Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

This post is about the 1984 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, and I would recommend watching that before this. This post contains full spoilers for that film, as well as for the film First Reformed. The contents of this post were originally written as my university dissertation, and have been minimally edited here to be more readable. A sheet of references will be provided on request. Thanks for reading!

In 1985, Paul Schrader’s film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The film centres on the life of the Japanese author Mishima Yukio (born Hiraoka Kimitake, 1925-1970). Mishima was a controversial subject in Japan, given his public ritual suicide in November 1970, after performing a failed coup. Mainly known in the West for his literary career, Mishima was a prolific Japanese author, playwright and occasional actor. Near the end of his life, he became more interested in right-wing ideology, in particular advocating for a return to power for the Japanese Emperor and bemoaning the lack of traditional Japanese samurai values within the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. His writing, which reflected both his ideology and his personal struggles with his sexuality and suicidal thoughts, made him a mainly popular figure during his life, with speculation about his becoming the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize. However, after his suicide, Mishima become a taboo topic mostly avoided within Japanese popular culture.

Schrader, whose writing and directing efforts revolves around similar themes to Mishima, specifically those of suicidal impulses and outcast characters, decided to write a screenplay about Mishima’s life and death. At the time, Schrader was mainly known for his work alongside director Martin Scorsese, for whom he wrote the screenplay for films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Mishima was his fifth film as director and he chose to film it in Japan, with Japanese actors and a mostly Japanese crew. The film’s production was beset with problems; often due to pressure from Mishima’s widow, who as the holder of his estate did not allow discussion of Mishima’s homosexuality, and pressure from Japanese right wing extremist groups, who were fiercely protective of Mishima’s image. In the end, the film was purchased by a Japanese distributor, but never screened or released in Japan, likely due to the Japanese studios being reluctant to make trouble with Mishima’s estate or right-wing agitators.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a film best characterised by its unique style, which plays with both chronology and reality in order to build an image of Mishima Yukio, portrayed in Schrader’s film by Ogata Ken. Starting with the morning of his failed coup attempt, Schrader then cuts the story into four chapters, each containing scenes from the last day of his life, flashbacks to his past as well as stylised adaptations of his novels. Schrader opens with a focus on Mishima’s early childhood and adapts segments of his novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, then moves on to his writing career and sexuality, which he pairs with an adaptation of his novel Kyōko’s House. The final two chapters of the film deal with Mishima’s political life, coupled with his novel Runaway Horses. The effect is to build up a collage like recreation of Mishima’s life, performing a psychological appraisal of it more than a purely historical one.

Although Schrader’s film notably eschews the conventions of standard biographical filmmaking with its non-chronological structure, nestled within the film’s four chapters is something of a more conventional biopic. Many modern American biopics follow the same formula as set by Orson Welles’ fictional biopic Citizen Kane (1941), wherein the film starts with a problem faced by the film’s subject and flashes back in time in order to establish the details of their life and how they got to the point faced at the film’s opening. While Mishima is distinguished by the intercutting of several timeframes and fictional events, it still starts with the events of November 25th 1970, before cutting back to Mishima Yukio’s childhood to explain how Mishima reached the point of committing seppuku (although notably that event only happens at the climax of the film).

Filming the Events of 1970

On the last day of his life, Mishima Yukio drove with three members of the Tatenokai, his private army, to the Eastern Army HQ in Ichigaya, where he met and held hostage General Kanetoshi Mashita in order to achieve his goal of giving a speech to the garrison stationed there. The speech was a culmination of his then recent flirtation with the far right and berated what he saw as an emasculation of Japan’s military power. After shouting to them from the roof, Mishima realised his words had fallen on deaf ears, and committed ritual suicide in the office of General Mashita. Although he had planned to write a poem with the blood he spilled from his stomach, he ended up being unable to do this. Mishima’s second-in-command, his rumoured lover Morita Masakatsu, failed twice to sever his head from his body, so the deed was done by Koga Hiroyasu, who then executed Morita.

The day in question is recreated reasonably accurately by Schrader, who claimed to have used dialogue as close as he could find to what would have been said, based on witness dialogue and court records. Schrader films this part of the film in a cinema vérité style, making use of a handheld shaky-cam throughout. The effect of this is actually to locate these sections in the mode of a quasi-documentary, grounding the bizarre events of Mishima’s death into something the audience can recognise as true events. This is especially important in a film which blends fiction and reality. Even the flashback sequences are often taken from Mishima’s own accounts, using dialogue and scenes from his autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask (1949), as opposed to more objective sources such as the ones used in making the 1970 section.

The other effect the vérité style has is to highlight the moments of surreality that occur in this section. The first is a short moment near the beginning wherein Mishima looks at his reflection in the mirror and the reflection changes to Mishima wearing a noh mask, a kendo outfit and a flight helmet. These quick cuts also change the film to black and white, suggesting their placement within the flashback section of the film. In placing these shots here, Schrader signifies that the events of 1970 are a natural climax to Mishima’s life, something that the author himself seemed to be as convinced of. This is perhaps one of the first indications in the film that Schrader seems, at least in part, to buy into the narrative of Mishima’s life that Mishima had created for himself. This particular narrative, which incorporates Mishima’s writing, bodybuilding and politics, suggests that Mishima was intentionally shaping his life around the final act of suicide.

