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Confession time:  when I sat down to watch “Mishima:  A Life in Four Chapters,” I had never even heard of the man.  I know, I know.  Three Nobel Prize nominations, 35 novels, 25 plays, 8 volumes of essays and 200 short stories are nothing to sneeze at.   As a literature major I should know better.  Plus his name is bound to show up in “Trivial Pursuit” or “Jeopardy” eventually.

Perhaps Yukio Mishima’s focus on ever-decaying beauty, along with a protective grandmother, helped create the self-destructive obsession that Mishima would eventually embrace to the fullest extent.

To be honest I was drawn to “Mishima:  A Life In Four Chapters” mostly because I am a bit of a Philip Glass dork.  It turns out there is a lot more going on in this movie than I anticipated.  I learned that Mishima, possibly Japan’s most celebrated author, walked the walk in a way that few artists ever have.

The film itself presents as a patchwork of color-coded vignettes.  Black and white scenes illustrate four of the author’s most significant life experiences.  Sequences depicting four of Mishima’s novels disperse the action in brilliant color and provide further insight into the author’s views on sexuality, self-destruction, tradition and aesthetics.

Sounds like a pretty standard artist biopic, right?  Let’s see:  a weird childhood? Check.  Some disappointment and a tormented psyche?  Check.  This film could easily fall into the same narrative rut that imprisons films about Pollack, Basquiat and seemingly every other tormented artist.

Ken Ogata as Mishima: “Hold still, just a little pin prick”

I was pleasantly surprised when “Mishima:  A Life in Four Chapters” went in a refreshing new direction.  Mishima doesn’t perceive himself as a victim.  His true desire is merely to either write or do something meaningful and beautiful.  It is in fact this duality, the duality of the written word and the physical world that defined Mishima.

“Words are a medium that reduces reality to abstraction for transmission to our reason, and in their power to corrode reality inevitably lurks the danger that the words will be corroded too,” Mishima once wrote.

Director Paul Schrader’s execution isn’t really anything to write home about.  Most of the visual highlights of the film predictably occur when Mishima’s novels come to life.  These scenes take place in a dreamscape of stage sets, giving a nod to the author’s intimate involvement with the theater as a writer, director and performer.  The soundtrack stands out, but it is probably among the most mainstream and least avant-garde of Glass’s soundtracks.  Most of the most poetic moments of the script borrowed directly from the author’s own venerable canon.

What really fascinates is the exploration of Mishima’s philosophy.  Mishima challenged established norms while at the same time fervently embracing Japan’s rigid imperial heritage.  He was as obsessed with perfecting his physical form as he was his poetry.  When working with the written word, Mishima could feel like a god that could move mountains.  Yet those words became impotent the instant they joined physical reality through utterance.

“Is that a hose in your mouth or are you just happy to see me?”

As Mishima says in the film, “all my life I have been acutely aware of a contradiction in the very nature of my existence.  For forty-five years I struggled to resolve this dilemma by writing plays and novels.  The more I wrote, the more I realized mere words were not enough.  So I found another form of expression.”

Boy, did he ever.  What made Mishima’s final piece of (for lack of a better term) performance art so unique is that he did it to satisfy a personal aesthetic.  Critical reaction and commercial success obviously had nothing to do with his thought process at that time.  Mishima’s final statement is just about as honest as art can be.

Yukio Mishima encourages troops to embrace their Japanese-ness

After his famous speech to the army garrison, the real-life Mishima was rumored to have come inside and commented “I don’t think they even heard me.”  What Mishima did next was surely louder than any words he could have uttered.

As per usual, the Criterion Collection edition of this film is incredible. With an extra disc of special features, there is plenty to peruse about the film and Mishima himself, most notably The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima, a 55-minute BBC documentary about the author. And if Donald Richie is involved, you know it’s top notch. Schrader himself said, “Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie.”