August 25, 2009

Justify My Netflix: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Today's movie: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, 1985 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because until recently, this was one of those infamously hard-to-find cult films that everyone seems to talk about but no one seems to have actually seen, an experimental tone-poem presenting random moments from the life of controversial post-war Japanese author and playwright Yukio Mishima, finally released in a gorgeous mainstream edition last year with lots of DVD extras by famed cult-movie distributor Criterion. Because it was directed by Paul Schrader, not only the helmer of such unique classics as American Gigolo and Auto Focus, but also the screenwriter of many of Martin Scorsese's most infamous films, including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ; and not only that, but he personally considers Mishima the best movie out of them all.

The reality: Astounding; but sister, do yourself a favor and read an actual biography of Mishima first. Because the fact is that no matter how brilliant this film is -- and it's brilliant, don't get me wrong, a mesmerizing back-and-forth weaving between documentary-style scenes from Mishima's real life (filmed in black-and-white) and highly stylized scenes from his fictional work (in gloriously sparkling color), all of it tied together through the best soundtrack Philip Glass has ever created -- the simple truth is that Schrader essentially just pulled out random moments from both Mishima's life and work in order to tell this story, and that these random moments barely make sense without understanding the full context behind the moments themselves. I mean, just for one excellent example, take the scene near the beginning of the film when Mishima is wandering the rubble-filled streets of post-WW2 Tokyo, despondent and nearly suicidal because the "old guard" of Japan's literary community refuses to acknowledge his work as worthwhile; and while this is a highly evocative scene, in order to understand its true power, you simply need to know about the strict hierarchal manner in which Japan's artistic community used to work, the way that publishers there back in the 20th century would literally refuse to print the work of new authors unless it came officially endorsed by writers and professors who were already famous. The movie is full of such moments, fantastic from a visual sense but nearly incomprehensible just on their own; I highly, highly suggest reading at the very least Mishima's official Wikipedia page before attempting to take on this challenging, rewarding film.

Strangest piece of trivia: Mishima's family originally cooperated with the making of this movie; but when Schrader decided to include a scene of Mishima visiting a gay bar (an aspect of his personality still shrouded in mystery to this day), the family pulled their assistance. It's for this reason, plus the controversial nature of Mishima himself*, that the film has to this day still never had an official release in Japan itself, and is only available there as an import.

Worth your time? Absolutely

*And by the way, Westerners, if you still don't know anything about Mishima's life and work, you really owe it to yourself to sit down and learn more about this fascinating artist -- a guy who went from a cowtowed closeted bisexual in the aftermath of a devastating war, to a body-building radical right-wing military nut by the time the '60s rolled around; someone fascinated almost of the point of obsession with the most decadent parts of the Western lifestyle, yet who came to believe in the moral imperative of Japan rearming itself and refusing to apologize for the atrocities they committed during the war; someone who eventually killed himself publicly via hari-kari during a failed attempt to take over Japan's fledgling "Self-Defense Forces" during the height of the countercultural years. His prodigious artistic output reflects all of these aspects of his complex personality and a lot more; you're really missing out by not having at least a basic understanding of him and his oeuvre.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:14 PM, August 25, 2009. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |