Yukio Mishima, of Love and Death

“We live in an age in which there is no heroic death.” — Yukio Mishima

As a critic, one of my favorite things about articulating an opinion about a film is discovering the new subject and researching it, especially when it’s so far from my usual field of expertise and even from my personal tastes. As a student of filmmaking, I look forward to gaining new perspectives on particular places, techniques, times and cultural practices that I wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to; for that next cinematic experience that utterly moves me and inundates me with new insights and respect for the form and the medium. Thankfully, Criterion’s offering of Yukio Mishima’s Patriotism and Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters more than satisfies all of these cravings.

Last semester I took a course that focused, allegedly, on the art and culture of Japan. Taught by well-intentioned, middle-aged white instructors who had visited the country once, the content seemed to get lost in the ultra-traditional aspects of Japan, the kinds that most capable people could find in a hasty internet search. It barely scratched the surface of the kinds of iconic, bold works that were produced in the modern period, post-WWII through the present. Over the course of Patriotism and Mishima, I learned more about Japanese culture than I did during that entire semester.

Perhaps the expectations of American culture, in terms of what kind of imagery they anticipate seeing from something with the label “Japanese”, have become so fetishized and exoticized that the only elements that are taught in school, or responded to positively in film, are the ancient, almost perfunctory ones: tea ceremonies, royal court customs, geisha, and bamboo flutes. But what I was most interested in were the artists who pushed the envelope in contemporary times; where the avant garde movements began, and where true Japanese high art came from – the conceptual, intellectual performance artists and punk-aesthetes who reinvented the world’s perception of “Japan”, while still honoring their heritage. Watching these films back to back was my baptism by fire.

To experience the world of Japanese artist, author and playwright Yukio Mishima, you must first get a brief lesson in his tortured, complex origin: Born Kimitake Hiraoka, he was forbidden to go out in the sun by his over-bearing grandmother (who was prone to violence), Mishima was taken away from his family at a young age and forced to play not with other boys, but with his female cousins and their dolls. His abusive father regularly held his face up to passing train cars to frighten him. He’d overcome these childhood obstacles to be nominated for a Nobel Prize three times.

It was widely speculated he might have had homosexual dalliances, and it was documented that he visited many of Tokyo’s famous gay bars (for research or for pleasure, the reasons remain unknown). Mishima wrote 40 novels, 18 plays, 20 books of short stories, at least 20 books of essays, and one libretto before his death in 1970.

He is considered one of the most celebrated novelists of his generation, and, according to Tony Raynes’ essay included with Patriotism, one that “meticulously constructed his own celebrity.”

He was a controversial, unusual figure in Japanese pop culture who hung out with female impersonators, added Greek statuary to his “Western-style” home, and was a bit of an exhibitionist; appearing in photographer Hosoe Eiko’s sadomasochistic Ordeal by Roses, totally nude. Perhaps, then, the most important thing to know about Mishima was that he was very much into extreme discipline. He had a rigorous work out regime and was considered a body builder. He went so far as to form the Tatenokai, a private army, which he trained himself, that was sworn to protect the emperor of Japan.

On 25 November 1970, Mishima and four members of the Tatenokai visited the commandant of the Ichigaya Camp (the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces), and, inside, they barricaded themselves in the office, and tied the commandant to his chair. With a prepared manifesto and scroll listing their demands, Mishima stepped onto the balcony to address the soldiers. Loyal only to his country (and to the emperor), Mishima’s speech was intended to inspire a coup d’etat restoring the powers of the emperor.

He succeeded only in being irksome, and was ridiculed mercilessly, thus shaming him permanently and publicly. He finished his planned speech after a few minutes, and returned in to the commandant’s office to commit seppuku. As part of the rite of kaishakunin that follows, Mishima’s body was to be ritualistically mutilated. After several failed attempts, a Tatenokai member finally beheaded Mishima’s lifeless body.

Another customary element of this suicide practice was the composition of jisei, or death poems. Mishima planned his suicide meticulously for at least a year and no one outside the group of hand-picked Tatenokai members had any indication of what was to happen. After Mishima’s death, all prints of this film were rumored to have been destroyed by his wife Yoko. In August 2005, original film negatives were “discovered” at the late author’s residence in Ota Ward, Tokyo. About 40 reels have now been found altogether.

Experiencing the art of Mishima’s highly sensorial world is intoxicating, it is far removed from what has become the ideal of Western entertainment or even the Westernized ideal of what Eastern entertainment is supposed to be. Patriotism, first released in 1961 for Shosetsu chuokoron, comes in two versions (English and Japanese), and is a brisk, hard-hitting 29-minutes that seems like an ominous, prescient foreshadowing of the director’s own life plan (or rather his death plan), and his resolution to die in a dignified manor of his own choosing.

