After a run of negligible releases (Touch, The Walker, the ones that went straight-to-DVD, if they were released at all), we may have lost sight of just what a vivid and rigorous filmmaker Paul Schrader can be. Which makes the reissue of Mishima, his singular 1985 biopic of the Japanese writer, poet and provocateur Yukio Mishima even timelier. From the off, this is a film governed by a profound understanding of ritual: Mishima dressing for breakfast, his collection of countless awards, his final act of despair. Its four chapters are structured around the writer's 1970 attempt to take over an army base with a squadron of loyal followers - an action it's hard to imagine, say, Sebastian Faulks taking today, and which at the time only added to Mishima's growing sense of impotency - but rarely can the boundaries between art and life have been so fluidly rendered. Monochrome flashbacks cluing us in to the writer's early years benefit from Schrader's evident knowledge and love of the Japanese cinema, featuring performers who wouldn't have looked out of place in the Ozu movies of the Fifties and Sixties; these are interleaved with full-colour dramatisations of Mishima's compellingly weird prose - nihilist, nakedly autobiographical, defiantly modern, and tantalising enough to make one want to go and raid Foyles for the books.
Driven forward by Philip Glass's insistent, unifying and itself no less ritualised score - where even the cues that haven't subsequently been pilfered for car adverts strike the ear as perfectly uncanny configurations of notes, sending shivers down the spine - what these memories and fantasias suggest is that Mishima was set on the path of self-destruction all along (consider the prevalence of sharp blades in his work). You see it in the virginal stutterer who burns down the titular edifice in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion; the bodybuilder who enters into a sadomasochistic pact with his landlady in Kyoto's House, and suffers death by a thousand cuts; and the assassins in Runaway Horses, prepared to sacrifice their lives in an act that may ultimately mean nothing, and who become so hooked on the idea of purity they're prepared to turn their lives into "a line of poetry written with a splash of blood". Schrader manages a tremendous joke here - a belly laugh, you might say - switching from one of the assassins' attempts at seppuku (ritual disembowelment) to Mishima shouting "cut!" (boom boom) on the set of one of the films he came to be involved with.
This is a study of a man who, despite the trappings of celebrity he took on, came to see writing as a doomed enterprise, an attempt to ascribe order and beauty to a world that simply wasn't set up for it; who, at some point, came to the conclusion that to be a poet, you have to be prepared to die. Don't go expecting a happy ending: despite the neatness of that chaptering - Schrader's effort to ascribe order and beauty to this life - the film's main business is the messy, internal wrestling match this Mishima conducts between words and deeds, the word and the world, the Left and Right, masculine and feminine. His eventual suicide looks like an attempt to merge art with action, an author with his characters, even as the contradictions pile up around this illustrious corpse: a plea for peace that terminated in bloody violence, the Mishima coup was both the writer's most public statement, and a desperately solitary act. (Schrader concludes that his subject could only attain peace by slicing himself in two.) Formally adventurous, delving headfirst into the neuroses of both a truly complex figure and a society caught between ancient traditions and the modern desires documented in Mishima's work, this remains one of the boldest American films of the 1980s.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is available on Blu-Ray via Criterion.