Masahiro Shinoda’s 1964 film Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana) is a total break from the romanticised yakuza films that had been common prior to its release. Heavily influenced both by American Film Noir and by the French New Wave, Shinoda’s gangster underworld is dark and empty. There maybe pretty girls and oh so shiny fast cars but these yakuza spend their off time in bowling alleys and in other ordinary daily pursuits not so different from your average salaryman. As the film begins we meet recently released Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) who is traveling back to Tokyo having completed a three year sentence for committing a murder ordered by his gang boss. We hear him reflect less than fondly on his crime, but at the same time wonder why he’s been punished for ‘slaughtering one of these stupid animals’ which crowd around him, seemingly barely alive. On arrival he pays a visit a to an old girl friend who seems to be much more fond of him than he is of her. Then he goes gambling and sees the young, beautiful but perhaps just as empty as he is, Saeko (Mariko Kaga). Presumably from a wealthy background, Saeko spends her nights gambling vast sums of money, little caring if she wins or loses, living only for the brief thrill of chance. Together Mariko and Saeko wander aimlessly through night time Tokyo desperately trying to find some kind of meaning to this chaos but pushing each other ever further down into a spiral of thrill and transgression.
Shinoda’s direction and Masao Kosugi’s photography are really fantastic here. The Noirish light and shadows perfectly depict this murky, uncertain and claustrophobic world the protagonists are constrained by and totally establish this mood of alienation which is so central to the film. This is further assisted by the wonderful score provided by Toru Takemitsu. Relying heavily on dissonance and incorporating exaggerated or found sounds – tap dancing over the sound of the cards for example, the score brilliantly brings out the underlying menace of this environment. Indeed, the sound design is one of the most distinctive attributes of this film and is extraordinarily important in establishing the mood. The final set piece accompanied by a section from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is absolutely pitch perfect and has obviously become hugely influential.
This new blu ray release from the Criterion Collection is absolutely stunning, the picture quality and clarity are excellent. The contrast in the black and white photography is beautiful to behold. The remastered lossless sound is also richly delivered, with no problems of audibility. This fascinating film is a must for any fan of Japanese Cinema, Film Noir or New Wave. Highly recommended.