Yukio Mishima is not especially well known in the West, and Paul Schrader's biographical film Mishima has a much higher profile within the Criterion Collection. So Patriotism might seem like a companion piece to that film, an oddity that would feel more at home as a supplement on that DVD. I'm not sure I would have disagreed with that choice, but I also see where Criterion was coming from with a full release. Patriotism is a provocative and beautiful film, made with a stylistic eye and a conservative radicalism that must have seemed ever more outrageous in the Japan of the 1960s.
The story of the film couldn't be more basic. In fact, the complexities of the plot take place off screen and are described in scrolls handwritten by Mishima at the beginning of the film. By summarizing what might be the bulk of a more conventional film, Mishima downplays the specifics of his protagonists' deaths and places all of his focus on their final acts. This is further emphasized by his choice to place all of the action of the film on the Noh stage, eliminating most sets and further detaching the events of the film from the world around it (while simultaneously underscoring the unity of the suicides with the core of Japanese culture). It does not matter why the friends of Mishima's character chose to murder high ranking members of the cabinet, only that they did so with the Emperor's best interests at heart and that now Mishima's only honorable choice is seppuku. It does not matter where he and his wife live, what their relatives or friends or acquaintances think of their decision. It does not matter who they were or who they will be. Do they have children? Do they have plans for the future? Mishima is not interested in tying these characters to relatable responsibilities or dreams. They have chosen to die, and this provides them with the greatest love of all.
Despite the graphic depiction of disembowelment in the film, the most controversial element is undoubtedly the parallel drawn by Mishima between true love and ritual suicide. Love in this case is meant in both senses of the word, both emotional and erotic. The lieutenant's wife Reiko is enthusiastic about killing herself along with her husband because she loves him as much as he loves the Emperor and Japan (the equivocation of the relationships between husband and wife and country and man is predictably patriarchal). But even more chillingly, when they have finally decided to stab themselves to death, the film becomes an erotic depiction of their sexual freedom, brought on by the liberating realization that their bodies will no longer be their own. (It's important to note that Mishima's scroll only speaks to Reiko's liberation from shyness, not the lieutenant's; it seems that men do not need to devote themselves to self-mutilation to have great sex - though ostensibly it doesn't hurt.) That Mishima films their suicides as lovingly and sensually as he does their sex scene is no surprise, then. Sex is death, but more importantly death is sex.
Patriotism is a loving and obsessive ode to a morally corrupt and destructive ideology. In this way, it's similar to one of the greatest and most morally repugnant documentaries of all time, Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will. However, while both films speak to the respective cultures that created them, where Hitler's self-aggrandizing propaganda was a message about humanity as a whole, Mishima's Patriotism is more personal. Of course the comparisons break down rather quickly and start to seem absurd - Mishima is no Hitler. And really, if it wasn't for the simple fact that the author-turned-director ended up committing seppuku himself less than five years later, it might be easy to dismiss this film as a simple provocation. But he did, so here we are, presented with a chilling paean to killing yourself in the name of honor. It's a psychotic and terrifying thesis, one that places the turmoil of Japanese culture front and center in all its ugly beauty.