Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata) was a Japanese writer of the twentieth century who gained fame and acclaim across the world for his evocative, carefully crafted way with words. But that was not the whole reason he will be remembered, as he also had a deep patriotic love for his country that displayed itself in very particular ways, to the extent that he created his own militia to "defend" it and the Emperor he idolised. Therefore one day in 1970, he took some of his soldiers to a military base where he insisted on meeting the General in charge of Japan's defence forces. What happened next made more headlines for Mishima, the ultimate realisation of his beliefs...
Whether those beliefs were at all reasonable was not a matter discussed in this biopic from director/writer Paul Schrader his brother Leonard Schrader and Leonard’s wife Chieko. Considering you had to be fairly ensconced in the cognoscenti outside of Japan to have even heard of Mishima, never mind read his books, there was a feeling that Schrader was wasting his time with a vanity project only a small minority would see, and indeed it was not released in Japan at all, the place where it would have generated most interest. Especially when it was conducted almost completely in Japanese dialogue, though English language prints contained narration by Roy Scheider.
Nevertheless, despite all these commercial drawbacks, this found an audience - granted, not a very big audience, but such was the director's adherence to what amounted to a stylisation of the true-life story and passages from his subject's books alike, it was bound to impress someone if only for its sheer art and craft - Schrader himself claimed it was his best work. It was accurate to observe he had rarely been in such control of a project as far as image and sound went, so you would be forced to agree it demonstrated a high level of achievement as far as artwork went even if you didn't get on with what it was saying about Mishima and his place in literature and culture, Japanese or otherwise.
The main problem was twofold: Mishima was at once an absurd figure wearing his obsessions on his sleeve and without irony, and a dangerous exponent of the extreme right-wing point of view that had, three decades before his death, brought the Japanese people to a horrendous war that saw them humiliatingly defeated and down many, many lives. For that reason, the locals would not be interested, or at least more than a few would not welcome, a hagiography from a foreigner who appeared to understand why his subject was magnetically charismatic, yet not the sort of person Japan could definitely do without. Any country, really, could do without their extreme nationalists, blind to their own failings yet ever-eager to pick apart the drawbacks in others, troublemakers whose fanaticism doesn't unite, it splits asunder.
However, over and over here Schrader was slavishly rendering Mishima's life and creations with more or less the same level of fetishism the author applied to himself. Here, though he was laughed at by the younger generation of Japanese students in the late sixties, we are asked to give him a chance because he wrote so well, completely ignoring how repugnant Mishima's outlook could be in its quasi-fascism. Ogata was a shade too old to be playing him, but aside from that this was one of the most striking-looking films of the nineteen-eighties, and had that effort been applied to something less controversial and with a more questioning, critical eye, it would deserve all the plaudits it received from those who found the politics didn't bother them. Yet those politics were inseparable from the man, as attached as his love of bodybuilding, his sadomasochism, his homosexuality and his way with words, however exquisite that may have been. This at once depicted all the flaws of Mishima, while remaining fannishly impressed throughout. Vivid music by Philip Glass.
[Criterion have released this in a pristine Blu-ray, with a collection of extras including a commentary and featurettes. But if you don't know Mishima's life and work, it is highly recommended you watch the BBC Arena documentary from 1985 included here, which is informative and sets him in context, before you watch the film - it will clear up a lot of confusion.]