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Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (The Severed Head of Mishima)

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    Yukio Mishima first came into my field of reference when I was reading a book by Yasunari Kawabata, the nobel laureate. Kawabata was the mentor/elder to Mishima. I was reading Kawabata’s “Snow Country” perhaps, or something else, and came across Mishima’s name, and it tripped a vague memory of having heard the name before….something about that guy…what was it?

    I did a Google search (how else does one find things out these days?) and came across images of Mishima; as St. Sebastien, and on the balcony of a building with a Japanese official, and then…that severed head. Then, of course, I watched the Youtube interviews and the last video of Mishima addressing the soldiers before he committed harakiri. Mishima was articulate (in English!), beautiful, vain…he seemed to me a narcissist of a very high/refined order. Mesmerizing, tremendous force of character, and clearly twisted in ways it would be nearly impossible to untangle. After reading Mishima’s “Forbidden Colors” I made an attempt to read “Runaway Horses” but failed to get very far. Instead, I did some reading about Mishima. And, then, last week, my Netflix que sent me Paul Schrader’s 1985, 120 minutes, Color, Black and White, 1.85:1, Japanese language, subtitled film.

    Paul Schrader’s film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters takes the tangles and puts them into four chapters that deal with both Mishima’s life and his writing. He sets it all to the score of Philip Glass, a busy beehive of sound that is something like the symphony your blood flowing through your veins might make-cyclical, repetitive, a burbling organic rhythm. (I used to like to paint to “Einstein on the Beach” by Glass, because I liked hearing numbers repeated as if they were objects floating in space, tangible, like seeing cells move in a microscope slide…identifying them by shape or color…and it helped the painting.)

    Ken Ogata plays Mishima. Although he is not as beautiful as the writer, he can be charming at times. It is really too bad that Ogata is absent of the narcissistic affectations of the actual Mishima. The way Mishima sat, played with a cigarette, responded to an interviewer’s questions-these indicated a powerful personality of considerable charisma, danger, and strangeness. When reading about Mishima’s life, reading his own words, seeing the interviews with his translators (including Seidensticker) and even his trans-gendered lover (whose story of dancing with Mishima in a gay bar and making fun of the scrawniness of the body beneath his clothes forms a pivotal part of Mishima’s autobiography, and his obsession with bodybuilding) we get an image of a troubled, self-loathing sado/masochistic man romantically in love with death.

    In Schrader’s film, the stories taken from Mishima’s life are intercut with filmed vignettes from his writing, and the boundaries between fiction and autobiography are not always clear-particularly in the early life scenes. The fantastic puzzle of the film puts together color, black and white, stylized set designs (the golden pavillion is all gold, warm color) and naturalism (the cars traversing a Tokyo street are 1970’s reality boxes). This splintered film somehow artfully manages to show the fascinating splinters of a complex character…

    And, the final scenes culminating in the harakiri of the author bring everything together-the youthful stutterer, the man ashamed of his body, the man obsessed with his body, the man who wished to fuse art with life and flesh, and in so doing, destroys himself.

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