On the 40th anniversary of Mishima’s death, Peter Galvin reflects on the life of the notorious Japanese literary figure and the fate of the film he inspired.
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26 Nov 2010 - 11:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

On the 25th November 1970 Yukio Mishima, world famous author, pop culture icon, self-styled media celebrity and occasional Yakuza movie star took a sword and, observing the precise ritual of seppuku, drove it into his belly. Suicide was not necessarily an unusual end-note for a Japanese author: “Of the top 10 post-War authors in Japan, four killed themselves,” explains Dr. Mats Karlsson, from Sydney University's Japanese Studies Department. “But none had done what Mishima had done.” Mishima, who was born as Kimitake Hiraoka (平岡 公威, ) had killed himself in the manner of a samurai warrior, hara-kiri style – according to historians no Japanese had ever killed themselves in such a manner since WWII, at least there is little recorded evidence and no one as famous as Mishima had done it, let alone in public.

For many cultural commentators and international observers of the Japanese post-war scene, Mishima's suicide was a political act. After a lifetime as a polished aesthete, with a taste for Western clothes and bourgeois styling, Mishima took up politics in the '60s; he mourned the loss of traditional Japanese values. By the late '60s, as Japan had embraced modernity and democracy, Mishima had founded his own private army which he called The Shield Society, intended to protect the Emperor. By then Mishima was seen as a “prankster,” a “dandy,” so his actions, sayings, even his dress sense and personal life were tolerated the same way a movie star's antics are tolerated: with bemused, if disapproving fascination. Still, says Karlsson, Mishima was an important writer; three times nominated for the Nobel Prize, and the first author of his generation to be widely translated and read in the West. Mishima's death left a formidable literary legacy: 18 plays, 20 volumes of short works and 40 novels including Confessions of a Mask (1948), Forbidden Colours (1953), The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) and Runaway Horses (1969).

Mishima's final act occurred following the failure of a very public attempt to encourage members of Japan's Self-Defence Force to overthrow the government. For some, like biographer Henry Stokes, Mishima's suicide was a genuine act of idealism; but for many others, including filmmaker Paul Schrader, Mishima's seppuku was a bizarre form of theatre, the trace elements of which can be found in the author's very brief film career.

In the years following his death, it became clear Mishima had carefully and deliberately planned his end; in a sense, he even rehearsed it. He feared decay and worshipped beauty and his friends would later say that he had a powerful desire to stay young (Mishima was only 45 in 1970). After spending his youth and young adulthood as a 'wimp' in the late '50s, Mishima took up bodybuilding. He started preening in a wide variety of macho guises.

He was cast as a gangster in Yasuzo's Yakuza film, Afraid to Die (1960). Mishima's character dies in the end. He staged elaborate photo shoots; in one notorious instance he recreated the famous painting of St. Sebastian; in it Mishima posed semi-nude and played dead. In the film Hitokiri (1969) Mishima plays a character who commits seppuku.

In 1965 Mishima cast himself in a short film based on one of his stories. Called Patriotism, which debuted in France, before opening in Japan in 1966, Mishima wrote produced, and directed it. According to historian Tony Rayns, it's the only short film ever to be a major hit in Japan. In it, Mishima, with all the solemnity of a religious ceremony, details the ritual of seppuku to the strains of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Shot in black and white, it is a strange and beautiful film, partly because its style is so deliberately artificial, but also because Mishima's sensibility emerges so fiercely. Here ritual suicide is rich in meaning and honour (and detailed and bloody). Not long before he shot Patriotism Mishima gave an interview to the BBC where there is no mistaking his feelings on the subject of suicide: “The Western concept of suicide is always defeat itself. Mostly. But harakiri sometimes makes you win.” Rayns, in his notes for the Criterion release of Patriotism, says that Mishima's feelings were in stark contrast to director Masaki Kobayashi. In that director's Harakiri (1962), seppuku is seen as a negative symbol; an unhealthy trait in the Japanese psyche, say, one inextricably linked to its tradition of militarism.

Ten thousand people attended Mishima's funeral, but according to experts on the life of Mishima, he is something of an 'uncomfortable subject'. “It's not the case that Mishima is taboo or anything like that,” explains Karlsson. “Official culture is not trying to 'silence' Mishima in any way. On the other hand, I do think official Japanese institutions are a bit embarrassed about his existence.

When Schrader made Mishima in the mid-'80s this situation had not much progressed. The director told this writer some years ago that, while preparing the film, which was produced in Japan, with a largely local cast and crew, any mention of the author's name at cocktail parties would be met with a wall of silence. Even the film's Japanese producers denied ever contributing to its financing. Schrader says that while the film was in production there was little hope for it ever making it into Japanese theatres. (It's seen been since on Japanese TV.) This was because Mishima's wife Yoko had vetoed any mention of the author's homosexuality. (A biographical fact of Mishima's life that Schrader was not keen to avoid.) By the time Ken Ogata (pictured) was cast and the cameras turning, Yoko had lost faith in Schrader and with her influence and through an intricate network of the business and cultural elite, she ensured the movie would be banned. This led to one of the most unique and peculiar situations in US film history; a $5million film was made on a budget that did not officially exist where all involved knew that there was little hope of recoupment! It's been said that part of the opposition to Schrader's film is because there was a fear that there was little hope that a Westerner could in fact penetrate a uniquely Japanese identity. But Schrader had his own obsession with loners and obsessives; 'suicidal glory' was a theme the director knew well having written Taxi Driver some years before (and The Yakuza (1974), before that in 1972).

“He was a [national] embarrassment,” notes Karlsson, “not because of harakiri, but because he was [seen to be], well, ridiculous.” But says Karlsson, Mishima's whole style was prescient: “In fact you might call him the very first of the media celebrity authors; these days authors have to become almost famous on a personal level before their work can be famous – in that sense he was the first one to understand it and tried to create an image of himself.”

In a sense Mishima's real significance has yet to be explored in depth; his works have been celebrated but his 'life', and what it might say about post WWII Japan, has been left alone. There is still no full length biography of him in Japanese, and no film since Schrader's.