Our review of Pale Flower (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published May 25th, 2011, is also available.
Doomed love…Yakuza style.
Pale Flower is a smoke-filled, seductive, and stylish romp through the seedy underbelly of Tokyo in the 1960s. With their usual skill and grace, HVE has served up a wonderful DVD presentation of this classic nihilistic Yakuza film, sporting a top-notch, beautiful black-and-white transfer.
Facts of the Case
Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) has just been released from jail after serving a three-year run for murdering a rival Yakuza gang member. He feels no regret for his crime…in fact, he feels nothing about it at all. He did not have to kill the man; it was almost an act of boredom. Upon release, he is immediately depressed…everything is the same; nothing has changed. Muraki is hard boiled, a lone wolf, but nihilistic and despondent. He seeks excitement, thrills, the feeling of being alive.
In fact, the only thing that has changed is the Yakuza. His gang, the Funada gang, and his former rivals, the Yasuoka gang, have joined forces and formed an alliance. His former enemies are now his friends. His purpose as a Yakuza enforcer, as a killer, is redundant now.
Immediately, he heads to an underground gambling game, desperate for a thrill. Here, he sees a young woman named Saeko (Mariko Kaga) gambling recklessly with huge sums of money. She is beautiful and mysterious, revealing nothing about herself other than her boredom. Like him, she is nihilistic towards life; she feels everything is dull and boring.
They are thrill-seekers, Muraki and Saeko, and so are instantly drawn to one another. Together, at breakneck speeds, they plunge themselves into the underworld of Tokyo, hoping to satiate their desire for thrills, for life, through a whirlwind of high-stakes gambling, Tokyo underground street racing, Yakuza violence, and drugs.
Pale Flower is a film that balances its old and new sensibilities with immaculate style and execution. Like most Japanese studio films from the 1960s, it shows the respect towards the old, towards directors like Ozu and Kinoshita, but it simultaneously breaks new ground, finding influences in the French new wave and the film noir style—like a Yakuza version of the Jean-Pierre Melville film Bob Le Flambour.
Director Masahiro Shinoda, during the 1960s, was a director working in the hierarchical studio system of Japan, churning out productions for Shochiku. As was the tradition, directors had a rigorously hierarchical ranking within the industry; Shinoda, in his own words, at the time was "ranked" under director Shohei Imamura (working at Nikkatsu) but above director Nagisa Oshima, Yoshishige Yoshida, and their peers.
Oshima and others soon became frustrated with the conservative style of the studio and began to cumulate a movement that would become the Japanese new wave, a breakaway from the conservative traditional filmmaking of the past. Shinoda himself confesses to be intrigued and influenced by this new generation of Japanese filmmaking, a style that tried to find a new identity to post-war Japan, for a generation fundamentally unstable, nihilistic, and despondent.
This was the spirit in which he created Pale Flower, a film produced independently, in an act of semi-defiance towards Shochiku, and laid the groundwork for Shinoda (and his peers) to ultimately abandon the studio system and form independent production companies. Shochiku was wary of this new, edgy style of filmmaking so alien and different from the classic contemporary cinema and was reluctant to support Pale Flower, but they also realized the potential of these young filmmakers who would capture the allure and attention of a younger generation. After all, there were profits to be had, and the Japanese studio system was fundamentally obsessed with profits and ludicrous returns.
Despite being leery of sullying their well-respected name by backing a dark horse like Pale Flower, they agreed to release and distribute Pale Flower…until the film was refused by the censors. The film's preoccupation with hana-fuda (a Japanese card game) threw up a red flag for the authorities, and Shochiku promptly squashed the film for eight months. Shinoda campained hard for the film's release, and eventually, Pale Flower was released to the world.
Pale Flower is almost subversive in its form; it almost betrays the very Yakuza formula it seeks to emulate. The film is almost a whisper, not a roar…it is soft spoken and gentle in its aimless distaste and apathy. It is a new-wave gangster film, a truly strange thing indeed. For a Yakuza film, the violence is not excessive, and in fact, only occurs in small, miniscule doses. The characters play more like teenagers from Rebel Without a Cause than Japanese gangsters.
