The Last Samurai

Left: Yukio Mishima, Patriotism, 1966, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 27 minutes. Reiko (Yoshiko Tsuroka) and the Lieutenant (Yukio Mishima). Right: Paul Schrader, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, 1985, still from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 120 minutes.

“I WANTED to explode like a rocket,” wrote Yukio Mishima, “light the sky for an instant, and disappear.” It’s a personal manifesto he lived out to the sensational end. In 1970, at the age of forty-five, dressed in full military uniform, he committed seppuku (ritual suicide), staging his death as a sort of public theater.

Paul Schrader’s unusual and original biopic, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), is the centerpiece of a newly released Criterion three-disc set. Mishima was Japan’s most renowned writer—a colorful, contradictory, and controversial public figure who inspired such a deep ambivalence in his homeland that the chief response to him in the years since his death has been, simply, silence.

The central question for Mishima, as it emerges in the film through his own words, was how to reconcile beauty and life, aesthetics and the body. Already a prodigiously gifted writer in his teens, he became a “monstrously sensitive” aesthete who harbored a hatred for his physical self. But experiencing a revelation after a trip to the Greek isles, he furiously took up a “will to health,” becoming obsessed with bodybuilding. His own body became the signal artistic work of his life. At the peak of its beauty, before aging and natural decay would have a chance to set in, he automemorialized it with his ceremonial death.

How does a Western artist approach a culture as elaborately and dauntingly formalized as Japan? In The Empire of Signs, Roland Barthes warned that he wasn’t writing about the “real” Japan, but instead a fictive nation that he had devised, a system of signs he had constructed inspired by his travels and observations. Rather than “explain” Japan, he poetically recorded and described some “forms” of its culture.

Schrader’s response to the challenge of representing Japan is to seize on its very source of difficulty—forms, their ubiquity, and their resistance to meaning making—and create a hyperformalized work that, wisely, rather than “revealing” Japan, instead makes it recede. The film is designed in three interleaving layers. The first is an account of the last day of Mishima’s life, as he fastidiously dons his military uniform, meets up with some members of his private army, drives to an army garrison, and carries out his suicide with the media in attendance. The second is a narrative of his life adapted from his memoir, Sun and Steel. The third is a staging of key episodes from three of his novels, these sections being titled “Beauty,” “Art,” and “Action.”

The three intercut lines of the film are stylistically individualized to the extreme. The day-of-the-suicide sequences are shot in quasi-documentary, vérité style, inspired by Costa-Gavras’s Z, with frequent use of a handheld camera; the biographical segments are done in black-and-white with deliberate and measured camerawork. But the most arresting parts of the film are the literary adaptations. Each novel gets its own supersaturated color palette, and the film’s coup is the fantastical theatricality of the set design by artist and poster designer Eiko Ishioka.

Included in the DVD set is the only film Mishima ever directed, the half-hour-long Patriotism (1966), and it’s a shocker. In it, a naval officer and his wife make love and then commit seppuku for the sake of the emperor. The film features no dialogue and narrates its story through calligraphic writing in the credit sequence. The sets are Noh-like, severe and minimalist, with blazing white walls. When the unrelenting whiteness of the images is finally relieved, it is with violent sprays and splashes of black, the color of blood in this black-and-white film. On his death, Mishima’s widow ordered that all prints of Patriotism be burned, but she spared the negative. Decades later, following her death, the film can now be appreciated by a wider audience.

The DVD package overflows with useful documentary supplements. Among the most interesting of these is an interview with scholar Donald Richie, who recounts the story of going out to dinner with Mishima a few weeks before his death. At the occasion, Mishima repeatedly and insistently spoke of the historical legend of the last samurai. Later, when he heard of Mishima’s death, Richie realized that he had been deliberately “chosen” by the writer to propagate a modern version of this legend. Not just in death but beyond it, Mishima was fashioning and installing new versions of his mythic self.