The second notable moment where the documentary style is broken is right at the climax of the film, during Mishima’s moment of seppuku. Schrader shoots the moment the blade goes into the flesh by focusing on Ogata’s face as he screams in determined pain, and then uses a dolly zoom, a technique created for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where the camera zooms in as it moves backwards, making an optical illusion that here creates the effect of Mishima’s face overwhelming the background. Schrader then cuts to the death scenes from Mishima’s various novels, ending on the seppuku from Runaway Horses. More important than Schrader’s leap into more surreal filmmaking techniques is his decision to not show the actual suicide of Mishima, not only in cutting to his face over showing his stomach but also in ending the film before Morita’s failed attempt to sever Mishima’s head. This preserves Mishima’s dignity and, perhaps, gives him on screen the death that he wanted to have in reality. Even in the moment where Mishima is ignored by the military forces gathered outside, Schrader overlays this with triumphant footage of the writer in a jet plane, discovering the unity of writing and action (‘The Harmony of Pen and Sword’, as Schrader phrases it). In Schrader’s Mishima, then, even Mishima’s failures are replaced by his personal successes.


We can see in greater detail how Schrader viewed Mishima by looking at how he portrays the rest of the author’s life. The limitations imposed on Schrader by Mishima’s widow, Hiraoka Yoko, for example, denying him the use of Forbidden Colours, a novel about a young gay man marrying a woman, meant that Schrader had to be highly selective when deciding what should be shown on screen. Examining what he includes and how, as well as what he chooses to leave out, is enlightening in showing what kind of image of Mishima Schrader is attempting to create.

Throughout the film, the segments of Mishima’s life pre-November 1970 are shot in black and white, grounding them in a boring reality that opposes them to the vivid and colourful adaptations of his novels and using a style reminiscent of classical Japanese filmmakers of the 1940s and 1950s, most notably Ozu Yasujirō, about whom Schrader had written part of his 1971 book Transcendental Style in Film. Although Mishima doesn’t include trademarks like Ozu’s “pillow shots”, many of the shots favour a low camera angle, about three feet from the ground, mirroring one’s view from a tatami mat. Richie refers to this view as “the view in repose… the attitude for watching, for listening, it is the position from which one sees the Noh…” Schrader may have chosen to echo this particular feature of Ozu’s style because of its associations with this form of traditional Japanese theatre. One of the earlier scenes depicted from Mishima’s life is him visiting a kabuki play and theatricality plays a large role in the life of Mishima. Even the adaptations of his books are presented like plays. In choosing to position the camera at a lower level, Schrader positions the audience as more detached viewers of the life of Mishima, and that life as something of a stage play.


The first section of the film, titled ‘Beauty’, deals with Mishima’s life from his early childhood under his grandmother’s care to his use of an illness as an excuse to avoid being sent to war. During the first three scenes of this segment, the child Mishima, then called Hiraoka Kimitake, doesn’t speak at all, with the exception of blurting out a short “excuse me” to someone with whom he collides at the theatre. The impression this seeks to give of the young Mishima is one of a victim, most notably of his commanding grandmother Nagai Natsuko, who took care of Mishima until he was 12. Throughout the film Schrader uses characters from Mishima’s books to explain Mishima himself. Here we see it first, since his inability to speak serves the dual purpose of connecting Mishima with the character of Mizoguchi from The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, as well as allowing Schrader to build the portrait of Mishima’s childhood through narration borrowed from his autobiography Confessions of a Mask.

Not every line is taken from Mishima’s personal account of his own childhood, but for the most part it is clear that Schrader is using the book as a base from which to draw on. Take, for example, the moment where the young Mishima finds the painting of St. Sebastian, taken almost word for word from Mishima’s book. Other sections differ slightly, such as when a young Mishima challenges a boy standing on a fence at school to see whether he can push him off. The scene is lifted from Confessions of a Mask but leaves out the context of Mishima’s childhood infatuation with the boy he fights. The problem is that Confessions of a Mask is usually referred to as a novel, rather than an autobiography, or perhaps as relating to the Japanese genre of “I-novel”, wherein the events of the novel are somewhat confessional but also lightly fictionalised. The level of confession is further distorted by the novel’s title, which suggests that the mask itself is confessing, as opposed to the person behind it. Hence, deriving objective fact from this novel becomes difficult, and for Schrader to attempt to do so this closely means that the segments in the film that deal with Mishima’s childhood can be considered to fall into the category of novelistic adaptation rather than straight biography, despite them being presented as such in the film’s visual language.


The next biographical segment, in the film’s second act entitled “Art”, opens with Mishima having finished writing Confessions of a Mask, looking at it being sold at a bookshop. It continues through his literary successes, mentions his homosexuality and ends with Mishima’s foray into bodybuilding and acting. In a sense, the film glosses over much of Mishima’s actual writing process in its autobiographical sections, although it fills those gaps with the novel adaptations. Given that Mishima’s widow apparently wanted the film to focus on Mishima as a writer, it might be no surprise that she objected to the film’s content after it was completed.

Mishima’s widow, Yoko, also placed restrictions on the film showing Mishima’s homosexuality. Because of this, Mishima is never explicit about the writer’s sexual proclivities, but Schrader does show Mishima almost exclusively in the company of men. Yoko is never mentioned nor shown in the film, and nor are his two children. The only scene in which Mishima is shown in any romantic light is during this second act, when he dances with a younger man at a gay bar, who calls him flabby. The inclusion of this scene coupled with the exclusion of Mishima’s wife means that Mishima succeeds in indirectly depicting Mishima’s life as a homosexual. However, this may again be a case of Schrader buying into the public image of Mishima’s sexuality as he wrote it. Although not publicly out, Mishima wrote much more about the topic of homosexuality in novels such as Forbidden Colours, while he very rarely talked about his family. The film never tries to step behind the curtain of his written, public life. This is not to say that Mishima’s homosexuality wasn’t important, but that Schrader’s decision to not show his wife and children is equally important as his decision to show his dating life.

