Monday, August 02, 2004

Review: "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters" (1985)

People are awfully cynical when it comes to the meaning of Art. It's a cliche that's been played out in so many sitcoms: The protagonist visits a modern art museum and views a piece alongside some intellectual-looking snob. The snob conveys to the protagonist what the piece is trying to communicate only for the protagonist to chuckle, make a snide remark and walk away. The audience makes a connection, because most people just don't understand that kind of stuff or, more often, truly believe that it's complete bunk.

People with that mindset will not enjoy "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters". The film concerns the life of Yukio Mishima, who was one of the most respected authors in Japan after World War II. Most people here in the U.S. have probably have never even heard of his name, but here are a pair of names you would recognize: Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. These two directors were great admirers of the author, and when they heard about a possible film, they made sure that it was made by helping to produce it.

The film is divided into three portions that cut back and forth between each other: The first, in b&w, focuses on Mishima's last day on earth (November 25, 1970) and the careful preparations he made for it. The second, in color, are flashbacks to important times in his life and his progression from a struggling author to a Japanese star. The third portion is what most people remember from the film. Three of his stories are dramatized in vibrant colors that most people haven't seen since Dorothy wandered into Munchkinland. The comparison is appropriate as these segments are highly stylized and beautiful to look at. Not only are the stories used to give examples of Mishima's work, but they function also as reflections of the author himself.

Director Paul Schrader is most known for the legendary scripts he has written for Martin Scorsese such as "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation of Christ". Often in the films he has written and directed, he has dealt with characters that possess emotional hurricanes inside their charismatic exterior, and "Mishima" is no different. As with many artists, Mishima was a conflicted person who was constantly examining his own life and looking for meaning. He thought he could find meaning by merging his art with physical action, which leads to his final day and an event that is still remembered by those Japanese that were around to hear about it.

As I mentioned, the cinematography and art direction is stunning. I actually first learned about this film through seeing clips of it in "Visions of Light", an excellent documentary about the history of cinematography. The clips were so striking and different, I sought out the film very soon after. Seeing these segments in their entirety did not disappoint, and it was a great way to show how artists see their world in unique ways.

Composer Philip Glass has been criticized for being too esoteric in his music (one "South Park" episode made a big joke out of his electronic keyboard fueled songs). Still, with the right film, the music can be very powerful. In "Mishima's" case, it fits like a glove. Some might remember hearing the "Mishima" main theme at the ending of "The Truman Show". Indeed, Glass scored this film as well and decided to reuse this music at the emotional high point of the story.

I highly recommend this film to those who seek a challenge. To all others, you don't know what your missing. You may want to at least check out the three story segments. The images are unforgettable.

Nine out of Ten

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