How to tackle Yukio Mishima? The most famous and furiously prolific Japanese writer of his generation, homosexual and family man, political reactionary and apolitical stylist, given to both self-display and self-loathing, proud of Japan but western in his tastes, he ended his life of intense activity by disemboweling himself in the Army offices he and his private army had commandeered. The job would daunt anyone, and in "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters," it does, indeed, daunt writer/director Paul Schrader.
Portraits of writers are inherently problematic, even when their lives are as public as Mishima's. Unlike, say, an athlete's, a writer's actual work -- putting pen to paper -- is not very interesting to watch; and since writers are vampires, they plunder most of what's interesting in their lives themselves.
"Mishima" tries to make sense of both its subject's life and his work, and ends up illuminating neither. Part of the movie comes in stylized scenes, played on theater sets, which encapsulate three of Mishima's novels: "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion," "Kyoto's House" and "Runaway Horses." The other part, in black and white (with a voice-over narration by Roy Scheider), flashes back to various scenes from Mishima's life, starting in his boyhood. These segments are organized in four chapters: "beauty," "art," "action" and "harmony of pen and sword."
The chapter structure implies that Mishima lived by "writing" his life as a novel, yet there's no dramatic progression here, and Schrader (who cowrote the script with his brother Leonard) seems to realize this: The movie is framed with the day of Mishima's suicide, scenes from which begin each of the chapters. But that's not a structure -- it's a trick of condensation, a gimmick in the guise of an idea.
The novels are used to illustrate various aspects of Mishima's character -- his adversarial relation to beauty, his morbidity, his right-wing sympathies -- but in this way, Schrader trivializes both the man and his work. While the representations of the novels are remarkably shot (by John Bailey) in impossibly vivid color, they're too condensed to give us any appreciation for Mishima's writing. They play like Monarch Notes.
And something's lost when they're connected in such a dot-to-dot way to what was merely personal in Mishima. Mishima had his problems, but so do lots of people -- the important thing is that he was able to transmute them into art. Had Schrader simply made a movie of, say, "Runaway Horses," it might have told us more about Mishima than "Mishima" does. He's made the writer vaguely pathetic, just another repressed, self-mutilating suicide.
On the other hand, Schrader is way too reverential toward Mishima. The movie is altogether too solemn, having none of the fun with Mishima's exhibitionism that Mishima had himself (he was, in some ways, the Norman Mailer of Japan). In a way you'd hardly expect from the director of "Cat People," it's oddly diffident about sex and violence. Admittedly, Mishima's widow imposed certain ground rules regarding the writer's private life; what's strange is that Schrader felt there was something left to make a movie out of. Homosexuality and masturbation are coyly glossed over. And in Mishima's actual seppuku, his self-disembowelment was supposed to be followed by an associate's beheading him, but the associate repeatedly missed his neck with the sword, doing much violence to the writer's back and the carpet instead. It was a wonderfully ironic culmination to a life obsessed with purity, but Schrader omits it -- he's too busy glorifying.
Still, the movie has its pleasures. With the possible exception of Vilmos Zsigmond, Bailey is the best cinematographer around -- the stylized color is surpassed only by the black and white, which is clear without being hard, evocative without using easy high-contrast tricks. Avant-garde composer Philip Glass provides the score, which sounds, predictably enough, like all the other Philip Glass music you've heard; but with its filigree of arpeggios, seesawing cellos and tympani solos, it adapts surprisingly well to the movies.
It's easy to see why Schrader was attracted to Mishima. Since he wrote "Taxi Driver," he's been fixated on the same ideas -- that sex must be punished; that some abstract purity is the supreme good in life -- and he's dreadfully serious about the crucible of Art. Whatever his subject, whatever his story, it ends up Schraderized. While this treatment may be unfair to Mishima -- he's virtually been made into Travis Bickle -- there's something sort of charming about such bizarre single-mindedness. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, at area theaters, is rated R and contains considerable violence and sexual themes.