The Review/Feature/

Death Wish

How novelist, filmmaker and right-wing revolutionary Yukio Mishima sought to transform his life into a beautiful (and fatal) work of art

by Andrew Tracy
Apr 6, 2017

In advance of this Saturday’s screening of Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters in an archival 35mm print, we present this essay on the film originally published in Cinema Scope #36 (Fall 2008), reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.

Apart from the fact that the vast majority of artist biopics makes a travesty of both the life and the art, the very form itself is rather self-defeating. The filmmaking sensibility that can truly do justice to a powerful creative personality is also that which has yielded beforehand to the impossibility of encompassing that personality in narrative form. As opposed to the cliché epiphanies which dominate the genre, that minute handful of biographical films that qualify as art of the first rank — Andrei Tarkvosky’s Andrei Rublev, Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh, perhaps Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch in a pinch — are films of fragments, impressions, evasions; they skirt around the life and art, cutting sharply to the heart of their subject and then quickly retracting, offering brief illuminations all the more suggestive for their obliqueness.

Not only does this method of indirection prevent these films from doing an injustice to their subjects, it also allows them to exist as art that is autonomous from their subjects. If biopics most often hijack their artist-subjects wholesale, the reverse can also be true: an immersion in the life, thought, and sensibility of a powerful artist can negate the accomplishments of the film artists who have set out to serve him or her through their own art.

Thus Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, an outstanding instance of collective creation between at least seven exceptionally talented collaborators — Schrader as writer and director, his brother Leonard and sister-in-law Chieko as co-screenwriters, cinematographer John Bailey, production designer Eiko Ishioka, the pre-ubiquitous Philip Glass, and Ken Ogata’s muscular embodiment of the lead role — ultimately stands, for all its startling force and clarity, as a strikingly designed précis rather than a work of art in its own right. But striking it certainly is, not the least because of its blithe overturning of the biographical form, dispensing with the agonistic construction of most artist bios — the struggle against one’s madness, or one’s critics, or one’s times — in favour of a far more intellectually provocative strategy.

Ken Ogata in Mishima (Paul Schrader, 1985)

Schrader and company view the many public masks of Mishima — his novels and plays, his bodybuilding, his peacock-strutting film performances and S&M modelling, his catwalk militarism in the company of his “private army” the Shield Society, his Westernized tastes (most often bad taste) combined with a reactionary nostalgia for a “true” Japan, and his final ritual suicide after taking an army general hostage along with four of his young Shield Society members — not along a causative narrative line, but as facets of a crystal: each one independent, even opposed to its others, but constitutive of a whole which infuses each and every aspect.

Pace Jonathan Rosenbaum’s oft-repeated dismissal of Mishima as a “reductive view of art as a simple reflection of psychological hang-ups,” Schrader’s film is a faithful and thoroughly externalized rendering of Mishima’s public self-presentation: a cosmetically self-mocking but deadly serious conception of himself as artist-hero, drawing forth the darkness within him in order to vanquish it. “One might object that thought belongs, essentially, to the night, that creation with words is of necessity carried out in the fevered darkness of night,” writes Mishima in his autobiographical essay Sun and Steel. “Yet why must it be that men always seek out the depths, the abyss? Why must thought, like a plumb line, concern itself exclusively with vertical descent? Why was it not feasible for thought to change direction and climb vertically up, ever up, towards the surface?” Schrader accordingly reads the surfaces of Mishima’s art and life, his many and varied masks and performances on the page, the stage, the screen and the world, not as afflictions rooted in a damaged psyche, but as manifestations of an overarching and controlling will.

While one suspects that part of Rosenbaum’s distaste for the film stems from his affront at a not unsympathetic portrait of a “fascist” (quotation marks should hang heavily on any political label accorded to so bizarrely singular a figure as Mishima), his aesthetic qualms are valid ones — if indeed they applied in this instance. It certainly is reductive to view artworks as direct emanations of an artist’s inner self, but the film’s incorporation of highly stylized episodes from three of Mishima’s novels, representing what Schrader designates as the three foundational elements of Mishima’s artistic and philosophical project — “Beauty,” “Art,” and “Action” — do not presume to explain the origins of Mishima’s “hang-ups.” Rather, they illustrate how he deployed his protean but ever-present fascinations into an increasingly integral, eventually all-consuming project. The three radically dissimilar protagonists of these episodes — the stuttering, mad young monk of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the narcissistic and aimless young hustler of Kyoko’s House, and the resolute, would-be samurai youth Isao of Runaway Horses — are not merely mouthpieces for their creator, nor chronological markers of his growing desire for self-destruction. It is their juxtaposition, temporally and thematically, which finally resonates with a feeling of completion — so not reflection, but a numinous harmony in destruction.

