04 May 2009


I spent last Sunday in the company of Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. It's one of the best biographical films ever made, succinctly exploring the theories and philosophies and all the stuff that made Yukio Mishima Yukio Mishima in a vibrant, compelling fashion, so much so that when it's over, we really do have an idea of why he did what he did.

Most biographies are cause and effect: Because Johnny Cash/Ray Charles felt guilty about their brothers' deaths, they went on to lead hell-raising lives of drugs and sorrow, yet also made wonderful music. Around the hour-forty-five mark, they find redemption. But those films remain a shallow recreation of a life without getting into the nitty gritty; the reduction to a cause and an effect loses sight of who the person actually was, and how they lived. Giving a rote recitation of "important" highlights loses sight of what really matters.

So what the hell makes Mishima so great? He was a writer, the author of numerous novels, short stories, and poems, and he espoused an odd duck view of the world that was somewhat unique. From my (admittedly not very extensive) readings and research, the gist of what Mishima believed is that the proper way to preserve purity and beauty is to destroy it at its height, before it can decay (the ol' going out on top routine, otherwise popularly known as "The Seinfeld Principle"). This was enmeshed with his own probably bisexual and likely masochistic leanings, as well as his assertions that Japan should revert to worshipping the Emperor as a human god, except that it wasn't really the Emperor people would be worshipping, it would be the Emperor-as-symbol-of-Japan's-divine-essence. And a whole bunch of other stuff. As a result, his writings contain quite a few incidents of beautiful suicides in his work.

One day (November 25, 1970, to be exact), Mishima put his body where his mouth was. Along with a core group of followers from the Shield Society, a private army he raised, Mishima took an SDF general hostage and demanded to address the troops. He was allowed, and he exhorted them to overthrow the government and put the Emperor back in charge. The soldiers jeered him, and he went back into the office and committed seppuku.

What the film Mishima manages to do is summarize the thinking and the chain of events that led to this moment (and in four chapters, natch) by intercutting black and white depictions of events in Mishima's life, a realistic colorized retelling of his last day, condensed versions of three of his novels told with obviously fake yet gorgeous (or "stylized") sets and lighting, and a voiceover of excerpts from his autobiographical writings as read by Roy Scheider (or Ken Ogata, depending which version you choose on the Criterion DVD). Everything comes together at the end in the general's office.

I did have something of a quibble with the film. To tell you about it is a bit of a spoiler, but not really. See, you already know how the film ends, because it tells you at the beginning: Mishima kills himself. What I need to delve into is the "how" the movie depicts his final moments.

Seppuku was a recurring motif in Mishima's writing, and was always depicted in a positive, glorious light. For example, one of his stories, "Patriotism," is devoted entirely to a detailed telling of an Army officer and his wife committing the act after the failed coup in February 1936, a story which Mishima later made into a short film.

However, when it actually came time for Mishima to commit his own seppuku, it did not go quite so well. He plunged the sword into his belly and cut. At this point, his second (or kaishakunin) was supposed to cut off his head in one swift chop, thus ending his pain (as was the tradition). In Mishima's case, things did not go so smoothly. I found several different variations online describing how it went wrong. Here's my favorite:
Mishima said to Morita [his second] after he had first cut his stomach open "Do not leave me in agony too long". Morita then made his first attempt to behead Mishima, but as he swung the sword, Mishima fell forward and Morita hit the carpet of the General's office, cutting Mishima across the back and shoulders. Morita tried again to behead Mishima, but he hit his body and not his neck giving Mishima a severe wound to his body. Once again Morita swung his sword. This time he struck Mishima's neck, but he didn't cut his neck completely. Furu-Koga took the sword from Morita and beheaded Mishima with one blow. After Mishima was beheaded, Morita tried to commit seppuku as well, but he was too weak after trying to behead Mishima. Morita then signaled to Furu-Koga to behead him. Furu-Koga then beheaded Morita with one stroke of his sword.
I love that, so, so much. Here is a man who had an idealized view of suicide, and had depicted it so lovingly in his writings. And yet when it came time for himself to go through it, that happy little bird called "reality" intervened and made it somewhat less than illustrious.

But Mishima doesn't show us that. The movie climaxes when Mishima stabs himself in the gut (shown in a nice Vertigo shot), then ends with his protagonist in Runaway Horses offing himself in the same fashion, but in a more romantic sort of way. We do get hints that the kaishakunin will screw up, but nothing more. I know why the movie does this: It wants to get us into Mishima's head, and show us things from his point of view. In this respect, the actual act of it is not so important as the why and the philosophy behind it. Nothing really matters once he finally makes the plunge, and showing it would have thrown the movie off the rails, and would have missed the point.

But wouldn't it have been great? It's one of my favorite instances of brutal real-life irony. Oh well. I still love you, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (and your oft-stolen Philip Glass score).

1 comment:

  1. I knew the name sounded familiar. I recall Warren Ellis referencing Mishima in his Stormwatch run, in a story involving Japan revolting on itself, the writings of Mishima, and the Japanese character creatively named Fuji. Of course, no one remembers this run very well, they just love when Warren killed God in The Authority. Which is admittedly pretty great.