This was a film financed by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola,distributed by a major Hollywood studio, that but for some narration by Roy Scheider is entirely in Japanese, and is told in a fragmentary narrative style which oscillates between wildly contrasting stylistic modes; the widow of the film's subject signed away life rights to her husband's story conditioned upon the film's not dealing with his none-too-secret homosexuality, which the film proceeded to deal with, albeit obliquely, and she then fought production in Japan tooth and nail. Mishima himself, Japan's most famous post-war novelist, attempted a paramilitary coup d'etat in 1970, in which his private army took over the Ministry of Defense, and committed a highly public hari-kiri. He was and is a subject of vast controversy in Japan, a consensus society, who since his death have preferred not to be reminded he existed. Given the artiness of the film, the foreigness of it's subject matter, and the Japanese blackout/ban, it is amazing "Mishima" got made at all.
Even without the sheer strangeness of the work and improbability of its existence, this is an awesome film. "Mishima" is one of the best movies about an artist ever made. Mishima sought to make his life into a work of art, and his bid for violent political action and self-martyrdom was his terminal masterpiece. "Mishima" intercuts documentary-style scenes of his final 12 hours with black and white flashbacks telling of his life up to that day, aping the style of classical Japanese cinema of Ozu and Naruse; but the third layer of narrative are highly stylized scenes from three of his novels (Temple of the Golden Pavillion, Runaway Horses, and Kyoko's House), shot on elaborate soundstages on blatantly artificial sets in garish 40's MGM-style color (each with its own individual color palette). All three narrative modes, and the violent climaxes of the three novels, fuse, "Intolerance"-style, in rapid montage as the film builds to its endpoint, as life and art meld.
The film shows us the life that fueled the artist's fictions, the fictions themselves and how they transformed the raw material of Mishima's life, and then how Mishima's dissatisfaction with mere art-making lead to a flamboyant attempt at transcendant, suicidal direct action. In the end,Mishima becomes one with his creations, and life becomes art. This film is the most successful representation of a writer's life I've ever seen, all thanks to Mishima the man's insane extremism.
Philip Glass' operatic score is extrarordinary (and I am a non-fan), as essential as Morricone's music is to Leone's films.
I have not yet mentioned the name of the man behind this masterpiece. Paul Schrader, author of a one of the best critical film essays ever ("Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer"), writer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Last Temptation of Christ, director of American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, Affliction, Patty Hearst and Cat People. While much of his work is fascinating, this is an out-and-out masterpiece. A truly brave film, as impossible as a Tarkovsky or a Bresson. And if any film deserves the Criterion treatment, this is it; in addition to commentary from the director, composer Glass and cinematographer John Bailey, it will be full of documentary material about the actual Mishima (the photogenic bodybuilder was a significant media star in both Japan and the West, he even acted in commercial films!) to provide needed context, and the beautiful sounds and images will surely benefit from the company's usual lush transfers. Check it out, you'll thank me.