The film sets in on November 25 1970, the last day in Mishima's life. He is shown finishing a manuscript. Then, he puts on a uniform he designed for himself and meets with four of his most loyal followers from his private army.
In flashbacks highlighting episodes from his past life, the viewer sees Mishima's progression from a sickly young boy to one of Japan's most acclaimed writers of the post-war era (who keeps himself in perfect physical shape, owed to a narcissistic body cult). His loathing for the materialism of modern Japan has him turn towards an extremist traditionalism. He sets up his own private army and proclaims the reinstating of the emperor as head of state.
The biographical sections are interwoven with short dramatizations of three of Mishima's novels: In The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a stuttering aspirant sets fire to the famous Zen Buddhist temple because he feels inferior at the sight of its beauty. Kyoko's House depicts the sadomasochistic (and ultimately fatal) relationship between an elderly woman and her young lover, who is in her financial debt. In Runaway Horses, a group of young fanatic nationalists fails to overthrow the government, with its leader subsequently committing suicide. Frame story, flashbacks and dramatizations are segmented into the four chapters of the film's title, named Beauty, Art, Action, and Harmony of Pen and Sword.
The film culminates in Mishima and his followers taking hostage a General of the Japan Self-Defense Forces. He addresses the garrison's soldiers, asking them to join him in his struggle to reinstate the Emperor as the nation's sovereign. His speech is largely ignored and ridiculed. Mishima then returns to the General's office and commits seppuku.
Although Mishima only visualizes three of the writer's novels by name, the film also uses segments from his autobiographical novel Confessions of a Mask. At least two scenes, showing the young Mishima being aroused by a painting of the Christian martyr Sebastian, and his secret love for a fellow pupil at school, also appear in this book. The use of one further Mishima novel, Forbidden Colors, which describes the marriage of a homosexual man to a woman, was denied by Mishima's widow. As Schrader wanted to visualize a book illustrating Mishima's narcissism and sexual ambiguity, he chose the novel Kyoko's House (which he had translated for him exclusively) instead. Kyoko's House contains four equally ranking storylines, featuring four different protagonists, but Schrader picked out only the one which he considered convenient.
Mishima used different colour palettes to differentiate between frame story, flashbacks and scenes from Mishima's novels: the (1970) contemporary scenes were shot in subdued colours, the flashbacks in black-and-white, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion-episode is dominated by golden and green, Kyoko's House by pink and grey, and Runaway Horses by orange and black.
Roy Scheider was the narrator in the original movie version and on the early VHS release. On the 2001 DVD release, Scheider's voice-over was substituted with a narration by an uncredited actor. The 2008 DVD re-release contains both Scheider's and the alternate narration (plus Ken Ogata's for the Japanese version). In a commentary on Amazon.com, Schrader explained this was a manufacturing error in 2001 and that the voice belonged to Paul Jasmin (not the actor of the same name).
The film closes with Mishima's suicide (which actually took longer than the seppuku ritual dictates). His confidant Morita, unable to behead Mishima, also failed in killing himself according to the ritual. A third group member beheaded both, then the conspirators surrendered without resistance. Roger Ebert approved of Schrader's decision not to show the suicide in bloody detail, which he thought would have destroyed the film's mood.
The film was withdrawn from the Tokyo International Film Festival and never officially released in Japan, mostly due to boycott exercised by Mishima's widow and threats by far right wing groups opposed to Mishima's portrayal as a homosexual. The title role was originally intended for Ken Takakura, who indeed proposed this to Paul Schrader, but had to withdraw due to the pressure from the same groups. In an interview with Kevin Jackson, Schrader commented on the fact that his film has still not been shown in Japan: "[Mishima] is too much of a scandal. […] When Mishima died people said, 'Give us fifteen years and we'll tell you what we think about him,' but it's been more than fifteen years now and they still don't know what to say. Mishima has become a non-subject."
Schrader considers Mishima the best film he has directed. "It's the one I'd stand by – as a screenwriter it's Taxi Driver, but as a director it's Mishima."
The musical score for Mishima was composed by Philip Glass, with parts performed by the Kronos quartet. A soundtrack album was released on vinyl record and Audio CD in 1985 by Nonesuch Records.
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Mishima has a 95% approval rating and rating average score of 7.4/10 based on 20 reviews. The site's consensus reads, "Paul Schrader's directorial masterpiece is a classy and imaginative portrait enriched by a stunning score and impressive cinematography." In his 2008 movie guide, Leonard Maltin called the film an "ambitious, highly stylized drama", later adding that it is "long, difficult, not always successful, but fascinating." In 2007, Roger Ebert added the film to his "Great Movies" list, calling the film "a triumph of concise writing and construction. The unconventional structure of the film […] unfolds with perfect clarity, the logic revealing itself."
Chris Peachment of Time Out Film Guide said, "Schrader may have finally achieved the violent transfiguration that he seeks along with his protagonists; the film has all the ritual sharpness and beauty of that final sword. […] There is nothing quite like it."
The film premiered at the 1985 Cannes Film Festival on May 15 1985 where it won the award for Best Artistic Contribution by cinematographer John Bailey, production designer Eiko Ishioka and music composer Philip Glass.
Mishima has been released twice on DVD in the US.The 2001 Warner Bros. release included a behind-the-scenes documentary, an audio commentary by Paul Schrader and a deleted scene. This edition did not, like the theatrical version, feature the narration of Roy Scheider but of an uncredited actor.
The 2008 Criterion Collection release offered both English narrations by Roy Scheider and (according to Paul Schrader) Paul Jasmin from the 2001 release. Also, it featured new audio commentaries, video interviews with the film makers and experts on the writings of Mishima, plus The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima, a BBC documentary about the author.
A French DVD was released by Wild Side Video in 2010 titled Mishima – une vie en quatre chapitres in Japanese, English and French language with French subtitles.
A Spanish Blu-ray Disc was released in 2010 titled Mishima – Una Vida en Cuatro Capítulos. It features Scheider's narration with optional Spanish and Catalan, but no English subtitles.