In his review of the film, the critic Ian Buruma notes this devotion by Schrader to only showing the public persona of Mishima by saying that “The sequences about his own life in Mishima… are almost all based on famous photographs…” and that “Mishima’s ‘real life,’ as shown in the film, is his carefully stage-managed public life.” In the second act of Schrader’s film, there is indeed a sequence of Mishima being photographed, intentionally posing for the camera. In including this scene, Schrader draws the audience’s attention to Mishima’s narcissism, including in his posing as Saint Sebastian in a recreation of the painting which apparently first brought him to orgasm. At the same time, it also recreates some of Mishima’s portraits more subtly. Several shots from the film echo famous photographs of Mishima, such as in his debate with the students in 1969 or him training with swords in a dōjō. By faithfully recreating photographs of Mishima in a context outside of showing the photos being taken, the film effectively buys into the narcissism it criticises. It is decisions such as these that most effectively highlight Buruma’s criticism of the film – that it acts not as a probing deconstruction of Mishima, but as a wholesale reconstruction of the myths he told about himself.

We can also see this in how the film deals with Mishima’s bodybuilding. After a trip to Greece, which he wrote ‘cured his self-hatred and… awoke in me a will to life’, a quote used for the film’s narration, Mishima devoted much of his time to improving his physical fitness. The act of bodybuilding is perhaps another of Mishima’s attempts to create a particular public image, as is his starring in gangster films such as Karakkaze Yarō (Afraid to Die, 1960, a film in which he also dies at the climax). The photography, the acting and the bodybuilding all represent public facing moments of showmanship that Mishima worked towards, and in the second act of the film Schrader forefronts them all, perhaps somewhat uncritically. By only showing the public side of Mishima’s public acts, we can see Schrader falling into the trap Buruma points out.


 In the third act of the film, titled “Action”, Schrader focuses on the foundation of Mishima’s Tatenokai. Schrader plays slightly with the chronology, showing the formation of Mishima’s private army as happening before the making of his short film Patriotism, when in fact the acts were separated by two years, with Patriotism happening first. Patriotism, a short film in which Mishima acts out his own death by playing an army officer committing seppuku with his lover, may have been put here by Schrader in order to more directly link the writing and directing of the film to his suicide in 1970.

Patriotism as a film is an interesting comparison to Schrader’s work. Schrader meticulously recreates the set of Mishima’s film, which is nothing more than a noh stage with a scroll behind it reading 至誠 (roughly ‘sincerity’). The sparse set design of Mishima’s film can be seen as inspirational to Ishioka Eiko’s set design for Schrader’s film. Mishima himself wrote several modern noh plays, and the allusions to them in Eiko Ishioka’s set design reinforces the themes of theatricality and acting that run through the film.

One crucial way in which the two films differ, however, is the amount of detail shown in the seppuku itself. Mishima displays the act in full detail, cutting from explicit imagery of blood and guts spilling from his character’s stomach to shots of his and his lover’s faces, eyes notably obscured. Meanwhile, as discussed, Schrader focuses on Mishima’s face with the explicit aim of not showing any blood. The difference in the way this act is filmed highlights the difference between Mishima and Schrader’s attitude to Mishima’s own death. As Tom Raynes writes, with the depiction of suicide in Patriotism, Mishima’s aim is “to validate the act as a thing of beauty” and that “Lieutenant Takeyama and his wife, Reiko, are purified by their supremely honourable deaths.” It isn’t that Schrader doesn’t agree with Mishima that seppuku can sometimes symbolise victory rather than defeat, but rather that his way of showing that victory is not to focus on the detail. For Schrader, perhaps a reflection of his Christian background, the act of death itself is the victory, rather than the painful manner in which it is brought about. For Mishima, the cultural context of seppuku remains vitally important, and so is showing the act in all its viscera.

In 1968, Mishima founded the Tatenokai, a private army founded by Mishima out of students mainly from Tokyo’s Waseda University. The intention, political or otherwise, of Mishima’s creation of this group is difficult to parse, both for Mishima’s biographers and for Schrader. The first line Schrader cuts to in the group’s creation is a student of Mishima’s saying “We hereby vow to be the foundation of Imperial Japan”. In opening with this, Schrader positions the Tatenokai in the realm of the political. But the next part of the scene, which features Mishima and his compatriots signing their names in blood, is dramatic enough to insert an element of the theatrical into his army.

The next scene features the Tatenokai as marching soldiers in vaguely SS inspired uniform, and after that shows Mishima trying to defend to his manager not the politics of his army, but the reason for their existence as a way of unifying art and action. Schrader consistently avoids pinning down Mishima’s politics in his film, especially in regard to the tatenokai. With the exception of a few throwaway lines that seem to position the army as a group of traditionalist emperor protectors, more screen-time is devoted to the aesthetic and performative element of the tatenokai, such as their uniform or their training.  This perhaps speaks somewhat to Schrader’s views on Mishima’s militarism, which he saw as “not [facist]” but “some form of sexual artistic surrogates…”

How political Mishima was and what the exact nature of those politics were are a matter of debate, so it is understandable that Schrader wanted to avoid pinning Mishima to one specific political ideology. However, in ignoring much of the political background Mishima existed in, there is a risk of simplifying both the art and action of Mishima into a one of a purely aesthetic sort. This is perhaps best exemplified in the scene in which Mishima confronts a group of young left-wing protestors at Tokyo University. The debate itself, only recently recovered in full, is based often more on linguistics and theory than actual actionable politics. In Schrader’s version, however, the debate feels more like stand-up comedy. Mishima says that the only thing important for him is the Emperor, and that if the students would only address the Emperor by his proper title, he would gladly join hands with them. Mishima’s statements are charming but vague, talking about how the students are talking nonsense simply because they do not have ‘the joker’ called the Emperor. In having this scene be the most vigorous representation of Mishima’s politics, Schrader gives the impression that they are nothing more than a charming facade.

