Plenty of writers live their art, but few died their art as ambitiously or publicly as Yukio Mishima—imperialist, bodybuilder, actor, director, best-selling author, homosexual, commander of his own private army, icon, and the subject of Paul Schrader's 1985 magnum opus Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, which is being released by Criterion alongside Mishima's own 1966 short film "Patriotism." Calling Schrader's masterpiece a mere biopic doesn't do it justice. It's more a dreamy, hypnotic meditation on the tragic intersection of Mishima's oeuvre and existence that takes place as much in its subject's fevered imagination as the outside world. For Mishima, life was essentially an extravagant prelude to death, a race toward poetic oblivion that finds a glorious musical analogue in Philip Glass' fearlessly kinetic score. From an early age, Mishima was fixated on the erotic possibilities of dying young and beautiful. That obsession found frequent expression in his writing.
Schrader's four-chapter film elegantly juxtaposes scenes from Mishima's life with dramatizations of three of his novels, all of which act as funhouse mirrors reflecting and distorting their creator's fetishization of death. The "Beauty" chapter dramatizes The Temple Of The Golden Pavilion, in which a stuttering, awkward young man becomes consumed with the destruction of the title monument. "Art" follows with excerpts from Kyoko's House, a morbid drama about a callow young stud who becomes the kept man of a rich woman. As Mishima's fascination with seppuku and restoring Japan to its emperor-worshipping past heads into a horrifying endgame stage, the film segues to Runaway Horses, a novel whose plot mirrors Mishima's very public suicide.
The film's final chapter, "Harmony Of Pen And Sword," documents how Mishima tried to live his art by taking a general hostage as a pretext for committing seppuku in front of soldiers and the press. Mishima tried to make Japan conform to the dictates of his imagination, but in the film's shattering climax, he learns that the real world is a messier, less predictable place than the world of ideas. John Bailey's cinematography alternates between stylized black and white in flashback scenes, muted color realism in the scenes documenting Mishima's last day, and lush abstraction in fiction scenes, dominated by gorgeous, theatrical, lurid pinks and sunburst golds. Just as his subject sought to reconcile intellect and action, words and deeds, Schrader finds a perfect union between sound and image, weighty ideas, and giddy sensual rapture.
Key features: An engaging, candid commentary by Schrader and producer Alan Poul and a conventional but fascinating BBC documentary on Mishima highlight the usual abundance of Criterion special features.