Once, a year or so ago, a friend of mine lent me a book called “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea,” written in 1963 by Yukio Mishima, the subject of Paul Schrader’s opulent Lucas/Coppola-produced extravaganza. I never read it, but now feel compelled to seek it out amidst my teeming stacks.
The film balances Mishima’s last day on earth, flashbacks of his life and stylized adaptations of three of his novels: “The Temple of the Golden Pavillion,” “Kyoko’s House,” and “Runaway Horses.” As stated, I haven’t read anything by the author, but am familiar with the idea of fictional characters representing facets of the author, and imagery or symbolism that reflects psychological states through reading fantasy.
Mishima wrote 40 novels in his lifetime (1925 - 1970), and from these Paul and Leonard Schrader (the film’s writers) culled three to include in their film. These three novels match perfectly with the film’s themes and work well to develop their author; I can only assume that the research that went into this script was tremendous. The attention to detail is obvious, and that this film was made with great care and a respect for the subject is apparent. The issue that I find confusing, is that this is an American-made film, written and directed by Americans (although with the blessing of the caretaker of Mishima’s estate), and produced by two of the biggest names in Hollywood -- George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Not to imply that the film is unfaithful in any way: it succeeds exceptionally well at telling the subject’s life story, and impresses us with his seriousness, but it contains identifiable American traits in lieu of certain Japanese ones.
Mishima’s political ideology, which he believed in strongly enough to perform the ultimate demonstration (ritual suicide), is, as the film tells us, based on his traditionalist view of Japan. He wants to expunge his country of the evil influences of capitalism, and restore the army’s influence. It may be a medieval viewpoint, but has a long history: as long as Japan’s history of strife and constant warfare.
Although he raised an army and died for his beliefs, Yukio Mishima’s political self is of lesser interest to me than the artist; the writer that was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize of Literature. His quest for meaningful action, and his longing to give words the same level of importance as action; his realization that the body is a neglected work of art, and a tool of the ultimate necessity, that caused him to take up body-building; the reflections of and meditations on himself; all of these things express strength of spirit and faith that most 20th century human beings lack. Mishima towers over us all, impressing us with his charisma, his artistic soul, his dramatic, meaningful actions that are demonstrations of complete faith in himself.
The greatest thing Paul Schraders MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS accomplishes is to impress us with the grave reality of Yukio Mishima; his life, which was incredible, and his actions, which seem like works of fiction.