Pale Flower Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Essential Japanese New Wave

Although this is a Japanese film, the words that immediately come to mind to describe it are largely French: a classic film noir with an avant garde soundtrack and co-starring an ethereal ingénue. Add one Japanese word to the mix, for its dramatic tale centered in Tokyo’s criminal underworld hews closely to the gekiga school of manga. Now thanks to Criterion, Pale Flower is available in a fantastic new Blu-ray release that further enhances this film’s legacy and its surrounding era.

The story focuses on a veteran yakuza thug named Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) emerging from prison after a three year sentence for the murder of a rival gang member. He has absolutely no intention of changing his ways, instead treating the prison stay as merely an inconvenience that postponed his continued career in the gang. Once he’s back on the streets, he reverts to his life of hanging with his gang buddies, rekindling past romantic flames, and most importantly gambling in underground games. Although the gambling dens are traditionally the exclusive province of men, he soon encounters a beguiling young lady named Saeko (Mariko Kaga) as she brings her considerable wealth to the table hoping to inject some excitement into her boring life.

Like an aging moth to a very bright flame, Muraki is immediately drawn to Saeko and becomes her mentor as she looks for higher stakes games and more danger. He’s not portrayed as a pathetic letch chasing after her, in fact he outwardly maintains an incredibly cool demeanor and never reveals any hint of emotion to her. He clearly relishes his role as Saeko’s tour guide through the criminal underworld and is completely entranced by her, but doesn’t cross the line into a romantic relationship even when the opportunity presents itself. Conversely, Saeko is so disaffected that it’s hard to tell if she feels anything for anyone, only showing any outright giddiness after engaging in a high speed illegal car race and after winning big at gambling. It’s a fascinating relationship between the two leads, made all the more so by the enigmatic Saeko.

Director Masahiro Shinoda does a masterful job of leading viewers on a voyage through the dangerous Tokyo (actually Yokohama) underworld and the complex relationship of his leads, paying particular attention to the intricacies of their gambling endeavors. Aside from one dream sequence, he takes a fairly traditional approach to cinematography, leaving the dark subject matter and the soundtrack to really mark this as a player in the Japanese New Wave movement. That soundtrack employs such dissonance that it’s hard to label it as music, adding a sense of organic danger and excitement to the already enthralling proceedings. The lead actors are perfect in their roles, with Ikebe nailing the composed cool of Muraki and Kaga contributing an indelible, unforgettable performance as the mysterious Saeko.

The image quality of the Blu-ray is superb from beginning to end, with inky blacks and incandescent whites and barely a hint of film grain. Sound is uncompressed monaural. The special features are fairly lacking for a Criterion release, but notably include a recent 20-minute interview with the director where he discusses the emergence of the Japanese New Wave in contrast to the conservative studio fare of the time, as well as his memories of Ikebe and Kaga.

Pale Flower is available on Blu-ray and DVD on May 17th, 2011. For more information and a clip, visit the Criterion website.

Steve Geise

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