The imagery is stunning, bold and graphic; oftentimes it is abstract or absurd. The little glass animals that litter the floor in the opening scene juxtaposed with the writing of calligraphy (translated from Chinese — not Japanese — it means “wholehearted sincerity”) and the ghostly hands touching the face of the lovely Reiko (Yoshiko Tsuruoka) are particularly effective. Even by today’s standards, Patriotism is highly-stylized, in a stark, artistic way. This was Mishima’s single foray into filmmaking, one that tried to dispel the myth that death should be feared. Mishima welcomed death; he courted it, sought it, and was intoxicated by it. Death and sex were two topics verboten in Japanese culture at the time of the film’s production, and Mishima takes it upon himself to be a virtuosic provocateur, who is part passionate expressive modernist, part fervent traditionalist.

As “The Lieutenant” (played on film by Mishima himself) begins to prepare for the rite of hara-kiri (considered a more vulgar term for seppuku), there are scenes of nudity, orgasm and sensuality that are interspersed with flashes of sword blades, tears, companionship, formal poetic writing, cutting, blood, and military uniforms bathed in heavenly light, as though sexual pleasure, for Mishima, could be derived from all of those components. The way such simple things as a puffy tangle of messy hair during sex or the rippling back muscles of a man as he leans over his lover are dramatically fresh.

As the man’s blood splashes on the kimono of his lover over the strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and sprays, in gray tones, all over the set, the film takes on an almost snuff quality (and is tough to sit through, to be honest). It feels almost too real, reveling in the shock value of the gore displayed, transposing it with images we have come to expect from Japanese history, and turning our preconceptions on their collective ears. Texturally, the film is poetic and dream-like, adhering to ancient tradition (like building the set as a Noh stage, minimalist, yet adding tremendously to the dramatic intensity), but is also hypnotically repulsive and not for the faint of heart. The maverick, perverse dichotomy presented by Mishima is brutal, and unlike anything I have seen from a filmmaker, Eastern or Western.

The extras culled together by Criterion for this film (and also for the Schrader film) are jaw-dropping: a 2005 documentary (produced by Hiroaki Fujii) called Two Days with Yukio Mishima, in which the crew of Patriotism recounts the filming experience 40 years prior, which took, amazingly, only two days. This fascinating look into the genesis of Patriotism, Mishima’s roots in Kabuki, and the extreme secrecy surrounding the making of the film add an invaluable amount to it’s mythic status, while simultaneously deconstructing the notion that filmic simplicity is easy to pull off.

The documentary provides an essential, invaluable insight into the making of the film and is a feat in itself viewers should consider themselves lucky to be privy to. In addition to the reunion there is also a three-chapter series entitled Mishima on Mishima, collected from the flamboyant director’s television appearances in the late ’60s, and finally, there is a 70+ page insert that features production stills, two critical essays (one by Mishima), and, an essential for any Mishima enthusiast, the original short story.

The second disc of Mishima ranks among the best DVD extras Criterion has offered with interviews featuring Phillip Glass (whose score for the film is, expectedly, stunning), production designer Eiko Ishioka (whose surreal design sensibility on the film is flat-out brilliant), as well as a 55-minute BBC documentary on Mishima. These bells and whistles are among the best the company has offered. I’ve gone on and on about the packaging and art direction of Criterion’s most recent selections, perhaps too much, but I will be damned if they haven’t topped themselves again: the packaging for Schrader’s film might be my favorite of any Criterion title (so far). It captures a perfect alchemy of the past and present of pop and tradition.

The tandem release of Patriotism and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters functions as a testament to three artists’ commitment: Mishima himself, director Paul Schrader (who wrote Taxi Driver), and, perhaps most impressively, Oscar-winning Japanese artist Ishioka (who won a statuette for designing the costumes for Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Add in a score by the legendary composer Glass (performed by the Kronos Quartet), and the result is a marriage of art with technical elements that far surpasses any typical biography film standard. And you can’t really go wrong when you’re being produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. It is a big Hollywood homage to this independent, fervently patriotic artistic genius.

Both films are essential viewing for those who want to have more than a cursory history lesson on modern Japanese pop culture, art, and artists; though Patriotism’s austere originality renders it, clearly, the more successful of the two films, while Schrader’s daring film plays more like an expensive, ambitious fever-dreamt homage. What is most illuminating here is the gentle scouring of a period in Japanese history that is too-often glazed over, one that celebrates the pure spirit of the true performance artist and their processes. In this respect, both films succeed.