caption: Ken Ogata as Yukio Mishima in Paul Schrader’s 1985 film
In Paul Schrader’s “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (1985), the Japanese writer and cultural warrior Yukio Mishima is played by the cocky, square-jawed Ken Ogata, an actor best known to Western audiences as the businesslike serial killer in Shohei Imamura’s “Vengeance Is Mine” (1979). It’s a difficult role, because Mishima himself was always playing Mishima: a fantastic character of his own invention.
Mr. Schrader’s movie, which the Criterion Collection is releasing on Tuesday in a handsome, superbly restored edition, does a fine job of describing how the sickly, withdrawn Kimitake Hiraoka, the son of a minor government official, recreated himself under the pen name Yukio Mishima as a modern-day samurai and omnipresent media figure.
In between writing some of the most popular and critically respected novels of postwar Japan, Mishima bulked up through weight lifting; appointed himself the head of his own private army (with uniforms he designed himself, “with help from de Gaulle’s tailor”); starred in a series of action films (for directors like Yasuzo Masumura, Kinji Fukasaku and Hideo Gosha); displayed his toned physique in book and magazine photo layouts; and expounded his peculiar brand of Japanese nationalism, which managed to offend both the right and the left.
In American culture Mishima’s only equivalent as an author-exhibitionist is Norman Mailer, and even Mailer could not equal the audacity of Mishima’s final gesture. On Nov. 25, 1970, he led four of his recruits into the Tokyo headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, took a general hostage and made an impassioned speech to the troops, urging them to rise up and reclaim the glory of imperial Japan.
When the troops laughed and jeered in response, Mishima returned to the general’s office and committed seppuku, ritual suicide, by disemboweling himself. It was a gesture he had imagined many times before, most notably in his 27-minute film, “Patriotism” (1966), in which he plays an army officer who takes his own life. (Criterion is also releasing “Patriotism” on Tuesday, on a disc that includes some fascinating Mishima material.)
Mr. Schrader’s film takes that November day as its point of departure, and spins a complex structure around it, with flashbacks to Mishima’s smothered youth and visualizations of three of his novels: “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” (1956), “Kyoko’s House” (1959) and “Runaway Horses” (1968). Moving between biography and fiction, Mr. Schrader (who wrote the screenplay with his brother, Leonard) underlines the similarities between Mishima’s life and his work, but also draws important distinctions.
While the biographical material is presented in realist terms, the fiction is extravagantly stylized, broadly acted and shot on constrained studio sets designed in bold colors by Eiko Ishioka. Mr. Schrader’s camera sometimes looks over the top of these four-walled constructions as if peering into the compartments of Mishima’s brain, where his characters are doomed to endure forever, endlessly repeating the same gestures and reliving the same stories.
Mishima might have been his own greatest creation, but he’s also the ultimate Paul Schrader character: a wounded visionary, a compromised saint, a seeker of truth and transcendence. Like the protagonists of “Taxi Driver” (Mr. Schrader’s most perfect screenplay) and of “American Gigolo,” “Light Sleeper” and “Affliction” (to name three of his best films as a writer-director), Mishima is brought back to earth by the sordid facts of material existence: the need to make a living, to get along with other people, to eat and sleep and deal with the whole range of inconvenient human appetites.
Ours is no longer a world, Mr. Schrader suggests, that tolerates saintly ambitions; psychological wounds and physical circumstance drag such men down, turning would-be heroes into monsters, and messiahs into figures of ridicule. His triumph in “Mishima,” his most completely satisfying film, lies in creating a seeker who is aware of his own absurdity, and who is willing to embrace the ridiculous on his way to the sublime. (The Criterion Collection, $39.95, R)
Released in 1975, “Framed” is among the last of the old-school films noirs. Three principal members of its creative team were part of the genre’s prime: the director Phil Karlson (“99 River Street,” 1953), the producer and screenwriter Mort Briskin (“Quicksand,” 1950), the cinematographer Jack A. Marta (who shot close to 200 B movies for Republic Pictures). The plot is practically a pocket guide to noir conventions. Joe Don Baker, a big man with a sad mouth, stars as Ron Lewis, a professional gambler who stumbles across a homicide involving some unknown, powerful people, who get him out of the way by sending him to prison on a trumped-up charge.
When, four years later, Lewis returns to the unnamed Southern metropolis he calls home, he finds that his adversaries have taken political control of the city and are moving in on the state. But Lewis, dehumanized by his experiences, isn’t deterred: with the help of a prison buddy, a syndicate hit man with a Sonny Bono haircut (Gabriel Dell, one of the original Dead End Kids back in the 1930s), he sets out to exact a terrible, bloody revenge.
“Somebody I don’t know took everything I had away from me,” he says, in a line from the Film Noir Hall of Fame, “and I’m going to make him pay. Double.”
Karlson and Briskin enjoyed a freak hit in 1973 with “Walking Tall” — essentially, a retooling of Karlson’s noir classic of 1955, “The Phenix City Story” — with Mr. Baker as a Southern sheriff fighting corruption. Their “Walking Tall” clout allowed them to make “Framed” without compromises, and this is a harsh, unlovely film, charged with unsettling anger and filled with a violence that was quite graphic for the time, and is still startling today.
Although “Framed” would prove to be the last film for both men, it is no nostalgic farewell. It’s a poison-pen letter filled with bitterness, paranoia and despair. When Lewis finally tracks down the individual responsible for his suffering, he finds — in another classic noir device — a man much like himself, with personal reasons for what he’s done. At the end of the journey lies its beginning, a film noir way of knowledge. (Legend Films, $14.95, R). [source: NYTimes]