Paul Schrader tells the story of the legendary Japanese author.

Midway through Paul Schrader’s Cat People, a panning shot catches a pile of books on a nightstand. One was a biography of Yukio Mishima, one of Japan’s best–and most notorious writers. A few year’s later would follow through on this hint with his grandiose Mishima: A Life in Four Parts.

Now out on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, the film combines a biographical look at the author while utilizing several of his written works in the process. The result is a beautiful, intentional exploration of a complex and complicated figure.

Mishima is most well-known for how his life ended, a stunning conclusion for one who produced many beloved works of literature. After attempting to foment a rebellion of Japan’s army, Mishima committed ritual suicide, an act that shocked a nation.

It was was his motivation for such an extreme ambition that have had the longest-lasting effect. Mishima wanted Japan to reclaim its pre-war dignity and might. He was very much a nationalist and has become a symbol for Japan’s far-right extremists to this day.

(Ironically, it’s these right-wingers that have kept this film from ever being released in Japan, despite the fact that it was filmed there with Japanese actors and financial support. These reactionaries so revere Mishima–or their version of him–that they’ve gone as far as to threaten physical violence against anyone involved in distributing this movie.)

The three enacted works of Mishima’s touch on these same political themes, as well as his more metaphysical concern about “art versus action.” As a young man deemed physically weak, he took to art but wasn’t immediately successful with that either. His poetry would take a while to morph into the well-respected writing he would later be known for.

The characters in these literary re-enactments show various aspects of their author’s strengths and weaknesses. Young men struggle to find their place in the world, threaten to overthrow hierarchies, and do desperate things in service of their mothers. Each of the three are set off from the main action by taking place in very obvious sets on a sound stage. The coloring and decoration are gorgeous and juxtapose nicely with the gritty monochromism of the biographical thread.

Ultimately, Mishima: A Life in Four Parts accomplishes much of what it set out to achieve. It never quite manages to make its protagonist into a sympathetic character, but he’s certainly a compelling one, maybe a more impressive achievement. Mishima’s works live on, and thanks to this film, they’ll continue to stay in the artistic conversation of at least two nations.


  • New, restored 4K digital transfer of the director’s cut, supervised and approved by director Paul Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Two alternate English narrations, including one by actor Roy Scheider
  • Audio commentary from 2006 featuring Schrader and producer Alan Poul
  • Interviews from 2007 and 2008 with Bailey, producers Tom Luddy and Mata Yamamoto, composer Philip Glass, and designer Eiko Ishioka
  • Interviews from 2008 with Yukio Mishima biographer John Nathan and friend Donald Richie
  • Audio interview from 2008 with co-screenwriter Chieko Schrader
  • Interview excerpt from 1966 featuring Mishima talking about writing
  • The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima, a documentary from 1985
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Kevin Jackson, a piece on the film’s censorship in Japan, and photographs of Ishioka’s sets.

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