The Criterion Collection upgrades their already impressive DVD edition of Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters to Blu-ray, again presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Surprisingly, Criterion isn’t simply reusing the same high-definition restoration found on that DVD (sourced from a 35mm interpositive and the 35mm original negative) but are instead making use of a new 4K restoration, sourced from the 35mm original camera negative. It’s delivered here on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The same version of the film that appeared on the original DVD—which included an additional scene featuring Chishu Ryu and a few shots where the sky had been altered from a blue to a red to match a sunrise—is also what appears here, though there are still slight differences (I’ll cover this in the Supplement portion).
Outside of the expected improvements you get from the jump from standard-definition to high-definition I wasn’t anticipating this new edition to offer too large of an improvement over the previous DVD, despite the master coming from a fresh 4K restoration, but it ends up going well and beyond.
As expected compression isn’t a problem and grain is better rendered, looking far more natural, but it is the overall crispness and clarity of the image that is really astounding. The various textures present throughout are just so much clearer, where you can make out the slight “fuzzies” on Mishima’s uniform in the “current day” sequences of the film (I’ll call them “current day” despite taking place in 1975). Stylistically the film can shift around a lot in look, even from black-and-white to colour, but it all looks marvelous. The “current day” sequences have a slightly undersaturated look to them but the colour rendering is smooth and clean, while the “adaptation” sequences are far more vivid and bold in their colour presentation, with lots of blues, yellow/golds, reds, and pinks. They’re particularly gorgeous to watch here, and improved upon greatly in comparison to the DVD’s own colour presentation (even the digitally altered red skies look better here). The black-and-white “flashback” sequences also look better, with cleaner gray scale grading and strong white and black levels. Some crushing is evident in the colour sequences, though mainly the “current day” sequences which have a drabber look.
Add on the fact there isn’t a bit of damage in sight (outside of some archival footage that shows its age) and you have yourself an exceptional looking upgrade. Even if you own the already impressive DVD this is still worth looking into getting for the presentation alone, which is far more natural, clean, and film-like. 9/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
The disc again comes with the same three audio tracks found on the previous DVD: a track featuring Ken Ogata’s Japanese voice-over narration, another featuring Roy Scheider’s English voice-over narration (which Schrader made out of fear that the film would be too subtitle heavy), and then a “Test Track” in English. The test track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround while the two primary tracks are delivered in lossless DTS-HD MA 20.surround.
Comparing the two primary tracks (which means I’m ignoring the “Test Track” at the moment) they are both good but, like the DVD, the Ogata track is the clear winner and I’d even say it’s substantially better here than what is offered on the DVD. Both tracks are clear, dialogue is crisp, and Philip Glass’ score sounds wonderful, but the level of clarity and detail is so much finer on the Ogata track. It’s far more dynamic with a wider breadth between highs and lows, bass even being better, and movement between the speakers is more apparent. It’s not to say the Scheider track doesn’t do this but it just doesn’t do it as well. When it comes to audio I’m not the best at explaining I admit but there are just details present in Glass’ score that are more distinct in the Ogata track that get lost in Scheider’s and it’s obvious that more attention and love was put into it. I have no problem sticking with the Ogata narration in the future (and that’s not a criticism against the Scheider track) but there is a certain disappointment that the same level of care wasn’t applied to the English track as well. Again, the Scheider track is still fine, but the Ogata one is significantly better.
As to the “Test Track” it’s unbelievably flat and not a worthwhile option. This is here more as a curiosity I think, to just show another layer of the production (Scheider used it to pace his own narration). Also I should note that, like the Criterion DVD, this doesn’t appear to be the same track on the Warner DVD, which inexplicably featured another English narration track (yeah, it didn’t even use the Scheider one), though I don’t have that disc to compare. Director Paul Schrader does talk about the Warner DVD in the commentary but doesn’t mention the English track on that disc. You get the idea he wasn’t happy with that disc, though, with him calling it a mess. 8/10
Criterion appears to port everything over from their stellar DVD edition, the features all building up a wonderful look at the making of the film and the man on whom the film is based. Going through them again I was pleased to find they’re still one of my favourite batches.
