FILM / Films that should come back from the dead: Independent riters campaign for the return of four classics: Adam Mars-Jones on Mishima

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The Independent Culture
Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) may be the strangest film ever made by an American, a composite portrait of the life and work of a Japanese writer whose every action was controversial, and whose legacy in his own country is largely embarrassment. Getting the film made must have been like a marathon run on a tightrope - trying to make an exotic figure intelligible to American audiences without taking away the intransigence which made him problematic at home, attempting a critical perspective without losing the goodwill of the (easily offended) Mishima estate.

But in fact the film is a masterpiece. It tells the story of Mishima's life both as a whole and as recapitulated by the day of his suicide. The triumph of the will is a pretty desolating thing to witness, and calls for a pretty spectacular counterweight. Schrader found one in his designer, Eiko Ishioka. Ishioka (whose work was the glory of Coppola's recent Dracula) is the secret star of the film. Her designs for the extracts from Mishima's fiction show how art direction can be essence rather than adornment.

Her stagings are unfailingly dynamic, starting with striking but simple stylisation and accommodating more and more conflict and contradiction as they go along. She mixes pictorial, theatrical and cinematic conventions in increasingly daring ways. As Mishima's life shrinks to a point, the point of a ceremonial sword, his work is allowed to swell and spread until its impact is overwhelming.

There is no guarantee, of course, that Mishima would have liked the result. He might have thought that it could as easily have been called Ishioka. But that isn't the test. The biopic is not a particularly elevated sort of film, and when writers are the subjects they tend to come off almost worse than anyone. They are routinely flattened as they pass through the mangle of genre, but Mishima is not. For once a writer is done justice, perhaps more than justice.

What the critics said: 'It would seem nearly impossible to make a dull film about so flamboyant a subject, but Schrader has succeeded. Mishima is so dutiful, so respectful, so self-conscious, it's a chore to watch.' J Hoberman.

'Wonderfully conceived and executed, a proper representation of Mishima's own ambition to turn his life 'into a line of poetry slashed with blood'.' Peter Ackroyd.

'A film whose own neutrality, neither emotional nor condemning, ranks it as only a cross-cultural curiosity.' Alexander Walker.

Availability: First released in 1985. Not currently available on video or on 35mm. The BFI distributes a 16mm print.

(Photograph omitted)