Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Pale Flower (1964)

Now Available to Own 

Alternate Title: Kawaita hana

Instead of dysfunctional suburban American parents tearing James Dean's Rebel apart in Nicholas Ray’s 1955 classic, the existential ennui of life during (Cold) wartime experienced by our detached antihero Muraki is tearing RyĆ“ Ikebe’s Yakuza Without a Cause apart in Masahiro Shinoda’s allegorical Film Noir tinged, nihilistic ‘64 entry into the Japanese New Wave.

Character rather than crime driven, as Shinoda’s Flower opens, Muraki muses that “Someone died but nothing’s changed,” which explains why after three years spent on the inside for taking that life, he returns to the scene of the crime in the form of his old stomping ground on the mean streets of Tokyo.

More interested in getting by than even, once he’s arrived, Muraki discovers that his gang has now aligned themselves with the rival crew to which the “nameless, faceless beast” he’d put down the last time he was outside belonged.

At roughly the same time that he begins to lose himself in an underworld gambling den, the middle-aged Muraki loses his heart to the young beautiful stranger Saeko (Mariko Kaga) – wordlessly breaking the ice while breaking the bank – breaking her losing streak by creating one of his own.

A pair of beautiful losers whose personalities mirror each other like two tiles in a high stakes match game – even if together we suspect they’d always form a losing hand – Muraki and Saeko’s passion for thrill-seeking is only surpassed by their passion for raising the stakes of risk-taking to combat their likeminded belief that everything is pointless.

And even for those of us that don’t speak Japanese and only later realize that Pale Flower or Kawaita hana more accurately translates to “dry” or “withered” flower than its lovelier American title, Shinoda tells us everything we need to know when the film’s title sequence kicks in as Muraki focuses on her face.

With the Shinoda described “utterly irrational love story” dominating what many perceived would be a Japanese Noir inspired crime film a la Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, which was released that very year – complete with the utilization of a certain Elvis Presley tune in common – Pale Flower breaks with traditional yakuza genre filmmaking.

More aesthetically visceral than actually violent – Shinoda takes a cue from the bored hedonists at the center of the loose storyline – playing to the pleasure centers of the brain instead of getting mired in gray matter, as literally evidenced in the lush black and white images cinematographically captured to painterly effect by longtime Shinoda lensman Masao Kosugi.

Featuring an audio track that’s constructed of equal parts actual music and the clever juxtaposition of natural objects – famously replacing the shuffling of a hand of hanafuda (domino-size floral cards) with the rhythmic tap shoes of the Nakano Brothers – Avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu’s heavily percussive score sounds crisper than ever in Flower’s Criterion Collection Blu-ray debut.

Demystifying gangster culture by depicting the day-to-day pursuit for passion and meaning rather than power and money on an existential vs. epic level, it’s easy to predict that – like the atypical yakuza treatment –the odd love story will be doomed and unconventional from the start.

A surprisingly chaste relationship in stark contrast with others Muraki has with past lovers including one that lives and works in a clock shop in one of many frames loaded with symbolism and subtext, Muraki and Saeko sublimate their feelings with loaded dares doing anything to feel alive.

Yet like an addict that gets used to their drug of choice, the two – and Saeko in particular – keeping wanting to try a greater dose, find a new risk to chase that first invincible feeling that continues to elude them.

Unfortunately, whether it’s a feeling of intense pleasure or merely something of any shade in between, emotions seldom register on the faces of the otherwise talented actors onscreen regardless of what’s occurring onscreen, as if they were reacting to someone reading Satre or Camus to them offscreen rather than directed to play off events as they happen.

And as a viewer, this harms the impact that Shinoda’s otherwise impressive film could’ve had on us as anything other than an experimental independent production since it’s hard to feel that connected to the two as fully formed characters given the extreme disconnect of watching Saeko and Muraki just go through the motions with absolutely no reaction to a high speed chase, for example.

Mixing together the classical composition of the Noir inspired frames with bursts of artistic adrenaline as witnessed in an elaborately staged car chase that finds our leads weaving in, out and around lanes, tunnels and turns to dizzying effect years before Bullitt and French Connection gained fame, Flower is of particular interest to cineastes.

Seemingly built off a foundation of Fritz Lang, Jean-Pierre Melville, Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, Michelangelo Antonioni and Orson Welles among others from a Third Man style alley chase in the shadows to making intriguing use of dreams and dreamy symbolism that would’ve made Hitch proud, Flower makes an ideal screening partner with Jacques Demy’s little-seen ’63 thematically similar tale of beautiful losers, Bay of Angels.

Meant as an allegorical cinematic reaction to feelings of postponed maturity in the era of the cold war as power was placed out of reach in the hands of the Japanese government while deciding to align themselves with the U.S. or Russia, Shinoda’s work is fascinating if a few degrees too cold or removed-from-reality.

Although shelved for several months upon completion for the family marketed Shochiku studio famous for distributing Ozu’s acclaimed masterpieces due to the depiction of gambling and initial belief it was too anarchistic and nihilistic, Shinoda’s forgotten Flower from Japan’s ‘60s New Wave garden gets a second chance to blossom in Criterion’s lovingly preserved high-definition release.

Intentionally “international” in scope by a conscientious filmmaker who didn’t want Flower to be pigeonholed as either an overly American inspired film or a nationally specific Japanese production, while I only wish that Criterion had changed the color of Pale’s subtitles from white to yellow to prevent some words from disappearing into the sublimely beautiful background, this Melville meets Antonioni by way of yakuza production is well worth taking a chance on.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.