It must have been in the eleventh grade when first I heard Philip Glass’ brilliant score for Mishima: A Life in Four Acts. At that time, my brother had started sampling music for use in hip-hop tracks. He was partial to repetitive string bits that easily bore splicing and looping: Glass, as possibly the most important minimalist composer, lends himself nicely to that.
On the cover of the CD is a Japanese man, mouth open in a primal scream, eyes nearly crossed as if laboring to turn inwards. This is the actor Ken Ogata as Mishima in his final moments after committing Seppuku in the office of the general of the Japanese armed forces.
I didn’t know at the time this wild expression, which I had mistaken for some battle sally as a youth—I thought the movie must be a samurai tale—was in fact that of the writer in his death throes.
For Mishima, the two acts may very well have been one and the same.
A few years ago, I decided it was time to figure out what the music and the man were all about.
I found Glass’ score on Spotify and listened to it over and over again. I bought three Yukio Mishima books at a used bookstore: two novels and one collection of short stories. I asked my Japanese students what they knew of him. Only one, a Japanese major in University, knew much of anything and admitted that he was considered somewhat of a madman. His devotees are considered just as dubious. This, for a man who was at one point considered the finest writer of his generation.
And finally, after years of wondering what sort of film this music could not overshadow, I sent off for and received the battered DVD of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters in the mail from that savior of cinema obscura, Netflix.
The story unfolded of this complicated and troubled man.
As is always the case with a controversial historical figure, the shadow cast is far longer than he (or she) who cast it. In depicting their life and legacy, and (as is the case of Mishima) their art, one must be careful of the golem that is created via selection—one hand might be larger than the other, one leg may lumber and pull behind its opposite. The director, Paul Shrader, would of course acknowledge that his work is an interpretation. How could it be anything else? But, just as one can translate the color “blue” into Russian, but not back again, interpretation invariably changes the form of the thing in pursuit of its essence. To rejoin our analogy: the shambling simulacrum you can end up with may look nothing at all like its model.
Mishima produced 40 novels, 33 plays, and more than 80 short stories, few of which were ever translated into English. Director Paul Shrader makes use of only four and the Mishima that we are presented with certainly cleaves to a Western intellectual trend of iconoclasm.
Mishima is a stutterer as a child and a milksop who is shunted off to the elitist Peer School institution by an arrogant and manipulative grandmother. Very early in the film, Mishima articulates his own awareness of his hypocrisy when he fakes a tubercular condition in order to avoid conscription. This, in clear contradiction with his endlessly professed goal of serving the Emperor and restoring Japan to its imperial majesty.
If the story were sympathetic to Mishima, the viewer would expect to see some sort of character arc wherein such youthful conflict is resolved. Instead, what we get is more duplicity, more inner conflict, and self-recrimination. Sadly, the little that I’ve read on this infamous writer all agrees: Mishima never quite figured himself out.
(Interestingly, Emperor Hirohito himself disavowed divinity in order to offset precisely this sort of dangerous nationalism in his name. Mishima denounced his denunciation.)
Mishima is also “outed”, so-to-speak, as a homosexual. In one scene he storms out of a gay club after a boyfriend makes an offhand remark about his physique. This scene is important for a number of reasons, but first and foremost, it gives a less than flattering spin on Mishima’s hatred of corruption, both in the entropic and political sense, which is a repeating theme in his work. Here, obsession with purity and vitality is interpreted as the railings of a lonely old queer against the twilight of his physical perfection.
If in fact his with dissolution is personal and internal in nature, then all Mishima’s martial posturing is tragically comedic, and worse, entirely self-deluding. The predominant themes, recycled over and over again in his work, are self-absorbed conflict and the brutal stultification of love, sexual desire and affection. Outwardly Mishima is a heterosexual, revolutionary nationalist. Inwardly, he is homosexual, elitist, and caught in the conformism of Japanese Samurai culture. It is no wonder that he was so egocentric as to be almost unbearable: his head blots out the rays of the Rising Sun.
As Peter Wolfe writes in his eponymous work:
“Mishima wanted to build a new Japanese empire, using ancient symbol’s of power, external show, and angry patriotic rhetoric. But he had no agenda or program….Reasoning from its lack of political foundation, one may assume that Mishima knew his militarism to be unworthy of both him and his genius….death is both the warrior’s punishment and his reward.”
Like a engineer who plots the course of water, Mishima diligently funneled his own existence towards one inevitable end. He glorified suicide, and watching the movie one is given the impression that his act of Seppuku is, in his mind, the only brave thing he had every done, the only truly Super (from a Nietzschean perspective, i.e. the man who does not hide behind words, but levers his will on the world nakedly and without artifice) act he had performed.
Yet, as I watched Mishima plunge the dagger into his belly I felt nothing but pity, and worse, a sense of urgency. Get it over with already. After all, this is all you’ve been harping about for the last hour and a half.
Unlike your typical Hollywood tragedy, I felt no connection to the hero of this story, driven by who knows what to commit suicide.
After all, how can one sympathize with a man who never felt sympathy for others?
In the West, Mishima has been fetishized. A rock band named itself after him, and I just came across an allusion to him in one of David Bowie’s new songs from his new album. This is just scratching the surface in regards to pop and literary references to him.
In Japan on the other hand, Mishima has been swept under the carpet for a number of reasons: some valid, some not. Perhaps after forty years, the pieces of his life’s puzzle are just too easy to connect and, like any right wing, crypto-homosexual, he is at best a paradox and at worst an embarrassment; just prior to committing Seppuku, he had taken the commander of the Japanese Defense Force hostage and staged a rather dismal attempt at a coup d’etat. While this act of treason was more aesthetic than substantive, it was by no means what one would expect from a writer who had come from and was subsequently embraced by the establishment as one of its great prolocutors.
So, should you watch the movie? Absolutely. It is beautiful. The experimental narrative is extremely compelling, and easily stands the test of time. Shrader jumps back and forth between black and white biographical vignettes of Mishima’s real life and colorized snippets from his work. A technique of clarification that Christopher Nolan would employ nearly four decades later in Memento. Watch it, but don’t expect to have a more sanguine view of the writer at film’s end.
Should you read Mishima? Absolutely. But be prepared to be under-awed by themes almost alien to the exhibitionist, pornographic culture we live in: unexpressed desire, extremist ideology, and two-dimensional nationalism.
What you really should do is go back and listen, as I did, to Philip Glass’ brilliant score, because, in the end, this supernal music is closest to the purity of art Mishima purported to achieve.