Yukio Mishima, of Love and Death

Death and sex were verboten, and Mishima took it upon himself to be a virtuosic provocateur; part passionate expressive modernist, part fervent traditionalist.

Patriotism: The Rite of Love and Death

Director: Yukio Mishima
Distributor: Criterion
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1966
US DVD Release Date: 2008-07-01

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Director: Paul Schrader
Cast: Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Naoku Otani, Haruko Kato, Yasosuke Bando, Hisako Manda
Distributor: Criterion
MPAA rating: R
US DVD Release Date: 2008-07-01
First date: 1985
“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.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

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