In his essay on the film, Thomas Prasch specifically critiques Schrader for this, saying that “what Schrader’s approach does is push his account toward a spiritualised psychobiography at the expense of social, political, or historical understanding…. when Mishima, in his final speech, pleads for a return to Japan’s “spiritual foundation” and closes with a prayer to the Emperor, no context is provided for such a position… Indeed, Schrader rejects any view of Mishima that takes his political/military views seriously.”

Yamanouchi writes of Mishima’s politics that despite the fascist aesthetic and ultra-nationalist devotion to the Emperor that Mishima adopted, he was not prepared to work with the right-wing, and that in fact he “could have agreed with the dissident students of the New Left” as both were critical of contemporary Japan (a view quoted in Schrader’s film). Yamanouchi suggests taking an approach that considers a mixture of views when considering Mishima, reflecting motivations both political and aesthetic. One might criticise Schrader for not considering the political and it seems hard to argue with Prasch’s claims that the lack of context given in the film can render some of Schrader’s psychological analysis hollow.

However, it would likely be impossible for Schrader to deliver an analysis of Mishima that would fit with Yamanouchi’s ideal, because Mishima’s politics were, to say the least, muddled. One specific example of this is in Mishima’s essay “Bunkabōeiron” (“On the Defence of Culture”, 1968), which Mishima wrote as a way of justifying and explaining his political stance. The essay’s weakness is its inability to connect the cultural symbol of the Emperor to Mishima’s nationalist militarism. Mishima does indeed attempt a link to justify the creation of his Tatenokai, saying “The emperor is a symbol of culture and the last bastion of Japan. The use of the logic of the sword should be permitted against the forces that threaten this [Capitalism and the Constitution], as this is true Japanese culture.” Mishima’s logic that trying to uphold the symbol of the Emperor against cultural takeover is understandable and fits with his ideal of the Emperor as a symbol of Japanese self-identity, but his requirement for a use of force (“the logic of the sword”) as a requisite part of Japanese culture is poorly justified and seems a weak explanation for his creation of a private army, or even for his failed ‘coup’.

In ignoring the political context of Mishima’s life, Schrader seems to have also missed much of what might have informed Mishima’s ostensible motivations for his later dramatic turns. However, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Schrader was also aware of Mishima’s inconsistent and logically fallible politics and made a more deliberate choice to avoid delving too deeply into analysing them. If Buruma criticises Schrader for falling for Mishima’s dramatic account of his own life, then at least Schrader avoided getting caught up in trying to disentangle Mishima’s nationalism.


The transition between Mishima writing at his desk and the start of the Kyoko’s House section that occurs in the middle of the film is apparently exactly what Schrader hoped to achieve with his portrayal of the relationship between Mishima and his novels. It is not a particularly complex transition – the camera goes from showing Mishima seated at his desk writing, then cuts to a behind the shoulder view as he writes the novel of Kyoko’s House. Then, there is a dissolve into a scene from that novel as Philip Glass’ score comes in. Most telling is the narration, which says “I am constantly calculating until I sit down to write. Only then can my unconscious dreams take over.” In layering this voiceover here, Schrader solidifies his link between Mishima’s novels and his life and achieves the goal of making each adaptation an informative look into the character’s subconscious.


The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which was inspired by a real event where a monk burned down the Kinkakuji in 1950, is generally regarded as one of Mishima’s finest, and was adapted prior to Schrader by Ishikawa Kon as the film Enjo in 1958. In summary, the book centres on a young acolyte named Mizoguchi, who is crippled by a stutter and devotes much of his life to an obsession with the Golden Temple in Kyoto. Mizoguchi is a nihilistic figure who sees nothing to enjoy in life save his preoccupation with an imaginary form of beauty typified by the image in his head of the Golden Temple, which he has imagined but never seen. When he comes into contact with it, he realises that by affixing his life’s worth to this beauty it cannot live up to his ideal and so it must be destroyed. Simultaneously, he is more in awe of its beauty than before, and the overwhelming beauty of it becomes something he imagines is poisoning his mind. Because of the varied and complex themes of this novel it is difficult to pin down its thematic preoccupations in a simple way, so seeing how Schrader has condensed it proves a useful example for how he adapts the other novels.

Schrader opens into The Temple of the Golden Pavilion with a match cut between Mishima’s younger self and the protagonist of the novel, Mizoguchi. The first scene of this adaptation is taken from near the middle of the novel, when Mizoguchi first meets Kashiwagi, who ends up being vital to his experiences throughout the novel. Both Mizoguchi and Kashiwagi have disabilities; stuttering and club feet respectively, and end up becoming reluctant companions as a result.

Although Schrader’s adaptation skips a large chunk of the start of the novel, some of this gap is filled in by the biographical sections about Mishima. By using the graphic match to so strongly equate Mishima and Mizoguchi in the audience’s mind, Schrader creates a possibility of the audience filling in Mizoguchi’s past with Mishima’s. There are indeed similarities in both the film and novel portrayals of Mizoguchi. Like Mishima, Mizoguchi is a weak child with an illness that shapes his perception of the world. Meanwhile, Mizoguchi’s preoccupation with the Golden Temple is represented visually by Ishioka Eiko’s set design, which features a large solid gold model of the Temple in the centre.

