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Martin Foreman

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Mishima: A life in four chapters

November 2009: I first saw Mishima when it came out in 1985 and only caught up with it again at the National Film Theatre, London, last week. In my memory it was a long, languid film that was more worthy than entertaining. Second time round, I found it engrossing, challenging and moving.

Handsome, intelligent and charismatic, Yukio Mishima (1925 - 1970 Wikipedia article) was one of Japan's best-known post-war authors, whose novels and plays penetrated deep into the psyche of an ancient country that had plummeted from conquering empire to conquered quasi-colony in less than a decade. Obsessed with bushidō, the code of the samurai warriors, he established a private army dedicated to restoring total power to the emperor. And although married and
the father of two children, he was, like many samurai before him, strongly attracted to men and the ideal of martial masculinity.

Mishima's death came as shock to all except himself and a small band of followers. After they had taken the commander of an army training camp hostage, Mishima failed to rouse the assembled recruits to follow him in a coup. Disillusioned, but not surprised (he had prepared a suicide note), he committed seppuku at the age of 45.

Mishima was directed by Paul Schrader, whose previous work, as writer or director, included American Gigolo, Cat People, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. Schrader also co-wrote the script with his brother and Japanese sister-in-law.

Through a series of overlapping episodes, the film brings together the many disparate elements of Mishima's life in a coherent whole. The frame is provided by the events of his last day, portrayed almost documentary-fashion in natural colour. Interspersed are black-and-white flashbacks revealing the author's childhood, adolescence and growing fame, and highly stylised extracts from three of his novels (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko's House and Runaway Horses) which epitomise his view of the world.

And what a view that was. For Mishima life could only be expressed in extremes. On the one hand there was the extreme of action, as symbolised by the samurai. On the other there was the extreme of words - the only medium in which he felt truly alive. Between these two, he believed, lay purity, and somehow he had to bring them together.

Mishima struggled to resolve this dilemma. In life he sometimes failed - called up at the end of the Second World War he allowed a doctor to diagnose him with tuberculosis, and therefore avoid conscription, when he knew he only had a severe cold. In his art, his characters could go to violent extremes that he did not, yet, dare - Osamu, the handsome actor in Kyoko's House can only feel alive through submission to his sadistic lover. Perhaps only the Shield Society - his private army - and its and his ultimate action briefly brought him the satisfaction he sought.

Mishima's struggle was reflected in his homosexuality. Japan is in many ways a homoerotic society, there is a thriving underground gay scene and a strong strand of male love runs through its samurai tradition (see in particular Saikaku Ihara's 16th century stories). But public acknowledgement of homosexuality is deeply frowned upon in conformist public life. Which meant that Mishima treated the subject rarely and that his family still today play down that aspect of his life. It is therefore a secondary rather than primary theme in Schrader's film, but it is nonetheless depicted as a key aspect of the author's life.

Few of us can live as intensely as Mishima did and even fewer would willingly die early in order to fulfil our ideals. (Unlike today's deluded terrorists, Mishima saw little honour in killing others merely to prove a point.) Mishima, with veteran Japanese actor Ken Ogata in the title role, allows us privileged insights into one of the world's greatest writers and most fascinating men.

One last comment: the film is scored by the magnificent Philip Glass, whose hypnotic abstract rhythms provide a fitting background to the highly charged emotions and thoughts that play before our eyes.

marks out of 10:     social interest: 6     gay interest: 6     film quality: 9
IMDb entry      Wikipedia biography

Gohatto (Taboo)

In this 1999 film, handsome young Kanō Sōzaburō (played by 17-year-old Ryuhei Matsuda) joins the Shinsengumi, an elite samurai police group in 19th century Kyoto. Kanō's fighting skills are not in question, but his androgynous presence disrupts the corps' esprit. A fascinating, stylish film, directed by Nagisa Oshima (whose other films include the controversial In the Realm of the Senses), Gohatto combines potent homoeroticism with oblique insights into life in Japan at a time when the country was on the brink of opening up to the outside world.

marks out of 10:     social interest: 8    gay interest: 6     film quality: 8
IMDb entry      Wikipedia entry

East Asian gay and transgender films
Gay Japan: Drinking in Shinjuku; Azure Love in Gion

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