Mishima: A life in Four Chapters is a biopic based on the life of Yukio Mishima, an avant-garde figure of the post-war generation in Japan.  An author, poet, playwright, actor and filmmaker, Mishima was a voice to be reckoned with, and Japan is still struggling to come to grips with what to make of him.  In 1985, Paul Shrader attempted to provide a close look at Mishima’s life, and the result is one that is still difficult to unpack.  Ironically, while Mishima was an anti-intellectual figure, Schrader provides a film that feels intellectually sound, but fails to provide an emotional connection to its protagonist.

The Players:

  • Director:  Paul Shrader
  • Writer:  Paul Shrader, Chieko Schrader, Leonard Schrader
  • Cast:  Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Junkichi Orimoto


Mishima is visually captivating, with its well-crafted set designs and composition,  and the performances are well executed, especially Ken Ogata as Mishima.  I can’t recall a film that more effectively interweaves color with black and white.  And the score by Phillip Glass adds to the sense that something is building.  In one of the most visually striking scenes, a group of men in dark suits line up in V formation, addressed by one man leading vows that relate to martyrdom, the purging of capitalist evils, and the restoration of imperial majesty.  But despite great artistry on display, what does it all mean?  Mishima is stylistically interesting, but it lacks enough context to make Mishima’s life accessible.

Mishima is portrayed as an experimental yet militant-minded novelist who planned and staged an unsuccessful coup d’etat of the Japanese government in November of 1970.  He is presented as a ticking timebomb: he grew up with a stutter, was bullied by other kids, and then develops an iron-clad adherence to samurai codes and a belief that the emperor should be re-instated.  He grew to alienate left-wingers and right-wingers alike.  On one hand, Mishima is portrayed as gay, putting him at odds with conservative types, but his adherence to a feudalistic society makes the left see him as too rigid and traditional.  The film soars when Mishima gives a lecture to a large group of politically active college students, providing a glimpse into the divided views for how Japan should be “fixed”.  But this is no straight bio-pic as co-writer/director Paul Schrader also adapts some of Mishima’s fiction, and instead of enhancing our understanding, they are distracting and often feel detached.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

At the end of the film, while addressing a crowd in a climactic showdown, Mishima reveals that he had finally found a harmony between action and words.  How unfortunate that this film fails to maintain a similar harmony.  Most of the time, the film feels like mere words or images revealing actions, but rarely both.  Mr. Ebert, I agree that this is an unconventional biopic, and I appreciate your acknowledgement that one might despair when trying to assemble all of the related elements of Mishima’s life, real and fiction, into a coherent screenplay.  In essence, Schrader has put together a puzzle that few others can, and this speaks highly of his knack for screenwriting.  I even appreciate the end of your review where you entertain the possibility that Schrader may have been particularly attracted to Mishima’s “headlong dedication to his art as powerful attraction”.  With this in mind,  one cannot blame Mishima for being a film that was merely someone’s job to make, much thought and many deeply held convictions had to be involved.  To this end, consider George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who helped produce the film, despite being aware of its limited commercial appeal.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you like ?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  The Dead

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters this week, he now has 283 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.