What Schrader does miss out, however, are the characters of Uiko and Tsurukawa. Uiko, the first woman who sparks sexual desire for Mizoguchi, is the other symbol of beauty that consumes Mizoguchi’s mind. Meanwhile, Tsurukawa contrasts Kashiwagi, as the one who takes Mizoguchi away from his path of nihilism and destruction (“How often had I not been amazed to see how my dark, turbid feelings could become clear and radiant by being filtered through Tsurukawa’s heart!) In not including Uiko in the adaptation, Schrader removes an element of heterosexuality and simplifies Mizoguchi’s view of beauty into simply the ethereal one represented by the Golden Temple, while in excluding Tsurukawa, Mizoguchi’s avenue of escape from his fate is also obstructed. Mizoguchi, like Mishima in the film, is now determined from the start of the segment to burn within the Golden Temple and destroy the single object of beauty.

Schrader, then, has simplified the theme of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion into one where a monk decides, driven by a singular idea that beauty poisons the mind, to destroy the most beautiful thing he has in front of him. This fits with the idea he has of Mishima throughout the film; as a man obsessed with an ideal of beauty, shown by his narcissistic pursuits such as bodybuilding, and when he realises that this ideal is unsustainable, decides to destroy the beauty he has created.

Schrader and designer Ishioka communicate these themes effectively via the film’s visuals. The main set contains the Golden Temple in its centre. Because the film doesn’t tackle Mizoguchi’s first impression of the Temple, where he is disappointed in it not living up to his ideals, Ishioka’s set contains a fully golden temple that may more resemble Mizoguchi’s ideal. Ebert refers to one shot of the Temple, where it splits in half to reveal a solid gold interior, as the temple opening “before the monk vagina-like.” The connection with the Temple and sexual gratification is expanded when Mizoguchi is preparing to have sex with a girl that Kashiwagi has introduced him to. As his hand hovers over her breast, the Temple in the background rushes towards the camera. The effect is that of a dolly zoom, which links this scene visually to Mishima’s suicide at the end of the film, hence adding a sexual element to the act of seppuku (perhaps borrowed from Mishima’s own Patriotism, which devotes much of its running time to the couple’s pre-suicide sex). Schrader here links beauty to sex and the Temple to both. As such, when Mizoguchi is unable to complete the sexual act, the audience is able to make the connection that Mizoguchi makes in his mind – that the Temple’s beauty is the poison that frustrated the sexual act, and so must be destroyed.


The “Beauty” Section of Mishima was originally going to use Forbidden Colours as a way of addressing Mishima’s sexuality, given that the book is explicit in its homosexual themes. The original draft of the script included a line from the protagonist of that book, Yuichi saying “I only love boys”, but after objections from Mishima’s widow the scene was cut. Instead, Schrader turned to Kyōko’s House, a novel not published in English, as a way to explore Mishima’s sexuality.

Kyōko’s House originally revolves around four characters meant to represent different aspects of Mishima’s personality. These include the boxer Shunkichi, who joins a nationalist right-wing organisation before his death and the actor Osamu, who becomes a bodybuilder then commits suicide after expressing a desire to perform a more intense and actionable form of art. The other two protagonists, a businessman named Seiichiro and the artist Natsuo are less obvious in their comparisons to the author, but both express a nihilism that characterises all of the characters in the book, as well as its author.

In Schrader’s version, all characters except Osamu are cut, with the brief exception of Natsuo, who appears in one scene to espouse his value that if the body is a canvas for art, then you must commit suicide at the height of your beauty. The focus remains on Osamu for most of it, with Schrader still emphasising the comparison between Osamu and Mishima with the use of a similar match cut as he used in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion; here seen when Mishima enters a gym shower.

Ishioka, who was personally not a fan of Mishima or his work, described Mishima as a ‘man of very bad taste’, and so the set design of Kyōko’s House can be said to reflect her opinions on the writer. The segment’s use of bright neon colours and abundance of people appears to make it reflective of post-war Japanese capitalism and Americanisation. Osamu’s mother’s cafe looks like an American diner, and Osamu’s flat is surrounded by neon signage that lights the bedroom in a fluorescent pink. The characters of Kyōko’s House, in their steadfast belief in the end of the world, are rebelling against this vision of Japan in much the same way as Mishima called for in his return to a Japanese ideal. The recreation of late 1950s Japan as a space infected by American poor taste acts as a reinforcement of Mishima’s point that it is in need of reform – perhaps even a return to the traditional Japanese beauty shown in the sets for The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

Schrader’s main reason for using Kyōko’s House, however, was as a reflection of Mishima’s sexual ideals, as well as his thoughts on art and action. Although Osamu is not homosexual, he does claim “as for me, I don’t love women much”, and his love affair with the loan shark is driven more by boredom coupled with a psycho-sexual desire for pain that eventually leads to their lover’s suicide. Osamu’s desire to be cut comes from much the same place as Mizoguchi’s destruction of the Golden Temple; through body building, Osamu has created something beautiful, which then has to be destroyed. As his loan shark lover says to him “Your skin is so beautiful, I just had to cut it.” However, more depth is added to it by Osamu’s occupation as an actor. In suicide and in pain, Osamu desires to transcend the world of acting and act out a real performance. As he claims; “Art is a shadow… Stage blood is not enough.” In fact, lover’s suicide is a common trope within Japanese theatre, so even in death Osamu is still linked with his occupation.

Although many of the characters and themes of Kyōko’s House could have been made relevant to link with Mishima’s life, Schrader’s choice of Osamu best allows him to bridge the gap between Mishima’s ideas of beauty as personified in Mizoguchi and his eventual decision to seek a more actionable version of his artistic expressions at the end of his life. Osamu’s bodybuilding means that Schrader can link the writer to his character visually, while using the end of his life to attempt to shine a light on Mishima’s thinking at the time of his death. It’s doubtful that Schrader illuminates much about Mishima’s sexuality in this segment, other than a reinforcement of the link between sex, beauty and destruction already showcased within The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, but this speaks somewhat to the limitations imposed upon him by Mishima’s estate and the realities of filmmaking.


