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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Pale Flower
Pale Flower
Home Vision Entertainment // Unrated // November 18, 2003
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted November 20, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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A pretentious though stylish Yakuza drama from Japanese New Waver Masahiro Shinoda, Pale Flower (1964) is more a curio than the trendsetter many have suggested, least of all Shinoda himself. Just as Akira Kurosawa made Yojimbo (1961) as a direct reaction to the mostly mindless but hugely popular chanbara being churned out at Toei, Shinoda seems to have approached Pale Flower as his chance to subvert the Yakuza film, whose popularity was soaring with films being made chiefly at Nikkatsu and Toei Studios.

The problem, for Shinoda, was that he was stuck at Shochiku, the stately if financially strapped studio that had produced many of Mizoguchi's and nearly all of Ozu's best films. Perhaps even more representative of Shochiku's style was the delicate work of director Keisuke Kinoshita (best known in the west for his wonderful 1954 drama Twenty-Four Eyes), whose reputation outside Japan has been shamelessly undervalued, and for the company's general emphasis on women's dramas. None of this was to 35-year-old Shinoda's liking, nor was it for contemporaries like Nagisa Oshima. Moreover Shochiku, up to that point, rarely dabbled in the gangster genre, to say nothing of a New Wave interpretation of it. After learning their craft through the company's assistant director program, both men debuted with (by Shochiku's standards) strikingly atypical, aggressively arty and generally non-commercial features before going independent.

Indeed, during the 10-minute interview with Shinoda that's included on Home Vision's DVD of Pale Flower, the director is almost gleeful reminiscing about how much screenwriter Masaru Baba hated Shinoda's adaptation of his script, how the film couldn't pass the censorship board, how unhappy the company was with the finished product and their decision to, in his words, "ban" the picture. Only Pale Flower wasn't banned. Its release was simply delayed for eight months, probably to give the company time to figure out how to sell it. (Unfortunately, a trailer is not among the film's special features. Now that would be interesting.)

The controversy did pull in the curious, and the film did make money when it was finally released, though it's hard to imagine the working-class audience that flocked to Yakuza movies much impressed by Shinoda's film, which is more the product of Jean-Pierre Melville than like something one might expect from a Kinji Fukasaku or Seijun Suzuki at Toei or Nikkatsu.

So what is Pale Flower all about, anyway? Shinoda, in his interview, describes it as his nihilistic interpretation of Japan's unenviable position during the Cold War, with ex-con Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) a lone wolf pawn in a Yakuza turf war, much as Japan was sandwiched between the United States and the Soviet Union. The main focus of the picture is on Muraki's relationship with Saeko, a wealthy, thrill-seeking woman (Mariko Kaga) drawn to the underworld gambling dens until even that bores her. Though given the English title Pale Flower, a more exact translation of Kawaita hana might be "dried" or "withering flower," suggestive of the characters' thirst for ever-greater thrills if not meaning in their empty lives. He's addicted to gambling while she is gradually pulled into the escapist realm of narcotics. The film also weakly and obviously contrasts the brutality of two gang boss partners, with their paternal concern for the way a nurse handles a newborn, with the dental hygiene of their hoods. Played by Eijiro Tono and Seiji Miyaguchi, two great character actors with wonderful working-class features, Shinoda depicts them as unlikely nouveau riche, slurping European soup as if it was udon, running their empires in newly-tailored suits as an illuminated print of the Mona Lisa glares at them from down the hall.

For all its pretentiousness, Pale Flower is a great movie to look at. Masao Kosugi's black and white cinematography is suitable for framing, and he captures Tokyo's underworld like no other DP, whether beautifully capturing the intimate setting of an illegal high-stakes gambling den, shots "stolen" off the streets of Tokyo and Osaka, or the milieu of yakuza hangouts like the local bowling alley (where "It's Now or Never" plays in the background, much like it did in Kurosawa's High and Low). Shinoda's editing of the elaborate gambling sequences is equally impressive, even if the games themselves are unfamiliar to most viewers (including most Japanese). Toru Takemitsu, who scored virtually the entire Japanese New Wave movement, contributes a haunting atonal score, which sounds like an orchestra moving their instruments across a scoring stage floor, tap dancing and tuning their instruments as they go. However it was accomplished, Takemitsu's music superbly captures the unseemliness of the Yakuza world, and the aimless despair of its leads.

According to the opening credits, Ryo Ikebe was still under contract to Toho Studios when this picture was made, probably in the early months of 1963. That would put it right after Ikebe starred in Toho's sci-fi epic Gorath (Yosei Gorasu, 1962) for directors Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya. Two more different movies cannot be imagined, and one can only guess what was on Ikebe's mind at the time. Though described in some sources as playing a "young punk," Ikebe was actually 45 years old when Pale Flower was being made. A contemporary of Toshiro Mifune (they joined Toho at about the same time and were good friends), Ikebe's world-weary, man-of-few-words veteran, with his cool checkered tweed jackets and requisite mob sunglasses is probably the film's one genuinely influential aspect. His Muraki predicts the kind of roles actors like Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara would play later in their careers. Mariko Kaga, whose early offscreen life was not all that far removed from her self-destructive Saeko, gives a performance that is drawn out of Kosugi's cinematography as much as the actress herself. With the camera emphasizing her childlike features, pouty lips and her creepy, staring black eyes, Kaga certainly looks the part of a woman on a collision course with death, though Chisako Hara, as Ikebe's longtime (and respectable) girlfriend, gives the better performance in her brief scenes.

Video & Audio

Filmed in Shochiku's anamorphic process, Shochiku GrandScope, Pale Flower, typical of even the lowliest of programmers, makes great use of 'scope. Home Vision's DVD is 16:9 enhanced, using flawless source elements with black blacks and white whites. The mono sound is fine and the optional English subtitles read just fine.

Extras

The main extra is the aforementioned interview, in 4:3 format, with director Shinoda, who helpfully offers what is basically an overview of the New Wave movement at Shochiku, and for which he is refreshingly blunt and even surprising in his comments. Writer Chris D, whose knowledge of Japanese gangster movies is unsurpassed, writes the DVD's helpful liner notes.

Parting Thoughts

Pale Flower is no crowd-pleaser, though in fairness isn't trying to be. Its cryptic nihilism and forced artiness does undermine a vividly realized atmosphere of a Yakuza's life of aimless despair.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.

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