Mishima at Camerimage 2017

1.

In November of this year, the Camerimage International Film Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary in the Polish city of Bydgoszcz. It attracted some 6,000 visitors from around the world in celebration of cinematography. Founding directors Marek Zydowicz and Kazik Suwala, both still at the helm, began the festival in 1993 in the medieval town of Torun, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the home of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. The venture was initially regarded as ambitious but problematic; it positioned “cameramen” as the stars of a film festival rather than actors. Naysayers have since been proven wrong, and some have even become the festival’s most fervent advocates, as directors, designers and editors now mount the stage of the Opera Nova to accept a wide range of awards.

When Marek and Kazik invited me to attend Camerimage this year, it had been more than 15 years since my last visit. This time I went not only as a cinematographer and longtime supporter of the festival, but also as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. As the Academy’s first-ever cinematographer president and only the second elected from the so-called “crafts,” I welcomed the opportunity to meet with fellow filmmakers from around the world who speak the language of images and explain Academy initiatives to them.

One of the goals in the first few months of my presidency has been to extend the Academy’s global outreach through support of the Foreign-Language Film Oscar (92 countries submitted films this year), and also to have the Academy become even more inclusive in its international membership goals. I have been especially gratified that in my own branch, new members of the class of 2017 include José Luis Alcaine, a 79-year-old Spaniard who has worked with Pedro Almodóvar and who recently photographed films for Brian de Palma and Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, as well as the young Mexican documentary cinematographer Ernesto Pardo, whose mesmerizing collaboration with Tatiana Huezo, Tempestad, is Mexico’s 2017 entry for the Oscar.

In addition to programming several events about the Academy and its work, Marek asked me to choose one of my films for projection in 35mm. It turned out that the Polish Film Institute has a well-preserved print of Mishima, which I photographed for Paul Schrader in Japan in the winter and spring of 1984. Composer Philip Glass, production designer Eiko Ishioka and I shared an award for special artistic achievement for the movie at the Cannes Film Festival the following year.

Watching Mishima with an audience for the first time in over 25 years, on a large screen and in 35mm, made me recall an encounter I had with the great writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz at the 1987 Venice Film Festival, where he was being honored with a 10-film retrospective. Each morning I went to the early screening of one of his films. After a few days, I sat near him in the sparsely populated theater. (Most festivalgoers sleep in to recover from the previous night’s indulgences.) After one film, he seemed especially thoughtful, and he looked toward me, realizing I had been a faithful attendee. I said, “Mr. Mankiewicz, do you mind if I ask you how long it’s been since you’ve seen your films?” Without pause, he responded, “This is the first time since their release. I was always too busy trying to get the next one made.”

Watching Mishima with a theater full of young cinematographers and film students who had never seen the film — and probably had no idea who Mishima was — made me realize the delicate dance between the films we make (and invest our life blood in) and the unpredictable place they may or may not assume in the film canon.

2.

I expected to have some nostalgic recall of my own work after the Camerimage screening, but after all these years, it was not the imagery that leaped out to me; it was Philip Glass’ score. Even by the standards of the remarkable feature-film and documentary scores Glass has written since 1984, Mishima continues to be a breakthrough work. Though his music sometimes seems to follow its own path in some movies he scores, the music for Mishima is so much a part of the emotional and physical dynamic of the film that it is difficult to imagine the movie without it. The score makes no attempt to be “Japanese” either in its orchestration or as a nod to traditional Japanese tonal modes. Also, Glass came to Japan during the filming and spent days watching us work. He breathed the same air the crew did, shot by shot.

I recall that The Kronos Quartet made a CD adaption from the full orchestral score, and Glass had arranged the music into his String Quartet No. 3 in six movements. Back home from Camerimage, I searched YouTube to see what I could find. The music from Mishima has been arranged for almost every ensemble you can imagine, from woodwinds to harp to solo piano. But one adaptation caught my attention, and, after hearing its first movement, I decided to make it the subject of a blog. Unlikely as it might at first seem, this is for a classical guitar quartet — not a Spanish one, but the Dublin Guitar Quartet. In addition to its CD of four of Glass' string quartets, the group has made a performance video of the Mishima quartet.

But before I share their work, here is the New York Virtuosi playing a movement from the same piece:

And here is a low-rez trailer for Mishima that sets out the main storyline. Despite the rather ominous and overblown voiceover, the trailer gives a sense of how the score not only works under the film, but also contributes actively to its propulsive momentum.

3.

And now the performance video. The opening shot of the first movement is of the camera aimed down onto tubular dolly track as it moves forward and begins to tilt up to the group. It becomes evident early in this movement that the image-size changes during the performance will not merely be zooms from a static position, but also show shifting perspectives as the camera slowly glides along the track.

The first movement, “Award Montage,” represents brief scenes where the young writer comes into public acclaim with a series of prestigious literary prizes.

The idea to arrange the quartet for guitars focuses the rhythm and modal insistence of Glass’ music in a way that seems to cut through the sometimes simple repetitions that are a hallmark of his music from that period. The seamless blend of the four guitars offers an almost structural purity one associates with Bach’s works for solo harpsichord.

The second movement, “Icihigaya,” represents Mishima and his cadets’ visit to the commandant of the Japanese Defense Forces’ hilltop headquarters, where they take the general prisoner. The score’s reflective tone here anticipates the tragedy that will soon unfold.

“Grandmother and Kimitake” is the third movement. It is the first of the black-and-white flashbacks in the film — 1934. In it, we see the sickly adolescent, Kimitake (Mishima was a pen name), under the care of his grandmother.

Movement four is “Bodybuilding.” Its speed and energy reflect Mishima’s dedication to physical exercise; he is intent on overcoming his childhood infirmities, working out to remold himself into the imagined samurai-like warrior he would like to become. The video begins with a tilt down from the chapel ceiling to the quartet. The camera is a bit more deliberate in its moves here.

“Blood Oath” is the fifth movement. In the film scene, Mishima is surrounded at night by his cadets as they swear an oath of allegiance to their mission and the emperor. The scene is in black and white, but, unlike the film’s earlier scenes of Mishima’s youth, which were photographed in a hard-light style faithful to Japanese films of the 1930s and ’40s, this disquieting sequence uses soft light to show the influence of European cinematography of the late 1960s. The scene transitions into Eiko Ishioka’s bold black-and-red sets from the novel Runaway Horses, which illustrate the fierce passion of the cadet Isao as he plans a political assassination. It underscores the most intense action in the film to this point, and the music’s driving insistence reflects the cadet’s commitment to action.

The final movement, “Closing,” plays against Isao’s sunrise run to a cliff overlooking the sea, where he commits “seppuku.” The credits roll over the rising sun. This is the longest and most meditative movement of the quartet and presents a fuller exploration of the main theme heard throughout the film. The movement and the performance end with a quiet refrain as the camera lens rolls softly out of focus.

The Dublin Guitar Quartet was filmed performing this work on Jan. 8, 2011, at the Nano-Nagle Chapel, Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary. The video was photographed by Piers McGrail and edited and directed by Gareth Averill.

Nano-Nagle Chapel
Nano-Nagle Chapel

The members of the Dublin Guitar Quartet are Brian Bolger, Pat Brunnock, David Creevy and Tomas O’Durcain.

The Dublin Guitar Quartet
The Dublin Guitar Quartet

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