Some filmmakers wear their artistic intention on their sleeves. Others like to bury it deep, hidden beneath layers of cinematic subtext and symbolism. And there are those that like to infuse the two, bringing a deep, layered meaning to their intent, some of it being only evident to them. For Yukio Mishima, his only journey into cinematic storytelling, and the highest grossing short film in Japanese history, is definitely one of those films with multiple intentions by its creator.
Set during the Ni Ni Roku incident of 1936, when a group of 1500 soldiers attempted a coup, hoping to purge the government of self serving politicians, restoring the balance of power to the emperor, "Patriotism" follows the last day of Yoshiko Tsuruoka, one of the conspirators who didn’t partake in the actual coup. Now, faced with the ultimate choice, Yoshiko must decide between executing the remaining ring leaders of the plot, in essence morally corrupting himself, or performing the ultimate act of sacrifice, taking his own life, remaining pure, retaining his ideals.
Mishima adapted the short film from a short story he wrote, but altered it dramatically. At the time, he believed he was in the running for a Nobel Prize in Literature, and sought to boost his international profile. He reduced the film to its simplest elements. Two sets, both traditionally Japanese in appearance, retaining the strong sense of nationalism that embody everything about Mishima. All dialogue was removed, the narrative strung together by a series of scrolls and intertitles, which Mishima wrote himself. He wrote them in multiple languages, so that it could play seamlessly in many countries outside of his native Japan. In January 1966, at the Tours Film Festival, Mishima presented it at its first public screening. The film sparked much talk and controversy. The ecstasy infusion from sex and suicide, climaxing in the gruesome and realistic portrayal of Yoshiko’s act of seppuku, caused people to faint in the theatre. Mishima had always been a master manipulator of his public image, and with "Patriotism", it was no different. It provided the shock and controversy he sought. His collection of short stories that contained the original tale of "Patriotism" was published internationally shortly thereafter.
But the film is also an amalgamation of Mishima’s morals and values. He was deeply devoted to Japanese militarism, and the belief that seppuku was not only the ultimate service to the emperor, but the ecstasy it caused was synonymous with the ecstasy of intercourse. It’s no coincidence that Mishima himself plays Yoshiko, helping him to infuse art with the physical body. But perhaps the ultimate intention, which is only evident in hindsight, is the act of suicide itself, which served as practice for Mishima, who would perform the act for real four years later. In fact, his final act of suicide was so well planned, so orchestrated; the entire process of planning the act in the film would ultimately guide him in his last final moments. Perhaps that gaze of ecstasy in those final moments of the film is not an act, but a glimmer of hope that when he finally performed the real disembowelment, it would bring him the fulfillment and catharsis that he had sought his entire life.
Regardless, "Patriotism" is required viewing for anyone interested in short films as cinema, short films as propaganda, or short films as the ultimate piece of performance art.