While Paul Schrader was a well-established screenwriter [The Yakuza (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Obsession (1976), Rolling Thunder (1977), Raging Bull (1980)] and director [Blue Collar (1978), Hardcore (1979), American Gigolo (1980), Cat People (1982)], he had a hard time getting funding together to make and then distribute Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985). Toho, who had put up about 2 million dollars, was pressured by not only right wing groups that were furious that a gaijin was making a movie about Mishima, but also his widow, Yoko, who did not want two scenes showing Mishima’s homosexuality in the film. I don’t know if he approached Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas or if it was the other way around, but Coppola and Lucas gave him the money to finish the film (or at least had enough clout to get Warner Brothers to give him the money), expressing that they never expected to make the money back. They just felt that the work itself merited being finished. Toho, having put up half of the money for this film, disavowed any involvement. The film has never been shown in Japan.
This is one of the best films ever made (if you haven’t read my entry yet for Patriotism, go do so now). I lean towards it not only for its focus on a favored author of mine, but on just how ambitious a project it was. In my Film and Literature class, the goal is to explore all aspects of adapting a work into a film. However, our last unit has a dual purpose. One is to look at biopics of authors’ lives to see how faithful a film portrays the author (this requires biographical research of the author). The other is to look at how authors involve themselves in adaptations of their own works, from screenwriting (like Bret Easton Ellis writing the screenplay adaptation to The Informers) to directing (like Tom Stoppard directing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) to acting (Stan Lee’s multiple cameos in his superhero graphic novel adaptations) to producing (JK Rowling producing the last two installments of Harry Potter). How does the authors’ involvement in the adaptations affect the adaptation (and to what degree)? I feel I hold the ace in both cases. When it came to adapting Patriotism, Mishima wrote the screenplay, was lead actor, chose the actress, storyboarded the shots, designed the set, chose the music (his own record copy of Tristan und Isolde), chose costumes, and directed. The only thing he didn’t do was act the female lead, cinematography and post-production. Who is more controlling than that? No, really – if you can think of someone else, PLEASE POST A COMMENT. I want to know.
But the most beautiful trump card to play for the unit is M:ALiFC. Because it is not just a biopic. It adapts FOUR OTHER WORKS FROM MISHIMA, along with the biographical information. For an adaptation class, the work alone is mind-blowing, but then to be a biopic on top of that? Now I will admit, since the film is only 120 minutes, we do not get a full-blown adaptation of any of the works, but Schrader pares down each work to its essence. And we can relate that work back to Mishima’s life in a tangible way by the subheadings Schrader uses (“Beauty,” “Art,” “Action,” “Harmony of Pen and Sword”).
For “Beauty,” the adaptation is The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (my personal favorite). Eiko Ishioka, the production designer, had a color scheme for each of the three adaptations. This one is gold (an obvious choice) and green. But what is so fascinating about the design is that, even though they did not have a lot of money to make this film, instead of trying to make elaborate sets, they enlisted stagecraft for sets. Ishioka creates a small version of the Golden Pavilion, has a gold, wooden walkway, a bamboo forest off the path, constructs a sort of shouji box for the Superior’s room (him playing Go alone). The adaptation focuses on a lot of the key points of the novel: Mizoguchi being befriended by Kashiwagi, Kashiwagi setting Mizoguchi up for his first sexual experience (which fails as the temple looms large – the way they arrange this in the film is curious but I believe works well ultimately), Mizoguchi being chastised by the Superior for falling behind in his studies, Mizoguchi telling Kashiwagi that beauty is now his enemy and his wish to destroy the temple, Mizoguchi finding out that the war with America has ended, so the bombers won’t be coming, Mizoguchi’s visit to the whorehouse where he tells the prostitute, after finally performing, to remember him, as he will be famous, and the setting up and lighting the bundles of straw at the base of the pavilion. This is all executed quite effectively, beautifully, in a rather short space. Because Schrader intersperses parts about Mishima’s life inside the adaptations (or vice versa, if you prefer), “Beauty” also covers Mishima’s childhood (again, if you didn’t read my comments on Patriotism, go back and do so), adolescence, and being disqualified for military service. That’s a lot of ground to cover on top of the adaptation. And Schrader does so. And it works. And it’s gorgeous.