The first shot of the Runaway Horses segment makes clear the reason for not including a character like Shunkichi in Kyōko’s House. It is here where Schrader decides to tackle the issue of Mishima’s nationalism, and the camera’s slow pan into a Japanese flag at the centre of a kendo dōjō makes the thematic preoccupation of this section exceptionally clear.

Runaway Horses, published the year before Mishima’s death, is the second novel in his “Sea of Fertility” series, which focuses on a judge named Honda Shigekuni who believes his friend Kiyoaki is constantly being reincarnated in different bodies which are each doomed to death. In Runaway Horses, this reincarnation is Iinuma Isao, a young nationalist who plots an overthrow of the zaibatsu as a means of overthrowing the modern capitalists who he believes have corrupted Japan’s spirit. Isao is inspired by tales of samurai rebellion against Japan’s Westernisation in the Meiji Period into eventually killing a Japanese businessman who commits a faux-pas during a visit to Ise Shrine, then committing seppuku on a cliff at sunset.

Two major omissions from Schrader’s version make his adaptation slightly unsatisfactory. The first is that Honda is absent from Mishima. The logical rationalism that personifies Honda’s character was intended to provide a striking contrast to Isao’s youthful purity. Honda’s role in the novel is as a stand-in for the reader, and as Honda becomes convinced of Isao’s purity, so must the audience. Removing Honda may be a necessary sacrifice for the adaptation of Runaway Horses but doing so also removes the element of persuasion from the story; focusing simply on Isao and his set conviction for suicide without offsetting it with the more rational Honda makes it harder to sympathise with Isao’s character. Instead, the audience is simply asked to realise the value in Isao’s actions without much reason given behind them.

The other notable omission is that of Makiko, Isao’s potential love interest in the novel. Makiko perjures herself in order to make sure Isao is not incarcerated for plotting several assassinations, and Isao has to at some point make the choice to enter a relationship with Makiko or follow through with his plan. According to Scott-Stokes, the decision Isao makes between Makiko and suicide means that “the act of hara-kiri acquires a sexual meaning which rings true to the character of Mishima but not to that of Isao.” While this may be a criticism of the novel, that Schrader makes such pains to link Mishima to the protagonists of his novels, as well as to show the link between death, beauty and sexuality in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and Kyōko’s House means that not including the character of Makiko misses the chance to link all three novels with one theme.

One idea that does continue from Kyōko’s House is the link between art and death, when Isao says to the interrogator that total purity becomes possible “if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.” Generally, though, in Schrader’s adaptation Isao is uninterested in art or beauty and instead devotes himself purely to political causes. Once again, Ishioka’s sets reflect this with stark colours, mainly black and white, with the occasional splash of red that represents both blood and the Japanese flag. Although aesthetically interesting, the unvarnished nature of Ishioka’s sets in this segment steer the viewer away from the beauty that defined the sets of the previous two segments and into something more explicitly politics focused. Even the match cut in this segment doesn’t cut from Isao to Mishima but rather from Isao’s band of student terrorists to Mishima’s Tatenokai. Isao in Schrader’s version is a more blunt and severe character than Mishima, but they are linked by their political motivations, rather than their personal or sexual hang-ups.


In the film’s final act, “Harmony of Pen and Sword”, Schrader uses voiceover from Mishima’s autobiographical essay Sun and Steel, making it the final direct adaptation of a Mishima work in the film. Schrader quotes directly from the essay’s epilogue, in which Mishima takes to the skies in an F104 plane, and experiences something close to a physical manifestation of a representation of death. The passage encapsulates many of the key themes that Schrader has extracted from his other novels. The relationship between sexuality and death is represented by Mishima in the “erect angled… sharp silver phallus” of the plane he flies in. The connection between art, action and death is mentioned when Mishima claims “somewhere, I told myself, there must be a higher principle that manages to bring the two [words and action] together and reconcile them. That principle, it occurred to me, was death.” Even Mishima’s nationalist sympathies are on display here as Mishima flies over Mt Fuji, a symbol of Japan, although Schrader does not include this detail.

Schrader’s taking the epilogue of Sun and Steel as an encapsulation of his ideas about Mishima brings Buruma’s criticism of the film back into focus. Sun and Steel, much like Confessions of a Mask is an autobiographical work that Schrader borrows from mostly without criticism. Furthermore, the way Schrader uses The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyōko’s House and Runaway Horses shapes them into works of psychological autobiography that Schrader condenses to fit in with his reading of Mishima’s character.

When talking about the writing of Kyōko’s House, Mishima claimed “When I am developing a single character in one of my novels, I sometimes feel him quite close to my own thinking, but at other times I drive the same character away from myself and let him wander into independent action.” Schrader latches on to the snippets of Mishima that are reflected in protagonists like Mizoguchi and Osamu, but with the use of match cuts and parallel editing that equates moments in Mishima’s life directly to moments in his novels, neglecting that these are Mishima’s characters rather than Mishima himself.

