Yukio Mishima's ritual suicide by disembowelment in a Tokyo military compound 15 years ago shocked all Japan. Now, a dispute unfolding around the first Tokyo International Film Festival suggests that the passage of time has done little to dampen emotions about the enigmatic man, who was both a prominent novelist and a symbol of extremist nationalism.
A total of 137 films will be shown at the festival, which opens May 31. But not "Mishima," director Paul Schrader's newly released Japanese-language film biography. It drew rapt attention at Cannes this year and may become one of the most widely viewed films about Japan seen in many other countries this year.
But it is running into roadblocks in Japan. Its exclusion from the Tokyo festival has prompted Schrader and others involved with its production to voice angry accusations of censorship and political pressure. So far, their protests have not swayed the festival's organizers, who cite a variety of objections to the film, including a condemnation by Mishima's widow.
Mishima's final, gruesome piece of theater is viewed here with emotions ranging from fascination to dismay. But many Japanese seem to feel that whatever their merits, his turbulent life and death were a private matter within the great Japanese family. Foreigners' thoughts on the subject are not particularly welcome; foreign authors and journalists are held to have exploited and sensationalized a man they cannot understand. Now, foreigners are behind the first film biography.
It is a less than propitious start for the Tokyo festival, which will run for 10 days in theaters in the city's Shibuya ward. The gathering is intended to put Japan, a country where about 70 percent of all films produced are soft-core pornography, on the map of the international festival circuit.
Yukio Mishima had published more than 100 novels, plays and collections of essays when he killed himself at the age of 45. His novels, many exploring varying views of death, have been widely translated and remain standard fare in bookstores and university catalogues in Japan.
Mishima was a misfit in postwar Japan. He was a flamboyant individualist in a highly conformist society. He was devoted to extreme right-wing causes and toward the end of his life he bankrolled a small private army devoted to the restoration of imperial power and national essence. He was believed to be a homosexual.
In 1970, dressed in his army's brown uniform, Mishima entered a Tokyo compound of the Japanese armed forces with several of his followers, took a general hostage, and forced him to call his cadets together. In an emotional address from a balcony overlooking a parade ground, Mishima pleaded with them to rise up and restore Japan's standing in the world.
When nothing happened, and, in fact, some of the cadets laughed, he stepped into an adjoining office and slit his belly open in ritual suicide. One of his lieutenants then decapitated him with a sword.
The incident created a sensation abroad and in Japan, where this type of nationalistic fervor was supposed to have been extinguished in 1945. Today, the whole subject of Yukio Mishima remains a delicate and tantalizing one.
Festival officials have given a variety of sometimes conflicting reasons for their rejection of the film. One organizer said at a press conference that the film's producers never formally applied to show the film. They deny it. By other accounts, organizers feared violence and disruption at the festival from right-wingers who revere Mishima.
Festival secretary general Masakazu Mizuno cited problems the producers are having with Yoko Mishima, the writer's widow, who retains copyright control over much of his work and fights any public reference to him and homosexuality. She at first cooperated in drafting the screenplay but later disowned the film, saying it dwelled on violence and homosexuality, not her husband's art. The family is also investigating what they claim is a copyright violation, a masturbation scene that occurs in a Mishima novel whose rights the producers did not buy.
"Whether to show the movie in these troubled circumstances was a matter of consideration for us," Mizuno said. "There are many Japanese who respect the memory of Mishima. So the most important thing is to solve this problem first."
Mata Yamamoto, Japanese coproducer of the film, denied that there is any legal problem with the family or any copyright violation. As for organizers' fear of the right, he said, "They've not actually been threatened by these people. But they're telling me they think the right wing will move." He said the film makers were also harassed during production but proceeded anyway.
Schrader, meanwhile, has called the festival organizers' decision a buckling under to politics.
"For their very first film festival, the Japanese organizers are embarking on a form of political censorship that cannot be condoned and must be uniformly condemned by the international film festival community," Schrader told the English-language Tokyo Journal.
The producers rounded up more than 90 foreign film makers and writers to sign a letter of protest to the festival. They include directors Woody Allen, George Lucas and Louis Malle, and writers Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer.
Mizuno dismissed the letter as a publicity stunt.
"They want to use these things as propaganda, to pressure us to screen the film," he said. But it is not going to work. Their tactics aren't based on truth."
Henry Scott Stokes, author of a biography called "The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima," said there is probably genuine concern among the organizers about the family's feelings and legal issues but that any work about Mishima spells trouble in Japan. His own book, he said, is nearing sale of a million copies abroad in a variety of languages but has never been translated into Japanese. He has his own fight with the producers, meanwhile. He contends that they lifted sections of his book; they deny it.
For the present, it is unclear whether the film will be released to Japanese commercial theaters. Yamamoto said he could get it into 10 to 20 theaters but is holding out for large-scale distribution.