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Hope I Die Before I Grow Old…

April 12th, 2010 (09:01 am)

I've been going through a lot of Criterion releases lately...

© 2010
D. Gordon

The Criterion Collection, aka Criterion (which, for those who don't know, has a reputation for distributing classic films with extensive restoration work and extra features) recently held a "going out-of-print" sale for some Studio Canal films they were losing the licenses to. That sale, plus the magic of a hefty discount code (heh heh heh), made for some impressive mass buying / watching over several weeks this past winter (though I wouldn't suggest watching Godard's Alphaville with a concussion - but I digress). But it was a gift I was catching up with - Criterion's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters - rather than one of the new purchases that turned out to be the most striking movie, much less Criterion release, that I’ve seen in quite a while.

© The Criterion Collection

Yukio Mishima the man was a brilliant, charismatic, infuriatingly frustrating mass of contradictions: an internationally renowned literary figure who delved into body-building, B-movie acting, and erotic modeling; an apparently dutiful husband and father with a string of all-but-acknowledged male lovers; a committed nationalist who believed that Emperor Shōwa should have abdicated; a proponent of traditional Japanese values who knew at least three foreign languages, enjoyed extensive travel, and lived in a self-designed Western-style house. Nominated three times for a Nobel Prize in literature, his fame during his lifetime rivaled his fame today; but it's usually the manner of his death – seppuku, very public, after an attempted "coup" – that overshadows much discussion about him.

To some degree, that vivid death robbed Mishima's legacy of some of its brilliance. In Japan, for example, he's often dismissed as a crazy right-wing embarrassment. His ritual suicide, a throwback to a traditional (read: military) past, occurred at a time when Japan's economic juggernaut was just taking off and the country was focused on proving it had moved beyond the Bad Old Pre-WWII Days. On a more personal level, his death also left the sense among a number of people who knew and worked with him that he had considered his entire life – culminating in that coup which may have been more performance art / backdrop for his suicide than political statement – to be a work of art in which they were not much more than tools he'd used. All in all, though, it's difficult to say whether anyone had a complete picture of just who Mishima was.

There are plenty of sources, online and off, that discuss Mishima better than I can (in fact, his works themselves probably help with that). And it would be unfair to reduce his life and literature to a few bare sentences. But both his life and art seem to share several threads: beauty as an impossible, impermanent ideal; death as an obsession; and sexuality as an ambivalent mix of the two. It seems that the man himself came to the conclusion that the best thing is to die young and leave a good-looking corpse – which he then proceeded to do.

© The Criterion Collection

And then there's Mishima the biopic - something far, far beyond the regular meaning of the term.

Most biopics, often vetted by the subject or his/her estate, are glossy brochures of a notable life. The highs are there in glorious detail, the lows mere temporary lapses. (Sometimes the lows are the highs; see Ray.) But Mishima completely avoids that template. The Brothers Schrader (Paul and Len, who wrote the screenplay along with Len’s Japanese wife, Chieko) use a broad range of moviemaking tools to craft a work that remarkably, believably expresses the contradictions that made up Mishima the man.

The narrative starts with November 25, 1970 – the last day of Mishima’s life, the day of the coup / seppuku - as its base. Over this are layered flashbacks of Mishima’s life and abbreviated retellings of three of his works: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House, and Runaway Horses. These are grouped into the four chapters of the film's title, which reflect aspects of Mishima's personal philosophy - beauty, art, action, and harmony of pen and sword - all overlaid with an effective first-person narration.

Next come the visuals. Eiko Ishioka's production design (with input from art director Kazuo Takenaka), linked with John Bailey's cinematography, gives each section its own unique visual signature: the November 25th, 1970 section is shot documentary style, with muted colors; the biographical narrative is in black and white, using the types of film stock that would have been common in each time period; and the three works are shot as stages plays each with distinct color themes. While stylistically unique, the three sections still successfully come together thematically. The outwardly destructive temple acolyte, the self-destructive young actor, and the destructive action-oriented student all give possible glimpses of Mishima himself.

Then there's Philip Glass's soundtrack, which has since gained its own renown. As much as I love Philip Glass, I'm one of the first to admit his film scores can distract from the actual movies. This, however - the second film he scored, after Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance - is not one of those. Acting in concert with the screenplay and the production design, he also gives the narrative threads separate identities which unite to form a bigger whole, using an economy of sound that matches each note to the onscreen action. Glass carefully teases out emotion from the story, underlining things such as the sense of movement in a turning wheel carrying the occupants of a car closer to their fates, or the neon lights shining into a too-pink bedroom to illuminate two lovers who will never see eye to eye – it's all there, popping from the screen.

How did all these elements end up working together so well? One key is probably in how the production itself proceeded. It began with the Schraders, already experienced veterans who tend to focus on character in their works (Paul was the screenwriter for Taxi Driver and directed American Gigolo) and who had gone to great lengths make this film. Then the film itself was clearly not a Japanese production; most key positions (director, screenwriter, producer, music, cinematography, sound, and visual effects) were filled by Hollywood veterans, who brought Western technical practices and perspectives. But neither was it a Hollywood production: the actors and vast majority of the crew (and, very importantly, the production / costumer designer) were Japanese, the film is in Japanese, the Mishima estate had crucial early input, and it was shot at Toho Studios. The hybrid nature of the project – along with the unique challenges of avoiding ultra-nationalist protests and yakuza disapproval, while navigating a lack of official channels for municipal approvals and growing dissatisfaction by the estate - clearly had to have shaped the creation of what ended up on the screen. Some of this was flying by the seat of the pants, as the production almost had to make up its own reality to complete the film; fortunately it had talented people more than capable of rising to the challenge.

Eiko Ishioka mentions in an extra that Mishima was the first time she’d done production design for a film, and she was too young to realize that she had no clue of what she was doing. The sentiment, if not the youth, was likely the tenor of the whole production; filming a subject that had never been done before and facing pretty challenging circumstances, the Schraders early on made the decision to use the facts of Mishima's life and Mishima's own words, reinforced by that first-person voiceover, to let Mishima himself tell the story - and the production never deviated from that. Getting themselves and any biases out of the way was probably the wisest thing they could have done.

© The Criterion Collection

To me, a good movie should stay with you after it's over: should make you relive scenes, mull over the plot, think about the performances, even hum bits of the soundtrack. It should, in the case of stories based on real-world people and events, have you hunting for biographies, searching online for references, pushing open the floodgates of information. Fortunately, Mishima is one of those movies – and fortunately there's information there to be found. It's rewards like this that remind you why you like movies.

But – someone stop me before I buy more Criterions. PLEASE.