Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Portrait of the Artist As a Fascinating Man

Director Paul Schrader crafts a daring, spellbinding biography of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.
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Yukio Mishima carved out a career as an esteemed playwright and author before ending his life by taking over a military facility and performing seppuku, a ritualistic form of suicide. Paul Schrader's daring film traces his life by having actors perform vignettes from some of Mishima's most famous works, painting a brilliant picture of this intriguing man.

The film is notable not just for its subject but for its structure. After a brief color intro, it moves to black and white for the story of Mishima's childhood, then shifts to color for multiple vignettes that represent later stages of his life. Rather than just write a biography for the script, the creators utilized Mishima's own published fictional works, pulling segments that are clearly autobiographical and show his growth and mindset as he progressed through life. The color segments are filmed as plays, using highly stylized sets to drive home the theatre feel. The entire film is in Japanese, another interesting creative choice by the American creators.

I'm no fan of Philip Glass, and his work on this film didn't improve my opinion. He hits viewers over the head with a crescendo of his minimalist theme at the start of the film, and then spends the rest of the film repeating that very basic note progression over and over and over, only altering it by briefly using different instrumentation based on the era of the film's various vignettes. Thankfully, he's the only weak link in the production team.

Production designer Eiko Ishioka steals the film with her stunning, vibrant sets, all the more remarkable when the bonus segments reveal that this was her first feature film. She pushed to film the chapters based on Mishima's novels as live theatre stagings, and delivered vividly realized, highly artistic sets to fulfill that objective.

Criterion's Blu-ray does an excellent job of conveying the hyper-real colors of the theatrical sets, with color so vibrant it's almost lurid, exactly as Ishioka intended. The picture is lovely throughout, a pristine representation of this memorable work of art. The Japanese soundtrack gets DTS-HD Master Audio treatment, with no apparent hiss or crackle.

The Blu-ray is brimming with around three hours of bonus features, including interview footage of the actual Mishima. That footage is fascinating not just for his intelligent answers, but for his fluent, barely accented speaking in both English and French, further proof of his deep commitment to molding himself into his best possible version.

All of the bonus footage shot exclusively for Criterion appears to be legacy material from around 10 years ago, presumably from a prior DVD release. It's worth watching, but suffers a bit from a technical perspective due to the lower standards of the era. The best is a lengthy feature with the production team where they speak about the challenges they faced in making the film.

Elsewhere in the bonuses, an hour-long 1985 BBC documentary explores Mishima's life and career, a 2008 audio interview gives co-screenwriter Chieko Schrader the opportunity to reminisce about the project, and another 2008 interview features a Mishima friend and a biographer. All of the features help to fill out the portrait of the fascinating, polarizing artist.

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