Pale Flower (Blu-ray)
Directed by Masahiro Shinoda
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec Running Time: 96 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 Japanese
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: May 17, 2011
Review Date: May 7, 2011
By the 1960s, film noir as a genre had become relatively passé in America with only occasional forays into the dark, neon-infused world of crooks and crime, but it was alive and well and living in Japan. Masahiro Shinoda’s eccentric and altogether provocative Pale Flower is prime film noir fodder. And like the best films noir from previous decades, the classifications of heroes and heroines in this movie don’t have much meaning here, swept away by a focus on criminals and their ultimate aims: making money in any way possible with no thought of the consequences for bystanders, either innocent or guilty.
Released from prison after a three year hitch, mid-level yakuza Muraki (Ryô Ikebe) returns to Tokyo where he finds not much has changed. His gang has merged with another so he now serves two bosses and a third gang, the Irai, is asserting itself and is a definite threat. Though Muraki returns to a faithful mistress (Chisako Hara), he feels nothing for her. Instead he becomes somewhat obsessed with Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a devil-may-care young girl he meets in a gambling parlor on his return. She lives for thrills and when low stakes gambling doesn’t do it for her any more, she asks Muraki to gain her admittance to higher stakes games where she continues to do well while his luck runs, as it always has, rather cold. Even risky gambling isn’t enough for Saeko, however, as fast cars and a flirtation with drugs courtesy of the rival gang’s pusher Yoh (Takashi Fujiki) begin to occupy her thoughts.
Co-writer/director Masahiro Shinoda (Ataru Baba is the other credited writer) takes a studied and rather pedestrian stroll through the Japanese underworld, his story punctuated with fantastic sequences that jolt the viewer from his seat. Among the most memorable: a wild race through city streets, tunnels, and freeways as Saeko floors her convertible to speeds in excess of 130 mph, an upsetting and intoxicating dream sequence as Muraki works though his feelings of longing and dread, and a thrill-packed chase through the rain soaked streets and alleys of Tokyo as Muraki is stalked by a knife-throwing assassin. Shinoda also tries to with some success to add life to the many gambling scenes sprinkled throughout the movie. While the card games the gangsters play are completely foreign, the use of close-ups and wide shots helps us to keep track of the winners and losers despite our ignorance. The film’s climactic murder scene, filmed with sacred music on the soundtrack (endlessly copied in gangster films in America years after this movie appeared), is yet another impressive moment though the murder itself might have beena bit better staged for the camera.
Ryô Ikebe brings a tired resignation to his role of Muraki, his inevitable fate more certain the longer the film runs. Mariko Kaga captures some of the wildness and vivacity of the character she’s portraying though her emotions sometimes seem more subdued than they need to be at opportune moments. Takashi Fujiki’s Yoh, a silent performance with words but an electric presence with his every appearance on the screen, makes for an exciting villain. Muraki’s fresh-faced underlings who look up to him as “the man” are well represented by Isao Sasaki and Shinichirô Mikami. Eijirô Tôno and Seiji Miyaguchi enact the dual gang leaders in sober-faced, somewhat predictable fashion.
The film has been framed at 2.35:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The transfer is absolutely spotless, its age never a factor in the cleanliness of this presentation. Sharpness varies depending on the kinds of shots being employed. Inserts and some location shooting can have a hazy, softly focused look that is at odds with the very sharp and crisp studio shot scenes. The grayscale features brilliant whites but blacks of only above average quality with contrast nicely realized throughout. The white subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 17 chapters.
The PCM (1.1 Mbps) 1.0 sound mix features a mixture of post-synched dialogue with its routinely flat sound along with live recordings which have some punch. Toru Takemitsu’s dissonant music score can sound brittle or brilliant depending on various circumstances, the sacred chanting used in the climactic murder filling the center channel with impressively resonant sound. Elsewhere, however, there is some hiss and flutter present. The two sequences set in a clock shop feature some very impressive sound work which seems to put those clocks right in the room with the viewer.
All of the video featurettes are presented in 1080p.
A 2010 interview with director Masahiro Shinoda discusses adapting the story for the screen, his choice of Yokohama for filming locations, the casting process, his uses for music in the movie, and the look he wanted for the film. This featurette runs 21 minutes.
There is a specific-scene commentary featuring Japanese film music expert Peter Grilli discussing Toru Takemitsu’s dissonant music in the context of five specific moments in the movie. The five scenes can be watched individually or in one 33 ¾-minute grouping.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs for 3 ¾ minutes.
The enclosed 19-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, quite a few still portraits and scenes from the movie, and film instructor Chuck Stephens’ overview of Japanese cinema in the context of Pale Flower.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the select commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
3.5/5 (not an average)
Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower is an unusual if effective yakuza yarn continuing a long and successful Japanese tradition of film noir. If the bonus feature package is a bit slimmer than on other Criterion releases, what is provided certainly extends one’s understanding of the film’s aims and execution and assists greatly in giving this drama credit for its unique approach to storytelling.