I generally hold with the Nabokovian school of thought when it comes to novels. The biography of the author is unimportant in interpreting their books, in fact it can be downright misleading. But Paul Schrader makes a pretty convincing case in his film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters that the seeds of the real life tragedy to come are there, implicit in the Japanese novelist’s work.
The film deftly cuts back and forth between scenes adapted from three of Mishima’s books, Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses, and dramatized scenes from the author’s life. Youth and beauty were two concepts that clearly troubled and enervated him. He muses, disgustedly, of how ugly heaven must look, peopled with those who have died in old age rather than cut down in their prime by the edge of a sword as in ages past. Over time, he clearly grew more and more dissatisfied with simply exploring such themes in his work: his well-known obsession with body-building in adulthood is but one example that such concerns were deep rooted in his character.
During one bravura scene in which Ken Ogata as Mishima practices swordplay garbed in the traditional dress of the samurai, the voice over makes it seem as if he is battling against his self doubt, sparring with the circumstances that obstruct the relationship of his ideas to his life. “Can art and action still be united?” he asks, noting that “…action is never deceitful.” The exaltation of youth and beauty metamorphose into a desire for purity and he becomes convinced that the reconciliation of art and action could only be achieved by death. Total purity could be found “if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.”
It is this cumulative effect of the carefully chosen scenes from the author’s works and the observations from the writer himself that makes Schrader’s film so interesting. The illusion is cast that you are following Mishima’s train of thought from his earliest days to its bitter end. Schrader of course, takes no chances that the audience might feel bogged down by all the alternating internal monologues and adapted scenes by offering tantalizing glimpses of what would prove the most dramatic and bewildering chapter in the author’s life. Bit by bit, he reveals the details of the fateful day in 1970 when Mishima and a group of young men from what was essentially his private army set out in uniform for the headquarters of Japan’s Self-Defense Force. This aspect gives the film the air of a thriller, even if you are aware of what transpired next. Which is not to say that Schrader glamorizes the events. Despite their careful planning and rehearsals, Mishima and his men arrive fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, and so have to circle around the block. It’s the kind of detail that only happens in real life, or in the writings of the most observant and unromantic of novelists.