Doubtless there was no more fitting one-two-three punch at Cannes than Holy Motors – Cosmopolis – 11/26 The Day Mishima Chose His Fate, films from an austere netherworld of profound disturbance, loneliness, searching, questing. Kôji Wakamatsu's piercingly precise digital feature on the path Yukio Mishima took that ended in 1970 with him (and his most loyal followers) taking hostage the commandant of Japan's Self Defense Force, listing his demands and pleas to a jeering gathering of troops, and finally committing ritual suicide, produces a shock when shown among these three speculative and fantastic films, as well as next to the generally uncommitted politics of the festival this year.
The Day Mishima Chose His Fate comes as contradistinction to Wakamatsu's 2008 masterpiece on the failed radical left movement in Japan, United Red Army, here treating with a respect bordering on the severe the passion of Mishima and followers in their dissatisfaction with and anger at the path Japan has taken after World War 2, the humanization of the emperor, the disappearance of traditional values, etc. In the middle of continual left wing activism on the part of Japanese youth in reaction to a myriad of social and political moves taken by the government at the time, and especially in response to the renewal of a peace treaty with the US, we see these desperate lonely young men, taut with inner turmoil and tension, witness unrest move in one direction when they want so badly to move it in the other.
With a stripped and spare mise-en-scène including a palette drained of nearly all color, retaining a military beige and purgatorial white (with, of course, stabs of the rising sun's red), the film calls to mind Yoshishige Yoshida's hyper-austere experiments in political art cinema in the late 60s and early 70s, like Eros Plus Massacre and Coup d'Etat, except Wakamatsu keeps both his dramaturgy and decoupage within conventional lines. The mystery, instead, is in how small the world is, and how the film, which only shows “the day” of the title in its last half hour, chooses, like Rohmer's Triple Agent, to remove the outside world and clip through or past larger events (often shown in archive footage) to leave us with small, unadorned rooms or isolated, outdoor training camps full of men trembling, hot under the collar. The sense of impotence and isolation is profound, the connective tissue between the action these youths want to take and the world on which they would take these actions, and change with them, totally tenuous.
I was reminded of, only a few days previously, Takashi Miike's For Love's Sake, which similarly recognizes a profound ability for personal dedication and corrosive, interior passions in Japanese youth—only in that film, abstracted from reality by extravagant use of genre, songs, brawling and reveries of love release this tension. In The Day Mishima Chose His Fate there is no artificial release, and indeed the challenge for Mishima and the radical youths who he led in his private club was how to actually impact the world around them. The scale of his ultimate decision appears in the film forlorn and unimaginative, a long build up, highly intellectualized and debated, leading to some childish sloppiness in an office room and the inability to get a crowd's attention, finally retreating to impact the only thing one actually has some control over, the end of one's own life.
It is a braver act than anything else at this festival, as its pathetic courage flies in the face of cinema's need to render climaxes or politics in grandiose terms. Here, Mishima hopes that a dialog in a small room, a gathering of a few like-minded youths, a single small act could change an entire country. It seems a naïve and imaginative dream, and one perhaps as secretly extravagant as it initially appears humble. Wakamatsu shows this well, the simple contradiction of the limits of these men's abilities contrasted to the heights of their passion, a stumbling contradiction that leaves, seemingly, little room for action and much room for lamentation, and indeed the mise-en-scène is one of austere, almost nostalgic asceticism, a self-imposed state of sorrow, anger and impotence. It was the note I ended the festival on, after Holy Motors' Feulladian nighttime reinvention—a new drama, a new genre, a new death, a new start, again and again—and Cosmopolis' uncanny apocalypse, two films positing a fearful, unclear future. In his last three historical features, Wakamatsu sees equally fearful historical times in Japan, and finds in them evocations and lessons of the most profound of failures, recognizing the strength and conviction of those who failed. Here's hoping he next looks at those who are failing bravely today.