Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

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Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Theatrical release poster
Directed byPaul Schrader
Screenplay byLeonard Schrader
Paul Schrader
Chieko Schrader
Story byPaul Schrader
Jun Shiragi
Produced byMataichirô Yamamoto
Tom Luddy
StarringKen Ogata
Kenji Sawada
Toshiyuki Nagashima
Yasosuke Bando
CinematographyJohn Bailey
Edited byMichael Chandler
Tomoyo Oshima[1][2][3]
Music byPhilip Glass
Zoetrope Studios
Filmlink International
Lucasfilm Ltd.
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • October 4, 1985 (1985-10-04)
Running time
120 minutes
CountriesUnited States
Budget$5 million
Box office$502,758[4]

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a 1985 biographical drama film based on the life and work of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, directed by Paul Schrader from a screenplay by his brother Leonard and Leonard's wife Chieko Schrader from a story by Paul Schrader and Jun Shiragi. The film interweaves episodes from Mishima's (Ken Ogata) life with dramatizations of segments from his books The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko's House, and Runaway Horses. Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas were executive producers of the film, which has a musical score composed by Philip Glass[5] and production design by Eiko Ishioka.[6]


The film sets in on November 25, 1970, the last day in Mishima's life. He is shown finishing a manuscript. Then, he puts on a uniform he designed for himself and meets with four of his most loyal followers from his private army, the Tatenokai.

In flashbacks highlighting episodes from his past life, the viewer sees Mishima's progression from a sickly young boy to one of Japan's most acclaimed writers of the post-war era (who in adulthood trains himself into the acme of muscular discipline, owing to a morbid and militaristic obsession with masculinity and physical culture). His loathing for the materialism of modern Japan has him turn towards an extremist traditionalism. He sets up his own private army and proclaims the reinstating of the emperor as head of government.

The biographical sections are interwoven with short dramatizations of three of Mishima's novels: In The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a stuttering aspirant sets fire to the famous Zen Buddhist temple because he feels inferior at the sight of its beauty. Kyoko's House depicts the sadomasochistic (and ultimately fatal) relationship between a middle-aged woman and her young lover, who is in her financial debt. In Runaway Horses, a group of young fanatic nationalists fails to overthrow the government, with its leader subsequently committing suicide. Dramatizations, frame story, and flashbacks are segmented into the four chapters of the film's title, named Beauty, Art, Action, and Harmony of Pen and Sword.

The film culminates in Mishima and his followers taking hostage a General of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. He addresses the garrison's soldiers, asking them to join him in his struggle to reinstate the Emperor as the nation's sovereign. His speech is largely ignored and ridiculed. Mishima then returns to the General's office and commits seppuku.



Mishima dramatizes three of the writer's novels and also uses segments from his autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask. At least two scenes, one showing the young Mishima being aroused by a painting of the Christian martyr Sebastian, and another where a young Mishima purposefully exaggerates his illness at a military draft health checkup, appear in this book.

The use of one further Mishima novel, Forbidden Colors, which describes the marriage of a homosexual man to a woman, was denied by Mishima's widow.[7] As Schrader wanted to visualize a book illustrating Mishima's narcissism and sexual ambiguity, he chose the novel Kyoko's House (which he had translated for him exclusively) instead. Kyoko's House contains four equally ranking storylines, featuring four protagonists, but Schrader picked out only the one which he considered relevant.[8]

Mishima used various colour palettes to differentiate between frame story, flashbacks and scenes from Mishima's novels: the scenes set in 1970 were shot in naturalistic colours, the flashbacks in black-and-white, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion-episode is dominated by golden and green, Kyoko's House by pink and grey, and Runaway Horses by orange and black.[9]

Pre-production began in February 1984. Cinematographer John Bailey instructed the Japanese crew to set up a screening of Hideo Gosha's film Goyokin, which was screened as an important reference for the "look" of the film.[10]

Roy Scheider was the narrator in the original movie version and on the early VHS release. On the 2001 DVD release, Scheider's voice-over was substituted with narration by an uncredited actor. The 2008 DVD re-release contains both Scheider's and the alternate narration (plus Ken Ogata's for the Japanese version). In a commentary on Amazon.com, Schrader explained this was a manufacturing error in 2001 and that the voice belonged to the photographer Paul Jasmin.[11]

The film closes with Mishima's suicide (which actually took longer than the seppuku ritual dictates). His confidant Morita, unable to behead Mishima, also failed in killing himself according to the ritual. A third group member beheaded both, then the conspirators surrendered without resistance.[12] Roger Ebert approved of Schrader's decision not to show the suicide in bloody detail, which he thought would have destroyed the film's mood.[13]

The film was withdrawn from the Tokyo International Film Festival and never officially released in Japan, mostly due to a boycott exercised by Mishima's widow and threats by far right wing groups opposed to Mishima's portrayal as a homosexual.[9] The title role was originally intended for Ken Takakura, who indeed proposed this to Paul Schrader, but had to withdraw due to pressure from the same groups.[9] In an interview with Kevin Jackson published in 1992, Schrader commented on the fact that his film has still not been shown in Japan: "[Mishima] is too much of a scandal. ... When Mishima died people said, 'Give us fifteen years and we'll tell you what we think about him,' but it's been more than fifteen years now and they still don't know what to say. Mishima has become a non-subject."[8]

Schrader considers Mishima the best film he has directed. "It's the one I'd stand by – as a screenwriter it's Taxi Driver, but as a director it's Mishima."[8]


The musical score for Mishima was composed by Philip Glass, with parts performed by the Kronos Quartet. A soundtrack album was released on vinyl record and Audio CD in 1985 by Nonesuch Records.