Again, like the DVD, this edition features what would probably be considered Schrader’s “director’s cut” of the film. As I mentioned above this version presents an extra scene not shown in the film before Criterion’s DVD release, along with digital alterations to the final moments of the “Runaway Horses” sequence where a blue sky has been changed to red to match a sunrise. This has actually been further adjusted for this edition. First off the ocean in one shot now has more of a blue tint (it was closer to black previously) and the reds have been boosted a bit in areas of the screen, which gives a more fantastical feel. I recall some purists objecting to these changes when the DVD first came out but on a scale where the worst offenders are Greedo shooting first (or at the same time) and guns are replaced with walkie-talkies this change barely registers. I could see how the previous day-for-night shots would have irked Schrader and I can’t fault him for wanting to fix it when the technology exists for him to do so. I still think this looks fine and also think it looks better here.
Now getting to the actual supplements we first get an audio commentary recorded by Paul Schrader and producer Alan Poul, recorded in 2006 (well before Criterion actually released the original DVD). Oddly, the description doesn’t include the words “recorded exclusively for The Criterion Collection” suggesting, possibly, the track could be used elsewhere, though Schrader throws Criterion’s name all around within the track (during one moment, when pointing out he more or less lifted a bit from Nicolas Roeg’s Performance he not-so-subtly suggests that Criterion should release that film.) The track also sounds to have been recorded before Criterion applied any digital alterations to the film for their DVD edition: during the “Runaway Horses” sequence and the final few shots he mentions that he wants Criterion to fix the blue skies, although, as we can see, this has already been done.
Other than that, the track is a pretty solid filmmaker commentary. It was recorded a couple weeks after Paul’s brother, Leonard, had died, and the reason this film was made had a big part to do with his brother, who had moved to Japan and became fascinated with Mishima. The two go over every aspect of the production, from the problems on getting the rights to tell the story to issues they ran into with people who objected to a bunch of Americans making this movie (fair enough). They get into other aspects of the film, including its style, and, of course, the film’s score, even mentioning that composer Philip Glass actually owns the score and still sells it for use in other films and promos, like The Truman Show. Schrader also touches on his thoughts about the man, the themes in the film, and also talks about Mishima’s writings. Poul throws in a lot himself, the track seeming to be spread evenly between the two. What I found interesting is Poul seems to remember things more clearly than Schrader. Schrader forgets some things (even the titles of the film’s chapters) but Poul is there to cover. Schrader also mentions why he originally had the English voice-over with Scheider: His fear was that there would be too many subtitles and was nervous about that. He then released the Japanese Ogata narration on the Warner DVD. Maybe not as “insightful” on the film itself as I would have hoped but it’s a good track and Schrader seems especially excited that Criterion was working on the DVD at the time.
Also, as mentioned in the audio portion of this review, an English “Test Track” has also been included According to the description this was a track recorded for editing purposes and then was used by Scheider as a guide for when he did his voice-over. Looking at my review for the Criterion DVD I wasn’t surprised to learn I only sampled the track then because I only sampled it again now: it’s not terribly interesting and the narrator is simply going through the motions with little inflection added. When Criterion’s DVD first came out it was suspected this track may have been the English track on the Warner DVD but looking at this review on The Digital Fix for the Warner DVD, which compares that English track on that DVD with the original Scheider track on the VHS, this is obviously not the case, and this is the same track that was on the Criterion DVD. I’m still really curious about that track.
The rest of the supplements are then found in the “Supplements” section of the disc. First up is a 44-minute documentary called Making Mishima. This is unfortunately a “talking head” doc with cinematographer John Bailey, composer Philip Glass, and production designer Eiko Ishioka. It’s presented with 8 chapter stops. Despite it being a “talking head” documentary it’s still quite interesting and informative. Each participant goes over the role in the film, talking about the styles and how they presented them. We get still photographs thrown up every once in a while, as well as clips from the film, and even a short behind-the-scenes bit. It seems that the heart of the production was Ishioka, whose designs and sets inspired both Bailey in how he shot and lit the film, and also inspired Glass with his score. Ishioka, who actually didn’t particularly care for Mishima the man, talks about working with Schrader in getting a theatrical feel to the film, and designing the set pieces for the story sequences (the second sequence being one she designed in “bad taste” and was surprised people liked it so much.) Bailey discusses how he used different film stock and played with the lighting to get the various looks of the film (even considering the use of video for the story sequences,) also touching on how they really tried not to give the film a Japanese look that made it harder to work with the mostly Japanese crew. Glass goes over how he wrote the score to represent the character and how Paul was blown away by it. They also all touch on making the film in Japan which was met with some hostility (interestingly most exterior shots for the film were shot first as Schrader feared demonstrations objecting to the film, making it harder to shoot.) An interesting doc well worth a look.