Still, it may be debatable if this is necessarily a problem. Prasch notes the creation in Mishima of an “internal coherence” between the biographical parts of Mishima’s life and the fictions he wrote, but also notes that “in filming them in different modes, the elements cannot appear entirely unified.” Indeed, the strong surrealism of these sections does serve some part in distancing themselves from the realistically portrayed black-and-white biography section. Perhaps one of the most telling moments of disconnect is in the Runaway Horses section. Isao kneels down on the cliff overlooking a red tinted sea, and strips his upper layer of clothing off, preparing for the suicide that is to come. As the knife hovers over his stomach, there is a sudden jump cut to Mishima saying ‘cut’, as he assumes the same position as Isao while filming his short film Patriotism. This jump cut firmly places Isao’s dramatic suicide in the realm of the fictional and displaces it from the reality of Mishima’s life, which is merely play-acting at the kinds of stories he writes about. However, that disconnect between Mishima’s reality and the reality of the novels is completely undone in the final section, where Mishima’s suicide leads to a montage between his death and the deaths of the characters in his novels, the cuts between their deaths reinforcing the connections between them. Philip Glass’ score here continues playing as the cuts segue between the real Mishima and the characters, while before the music would always change to reflect the difference of the segments.

Because of this final suicide scene, it becomes difficult to sympathise fully with Prasch’s argument that the two modes cannot be entirely unified; rather, it seems that the unification is delayed until the end, creating an argument by Schrader that Mishima’s novels are a rehearsal for the ultimate unifying act of seppuku. And indeed, Mishima clearly wrote about his preoccupations with death and his obsession with seppuku as a form of suicide is well documented in works such as Patriotism and Runaway Horses. Additionally, it is not difficult to place Mishima in the shoes of many of his characters, as Schrader has chosen to do here. But it is also sometimes clear that Schrader has simplified the novels into more streamlined and clean narratives that closely correlate to aspects of Mishima’s personality.

As such, perhaps it is best to see the adaptations in A Life in Four Chapters as being something of meta-adaptations. They are not meant to be accurate representations of the novels, but rather ways in which the skeleton of the original text can be used to create an image of the author, and should be viewed as such, in which case they are mostly successful. Schrader and Ishioka manage to use both lines chosen carefully from the novels and strong visual imagery to condense Mishima’s dense prose into something that works to clearly communicate complex elements of Mishima’s character in short segments.


In talking about his film’s national identity, given that it was helmed by an American director but made by a predominantly Japanese cast, Schrader is quoted as saying “Everybody on the crew was excited about making a film that was equally Japanese and American… I like to think of it as the Nissan of films.” However, the cultural identity of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters isn’t quite as clear cut as being an equal Japanese/American co-production.

The Japanese elements of the film are at the surface, to the extent that it could be mistaken as a purely Japanese production; the film is entirely in the Japanese language and all the actors and most of the crew are Japanese. Schrader himself noted how he “wrote words that were never spoken… They are read on the screen. You never hear anyone say the words I have written. People who are conversant in Japanese and English will be hearing one thing that is perfect for that scene in Japanese and reading something else that will be perfect for that scene in subtitles.” The words that Schrader didn’t write come mainly from Mishima himself. The film is exceptionally well-researched, with much of what Mishima says coming from sources interviewed by the filmmakers, and the narration elements coming from Mishima’s own writing.

Although the director and cinematographer, John Bailey, were American, the film’s visual identity is not stuck in America thanks to the film’s two production designers. The flashback and 1970 sections were designed by veteran Japanese production designer Takenaka Kazuo, while the sections adapted from Mishima’s novels were handled by Ishioka Eiko, who had never worked on a film before. As mentioned previously, her set design is hugely important to the film, injecting visual elements that are clearly influenced by Ishioka’s Japanese identity. In Runaway Horses, for example, when the group of Isao’s sympathisers gather to express their devotion to Japan, Ishioka puts the Torī gate at a slant in order to symbolise what she refers to as the ambiguous or unclear relationship between Mishima and Shintoism. Details like this crop up throughout the film’s sets, giving them meaning to a Japanese audience they might not have to American viewers unfamiliar with Japanese cultural specifics.

Even though the film has American writers, it sidesteps many of the classic hallmarks of Orientalism. Perhaps in hiring a mainly Japanese cast, or because of the Schrader family’s history of working in Japan (Paul’s brother, who co-wrote the script for Mishima, lived in Japan for much of his life) the film avoids many notable traps that Western films about Asian countries can fall into. Comparing, for example, the film to a rough contemporary of Mishima, Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi and Mishima’s relative merits in this regard come into focus. Attenborough casts a half-Indian British man to play the title role, characters like Martin Sheen’s American journalist Vince Walker are needed to interpret and validate Gandhi’s actions and Gandhi is represented and portrayed mostly uncritically. Schrader carefully avoids many of these pitfalls, allowing Mishima to tell his own story through a lens that pays tribute to Japanese cinematic traditions but without feeling cloyingly in debt to them. Even the film’s soundtrack was written to deliberately avoid feeling condescending by adding in Japanese instrumentation or flavour, with composer Philip Glass instead writing the music to reflect the “emotional core” of Mishima.

The film’s avoidance of Orientalist cliches does not preclude it from criticism in this field, however. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is still an American trying to tell the story of a Japanese nationalist; as Pinkerton puts it “It took a remarkable feat of self-confidence (or presumption) for a gaijin to attempt the story of such a singly Japanese figure – in Japanese, no less.” As such, Schrader’s own predilections start to seep throughout the film’s narrative, painting the life of Mishima Yukio with the brush of his personal obsessions.

