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The word “biopic” is one that has now become almost synonymous with the term, “Oscar bait”: a relatively boring and safe dramatised biography of a historical figure usually set far enough in the past such that any challenges it may raise regarding contemporary issues like racism are able to be brushed aside with smug indifference. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is no such biopic. Far from neatly defining the 1980s, its unique artistry speaks for itself, showing what film can truly achieve.

“Nor is the film one that has become especially relevant today. I recommend this film simply because it is brilliant.”

This 1985 film tells the story of the Japanese author and poet Yukio Mishima, one of the most celebrated Japanese writers of the 20th century. However, Mishima is better known today, not for his writings, but for his final actions before death. As the film opens, we are told that, “On November 25th, 1970, Mishima and four cadets from his private army entered the Eastern Army Headquarters, forcibly detained the commander, and addressed the garrison”. He would then commit ritual suicide by seppuku when his bid to reinstate the Emperor to power through a coup d’état failed.

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Mishima was obsessed with the intersection between art and life, not only in how art imitates life, but also vice versa. Thus, to truly try and understand who he was, instead of focusing on specific periods of his life, as most others would attempt, director and writer Paul Schrader instead uses Mishima’s literary body of work as a lens through which to examine him. With a complex and ambitious structure, the film is divided into four chapters, each of which is told through three elements: a black and white fragmentary chronology of Mishima’s life, a verité retelling of Mishima’s fateful final day, and hyper-stylised adaptations of passages from his books. Each work chosen for adaptation reflects a different facet of Mishima: his fixation on the transient nature of beauty, his narcissistic obsession with the male body as art, his unique take on nationalism and militarism, his infatuation with suicide. As fiction is interwoven with fact, the parallel strands gradually build up together towards a bloody climax.

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Paul Schrader’s intentions with Mishima are never simply about educating the viewer on what the life of Yukio Mishima was like, but instead to delve into his psychology and his philosophy, to get an insight into a truly unique artist’s mind. In fact, Mishima does not look out of place alongside other Schrader protagonists, such as those in the latter’s collaborations with Martin Scorsese on films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Though on the face of it, the aristocratic Japanese Mishima and the New York night taxi driver Travis Bickle share little in common, they both conform to Schrader’s “Man in a Room” trope. At first isolated from the rest of his family and the outside world by his oppressive grandma, Mishima then finds himself isolated from the rest of society by his homosexuality and his narcissism. Advocacy of far-right traditionalism, bodybuilding, and his own private army offered him an outlet. In the film, Mishima narrates that “I wanted to explode, light the sky for an instant and disappear”. Just as Travis Bickle’s story must end in performative violence, so must Yukio Mishima’s.


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However, it is not just Schrader’s masterful direction and writing that makes Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters so great. Phillip Glass’ hypnotic and pulsating score is simply sublime, his trademark ostinatos imbuing a sort of kinetic energy that drives the film forward. In bringing the adaptations of Mishima’s literary works to life, Schrader enlisted the help of Eiko Ishioka as production designer, whose vivid, theatrical sets go a long way to help realise Schrader’s visually stunning, dreamlike retellings of Mishima’s stories.

Unusual for a film directed and written by an American, Mishima’s entire cast is Japanese, with the film in the Japanese language. Despite this, the film has never been released in Japan, due to the controversy surrounding Mishima and his life; the cast and crew received death threats from the far-right for the film’s inference of Mishima’s homosexuality. However, even in places where it was released, it made little impact, generating a measly $500,000 at the box office. Thus, for me to say that Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is the film that best represents the decade of the 1980s would be disingenuous. Nor is the film one that has become especially relevant today. I recommend this film simply because it is brilliant. Schrader’s work is more than a mere biopic. It transcends the genre; a sumptuous piece of art that doesn’t seek to tell, but to understand.