Thursday, March 08, 2012

"Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters": biography of iconic Japanese writer, with bizarre history, and embedded fiction

The Janus (and Criterion Collection) 1985 film by Paul Schrader (as produced by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas), "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”, came to my attention from the notes in a recent concert by the Brooklyn Rider quartet, who mentioned the film as an important example of the film work by composer Philip Glass.

The film is a layered biography of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, told from the viewpoint of the last day of his life, in Nov. 1970, when he committed ritual suicide (seppuku) after a failed attempt by his “private army” (tatenokai) to reinstate the emperor into power in Japan.

The “present day” layer of the overthrow attempt is shot in full color.  The backstory biography is shot in black-and-white, which looks very crisp. It’s narrated in English in first person by Roy Scheider. It shows the author’s sickly youth and rejection from the Army (reminding me of the draft physical), his psychological investment in bodily perfection, with homosexual overtones, and his move to the political right, where he could stand out as a writer and not have to be a “joiner”.  Boy, does that sound familiar!

The four “chapters” are Beauty, Art, Action, and Harmony of Pen and Sword, forming a kind of axis that reminds one of Rosenfels polarities.  The film presents three of the novels in various color palettes, as stage plays.  “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” has a student torching the temple because of his own feelings of bodily inferiority. In “Kyoko’s House” a young man endures a sadomasochistic relationship with an older woman.  There are claims that a Mishima story about a gay man who marries a woman anyway was used.  In “Runaway Horses” we find a dress rehearsal for the coup attempt. The last chapter documents the "real" takeover attempt. 

The film was never released in Japan, although it was eventually shown on Japanese TV, because of right-wing objections to the presentation of Mishima’s apparent homosexuality.  The filmmakers say they had to verity all the “facts” in the backstories, including the gay bar visit.

It may seem curious, then, to show an “overthrow” attempt by an apparently gay artist able to raise his own private military – in a time well before “don’t ask don’t tell” would be debated.  Mishima was quite concerned with the idea of perfection of the body.  

My own “Do Ask Do Tell: The Manifesto” script has a somewhat parallel structure. The protagonist “wakes up” in a strange alternate world, where he must do certain tasks, shot in tepia colors.  His own “back story” is shot in full color. His own fictitious screenplay (corresponding to the three novels staged in Mishima) is shown in black and white, so I reverse some of the color schemes.

The film may be viewed on YouTube in entirety. I’m surprised not to see a charge. 

For today's "short film", take a look at "Kony 2012", by Jason Russell and Invisible Children, 30 min, reviewed on my "Bill on International Issues" blog. 

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