Much like Mishima, Schrader is a writer who has a connection in most of his works to the idea of suicide, perhaps even imbuing it with the same Romantic inclination as Mishima does. Jackson goes so far as to say that “if Mishima had not existed, Schrader might have been obliged to invent him.” While this statement may belittle Mishima’s influence and life outside of the American retelling of his story, Jackson is not the first critic to make comparisons between Mishima in A Life in Four Chapters and Schrader’s fictional creations, most often Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver. Critic Brian Eggert writes that Schrader’s fascination is with “characters prone to the philosophical, psychological, and sexual confusion that is resolved through purification and redemption, often by physical violence or self-destructive behaviour.” Along with Bickle, who Schrader himself compares to Mishima as “the opposite side of the spectrum”, where Mishima is the intellectual counterpart to Bickle’s lonely taxi driver with an impulse for violence. Perhaps the best example of a counterpart to Mishima in Schrader’s cinema is the Reverend Toller in First Reformed. Toller and Schrader’s Mishima both share an intellectual background based in some kind of spirituality Calvinism and Emperor worship respectively, that leads them to attach to a political cause. The cause of environmentalism that eventually leads Toller into deciding to become a suicide bomber is presented as urgent enough to justify drastic action, but through examination of Toller’s character, Schrader hints that his adoption of this cause is more an excuse to become a martyr as a way to resolve the personal sins of his past.

Examining Schrader’s characters from other films, specifically those that bear resemblance to his depiction of Mishima can serve to cast a light on the more subtle ways in which the film is not true to its Japanese origins. As already mentioned, Schrader declines to comment on contemporary Japanese politics, even going so far as to say that “this is not really a political movie.” In much the same way, First Reformed is not a film about environmentalism, but about self-martyrdom. The difference is that Mishima was a real figure with political beliefs that reflected the state of Japan at the time, and not showcasing those reveals Schrader’s somewhat cynical use of Mishima for his own purposes. Even excluding the political ideas of Mishima, which, as covered, were difficult to fully untangle, the film still often lets down its subject’s varied intellectual interests by simplifying his life and his novels to a few key themes, often those which coincide with Schrader’s own interests. As Buruma writes, “Schrader’s main interest is not lovers’ suicide, the fear of old age, or homosexual fantasy. He has the old Romantic fascination for the artist who goes too far.”

Buruma points out that Schrader’s flaw in the film is that he buys into the stories of “an extreme mythomaniac.” Everything about Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, from its bombastic and romantic score to the way in which the final scene converges all elements of Mishima’s life into the moment of his suicide, buys into Mishima’s myths about himself. There is very little trace in Mishima of what might be deemed to be the “real” Mishima Yukio. His wife and children are conspicuously absent, and many of the depictions of his life are taken from his public appearances or his own writing about his life.

It might not be entirely correct to say that Schrader is unaware of this fact. The persistent theme of theatre and theatricality lend a certain air of self-awareness and criticism to Mishima’s portrayal and actions within the film. From the set design of the novel adaptations to the frequent mentions of the theatre, acting and masks within the film’s dialogue, it would be impossible to say that Schrader does not in some way acknowledge the performative elements of Mishima’s life, or claim that he is fully uncritical of them. There are enough shots of Mishima being photographed or appearing on theatre sets to show subtle hints of the innate theatricality of his life’s performance. Schrader might be said to have not only acknowledged this fact but also willingly bought into it. As such, Schrader here has not just made a film about his own preoccupations filtered through the lens of Mishima Yukio, he has also made a film about the version of Mishima Yukio that Mishima himself wrote about. In other words, Schrader has made a film about Mishima Yukio the author, not Hiraoka Kimitake the person.

When writing about Schrader’s adaptations of Mishima’s books, the mistake is to compare them to the originals to see how faithful they are. In judging adaptations, “fidelity to the source text – whether it is conceived as a success in re-creating specific textual details or the effect of the whole – is a hopelessly fallacious measure of a given adaptation’s value because it is unattainable, undesirable, and theoretically possible only in a trivial sense.” Schrader’s adaptation of, say, Runaway Horses, can never truly capture either the material or the effect of Mishima’s original because of the change in medium. As such, what is crucial is how Schrader uses Runaway Horses as a means to an end, that end being informing the audience about the character of his version of Mishima Yukio.

The same can be said of his biography of Mishima’s life, and not just because it draws so heavily from Mishima’s books. Because we cannot consider adaptations as perfect recreations of a novel, then we also cannot consider a film biography as a perfect recreation of a man’s life. Buruma’s criticism that Schrader draws too heavily from Mishima’s own myths about himself is undoubtedly true, what is not certain is how much this is a criticism of Schrader or something inherent to the genre of adaptation to which A Life in Four Chapters belongs. Schrader has used Mishima as a way of exploring certain thematic preoccupations which have cropped up in the work of both Paul Schrader and Mishima Yukio. In doing so, he has created a new vision of Mishima, supported in part by Mishima’s own vision of himself.

The flaws in Schrader’s film that critics point out when they talk about his uncritical representation of Mishima’s life and art are certainly present. A fuller portrait of Mishima would talk about the political background of Mishima’s life and try and separate, to at least some extent, the art from the artist. But Schrader’s seeming lack of interest in doing so speaks not to his flaws as a filmmaker, but to his different personal ambitions. Schrader does not wish to interrogate Mishima, instead his film, as Pinkerton writes, “collaborates with Mishima, symphonizing a life conceptualised as a total work of art.”

In this sense, perhaps, we can see Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters as somewhat close to Schrader’s vision of “the Nissan of films”, for while this film might simplify Mishima’s work to fit with Schrader’s American view of his character, it also reinforces Mishima’s own vision of his life and work as a continuous noble effort to create art in every facet of his being. As the knife plunges into his stomach and the film cuts to the deaths of his characters, Schrader manages to give Mishima a death that could have been plucked from one of his own novels. Showing the indignity of Mishima’s final moments may have been more accurate, but the ending scene of A Life in Four Chapters is at least more in line with Mishima’s vision.

2 Replies to “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”

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