The real danger in "Mishima," Paul Schrader's new film about Japan's most famous contemporary novelist, Yukio Mishima, is that it offers Americans an opportunity to misunderstand Japan on an even grander scale than was heretofore imaginable.

The film is good, and even "true," but it doesn't go far enough. It ricochets off Mishima's sensual and gaudy surfaces without ever penetrating. What is missing is the historical-literary context from which Mishima is speaking, and without which he is a clown. Schrader says of Mishima that he was the kind of person he would like to have invented had Mishima not already existed, but if Mishima is Schrader's perfect subject, Schrader is not Mishima's ideal interpreter.

Not that the task is less than monumental. Part of the Japanese anger at Schrader's film before it was ever screened was at the idea that an outsider would dare think he could make a meaningful statement. Still, the film is a beginning of sorts; and along with Mishima's translated works and a good biography of Mishima such as the one by Englishman Henry Scott Stokes, we westerners have a rare opportunity to step out of our skins.

Mishima's critics call him a "drugstore samurai" and worse; a madman and a fool. But this same Mishima was also a literary genius, a man whom Nobel prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata said was of a kind that comes along only once in 200 or 300 years. He was an actor and producer who made of his life one of the most popular, long-running productions in postwar Japan. Mishima's is the story of two cultures -- of ill-fated lovers. Like many modern Japanese, he fell in love with the West but his infatuation wore off and in the end he came to hate his old lover. He felt the relationship had cost him his identity. It is the story of Japan and the West, more particularly of Japan and America.

We have the bad habit, emanating from the West but now quite popular in Japan as well, of psychoanalyzing people away. It is as if we are all subject to some psychological determinism, which robs human action of its meaning. We take somebody who is disturbing, like Mishima, and find that he is in fact disturbed, and that allows us to comfortably discuss "his problem" rather than the issues he raises.

In just this way, some Japanese protest that Mishima is really unsuitable, being both madman (kyofu) and a fool (gu). But the truth seems to be more that he is an embarrassment because he breaks the code of silence about "private" Japanese matters, and exhibits a desire for real western understanding in his art. Ultimately he is an embarrassment because he rejects the face-saving rationalizations that underpin modern, western-influenced Japanese life. He is a rebel with a cause, a man out of his time but squarely in the middle of a very Japanese tradition.

In Mishima's world, it is the Japan-America confrontation that has been the true East-West confrontation. Americans, in their innocence and preoccupation with themselves and with communism, haven't really understood the immensity of that other confrontation, and the Japanese have often seemed eager to forget it.

Mishima was bent on remembering. In fact he consciously attempted to make of himself a weapon that could draw blood long after his death. His obsession was with a cultural failure. Not with the idea, but with what he thought had actually happened in Japan.

The story he tells is fascinating.

It is almost impossible in myth-laden 20th-century America to achieve the Japanese perspective at the time of Adm. Perry and the forced opening of Japan in 1854, but Mishima's reconstruction of that world radically changed his life and, in a way, ordained his death. When Mishima went to debate university students in Tokyo he had the same problem he faced with the young soldiers of the Self Defense forces moments before his seppuku (ritual suicide) in 1970. Nobody knew what he was talking about.

Mishima was born in prewar but already modern Japan. His vision was obtained largely from the Japanese classics, and also from more contemporary writers like Tanizaki, Sosetsu and Ogai. He was uncomfortable in the society in which he found himself, and when, later in life, he discovered his true home, he was consumed with anger and frustration. The repository for his spirit no longer existed, had perished with his ancestors.

Americans are fond of thinking that World War II began with Pearl Harbor, but for the Japanese it began in the late 16th century -- before there was an America. In the Age of Imperialism, western European civilization spread across the Atlantic and then the Pacific. The dreams of empire that we later, quite properly, imputed to the Japanese initially went hand-in-hand with the Christian imperative to "spread His kingdom to the four corners of the earth."

The Judeo-Christian tradition was not only alien but antithetical to the Japanese view of reality, that syncretized pill wherein were mixed Shinto, Confucianism and Buddhism. Such basic western concepts as the nature of life, death, man and God appeared to the Japanese as products of uniquely western thinking, both incredible and dangerous. In one of the most novel solutions to cultural envelopment ever devised, the Japanese threw out the bearers of the "foreign disease" and locked the doors against further infection. It was a close call, but they escaped for the next 200 years or so -- a remarkable feat in the colonial world.

When spiritist Japan closed its doors to the West, it was a decision against western cultural values, against a humanist, rationalized society that it perceived to be on a collision course. It was also a decision against the peculiar western notion of "progress." The Japanese had no faith in the acquisition of knowledge. They had never been separated from nature, never been thrown out of the garden of Eden. Their concept of time looked backward, toward a golden age when a forever superior nature had taught men how to live. Wisdom came through the sages. Modern science, as fellow novelist Tanizaki points out, was itself a western invention, else it might have fit the Japanese hand better. It could not promise enlightenment, or even the good life; it was simply materialist.

