Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

A one-of-a-kind biopic that captures a truly disturbed mindset with impeccable filmmaking



Japan, United States of America
English, Japanese
Drama, History
Alan Poul, Bandō Mitsugorō X, Chishū Ryū
121 min


Every other biopic ever made ought to be embarrassed.

What it's about

The story of the celebrated but highly controversial Japanese author and right-wing nationalist Yukio Mishima, partially told through excerpts from three of his novels.

The take

Shattering the rules for how a biographical drama can look and be told, Paul Schrader's Mishima rejects the usual character study template in favor of a much more abstract attempt to understand a person through their art. Told in fragments that flit between Mishima's early life, dramatizations of his fiction novels, and the final day of his life, the film pieces together what it believes was the core of this person's life. Schrader's script (co-written with his brother Leonard Schrader) traces within Mishima's history a lifelong struggle with perceptions of his own masculinity and authority—as if he spent his every waking moment trying to compensate for a lack that he could hardly articulate. The character's eventual turn towards reactionary beliefs makes logical sense in the film, but remains baffling all the same.

With all of its talk about beauty—enhanced by Philip Glass' opulent musical score, and Eiko Ishioka's breathtaking production design that transforms Mishima's novels into tactile stage productions—the film conceals an incredibly dark heart. Mishima doesn't inspire sympathy so much as he inspires morbid fascination, and it's both a daring and frustrating choice to focus entirely on the character's harmful delusions without room for much else. Still, Schrader has constructed an unforgettable audiovisual experience that lingers long after it's over.

What stands out

While Mishima's visuals and music take up the spotlight for most of the film, Ken Ogata's performance as the title character is a chillingly dedicated performance that only builds and builds. And in the final sequences, where Schrader recounts Mishima's final moments, Ogata takes this dangerously unsympathetic man and finds a way to reduce him back into a little boy taken aback by how large and merciless the rest of the world is. Desperately he proclaims what he believes in with his tears in his eyes, but nobody—not even the audience—can take him seriously.

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