Masahiro Shinoda is one of the fine Japanese directors to emerge from the Japanese New Wave of the 1960’s.
While known for films such as “Ansatsu” (“Assassination”, 1964), “Ibuno Sarutobi Sasuke” (Samurai Spy, 1965) and “Shinju-ten Amijima” (Double Suice, 1969), many fans of Shimoda feel that his masterpiece in his oeuvre is “Kawaita hana” (Pale Flower, 1964).
Shinoda worked at Shochiku at the time and co-wrote “Pale Flower” along with Masaru Baba (“Vengeance is Mine”, “Ashita no Joe”, “Faraway Tomorrow”, “Mesu”) and both men would have intense disagreements of how the film should be written. For Shinoda, what truly mattered for him was to create a gangster film unlike any other gangster film released in Japan.
One was to focus on the actual game of gambling and create drama within people gambling and another was the choices of music used in the film. These two elements of visual and sound would play a big part in the film and it would also help enhance the nihilistic characters for the film. A dispute that co-writer Baba had and would lead to a nine month delay of the film’s release.
“Pale Flower” was a film that Shinoda had wanted to make. A different kind of film that even had him at odds with this co-writer. But what makes “Pale Flower” so unique?
For one, it’s interesting to have an a protagonist who is no hero but a yakuza who was released from prison and what he sees as Japanese life is sort of a land of the walking dead. He could care less about the people in the world. Everyone is the same and even amongst his fellow yakuza members, nothing has changed. It’s the same life that he left behind when he was first put in prison.
So, for Muraki, to meet a woman like Saeko, so unique and different from the world is what captures his attention.
In some ways, despite Muraki’s hatred towards drug users, Saeko is a drug in which he can’t stop thinking about her, he can’t stop gambling with her and its that sense of an uncaring attitude that really captivates him. Why is this woman trying to push the edge of how far she can lose or win through gambling? Always constantly wanting to raise the stakes in her life?
At first, it was thought that Saeko is just a bit hardcore towards gambling but when he rides with her and she starts racing in the freeway against the other car, she’s not scared at all, she finds it all fun.
The relationship of Muraki and Saeko is a different type of relationship that one would find on screen. There is nothing sexual about their relationship, in fact, it’s not like they are even boyfriend or girlfriend. They are two nihilistic people who could care less about the world around them and to make them happy, they take risks. For Saeko, she wants to feel the biggest risk, in some ways, one can categorize that feeling possibly in an orgasmic way as she thrives for it and Muraki wants her to feel it. And it may not be sexual but he knows one thing that he can do but how will she react? And how far will Muraki go to make it happen?
And to showcase these two characters, Shinoda really went after the visual and audio for this film. Visually by trying to keep things authentic and was able to film in a red-light district, while for audio, it was important for Shinoda to capture the art of gambling. For those of us in the west, we may not understand the game but we can see on the faces of the people playing it, there is a rush for them to spend big money and if they win, they win…if they lose, it seems that these individuals are not going to cry if they lost their money.
It was a lot of emphasis on the actual gambling, with clever camera shots of Muraki and Saeko but also others participating in the game. Down to the noise of the Japanese wooden cards being shuffled, for Shinoda, this all must be captured on film to the dislike of his co-writer Masaru Baba, it’s good to know that Shochiku managed to keep Shinoda’s version intact.
And the other audio portion was the choice of music. Like an opera, there are scenes that have deep meaning for the character and the context of how that music was originally used. While many people may not understand the importance of certain songs, the Blu-ray does have selected scene commentary by film scholar Peter Grilli going into wonderful detail about the film’s music.
Overall, this is the best looking version of “Pale Flower” available on video! Once again, the Criterion Collection has done a magnificent job with this transfer as the picture quality of this film is incredible! But I am hoping others who discover Shinoda’s work for the first time through “Pale Flower” will continue to watch even more of his films. There is no doubt that Masahiro Shinoda is underrated because he has crafted quite a good number of wonderful films and “Pale Flower” is a masterpiece!