Next up is the 26-minute supplement entitled Producing Mishima. This segment features producers Tom Luddy and Mata Yamamoto discussing the film. The piece begins with some footage of Francis Ford Coppola discussing the film briefly at a press conference back in 1984 and then moves to the two producers. They both talk about how they got into the production and some of the hurdles they had to get over to get the film made, including Mishima’s widow, who is brought up many more times in the supplements on this release, including the Schrader/Poul commentary. They got help from using Coppola’s name as the Japanese respected the producer/director. They also talk about issues with funding and how they ended up pulling in George Lucas to help, who in turn went to Warner Bros. Also touched upon is the controversy that surrounded the film, bringing up death threats they received from the ultra-right wing groups, and then the distribution issues in Japan, where the film has still not been shown. Also another interesting doc on the film.
Following this is an audio interview with Leonard Schrader’s wife, Cheiko Schrader. This is presented over a picture of a set from Kyoko’s House. Running almost 26-minutes (and indexed with 8 chapter stops) she discusses how the film came to be, mentioning that both Leonard and Paul were, by the sounds of it, on “not speaking” terms. Leonard apparently hoped this film would bring the two closer together. I was worried this would be a dry track but it quickly gets interesting as she goes over her role on the film, which included convincing Mishima’s widow, who had been holding out for years, even getting offers from other filmmakers including Akira Kurosawa, to give them the rights (and it’s a shame that conversation wasn’t recorded because it sounds like it would have been a hoot as there was apparently a lot of yelling.) Really wonderful to listen to.
The next few supplements deal more specifically with Yukio Mishima the man. First we get an interview with John Nathan and Donald Richie, who were both friends of Mishima’s. The two, filmed separately, talk about their impressions of the man, Richie really pushing that Mishima seemed to think of his life as if it were a play or novel and that he was “casting” everyone around him. They discuss some of his influences, and how he wasn’t a fan of Hemmingway, but was absolutely fascinated about his suicide. There’s mention of his weight lifting craze and his work on the film Patriotism. They also seem to try to explain his suicide and their reaction to it. For some reason my initial reaction to the supplement (judging from the DVD review) was I wasn’t fond of this or it was my least favourite feature to be found in the set, but it’s a really great first hand account of the man by two people who knew him. It runs 26-minutes and has 8 chapter stops.
Mishima on Mishima is a 6-minute interview, presented in 1.33:1, from a January 15, 1966 episode of a French program called A la vitrine du libraire. It looks to be a promotion for Mishima’s new novel (at the time) After the Banquet. In it, speaking both French and Japanese, Mishima discusses his literary style, his French influences, and also talks about the fascination of TV over literature. It’s not too deep a conversation, but I was happy just getting an interview with the man. Another fascinating feature.
And other than the original Warner Bros. theatrical trailer, the supplements close off with what I consider the best supplement on here, a 1985 episode on Mishima from a BBC program called Made in Japan, this episode in particular called The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima. This 55-minute episode (presented in 1.33:1 and indexed with 10 chapter stops) gives us a great examination of the man. Starting with the day that Mishima committed Seppuku (with actual footage of Mishima yelling down to the military book ending the piece, almost looking spot on to the sequence recreated in the film) the documentary examines how this event came about by going through his life, painting a psychological picture of the man, moving from his childhood with his grandmother to going to the war and then his fascination with Kamikaze pilots. It even looks at his obsession with weight lifting. It pretty much presents the same information provided by Schrader’s film, but obviously in a more straight-forward, less stylistic manner, even getting interviews from peers and friends. And the bonus: John Hurt reading Mishima’s writings throughout the program (though one sequence has a recording of Mishima reading one of his pieces). It covers his life thoroughly and paints an interesting picture of the man. More than worth going through.
Criterion then thankfully carries over the thick booklet, still containing an essay by Kevin Jackson, who writes about Yukio Mishima and Schrader’s film. It also still features a section called “Banned in Japan,” explaining why the film hasn’t played in Japan, and then it closes with photos of the film’s fantastic sets, with an intro from Eiko Ishioka. Like the old booklet each photo is spread across the two pages, meaning the spine breaks the images. I would have preferred the images presented horizontally and smaller on their own pages, but this is a minor quibble.
Yet again Criterion offers an incredibly thorough set of features, impressively covering the making of the film and adding valuable context for those unfamiliar with Yukio Mishima and maybe a bit puzzled by the film. 10/10