• Issue
  • Nov 01, 2021

One on One: Yukio Mishima

As a Japan-obsessed teen growing up in 1990s Kuwait, I was hooked on Yukio Mishima’s novels, which I continuously read and re-read at every waking moment. There was something about the hyper-masculine yet homoerotic and deeply sensitive yet gruesomely violent composition of Mishima’s inner world that I just couldn’t get enough of. Exquisite descriptions of the look and feel of blades of grass and tiny delicate plants were coupled with brutal fantasies about seppuku (ritual suicide) and hellscapes of temples set ablaze by arsonists. Somehow, these strange books provided a window through which to escape the extremely conservative society I was in, especially while trying to deal with a genuine case of gender dysphoria.

Shortly afterward, I moved to Japan, and throughout the decade I spent there, slowly but surely, I left the fantasies of Mishima and the gender troubles behind me. When I asked Japanese friends about him, most frowned at me without commenting. Over time, I discovered that though he was a celebrated literary figure abroad, in Japan, Mishima was a politically charged and controversial character. As his fame grew, he began bodybuilding, became an Emperor-loving, right-wing extremist, and even created his own mini private army. He was also a homosexual, which was unacceptable in Japan at the time. Tragically, on November 25, 1970, he hijacked the Japanese army headquarters and tried to launch a coup d’etat while giving a speech in front of soldiers and the media. When he failed to inspire them, he proceeded to commit ritualistic suicide, shocking and horrifying a nation. After having seen many a dark underbelly of Japanese society, I grew increasingly disillusioned with the place and left to pursue new paths. In a moment of reflection some years later, I remembered that my sister Fatima had recommended a film about Mishima that was unavailable in Japan for some reason. It is called Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) and was directed by Paul Schrader. I slipped it into the DVD player and bewilderment came over me.

First, the all-Japanese, star-studded cast came as a complete surprise as I had initially imagined the film was an obscure production. Many of these actors I had seen in Japanese TV series, commercials, and movies over the years, but I had never imagined seeing their younger selves taking on the life story of this controversial writer. Their acting is superb, far surpassing any of the melodramatic roles they later played. Secondly, the film’s set design is probably one of the most beautiful I have ever seen on screen. It was created by Eiko Ishioka, who until this film had only worked in commercial advertising, but Schrader had a hunch that her practice would translate well into film sets. The installation-esque, highly sculptural, and kinetic sets are sights to be seen, and still mesmerize and inspire me. Thirdly, the film’s plot is a hypnotizing ride, shifting between scenes of Mishima’s personal life mixed with fictional characters and stories from his books. Scored by Philip Glass almost as one long operatic sequence, the film begins and ends with Mishima’s last day, on his way to taking his own life. From the very first shot onward, the tension is so high that it totally grips your attention and never lets go.

The first question I asked myself after watching it was: why had I never seen this film before? Yes, it is about Mishima, but it also masterfully narrates the story of modern Japan’s evolution from a warmongering, imperial nation to a poverty-stricken backwater rebirthed as an economic miracle, with views into its leftist upheavals and modern life. I was genuinely stunned by this gesamtkunstwerk that I felt every Japanese person needed to see, no matter how uncomfortable it made them feel. After doing some research, I found out that despite being produced there, the film was never released in Japan due to threats from right-wing groups who refused Mishima’s portrayal as a homosexual in the film. Mishima’s own widow also complained, and so everyone pretended that it never happened, including the production company. Schrader once lamented in an interview: “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 its been more than fifteen years now and they still don’t know what to say. Mishima has become a non-subject.”

Despite the controversy, both the literature of Mishima and this film have shaped the way I think about art and art making. The dark beauty of the novels and the mastery of the film are things that constructed my core ideas about what true artistry means, and present me with a level of creativity I aspire to have.