They get no kicks from champagne.
Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), a middle-aged yakuza fresh out of jail, has experienced just about everything there is in life and finds himself desperately bored with it all. Saeko (Mariko Kaga) is a fresh-faced teenager who has experienced virtually nothing in life, yet also finds herself desperately bored. The difference in age is crucial though. Muraki has all but resigned himself to feeling comfortably numb; Saeko still sees has a lot to sample. Maybe that next experience, the next thrill, will be the one that gives her a real jolt, one that lasts more than a night. Muraki volunteers to serve as her guide of sorts, and his feelings for his beautiful young charge are a mixture of parental concern and attraction, though genuine lust may be beyond the burned-out gangster's capacity by now.
Both of them try their hand at gambling, and several of the most elaborate scenes in director Masahiro Shinoda's "Pale Flower" (1964) are devoted to card playing. The rules are rather baffling to Westerners (or at least to this poker-playing Westerner), but the focus is on the rituals involved rather than strategy. Players mix cards and then tuck them into thick pieces of fabric, slowly unfolding them to reveal the potential winning hands. These scenes are musical in nature with the gamemaster (sorry, I don't know the proper term) calling out rhythmically for bets and the heavy cards snapping off each other. The men (and Saeko) kneel around a mat in a rigorous rectangular pattern as they wait for lady luck to dump on them. These scenes are beautifully shot and edited (and take full advantage of the 2.35:1 frame), yet simulatenously pathetic. As the players clack their loud cards vigorously, they look like they're jerking off sadly to bukakke videos.
Alas, the game isn't risky enough for Saeko's taste and she begs Muraki to get her into a higher stakes version. He does, but even that fails to titillate and she is tempted to try her hand at drugs. Here, her mentor draws a hard line, but there's no way to know whether his wild young thing is going to listen. Muraki may be the cold-blooded killer, but it's Saeko who is the true enigma. Her money suggests she comes from privilege, but to know exactly who she is we'll have to wait until the end… or perhaps later.
"Pale Flower" will remind viewers of Seijun Suzuki films as well as a host of yakuza movies that followed. It's an exercise in style – sharp montage, inky shadows, and evocative set design. In one of the film's more memorable sequences, Muraki visits an old girlfriend in a darkened shop filled with loudly ticking clocks whose faces seem just a bit larger than normal. Shinoda's stylized interiors make quite a contrast, however, with some of his exterior shots which provide an almost documentary-style recording of Yokohama, much like the streets of Paris were captured in "Breathless" and "Shoot the Piano Player." Far too many directors were being compared to the French New Wave by the mid-60s, but in Shinoda's case, the comparison was apt. Shinoda became one of the most prominent members of the Japanese New Wave along with Nagisa Oshima; both men worked at Shochiku Studios at a time when the company was willing to back more daring work to compete with the glass demon of television.
The kinetic mise-en-scene is bolstered by the idiosyncratic score from Toru Takemitsu. The avant-garde composer's distorted jazz track combined with impressionistic sound effects (tap dancers substitute for the sound of shuffling cards in at least one scene) imbue the film with a jangly, intense mood. Each symphonic crash promises an imminent explosion or collapse.
Muraki claims that the one and only thrill he gets in life is from killing, but it's clear that Saeko comes closer to engaging his passions than anyone or anything else. It's not so much that he wants her, as he wants to see her live, really live in a way that he can't. But his proxy is a (pale) flower that is destined to bloom quickly and fade even quicker. But even to bask in her white flame for a few days… it's more than Muraki expected out of life before he met Saeko. He'll have to live in that memory for a long time, unless he's likely enough to die soon.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Image resolution on this 1080p transfer is quite sharp and most of the interior scenes highlight deep blacks providing a sharp level of contrast in this noir-ish black-and-white film. Some of the outdoor scenes on the streets of Yokohama look a bit more washed out which I assume is intentional – these are the more "documentary like" shots mentioned above. Overall, a strong transfer.
The Blu-Ray offers an LPCM 1.0 audio track. The sound design in the film is very complex and Toru Takemitsu's wailing score is a prominent element in many scenes. The lossless audio captures the warble of his distorted classical/jazz score quite sharply – this is a very deep, enveloping score even in Mono. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.
Criterion has gone with a lean and mean package this time. The only extras are a 2010 interview with Shinoda (21 min.) and Selected Scene Commentary (34 min., a separate feature – not an audio option while watching the film) by Peter Grilli, president of the Japan Society of Boston. Grilli speaks mostly about Toru Takemitsu's score which is very interesting though the limitations of the medium make it a bit counterproductive listening to his commentary about the sound in each scene while not being able to hear much of the sound. Nobody's fault there, of course.
The 18-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Chuck Stephens.
Oozing with atmospherics and augmented by a radical score, "Pale Flower" is an appealing and ground-breaking entry in the vast yakuza genre. Its characters aren't particularly sympathetic, but the film isn't shooting for pathos. This is a stylish but detached march to the inevitable for two desperate characters looking everywhere for that high that makes life worth living.