind. All of the filmic elements work together to create a brilliant, complex tapestry that really seems to hint at an incredibly complicated man. Of note are John Bailey's astonishing cinematography, Eiko Ishioka's mind-bending set design, and Phillip Glass' score which, while reminiscent of some of his other work, builds subtly and impressively throughout the entire film.

The anamorphic widescreen video is excellently handled. Colors are vibrant and the various film forms are handled with care. Since this is such a visual film, a good transfer is key.

Dolby 2.0 tracks are available in English and Japanese, although, like everything else here, the audio tracks are more complicated than they first appear. The Japanese track contains Japanese dialog and Japanese narration (taken from Mishima's writing). English subtitles are burned in during the on-screen dialog, while removable titles are available for the voice-over. The English language track only replaces the narration while the diagetic dialog remains Japanese. This springs from a complicated history of distribution (which Schrader explains in detail on the commentary track) that found the US version being released with English narration by Roy Sheider and Japanese dialog, while the all Japanese version languished in a vault, never released in that country due to controversy over content.

While the sound mix is subtle, it is effective. The dialog is clear and Glass' scored in dynamic and powerful. A French language track is also available, as well as subtitles in French and Japanese.

Mishima is a film that needs context and, thanks to Schrader's commentary, this DVD provides it. This is one of the most interesting, engaging, and informative commentaries I've ever heard. Schrader talks constantly, covering a wide variety of topics, from exhaustive discussion of Mishima's work and life, to his own interpretation of the man, to the troubles he had financing, filming, and releasing the film, to the excellent work of his collaborators. In fact, he talks straight through the closing credits. The commentary is indispensable as a tool for learning more about the subject and the process of creating this unusual film.

Inside Mishima is a short video documentary made at the time of the film's production. It is in no way an electronic press kit and actually contains one of the few shots of a director having a problem on the set that I've ever seen in a behind the scenes clip (not counting Hearts of Darkness, of course). It also gives additional insight into the incredible set design and casting.

A deleted scene included is shockingly short but is an important addition since Schrader really laments leaving a small appearance by Chishu Ryu, one of legendary Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu's actors, on the cutting room floor.

A trailer and extensive notes on the production, cast, and crew are also included.

While a challenging film that doesn't offer easy explanations or answers, Schrader's Mishima tells a unique story in a fascinating way. Without pandering or simplifying, Schrader creates a textured atmosphere and manages to convey the complexity of a human soul.

More films by Paul Schrader:
Blue Collar

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