The second section, “Art,” goes into Mishima’s emergence as a writer. It also has those two scenes of his homosexuality that Yoko would not allow. The book that Schrader wanted to use for this section was Forbidden Colors, which was overtly homosexual. That was the only book Yoko would not let Schrader use. However, Schrader gets around this because he uses (throughout the film) parts of Mishima’s non-fiction work Sun and Steel, but more for its discussion of his travels and his awakening of the body. The St. Sebastian stuff in “Beauty” is more from Confessions of a Mask (which is mostly autobiographical). Schrader also uses information from the BBC documentary The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima to fill in the conversation Mishima had with Akihiro Maruyama (one of Mishima’s lovers) about his slight build. What Schrader does use in place of Forbidden Colors is a curious work, Kyoko’s House, which was never translated into English (and I have therefore never read it). It deals with four characters that are friends and meet occasionally. One’s a boxer, one’s an artist, one’s an actor, one’s a businessman. We get to see three of them (sans businessman) meet for noodles at a cart during an interestingly constructed scene where the cart (bright pink, one of the two colors in this adaptation, the other being gray), spins clockwise as the crowd encircles the cart counterclockwise, giving the impression of a busy street. Again, this is so theatrical in its execution, but fresh and creative rather than looking cheap. Who Schrader focuses on in this section of the film is the actor, Osamu. Osamu is very much taken with himself and appears bored with the world. His mother owns a dessert shop and is heavily in debt to Kiyomi Akita, a loan shark. His mother is hassled by hoods, so Osamu goes to see Kiyomi on his mother’s bidding. Kiyomi “buys” Osamu and cancels his mother’s loan. Over a period of time, they have sex, and she beats him and cuts him. Eventually, she kills him and drinks poison, committing suicide. The noodle cart inclusion is interesting, as the friends discuss what art is. They note the human body is high art, but the artist maintains that you have to capture it in some way (painting, sculpture, etc) in order to preserve its beauty, while the boxer feels it is all about building the body to its peak. The actor takes up bodybuilding, but once Kiyomi starts to ruin his body with scars and bruises, he no longer goes to the gym, a combination of how ugly and scarified his body has become and that he sees no further use in self-preservation when his world seems to be headed towards destruction. It is very reminiscent of Fight Club in that sense. What is beauty? What is art? What does it mean to be a man? All questions Mishima was interested in investigating.
Part 3 is “Action,” which follows Mishima into his last years where he forms his private army and advocates a very rightist agenda (he said at one time it was because the leftist movement was full). This is paired quite effectively with Runaway Horses, which is the second book in his tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility, where he charts what he believed to be the descent of Japan as a nation from 1912 to 1975. The day Mishima finished it and sent it off to his publisher was November 25, 1970, the day he and four members of the Tatenokai took a general hostage at a JSDF base, Mishima addressed the troops, then committed seppuku. We see parts of this day throughout the film, and the film culminates, quite powerfully, in the resolution of all three of the adaptations: the Golden Pavilion burns down as Mizoguchi escapes, Kiyomi and Osuma lie dead near each other, and Isao commits suicide in the light of the rising sun, which is the finishing image of the film. Part 4, “Harmony of Pen and Sword,” finishes the story of the events leading up to Mishima and his group’s arrival at the JSDF base. To go back to Runaway Horses, I feel that this is the most ambitious part of the movie visually for three specific scenes: the meeting at the shrine where Isao tells everyone the plot is off, the secret meeting where the walls drop away and police pour in and the jail scene (I saw a production of the Washington Opera’s Fidelio with very similar staging that used television screens behind bars like the way the bars were set up in this film). Ishioka’s colors for this adaptation were black and orange (“shu, a particular hue of orange used in temples” notes Kevin Jackson in his article). When the walls drop away, I always jump.
There are two things I do not like about this film, even though it’s damn near perfect. One is Ogata’s acting when he addresses the assembled troops at the JSDF base. He seems a raving thing, shaking, crying. That was not the case when Mishima addressed the troops. He looked calm and collected, not someone about ready to cause his own death. It is unfaithful to portray Mishima like that, because it makes him look desperate and crazy. The second thing is the music. Ok, I get everyone loves Philip Glass, and the score he did for The Hours I felt was quite good (and that movie comes close to how ambitious this movie is with its different parts, emphasis on author and adaptation of literature). But the score for this film beats you over the head relentlessly with the arpeggios and ding-dong bells. I like the snares for the trip to the JSDF base, but the rest is too invasive.
Schrader himself says, “In many ways, I was out there directing a film that was financed by no one that was going to be seen by no one.” He was drawn to Mishima because he was looking for another subject a la Travis Bickle who craved suicidal glory. What results is one of the most gorgeous, sensitive, caring biopics and adaptations I’ve ever seen. When Schrader and Ellis started their Kickstarter program for The Canyons and one of the levels was for a personal phone call from either one, I was torn about which one I would choose (and I don’t have the money for it anyways, so whatever), but it would be Schrader. He’s already answered the question of why he chose to make this, but I still would like to hear it once more, because it seems so much like art for art’s sake.