It was the title match of the decade: the rumble in the academic jungle. On May 13, 1969, literary titan Yukio Mishima strutted onstage in front of a 1,000-strong audience at the University of Tokyo to debate with representatives of the All Campus Joint Struggle Committee, otherwise known as Zenkyoto.

The event has since acquired legendary status, and was filmed by broadcaster TBS, though the footage had long been thought lost. Recently discovered and restored, this riveting document forms the heart of Keisuke Toyoshima’s “Mishima: The Last Debate.”

The showdown took place at the peak of the student protest movement, during the so-called “seiji no kisetsu” (“season of politics”). The documentary opens with images of pitched battles in the streets of Tokyo, the sheer intensity of which still shocks today.

Mishima: The Last Debate (Mishima Yukio vs Todai Zenkyoto 50-nenme no Shinjitsu)
Run Time 108 mins.

By 1969, Mishima had achieved a level of notoriety to match the student radicals. During the decade, the self-described aesthete had reinvented himself as a macho nationalist ideologue. He embraced martial arts and formed his own paramilitary group, the Tatenokai (Shield Society), while urging Japan to rekindle its samurai spirit and restore the primacy of the emperor.

A poster for the debate depicted the author as a topless weightlifter with a sword slung across his back, with the caption: “Modernism Gorilla.” But, as the film makes clear, Mishima and his supposed ideological foes weren’t so different after all.

In an opening address, the literary star wrong-foots those who had come expecting a slugfest, revealing the common ground that they share. With humor, civility and erudition, he then engages a variety of interlocutors on topics both philosophical and practical.

His most worthy opponent, a budding dramatist named Masahiko Akuta, turns up with his infant daughter perched on his shoulders — the most conspicuous female presence in what’s otherwise very much a boys-only affair.
Despite Mishima’s professed anti-intellectualism, the arguments tend to be pretty academic in nature. During the lengthier philosophical discussions — and fans of phenomenology are in for a treat here — it’s the tenor of the debate that impresses more than the details. Despite some shouted threats of violence from the audience, it ends not with a KO, but something closer to mutual respect.

Toyoshima supplements the archival footage with interviews with people who were there on the day, as well as academics and authors who are able to shed light on some of the more obscure points.

Akuta, now in his 70s and an established figure in the theater world, still brims with the ideological fervor he demonstrated onstage all those years ago. During a testy exchange with Toyoshima, the director is clearly out of his depth, and there’s a lingering sense that the film isn’t quite up to the intellectual caliber of its subjects.

Eighteen months after the debate, it was all over. Mishima was dead, committing suicide after a failed attempt to start a military coup. The protest movement splintered and descended into violence, finally flaming out with the 1972 Asama-Sanso hostage incident.

It’s hard to square this conflicted, messy legacy with the film’s conclusion and its limp affirmation of the importance of “passion, respect and words.” Everyone likes a happy ending, but portraying Mishima as an inspiration for younger generations misses the point. He was much more interesting than that.

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