Monday, November 23, 2009

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Hey guys, I wish I had a bit more time to work on this because I have about a million things buzzing around my head when it comes to this endlessly fascinating film, I don't think I even brought up half of the interesting aspects we could cover. Can't wait to see what comes of the discussion.

I do not have the most experience with Paul Schrader the director. I am of course familiar with Paul Schrader the screenwriter of such Scorsese films as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. I am also familiar with the basic idea of Paul Schrader, the film enthusiast who grew up strict Dutch Calivinist, whose parents did not allow him to see movies. I've seen Mishima around three or four times now, and I can certainly say that I'm going to be checking out some Schrader directed films in the near future.
One of the fatal flaws of most biopics is to attempt to portray the entire lives of their subjects. And no matter how much they stuff their bloated running times with irrelevant details they still feel rushed, more like attempts to capture period details than to make full blooded films. Especially films about artists, which more often than not wax reductionist about the impetus behind the work. Schrader must have known that telling the tale of Mishima's life, death and works in little under two hours would have been a tall order indeed. Schrader and his cinematographer, John Bailey, attempt to do this by mixing up the narrative using different styles to signify different things. Mishima's march towards his own suicide, filmed like a conspiracy thriller, flows effortlessly into luminescent black and white memories which in turn flow into the gaudy theatrical sets of Mishima's works. I think that each one is pulled off immaculately, this movie, if nothing else, is a multi-course feast for the eyes. What we have here amounts to something like an epic yet intimate psychological study of a fascinating figure. Ken Ogata gives an incredible performance bringing an amazing amount of charisma and joy to the character but also able to give the coldest stare or the maddest glance. For a film in which he appears fairly little for a biopic, he really carries much of the film on his shoulders, creating an emotional human connection in a film that sometimes may appear dry or academic. The entire twisting narrative is anchored by his voiceover (which was dubbed by Roy Schneider in the American release). In fact, he provides so many quips and drops so many strange philosophical musings that it seems at first that the films themes are simply stated right off by the main character. But while lines about beauty and death and art enfuse the film, I don't think that we're supposed to take them alone as representative of the themes of the film as a whole.
Behind every smile and laugh there is a supreme self-hatred around Mishima, throughout the movie we see him trying to transform himself from a man of words to a man of action, from a sickly draft-dodger to a living embodiment of bushido ideals and the pinnacle of masculine beauty. Although he preaches the unity of pen and sword, he seems at times frustrated with the pen altogether, perhaps best encapsulated by the phrase from the Kyoko's House sequence "stage blood is not enough" stage blood was obviously not nearly enough for Mishima, whose explicit portrayel of seppuku in his film Patriotism (analyzed excellently by Ed Howard) was only a forerunner for what was to come. Did Mishima really believe that he could start a coup? That he would be able to return the Emperor to a position of utmost power, that he could drive away all the “capitalists” from Japan? It doesn't even seem to be the point. Mishima's far-right political views seem more the result of his own psycho-sexual neuroses, and a part of his own inevitable march towards death than true conviction. It does raise the question however, how are we to take it that this film follows so sympathetically someone who, in essence, attempted to start what looks remarkably like a fascist coup? How are we to take scenes like the murder of Kurahara, scored to Glass' soaring score?