Judge Patrick Rogers is certainly pale but he's no flower.
Our review of Pale Flower, published March 9th, 2004, is also available.
"I'm the scum of the Earth. I have nothing in common with normal society."
The Japanese New Wave was a film movement borne from a postwar sense of alienation among the Japanese youth, and was defined by a group of new and emerging directors who used their films as a platform to critique and analyze all facets of Japanese society. These films were marked by graphic sexuality, radical political motifs and violence. Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses, Night and Fog in Japan, one of the leading auteurs of the film movement, criticized his predecessors like Akira Kurosawa (Ran, Seven Samurai) for being too complacent in allowing an imperialist Japanese government to widen its reach instead of using their films as a platform to incite action among the youth. With this in mind, you go into most Japanese New Wave films expecting to feel provoked, alienated, or angry. Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower is one of the most subdued and delicate Japanese New Wave films I have ever seen and it is one of my favorites specifically because of that.
Facts of the Case
Cultured gangster Muraki (Ryo Ikebe, Early Spring) has just been released from prison after three years for murdering a rival gang member and keeping his mouth shut about those he worked for. As he finds himself a free man once more, he can't help feel a sense of alienation and a desire for a return to normalcy. Not only has his boss struck a shaky truce with the rival gang, but the world around him has changed rapidly. Muraki's only solace is to find some measure of comfort within a mysterious woman (Mariko Kaga, Tears on the Lion's Mane) who shows up at his card table one night. Though this perceived comfort begins to come at a destructive price.
To start, Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower is a complex film with subtle motifs which can really only be digested and processed once the film itself is over. Within the gangster Muraki and the mysterious Saeko we have two main characters with little to no backstory. Their destructive relationship is also built and established in only a handful of scenes, leaving it up to the viewer to buy into it and flesh it out in their minds. These are two humans who don't live for religious morals or social dogmas; they are two pure beings of vice and temptation whose lives are defined by the rush and exhilaration of chance, risk, and danger. This film isn't politically or socially volatile but it wants to address these issues and motifs with a delicate, reasoned and careful approach instead of attempting to incite the audience.
In this way, Shinoda's film is not at all your typical gangster or yakuza film where this sort of socially volatile lifestyle is put up on a pedestal or glorified for some measure of coolness or edge. Muraki does not latch onto his criminal identity because it defines him but because it's the only thing that feeds his heart and allows him to act on his desires. Similarly, Saeko gambles like a fiend even though she constantly loses large sums of money. She's also a smack addict. So you can bet that when these two figures meet an instant connection based on pure desire and temptation is created, though it's a volatile and destructive one.
The potency of this relationship would not be as effective if it was not for the performances by Ikebe and Kaga. Muraki himself is a quiet and refined figure among a den of thieves, and Ikebe plays it perfectly. He gives us just enough of a window into this man's soul to form a connection, while at the same time, creating an undercurrent of rage and violence that we feel could bubble over at any time. Saeko is even more of a mysterious figure than Muraki and a harder sell to an audience because of her perceived two dimensionality and proclivity for heroin. Yet Mariko Kaga is so transfixing and disarming that it's almost bewitching to watch her on screen. It's her eyes that do it. They're haunting in their beauty and innocence. Shinoda himself is not blind to this point and will force the audience into Muraki's perspective so we ourselves can experience the true weight behind her gaze.
However, it is ultimately Shinoda's directing and the cinematography by Masao Kosugi (Samurai Spy) that gives Pale Flower its emotional weight and lasting impact. While many Japanese New Wave films were marked by a formalist sense of editing and directing very much in line with French cinema of the time, Shinoda uses his camera in a much more unobtrusive manner. The camera does not constantly remind us that we are watching a film by breaking continuity or narrative through the use of formalist techniques, but instead, the camera acts as a cataloguer for this doomed relationship. While there are some formalist techniques and influences on the fringes of the film, on the whole, Andre Bazin would be proud. This is a gorgeously photographed and structured film with a dauntingly beautiful widescreen space.
The undercurrent to the film, that thing that ties up the performances, thematic motifs, and the image, is the musical score by Toru Takemitsu (Ran, Double Suicide). The score is very ominous and avant-garde for its time, choosing to use sound purely to synthesize the emotions of the character and to heighten the feeling that the images elicit in the viewers. It's a cacophony of dissonance where any notion of harmony or tune is deconstructed and recapitulated. It's an incredibly daring move to construct such a nebulous and dissonant score and yet it works incredibly well to magnify the emotions brought out by both the performances and Shinoda's camera.
As a final aside before we delve into the technical aspects of this Blu-ray, I think that it should just be said that the penultimate scene to this film is one of the most hauntingly beautiful and emotional scenes that I have ever witnessed in any film of any genre. It's a scene of such raw emotion and power that it ties up the motifs of the film in such a way as to enlighten us to everything that has come before it. It's truly an amazing piece of cinema where the performances of the actors, the screenwriter's words, the camera's gaze and the score all come together in a perfect moment of unison to create a sense of all-encompassing emotion that I find is only possible in the realm of cinema.
Criterion constantly sets the bar for itself in terms of picture sound and supplements, they truly are the vanguard in all these realms and they continue to outdo themselves with this Blu-ray. The picture itself is a gorgeously crisp 2.35:1 widescreen image that reproduces black levels with an astounding vibrancy and clarity, giving off the feeling that these blacks will swallow you whole at any second. There's a constant battle between blacks and whites throughout the film while ultimately settling somewhere in the middle, maybe in an attempt to match the moral greyness of the film.
While the audio track for this Blu-ray is monaural, it's not any less effective. While many mono tracks, especially from companies far less respected than Criterion, have a tendency to blend all the noises together into one tonally flat squelch of sound, this is far from the case here. Much like the picture, each singular noise is given a life of its own on this track and made distinguishable from each other. This is most evident in how the track reproduces the score.
In terms of the special features this may not be even close to a loaded disc in Criterion's terms but it does admirably enough. First we have a video interview from 2010 with Masahiro Shinoda himself. The man is thoroughly engaging and even has a wicked sense of humor at times. He goes over all aspects of the making of the film and the climate of the industry and Japan itself at the time. It's a great little interview that rounds out the film nicely, showing us what the director intended with Pale Flower and how well it matches with what we ourselves may have experienced.
Secondly, there is commentary on selected scenes by film scholar Peter Grilli. This short little snippets focus exclusively on Takemitsu's score and though Grilli can be very boring at times, he has a wealth of knowledge and information to share about the musician and his work in general, and what he was going for with this specific score. Again, it's a great little commentary to help further the viewer's understanding of this emotionally deep film.
And like always, this Blu-ray comes packed with a fancy booklet complete with pictures and a wickedly clever and well-written essay by Chuck Stephens that details everything one could ever want to know about all facets of the film, its production and the climate it was made in. Man, can he write.
Pale Flower is the kind of film that stays in your mind days after you view it. The way I've always measured the impact of a film is whether I view the world around me in a different light once I walk outside of the theater (or get up from the couch). This is one of those films. This is cinema.
Not guilty in any way, shape or form.
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