"Beauty": the Temple of the Golden Pavilion segment from Paul Schrader's Mishima

Like his subject, Schrader channels the things of Mishima’s night — the self-loathing homosexuality, the sadomasochism, the attraction and repulsion of beauty, the worship of the body and the urge to destroy it — into a sober and precise architecture, a darkly Dionysian vision given Apollonian clarity. And it is that very clarity and precision, unto the very end, that so fascinates about Mishima and the film that Schrader has made of him, refusing the stigma of pathology and demanding to be read at face value. Without either sharing, endorsing, or criticizing Mishima’s late-blooming “fascism” or its suicidal apotheosis, Schrader’s film is a record of triumph, a glorious ascent to a death foretold. The bold, glistening rush of Glass’ score and Bailey’s gorgeously melting sunrise that accompany Mishima’s climactic seppuku (or, rather, his seppuku via his novelistic semi-vicar Isao) vindicates Mishima’s self-fashioned logic; the film takes him, quite literally, at his word.

It is the central, terrible, unavoidable fact of that final self-eviscerating triumph, the long-planned and meticulously carried out culmination of Mishima’s lifelong obsession with pain and death, that cements the logic of both the film and the life, completes their ruthlessly beautiful symmetry, and ultimately marginalizes both. Though the film cannot simply be equated to the life, it shares and accentuates that which Henry Miller located as Mishima’s fatal flaw: an utter lack of humour, “a sort of humour,” he adds, “that is also foreign to the Westerner. If we understood it, if we truly appreciated it, our world would collapse.”

The important thing is that this lack of humour leads to rigidity. . . If we had a stronger sense of humour perhaps there would be no need to resort to that dolorous experiment of self-defense by mutual extinction. When, according to legend, Alexander the Great ordered a certain Indian sage to appear before him, when he threatened the sage with death should he refuse to obey, the sage gave a mighty horse laugh. “Kill me?” he exclaimed. “I am indestructible.” What an excellent sense of humour! A display not so much of courage as of certitude. And of a serene and supreme confidence in the power of life over death.

While Miller’s idiosyncratic analysis cannot be accepted as any kind of definitive reading, nevertheless it carries a powerfully suggestive charge. We are accustomed, in our life as in our art, to according death the utmost gravity and respect, the final say in all matters pertaining to the life which precedes it and the lives which surround it. Yet how often does death yield nothing but platitudes and clichés — how often does it simply affirm the lies we have told ourselves all along, while its jealously guarded truths continue to dwell in the realms of the inaccessible and the inexpressible?

Mishima’s imperial arrogance in asserting his own grimly determinative meaning upon his self-willed death, in compelling those who examine his life to read it through the lens of that gruesome end — and how indeed could anyone not? — bespeaks a mania for order which his own singular, reactionary brilliance shared with that which it sought to rebel against. Miller is both glib and insightful in placing Mishima firmly within the profoundly humourless, the wholly externalized and productivity-obsessed industrial society of both East and West, which makes of the would-be Renaissance man an aesthetic entrepreneur diversifying his product for full-market saturation.

It is not bad faith or opportunism that is being charged, but rather a suggestion that the processes of 20th century industrial capitalism became intertwined with the artistic drive for self-exploration and self-definition, for Mishima no less than other major artists. Even Mishima’s dress rehearsal for his eventual seppuku, the short film Patriotism, which he wrote, directed, and starred in (as an Army lieutenant who commits seppuku rather than be forced to execute his comrades after a failed coup), served double duty as a bid for market penetration. As Tony Rayns details, at this time Mishima was seeking to raise his profile in the West at a time when he believed himself to be in the running for the Nobel Prize — even though he had by then adopted the militaristic, emperor-worshipping anti-foreigner rhetoric which indicated his public preparation for the hero’s death he had planned for himself.

Dress rehearsal for death: Yukio Mishima in Patriotism, 1966

That this is a contradiction is obvious, but it is one of the unique qualities of capitalist society that it can allow contradictions to coexist and share space in the realm of publicity, maintaining a surface harmony that belies their fundamental incompatibility. Indeed, for those rare artists in pursuit of totality, those who desire to encompass the entire spectrum of experience through the public presentation of their art, that incompatibility is essential. No less than Norman Mailer, Mishima’s various pursuits were extended advertisements for himself — and while in both cases the true creative accomplishments stand in stark contrast to the hack jobs, the larks, and the ridiculous public exploits, the art cannot simply be sutured off from the foolishness. The integral identity pursued through art is constructed from the assorted masks assumed on the capitalist stage; thus could Mishima straight-facedly disavow the corruptions of capitalism while clad in the natty uniforms he had commissioned from de Gaulle’s personal tailor.

