The movie is divided into sections. Three are adaptations of Mishima novels with autobiographical elements, and they’re tied together with interspersed b/w newsreel-like reenactment of Mishima’s final day (starring Ken Ogata, lead killer in Vengeance Is Mine), with some flashback footage of his youth. It’s an excellent approach to cinematic biography, though I suppose it wouldn’t work on everybody. Philip Glass, who introduced the film at Emory, provides a varied score (less driving lock-grooved than his others).
This would seem like a weird choice for Schrader to follow American Gigolo and Cat People, but he’s apparently a longtime fan of Mishima and of Japanese cinema. His sister-in-law is Japanese and wrote the dialogue. I’m sure he explains all on the Criterion commentary – that DVD has got hours of fab-looking extras.
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion: clubfoot student Koichi Sato pals with stutterer Yasosuke Bando, teaches him to exploit his disability in order to score with chicks. It works, and Miss Universe contestant Hisako Manda gets nude, but this is not to the stutterer’s liking, and he decides to destroy everything that is beautiful.
Kyoko’s House: Young man (Kenji Sawada) becomes obsessed with bulking up through weight training. He finds out his mom is deeply indebted to a dangerous loanshark, so he sells himself to pay his mom’s debts, and the two become locked in a spiraling sadomasochistic relationship ending in double suicide.
Runaway Horses: Pro-Emperor militant cult leader Isao (Toshiyuki Nagashima) plans an attack on the government but they’re arrested before they can carry it out. Isao escapes, kills one of the targets (Jun Negami, who appeared in the Mishima-starring Afraid to Die) on his own, then performs seppuku before the rising sun.
Mishima’s actual words are used as narration, in Japanese by Ken Ogata in the restored version, which is what we saw. English-release narrator Roy Scheider later appeared in Naked Lunch, another movie that mixes a novelist’s biographical details into his work.