May 25, 2011

Movie Rating: 8/10 BD Rating: 7/10

Director Masahiro Shinoda was no stranger to Japan’s New Wave movement that took place between the late ’50s and early ’70s – his film Double Suicide frequently graces the screens of cinema studies classrooms. While not as popular as other contributions to this exciting film cycle, 1964’s Pale Flower (Criterion) should be considered essential.

Secondary to the film’s somber mood and dreamy backdrop is its lean plot, which follows a weary yakuza just released from a three-year prison term for killing a rival gangster. Upon returning to his old haunting ground, a seedy gambling den, he runs into a younger female gambler on a losing streak, who nevertheless urges him to take her to a higher-stakes forum. After striking a friendship, their mutually hazardous lifestyles gradually intertwine, leading them both down the dark alley of self-destruction. A redemptive love story this is not, even if it at first seems as such.    

Pale Flower may be thin on plot (the film’s screenwriter, Masara Baba, was apparently so fumed that he caused a nine-month delay before its release), but it’s a slow burn that's rich with innuendos. There are several standout scenes that unfold in unlikely ways: an enthralling drag race comes out of nowhere midway through the film, a dream sequence provides some truly hallucinogenic sights and sounds, and a climactic assassination is as wild and stylish as anything seen in more familiar yakuza fare like Seijun Suzukis classics Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill (both release by Criterion in the late-'90s, both in need of a high-def facelift).

Criterion’s Blu-ray edition presents Pale Flower in a stunning black-and-white transfer that amplifies the film’s striking visuals. Extra features are limited to only two, but both are above and beyond the norm. First up is a 2010 interview with Shinoda that runs just over 20 minutes. Various film footage and behind the scenes stills accompany the director as he discusses the inception and production of his film, along with its connection to Cold War-era Japan. It’s a pleasant chat that also takes a few candid jabs at the studio, Shochiku, which put up a bit of a creative struggle.

Film scholar Peter Grilli lends his voice to five select sequences from the film (running a little over 30 minutes), rather than providing a feature-length commentary with frequent dry patches. Grilli spends the majority of his time addressing Toru Takemitsu’s approach to the film’s delirious score, which makes sense considering he co-produced a 1994 documentary on the famed composer.