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Pale Flower

Pale Flower
Home Vision Entertainment
1964 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 96 min. / Kawaita hana / Street Date November 18, 2003 / 29.95
Starring Ryo Ikebe, Mariko Kaga, Takashi Fujiki, Chisako Hara, Eijiro Tono, Seiji Miyaguchi
Cinematography Masao Kosugi
Original Music Toru Takemitsu
Written by Masaru Baba, Masahiro Shinoda from a novel by Shintar´┐Ż Ishihara
Directed by Masahiro Shinoda

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Savant has a long way to go before he reaches anything like a comprehensive understanding of the full range of Japanese films, but I took a liking to Pale Flower almost immediately. Unlike some other yakuza and crime films celebrated in the US, this beautifully-directed story of a man and his directionless life of duty and murder doesn't seek to be outrageous or extreme. Its concentration on character and atmosphere reminds of introspective American films noir, perhaps the old Barry Sullivan movie The Gangster. It neither celebrates or condemns the yakuza way, or really has any moral message to sell. It simply shows the kind of valueless life led by its hit-man hero.


Yakuza killer Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) comes out of prison to find that gang politics have changed. An old enemy clan has aligned with his own to defend against insurgents from Osaka. In a gambling hall, Muraki meets and becomes obsessed with Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a thrill seeker interested in gambling, street racing, and eventually hard drugs. He has a steady girl that won't leave his side no matter how much he tells her there is no future with him. But a future with either woman seems impossible when Muraki volunteers to do another high-profile murder, one that will surely put him in prison again.

"I'm just a bum." With those words, the self-loathing shows through Muraki's poise and calm. He admits to liking killing, but we don't see him enjoy it. He faithfully follows the orders of his equally faithful boss (Eijiro Tono) yet no longer feels the spirit of the yakuza code. He only comes alive when he's with Saeko, the girl who loves to gamble even though she loses a fortune each time out the gate. When they challenge an MG to a race on a Tokyo freeway, empty at 3 a.m. (sure ...), they laugh at the thrill of going 130 miles and hour (in a Sunbeam?).

Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower is a handsomely shot B&W 'scope film that always finds great unforced compositions and interesting lighting. Unlike some other 'radical' 60s crime films from Japan there's no attempt to Wow us with crazy compositions or extreme stylization. But the style is there, as controlled and cool as Muraki's low-key lifestyle.

Pale Flower doesn't play like a genre picture. It doesn't follow a pattern of betrayal or show the sad result of hubris or bad luck. The various Yakuza aren't given bizarre personalities or pulpish names. The gambling scenes are fascinating, even though we don't understand how the ritualized games are played.

In Muraki's world, an attack might come at a bowling alley, from foes he'll never get to know. A former enemy has to give him one of his fingers to repay a debt of shame. When they later become friends, Muraki gives the fellow a suit - returning the finger in one of its pockets. Muraki's boss looks after his boys, and takes meetings while in a dentist's chair. The old man insists that a rival gang boss be 'disembowled' by knife instead of shot with a gun, and follows that by remarking that the maternity ward nurses aren't gentle enough with the babies.

Muraki's curse is that he develops feelings, yet he knows he must stay within the yakuza code. The film is satisfying even though ordinary story points end up as unresolved as Muraki's own life. At one point he's lost track of his love Saeko, and has nightmares about her being with a hated Japanese-Chinese drug addict named Yoh. But he knows that none of these things matter. The picture ends with our hero never learning some crucial information. Nothing is important to him.

In his interview on the disc (essential viewing) director Shinoda says that for many of his generation, Japanese culture and tradition died with defeat in WW2. He explains that he and writer Shintaro Ishihara turned to evocations of nihilism as a way of venturing away from the traditional films of their senior, Yasujiro Ozu.

Muraki and especially Saeko personify the concept of valueless living. They're not alienated, as later American antiheroes would be, because they know exactly who they are and how they fit in. It's just that they've decided that life is a big nothing. Saeko says she's bored and tries heroin just for the hell of it. She races through the Tokyo night proclaiming that she loves the darkness, that the dawn has nothing for her. When they laugh out loud, Muraki breaks from his eternally deadpan lack of emotion. Saeko's tittering laughter still has a girlish quality, when she is really a sensation seeker, looking for a fast way out of life.

The movie is greatly enhanced by the discordant but fascinating music of Toru Takemitsu, indescribable combinations of noise and rhythm. Sound effects are put to careful use as well. In the first scene, the puffing of a railroad train threatens to become a musical bar.

Mariko Kaga would seem to be a Shinoda favorite from an earlier movie. Star Ryo Ikebe has a face immediately familiar from the Toho science fiction films Uchu Daisenso (Battle in Outer Space) and Yosei Gorasu (Gorath). Its refreshing to see him in this very different kind of part. Mob boss Eijiro Tono was a standout in a score of Kurosawa favorites - he was the kidnapper in Seven Samurai.

I compared Pale Flower to the American noir The Gangster because both are mostly character studies. There's little violence and no generic displays of weaponry or fetishistic battles. Yet the craft and seriousness of this strange crime film held my rapt attention. It was very different from any of the other 4 or five yakuza films I've so far seen.

HVe's DVD of Pale Flower sings the praises of B&W 'scope - the richly textured film uses light and shadow magnificently. The almost flawless image is abetted by an equally clear soundtrack that brings out the Takemitsu score, and ambient noises such as the room packed with clocks when Muraki visits his old girlfriend.

The interview section with the director is a big success; Masahiro Shinoda is concise and direct in his statements on a number of subjects. He very tellingly explains how in Japan there wasn't even a word to express the concept, 'personal identity'. There's also a filmography of his entire career.

HVe's artwork, menus and packaging is very classy, all except the critic quote on the back. The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater is the creative source for the disc, so it seems fishy to have them provide the text endorsement. 'Chris D', one of the more intense of the Cinematheque programmers, provides an excellent set of liner notes on an insert decorated with impressive stills from the film.

I didn't catch the significance of the title 'Pale Flower' to the film.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Pale Flower rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interview with director Masahiro Shinoda, liner notes by American Cinematheque programmer Chris D.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 18, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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