Despite this almost playful, stylized manipulation of the Yakuza formula, suitably twisted up and reformed in new wave fashion, Pale Flower is an entertaining, almost harmless film. Whatever offensiveness the film once possessed has been diluted by the passage of time; now it simply feels stylish and bittersweet, if esoterically so. It is not an action-packed film, and die-hard gangster fans will find nothing here for them. But the action is not required. Sure, Pale Flower has high-speed car chases, but so did Rebel Without a Cause; that is not why these films stand out. Rather, it is the feeling of low-grade desperation, of apathetic reluctance, the sad acceptance of the fundamental aimlessness and dullness of life that makes Pale Flower transcend the genre of action-type clichés.
Okay, and James Dean. He had a lot to do with Rebel Without a Cause. But let's stay on topic, shall we?
The cinematic style of Pale Flower is distinctively progressive and edgy, but still manages to show respect to the past, especially to Ozu, with numerous through-the-doorway shots and long takes of negative space. Pale Flower also features a cataclysmic, chaotic, fusion jazz score by Toru Takemitsu that sounds almost exactly like a 70-piece orchestra being hurled down a cliff and crashing at the bottom. It fits perfectly, in a bizarre, destructive sort of way.
The stark, almost absurdly high contrast cinematography is a thing of ethereal beauty, lovingly transferred to DVD. It is almost, but not quite, perfection. The contrast is lush and vivid, the whites are beautifully pure, and the black levels…ah, the black levels. They could make a videophile weep with unbridled joy. A few spots and specks pop up now and again, but this is acceptable considering the age of the film. The only noticeable problems with the transfer exist in the form of jagged edges and some rough anti-aliasing; some scenes exhibit noticeable shimmering. This is a beautiful looking transfer all the same, with some of the most luscious and spectacular black-and-white photography you are likely to ever see.
It's a shame that Pale Flower doesn't sound as nice as it looks. The original Japanese mono track sounds quite nice, all things considering, but it pales in comparison to the loving restoration exhibited on the visual transfer. Some audio defects are noticeable, and the track has a general feeling of thinness, which unfortunately ends up dating the picture far more than it should. The subtitles, however, are tops upon tops, having been completely re-worked for this DVD; conceptually, they fit perfectly, and the language reflects the slightly hipster conversational tone of the 1960s Japanese underworld.
Despite its relative shortness (a scant 10 minutes), the interview with director Masahiro Shinoda is the best extra feature on this disc…by which I mean the only real feature; but even if there were more features, it would still be the best. Get it? The director comes across as an immensely pleasurable fellow and, in a pleasing conversational tone, recounts his many adventures making Pale Flower, recalling the friction between the screenplay writer and his own directorial vision, the difficulties getting the films past the censors, some of his peers working at Shochiku in the 1960s, the birth of the post-war new wave in Japan, the allegorical comparison between the Cold War, and Japan's national identity post-WWII as an extension of Muraki's nihilism.
And that's just nifty.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As mentioned before, the sound is a tad on the weak side. At times, the environmental noises are dreadful; the wind crackles and muffles dialogue quite badly. It could have used some restoration, some thickening up in the middle-low frequencies.
The interview with the director is quite a nice feature, but this DVD could use some more special features and extra content, considering its slightly hefty price tag (about $30 US). Liner notes are always nice, but they hardly constitute a serious perk in terms of supplementary content.
Ah, such an elegant and moody film. The beautiful, stark black-and-white cinematography matches perfectly with the soulless nihilism of its protagonists; add a hip, avant-garde soundtrack, and Pale Flower becomes a seminal piece of early Japanese Yakuza new wave filmmaking.
This is a stylish film and a fantastic DVD. Save up the money, and get it for your collection. If there is a real reason for not picking this up, it has eluded this Judge entirely.
Not guilty! Now…will somebody teach me how to play hana-fuda?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Interview with Director Masahiro Shinoda
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