By Simon Abrams | Press Play May 25, 2012 at 4:37PM
Legacy is the thing in 11/25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate, Japanese guerilla filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu’s remarkable drama about the death of militant poet/novelist Yukio Mishima. Wakamatsu (United Red Army, Angelic Orgasm) knows that Mishima, a jingoist who committed seppuku at Tokyo’s Ministry of Defense, was obsessed with political action and what future generations would take away from his work. This is why Wakamatsu’s film, whose docudrama realism contrasts sharply with Paul Schrader’s oneiric depiction of Mishima in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, is so concerned with Mishima’s ritual suicide. Wakamatsu’s ambiguous but sometimes-fawning representation of this enigmatic event's aftermath is problematic but just as vital a work of revisionist cinema as his essential United Red Army.
Wakamatsu’s character arc for Mishima (superbly rendered by Arata) in The Day He Chose His Own Fate tellingly revolves around his death. Variations on the question, “When is the day you will die,” mark the frustration and broad beats of Mishima’s pre-suicide activities. But this myopic focus also makes Masakatsu Morita (Shinnosuke Mitsuhima), Mishima’s most ardent acolyte and the only other follower who committed suicide with him, a crucial supporting character in Mishima’s story.
Wakamatsu examines Morita’s pre-seppuku activities with similar fascination for the most part, as in a scene in which a fisherman reminds Morita and a student colleague of the potential consequences of their pseudo-revolutionary actions. But the fact that Wakamatsu consistently lavishes Morita’s activities with almost as much attention as Mishima’s, from Morita's expulsion from college to his reunion with Mishima, is a clear sign of Wakamatsu’s admiration for Mishima’s drive towards death.
After all, we don’t really know much about Mochimaru, Mishima’s original second-in-command before Morita’s promotion. Morita wouldn’t be as close to Mishima if Mochimaru hadn't departed. But Mochimaru’s most important moment in the film is a scene in which he tells Mishima he has to get a job and marry, rejecting Mishima’s counter-offer of a salary for his Society activities. “Should passion be submerged by absurdity,” Mishima murmurs in response, making it seem as if Mochimaru is only really important to Mishima’s story for leaving it.
More importantly, Wakamatsu’s depiction of the speech Mishima delivers before killing himself is equally problematic. Mishima’s speech is filmed from just below the balcony where he speaks. It’s therefore impossible to see the crowd he’s addressing, or the lack thereof. The sounds of yelling and the drone of a nearby helicopter periodically increase, and grainy images of what or may not be footage of police and onlookers are interspersed with Mishima’s speech. But all this does is ground this crucial scene in Mishima’s tortured headspace. Wakamatsu doesn't quite indulge Mishima’s romanticism at this moment or elsewhere in the film, instead ineffectually complicating it.
However, Wakamatsu’s portrait of the artist as an obsessed, self-fashioned martyr is periodically gripping for the way it develops its concern with legacy. Scenes like the one where a journalist looks over a glossy photo of the Shield Society members, with each member identified on the back, achieve the thoughtfulness Wakamatsu is known for. Also, Arata’s performance is so nuanced, giving Wakamatsu’s Mishima an air of troubled grace. I’m especially impressed with the sequences where Mishima descends his home’s staircase for the last time, passing each step with a surreal detachment. 11/25: The Day He Chose His Own Fate is not as rigorous a work as it should be, but it is a complex and absorbing re-interpretation of the Mishima legend.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.