Mishima eventually found his spiritual home in the early 1850s, a time just before a group of American whaling merchants persuaded President Fillmore to put an end to the Japanese arrogance of exclusion. European expansion was now complete, and hardly anywhere on the face of the earth was there a culture not dead or dying from "the foreign poison," as the Japanese popularly termed it. Those destined for the dustbin of history now included the American Indians, the Eskimos and the Aztecs. The United States, once the colony of a colonial power, was suspected of seeking to become one itself. Manifest destiny was being turned into manifest hegemony.

In Japan, things were beginning to unravel. A generation of young samurai knew, despite the closed shoji screen, that the days of exclusion were numbered. Samurai swords were rusty, the only cannon around from another age. By way of solution, western-studies scholar Sakuma Shozan and others proposed "Western science/Eastern ethics," a problematic strategy that involved cutting western mathematics, military science and industry free from the western cultural disease.

The argument over whether this was possible was raging when Adm. Perry and his gunboats appeared in Tokyo Bay. Despite written assurances about respecting Japanese sovereignty, what Perry actually said was "open the door or we'll come back with more ships and blow your house down." After endless agonizing, the door opened, and according to Mishima, it was at this point that the Japanese tradition failed.

Among the shishi (young men of action) who came forward in repsonse to Perry was a samurai schoolteacher, Yoshida Shoin, whose small group of students were instrumental in the Meiji Restoration, named after the new emperor. They had started a bloody civil war over what they felt was the Shogun's despicable capitulation to Perry.

Yoshida was a writer and poet who admonished against empty learning, knowledge not coupled to action, and the uselessness of the pen without the sword. He endorsed Sakuma Shozan's ideas and tried to get Perry to take him to America so he could learn enough technology to come back and save Japan. At the heart of the Meiji solution was the idea that the emperor concept would protect the Japanese spirit, while the Japanese body went off to learn the useful ways of the West.

It was also Yoshida who said the Japanese should try to repel the Americans, although it probably was too late -- and he was executed for inciting others to join him. Many of his students died in the civil war, and by the time the remainder had defeated the shogun they too knew it was not possible to win a military victory over the West.

The question Mishima raises is whether the Meiji Restoration really worked, or whether it was actually a betrayal. The samurai rebellions Mishima glorified in his writing were all real attempts to rectify this disgraceful behavior. Mishima agreed with them that the honorable thing for the pre-Meiji Japanese to have done was burn Perry's ships as they swung at anchor. And to have gone down fighting when superior American forces retaliated. There is no option in Bushido for compromise so that one might go on living. To do so is spiritual death.

In Mishima's time, he believed, the compromise was repeated. The cord of Japanese history, broken by Perry, was snapped by the defeat of World War II. Mishima was not interested in the politics of his day because they did not challenge the occupation laws through which he felt the United States denied Japan the right to its tradition. And he publicly criticized the emperor's denial of his descendancy from the gods. To say Mishima was obsessed with emperorism, narcissism, eroticism, suicide and death is to miss the point. Let us say Mishima explored them with the hunger of the dispossessed.

Once Mishima found his cultural identity, he also found the solution -- indeed the justification -- for his life. He did everything his 19th-century spiritual mentor Yoshida Shoin would have asked of him, almost as if Yoshida was watching each move. He devoted his energy to finding modern metaphors for traditional behavior. He investigated contemporary conditions and tested them against the advice of the sages; he saw that modern life was a betrayal of "the way," and his duty was clear.

He formed a small group very much like Yoshida's Soka-sonjuku (school) that shared his views, and committed himself to political action. Yet because it was 1970 rather than 1860, he knew that he was out of joint with the times. But he maintained his discovered identity and went home to peace with his ancestors, something Mishima would maintain few Japanese have been able to do since Perry and the Meiji solution. As an artist he succeeded in opening a door many had hoped was forever closed.

Mishima felt he was the last cry of a lost tradition, a cry against the "westernizing" of the world. He echoed Yoshida's sentiment that it was probably too late. Mishima was of a "right to death" society -- a principle at the heart of his honorable tradition. In our own society where death is denied and the quality of the spirit is secondary to breathing, it is almost impossible to understand. Mishima, in "Runaway Horses," says, "the death of the body is not to be feared; it is the death of the spirit that matters." He most certainly died, but by dying by his own hand for principle, he saved his spirit.

By his death Mishima affirmed his own vision and the culture in which he found it. Unless death is real, life is not. "To know and not to act is not to know." Taylor Gregg is Asia area specialist on the staff of National Geographic.