Friday, August 29, 2008

REVIEW: Mishima - Paul Schrader (1985)

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

Bushido is the way of the warrior. One lives a life of loyalty, martial arts mastery and honour, even in death. The devotion to the thing itself becomes a constant search for perfection, chiefly through form. Its expression becomes the ultimate art for a warrior. The great martial artists have sought a variation of this level of martial enlightenment, gaining complete mastery and control of their own bodies and becoming one with everything around them. But this path of constant perfection through form transfers to many other physical arts. Musashi spoke of learning other arts so that the mind never grows narrow.Yukio Mishima had an obsession with transposing art into physical form. His work spread from something as simple as writing novels, into plays, where he was able to physically manipulate space and the people within it, to acting and body building, where he was able to fully express himself physically. He was the perfect manipulator of his own public image, and most actions he took sought to cause a physical reaction with the public. His only short Patriotism, the highest grossing short film of all time in Japan, sought to generate international attention for himself, albeit controversial attention. Even his death was meant to cause a reaction. He and his private army, The Shield Society, subdued the general at a local military base and attempted to perform a speech before the presiding army before Mishima finally committed seppuku.

Paul Schrader captures the essence of Yukio Mishima’s belief in the body to masterful effect in his film, Mishima. Schrader himself seems to be drawn to characters that use physical transformation as a means of expression, creating such metamorphic characters like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Julian Kaye (American Gigolo) and Jesus (The Last Temptation of Christ). Whether or not Schrader has the same internal struggle to find the perfect form into which he can express himself, he definitely understands someone who does. There is always a constant wavering between sex and death, which become the two ultimate forms for the eccentric writer. Schrader breaks down the narrative into three distinct sections. The first takes place on the last day of Mishima’s life, as he and his men embark on their final mission. The second part revolves around gorgeous black and white flashbacks, narrated by Mishima himself, his voice guiding us through the corridors of his life, from his contradictory, self-propelled rejection by the military to the training he received later in life by the Japanese army. He was deeply nationalistic and believed in obedience to the emperor and the samurai spirit. The stroke of Schrader’s genius shines through in the third section of the film in which he re-creates scenes from Mishima’s novels and plays, composing them beautifully as stunning, theatrical productions. Each of these scenes, with incredible production design by Eiko Ishioka, reveals the constant struggle that Mishima not only underwent, but that he always projected into all his work. He poured his heart into much of what he did. Several of his novels contain various forms of ritual suicide, suppressed sexual desire and a need for physical transformation. The fatalist thread that runs through the film is underlined in the chapters that split the film up: Beauty, Art, Action and finally Harmony of Pen and Sword. While the narrative is non-linear, it’s these chapters that depict the evolution of Mishima’s state of mind and his realization that for him death is the ultimate form of expression.

Mishima is a beautiful, poignant and ultimately moving film. Philip Glasses’ invocative score blends perfectly with the imagery, lending credence to Schrader’s ultimate goal: to create his own interpretation of a man that wasn’t driven to suicide through madness or insanity, but by his passion and devotion to his art form.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.

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