From the vault: 1985

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 July, 2008, 12:00am

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Starring: Ken Ogata, Masayuki Shionoya, Yasosuke Bando

Director: Paul Schrader

The film: Nominated for three Nobel Prizes for literature, Yukio Mishima wrote 40 novels, another 40 books of short stories and essays, and 18 stage plays. He directed and starred in one of Japan's most notorious films (Patriotism), started a substantial, government-sanctioned private army and was a fanatical bodybuilder who spoke several European languages fluently. On November 25, 1970, he committed ritual suicide (seppuku) in apparent protest at his country's erosion of its traditional principles and samurai codes of honour. Needless to say, perhaps, he was a rather complex character, and probably the most controversial figure in modern Japanese history.

Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters tackles its subject with three interweaving layers of narrative: Mishima's last day and suicide; black-and-white flashback segments of his life story with first-person voiceover; and colourfully theatrical adaptations of three of Mishima's books, each of which had autobiographical elements. Filmed in Japan under difficult circumstances, with right-wing nationalist groups threatening dire consequences for any Japanese who took part in the production, it's amazing the film was made at all. The fact it looks so marvellous and works so well as a biopic, despite its unique experimental structure, makes it all the more impressive.

Mishima is an astonishing film, with sumptuous visuals, some fine performances - especially Ken Ogata (below) playing against type in the latter-day title role - and a controversial history of its own. Japanese film studio Toho, which put up about a third of the budget, later disowned it, and as they controlled domestic distribution rights, it has never had an official release in Japan, either in cinemas or on home video. The reasons for this are interesting and complex, but explained fully in the comprehensive extra features of this new DVD release from Criterion.

The extras: Viewers not familiar with Mishima would do well to first watch the one-hour BBC documentary, The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima (1985), included here as an extra on the second disc, for a basic introduction to his life and work. Also on the second disc are interviews with several crew members including cinematographer John Bailey (As Good as it Gets) and composer Philip Glass. Interviews with Donald Richie - Japan film scholar and friend of Mishima - and biographer/translator John Nathan are also included, along with a couple of video clips of Mishima discussing his work. The informative commentary over the main feature on the first disc includes Schrader and producer Alan Poul discussing the film's production and their experiences in Japan.

This attractively packaged fold-out edition comes with a heavily illustrated 56-page book containing essays, many photos and production notes. Picture quality is excellent, with a new digital transfer supervised by Schrader and Bailey, and Japanese and English-language soundtrack options for the narration are offered, with Roy Scheider doing the honours on the latter.