Mishima Yukio (1925-70) was an internationally Japanese renowned writer of epic narcissism with ultra-nationalist ideas and a very extreme case of the Japanese romance with death in general, and the hideous self-disembowelment of seppuku in particular. Distinguishing the artist from the art, the life from the work, is especially difficult in the case of Mishima, because he worked harder on constructing his body than he seemed to work on writing — writing seemed to come very easily to him and he wrote many books (40 novels, 20 collections of stories, some volumes of nonfiction) and (18) plays before he decided he had completed his life work, the “Sea of Tranquillity” tetraology.
As a would be historicist and historian of ideas I learned and believe that my/our task is to try to understand how someone could take seriously what seems nonsense here and now (for instance, believing that the sun and other planets circled the earth). I have to confess that I cannot fulfill the historicist aspiration to imagine how someone with Mishima’s exposure to other ideas could have maintained a fervent belief in the divinity of the emperor. I may be wrong, but I have to think that he was in the idea of believing in the divinity of the emperor somewhat as Henry James was enamored with the faith that the builders of Chartres had in Marian Christianity. And the whole “Credo quia absurdum est” (I believe it because it is absurd) tradition (a misquotation of Tertullian’s formula in De carne Christi 5.4 that “credibile est, quia ineptum est” (what seems improbable is credible).
I also find the cult of seppuku difficult to imagine myself into. I can understand suicide as a response to failure, but the grisliness of the method of cutting open one’s belly is repellent to me, as is the romanticization of it in Mishima’s 1961 story and 1966 film “Yûkoku” (Patriotism) in which he plays a fascist officer who kills himself rather than carry out orders to arrest fellow officers in a 1936 right-wing coup ostensibly in support of the emperor (and the abolition of the Japanese parliament). Lieutenant Takeyama Shinji (played by Mishima) cannot bring himself to obey or to disobey the order.
The only part of the story that was filmed — on a highly stylized Nô theater set — was returning home in uniform, telling his wife Reiko (Tsuruoka Yoshiko) of his intent to commit harakari (the act is “harakari,” the elevated state of mind of the one undertaking it “seppuku”). This is followed by a scene of husband and wife lying naked together, then the preparations for harakari, a very realistic, blood-spattered harakari, followed by the wife slitting her throat.
Then the two are lying dead in the middle of a traditional Kyoto rock garden (with the severe raking to make the pattern).
The tableaux were very carefully composed, with the blood being stylized as black in black-and-white photography. The room is very white, dominated by large framed calligraphy (done by Mishima) of the Chinese characters for “wholehearted sincerity.”
The movie only lasts 27 minutes, but seems interminable. The lieutenant dies slowly and very messily in my view.
With no sympathy for what he is doing, why he is doing, and even greater horror that the wife remains the dutiful follower in suicide, I loathe the movie—even with a longstanding and considerable interest in Mishima.
The Criterion edition includes an hour-long discussion after watching the movie again after the discovery of a negative in 2005 by producer Fujii Hiroaki (The Burmese Harp) and four members of the crew. Much of this is boring both visually and in content, though the last part in which the old men speak with pride at having been involved in the two-day secret shooting of the film is interesting. They emphasize that Mishima was kind and considerate and utterly lacking in arrogance. He was an internationally famous writer, but a neophyte director. They also stress that he worked very hard, writing out the scrolled text by which the story is told, as well as the calligraphy at the center of the set, playing the lead role, getting his uniform made, etc.
Also included is a(n audio-only) 1966 talk in English about his career that Mishima made to a group of foreign journalists and some ambassadors to Japan, followed by some Q&A. (His English was relatively fluent and more British than American.)
I liked the bonus features more than the feature itself. In particular, I was interested to hear Mishima speaking. The movie is not silent — with heavy Wagner death-romanticizing music — but has no spoken lines. In “Kurotokage” (Black Lizard, 1968) he played a statue. I know that I’ve seen “Karakkaze yarô” (Afraid to Die, 1960) in which Mishima played a particularly vile gangster, but don’t remember what he sounded like in it.
The disc contains what Mishima thought was his essence and should be of interest to anyone interested in Mishima. I much prefer Paul Shrader’s 1985 stylized “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (in Japanese, though prevented from being shown there by Mishima’s widow, who also had all prints of “Patriotism” destroyed, but allowed producer Hiroaki Fujii to keep the negative; the DVD was made after her death) or Ichikawa Kon’s 1958 “Enjo” (based on The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) or Shinoda Masahiro ‘s “Double Suicide.”
©2016, Stephen O. Murray