"Art": the Kyoko's House segment from Paul Schrader's Mishima

However, Mishima more than anyone else was aware of the contradictions he bore within himself, and a crucial part of his publicly enacted drama of will was his welcoming of contradictions into his increasingly regimented world in order to reaffirm his overcoming of them in the Gesamtkunstwerk of his life. Mishima’s deadly seriousness aside, he acquired a more important inheritance from the West apart from the affected personal style of crew-cut and leather jacket: a deep and profound sense of irony which savagely undercuts the deadly certainty he had come to express in the years preceding his death. Sun and Steel, as much existential drama as right-wing treatise, is a work whose forthright confidence emerges from a dizzying series of contradictions and doublings-back: an assertion of extreme individualism derived from a repellent evocation of totalitarian commonality; an extraordinary lyric ode which consistently denigrates the “corrosive power of words” as against a clear and vital fleshly reality; a supreme declaration of will set against the involuntary functions and physiological limits of the body which is to be the ultimate expression and vehicle of that will.

One can see here that simultaneous realization and negation which, it seems, rhymes with the supreme actualization and complete extinction of the self in the act of seppuku. And one can see as well how congruent Mishima’s Westernized sense of irony was with the heroic futility that Peter Wolfe, in his 1989 study of Mishima, identifies as the core of Japanese tragic drama: it is failure, not victory, which ultimately vindicates the hero, who finally succumbs to the corruption and imperfection of the world. Thus the youth Isao in Runaway Horses, his grand plot to assassinate the country’s capitalist grandees and restore the Emperor to his throne foiled by betrayal, instead commits a single, useless murder of a prominent businessman before committing seppuku on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Thus as well did Mishima go to his own bloody end after a knowingly futile effort to rouse the Japanese army to rebellion against the democratic government and the capitalist order.

"Action": the Runaway Horses segment from Paul Schrader's Mishima

Schrader’s bluntly reportorial depiction of Mishima’s last day duly includes the derisive response of the assembled troops to his speech, as well as the disappointment Mishima registered to his co-conspirators (“I don’t think they even heard me”). Commendably, however, Schrader refuses to use this moment of failure and doubt to distance the viewer from Mishima, neither rendering him an exotic curiosity, an Other enslaved to an alien ideal, nor colonizing him through the lens of Western understanding, reductively seeking out the “real” explanation for his actions. (No doubt this was also helped by the legal strictures binding the production: Mishima’s widow strictly forbade any mention of her husband’s homosexuality, or the likelihood that the young acolyte who struck off his head and then followed him in death was his lover.)

Schrader’s film is unique in that its distinctly Western brand of stylistics, from Glass’ score to Bailey’s sweeping camera movements to the sharp, staccato editing — there is no attempt here to ape some any “Japanese” style, Schrader’s well-known familiarity with Ozu notwithstanding — proves an uncannily apt match with Mishima’s granitic self-styling. And indeed why should it not, as Mishima’s insistence upon closure — upon providing the narrowest avenue of meaning for his art and life, or rather for the life that was his art — rhymes so well with the imperatives of so much serious American cinema?

The typical reflex when locating Mishima within Schrader’s career is to note the protagonist’s resemblance to other obsessed Schrader “heroes,” to the recurring themes of violence, purification, and redemption. The obviousness of these comparisons aside, what truly aligns the historical Mishima with other Schrader co-creations — Taxi Driver chief among them — is the aesthetic, ideological, and philosophical confusion masquerading as a seamlessly holistic vision. Nor is this merely a trait peculiar to Schrader. Despite its artistic daring and wholly esoteric flavour, Mishima shares that depthless quality common to even much of the best modern American cinema since the relentlessly canonized “New Hollywood” of the late ’60s and ’70s: a streamlining of dark and powerful drives, a display of contradictions in the belief that the mere sum of them, and the sheer force of their presentation, denotes complexity, and a dependence upon the brute finality of violence to furnish meaning and decisively seal the viewer off from the text, to give the illusion that it is ultimately self-contained, self-determined, and self-terminating. In many ways, Schrader’s critically scorned and financially disastrous film is the pinnacle of this uniquely Western brand of serious art. As with much of the best marketplace art, to praise Mishima is to do little more than describe its cleanly ordered surfaces, to follow its rigourously worked-out calculations, and duly arrive at the same conclusion.

It is the striking beauty of this exactitude which fascinates and, finally, alienates, no less than the way the “real” Mishima’s final exertion of will inspires a chilly awe while decisively exiling him from that shared realm of human feeling which is the basis of art. “[Mishima] is an original creative artist with little reverence for or delight in life,” writes Wolfe. “A person’s thoughts, secret emotions, and the way his psyche works on what he sees — these processes are the person. But instead of rousing wonder in Mishima, they run in the same grooves.” It’s a tragedy that an artist of such expressive gifts and piercing observation of the life around him ultimately determined to devote himself to principles that saw virtue only in the extinction of that life. It’s a misfortune that the film devoted to him, a film of such uncommon accomplishment and intellectual seriousness, can by its very devotion to his exclusionary view of himself remove the tragedy from him.