Not all film is autobiographical. But sometimes, it can be scarily precognitive.
Patriotism* is Yukio Mishima and a crew, working over two days to adapt his 1961 short story about a Japanese officer (played by Mishima) and his wife. The officer is friends and compatriots with the officers who attempted to overthrow the Japanese government and military in 1936, but they tell him to step aside and not participate because of his new bride. They win a brief success (this is all based on the February 26 Incident; I cannot claim to be an expert on Japanese history, so forgive any issues I have here), but as they face failure, the officer decides his only option, rather than fight them in favor of the government, is to commit hara kiri.
But, as in the original story, his wife decides to follow him. The vast majority of the movie’s 30 minutes, besides interstitial cards explaining the back story, shows the officer and his wife (both of them never named) as they prepare for their ritual suicides. It’s very harsh, very graphic, and yet it’s also beautiful. There are shots of them writing their suicide notes, of them bowing goodbye to what I think is an altar of their ancestors, of them ritually dressing for the suicide that I would put up against a lot of other black and white movies. And yet, this is all beauty in the service of what I would call fanaticism.
Here is where you have to confront, 50+ years on, what this movie and this story means for Yukio Mishima. That was the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka, and under that name he was a model, an author, a director…and also a right-wing fanatic who formed a militia to try and restore power to the Japanese Emperor. They took over a military base in 1970, tried to force the overturn of the 1947 Constitution by the Japanese military and when it all failed, Mishima committed seppuku.
I would really like to have seen this movie in 1966, without Mishima’s later history. On its own it’s a beautiful and sad piece of work, lovingly paced, beautifully shot (apparently on a Noh stage, and even though I cannot speak to that at all, I adore the bare simplicity of the staging). But I cannot consider this movie on its own now; now it’s a piece of dreadful prophecy for what Mishima would do four years later.
And yet…and yet, it’s still a great short movie. It’s absolutely worth seeing while still knowing what it portends. I haven’t even mentioned Yoshiko Tsuruoka as the wife in this; after the officer’s suicide, she is the only character for about ten minutes and it’s a fantastic, tragic performance as she contemplates her fate and makes her own decision. Of course, I fully believe Mishima was projecting what he thought a proper wife should do…and yet, she is acting the hell out of it and sells it.
Really, check your local library for the Criterion disc of this; it has some excellent special features, but it’s especially worth seeing for a 2005 interview of four men who worked on the movie back in 1966, minutes after they have watched the movie again, and their remembrances of working on this are pretty fascinating. Also, it’s Criterion and the transfer of the movie is pretty great. After Mishima’s death, his widow asked for all prints of this movie to be destroyed, but one of the producers asked that he at least be allowed to save a negative. And thank goodness for that, because this is one of the rare movies that’s frankly a look into someone’s mind.
*Apparently the title of the short story and movie more properly translates in English to “concern for one’s country,”which makes sense in the context of this story.