Critical response[edit]

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Mishima has a 79% approval rating and an average rating of 7.5/10 based on 71 reviews. The website's critical consensus reads, "If Paul Schrader’s Yukio Mishima biopic omits too much to fully depict the author’s life, its passion shines through in its avant-garde structure, Eiko Ishioka’s production design, and Philip Glass’ thunderous score."[14] In his 2013 movie guide, Leonard Maltin called the film an "ambitious, highly stylized drama", later adding that it is "long, difficult, not always successful, but fascinating."[15] In 2007, Roger Ebert added the film to his "Great Movies" list, calling the film "a triumph of concise writing and construction. The unconventional structure of the film ... unfolds with perfect clarity, the logic revealing itself."[16]

Chris Peachment of Time Out Film Guide said, "Schrader may have finally achieved the violent transfiguration that he seeks along with his protagonists; the film has all the ritual sharpness and beauty of that final sword. ... There is nothing quite like it."[17]


The film premiered at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival on May 15, 1985, where it won the award for Best Artistic Contribution.[18]

Home media[edit]

Mishima has been released three times on DVD in the US, two of which by The Criterion Collection who also produced its Blu-ray release.

  • The 2001 Warner Bros. release included a behind-the-scenes documentary, an audio commentary by Paul Schrader and a deleted scene. This edition did not, like the theatrical version, feature the narration of Roy Scheider but of an uncredited actor.
  • The 2008 Criterion Collection release offered both English narrations by Roy Scheider and (according to Paul Schrader)[11] Paul Jasmin from the 2001 release. Also, it featured new audio commentaries, video interviews with the film makers and experts on the writings of Mishima, plus The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima, a BBC documentary about the author.
  • The 2018 Criterion Collection re-release on both DVD and Blu-Ray offered a new, restored 4K digital transfer of the director's cut, supervised and approved by director Paul Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Existing features from the 2008 Criterion release were carried over with the addition of a new booklet featuring an essay by critic Kevin Jackson, a piece on the film's censorship in Japan, and photographs of Ishioka's sets.

A French DVD was released by Wild Side Video in 2010 titled Mishima – une vie en quatre chapitres in Japanese, English and French language with French subtitles.

A Spanish Blu-ray Disc was released in 2010 titled Mishima – Una Vida en Cuatro Capítulos. It features Schrader's narration with optional Spanish and Catalan, but no English, subtitles.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Review: 'Mishima – A Life in Four Chapters'". Variety. January 1, 1985. Retrieved July 2, 2017.
  2. ^ "Mishima". Philip Glass (official website). Retrieved July 2, 2017.
  3. ^ UCLA Film and Television Archive. "'Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters' (1985) - Paul Schrader in person". UCLA Happenings. University of California Los Angeles. Retrieved July 2, 2017.
  4. ^ "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved December 22, 2016.
  5. ^ "Mishima – Philip Glass". Retrieved 2021-11-08.
  6. ^ Ishioka, Eiko. "On the Mishima Set". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 2021-11-08.
  7. ^ Sobczynski, Peter (May 8, 2007). "Interview: Paul Schrader on "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters"". eFilmCritic. HBS Entertainment. Retrieved October 31, 2011.
  8. ^ a b c Jackson, Kevin (2004). Schrader on Schrader and Other Writings. Boston: Faber & Faber. pp. 172–184.
  9. ^ a b c Information on the production included with the Criterion Collection DVD, 2008.
  10. ^ "Tatsuya Nakadai:"The 8th Samurai," Part 2:Goyokin - The American Society of Cinematographers". 2019-05-07. Archived from the original on 7 May 2019. Retrieved 2022-04-19.
  11. ^ a b "Kerry: It took some years but I finally figured it out. The original WB print and VHS contain Roy's narration. When we returned to Lucasfilm some years later to do the DVD, Paul Jasmin's narration (which I'd been using as a temp track during editing) was inadvertently used in the place of Scheider's. The WB DVD has the wrong narration. When Criterion came to do their DVD, this was all unraveled. They included Ogata's narration with a choice of Jasmin's (from the WB DVD) or Scheider's (from the WB VHS). Phew! Paul S." – Commentary by Paul Schrader on the 2001 Mishima DVD. (Please also see the discussion section of this article on this topic.)
  12. ^ Yourcenar, Marguerite (2001). Mishima: A Vision of the Void. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  13. ^ Ebert, Roger (October 11, 1985). "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters". Retrieved October 31, 2011.
  14. ^ "Mishima (1985)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved October 7, 2021. Edit this at Wikidata
  15. ^ Maltin, Leonard (2012). Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide. New York: Signet/New American Library. p. 1664. ISBN 9781101604632.
  16. ^ Ebert, Roger (2010). "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters". The Great Movies III. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 252–255. ISBN 9780226182117.
  17. ^ Peachment, Chris (1999). Time Out Film Guide (7th ed.). London: Penguin Books.
  18. ^ "Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters". Cannes Film Festival. Retrieved June 28, 2009.

External links[edit]