Pale Flower (Blu-ray Review)30 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
In Japanese with English subtitles.
Stars Ryu Okebe, Mariko Kaga.
Other than the long languishing state Home Vision’s standard DVD from 2003 has had on one of my bookshelves of foreign-language releases, I had no previous experience with director Masahiro Shinoda’s yakuza/gambling toughie, which proved popular in Japan but never got much of a release in the United States (and a belated one at that). This is too bad for Flower and too bad for me because this is one enigmatically hip movie that keeps lingering in the mind. In the long ago heyday of repertory cinema, the programmer in me would have paired it with Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1956 Bob le Flambeur for a kind of gambling-motifed cinematic paradise photographed in black-and-white — though come to think, this wouldn’t have worked because Bob itself never got a U.S. release until the early 1980s. What a loss.
As a yakuza hit man just out of prison for having pulled off a professional assignment, male lead Ryu Okebe is all quiet cool — which isn’t easy to do when one of the suits your character wears is the kind of plaid job most people didn’t sport in public unless they were Midwest-TV talk show hosts from the early ‘70s (or maybe Pete Rose). A fancier of gambling establishments that really do looks like dens, Okebe’s “Muraki” character drops into one of them upon his release and is captivated by a young woman participant (pale flower, indeed) who certainly stands out in a sea of old men decades her senior. As played by co-star Mariko Kaga, this alluring oddball’s physical appearance suggests she’s been primed for a Japanese version of Cotillion dances, but we soon see she needs her kicks.
You know that scene in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief where driver Grace Kelly zooms her convertible around hairpin turns of mountain roads while passenger Cary Grant tries to figure out what to do with himself? There’s a scene like that here — except that it takes place on a mostly straight freeway in the early a.m. — where Kaga’s supposedly delicate “Saeko” suddenly starts to drag-race the only other car on the road and passenger Muraki tries to figure out how he’s going to reconcile this with his instant desire to be her protector. Instead, she looks as if she’d do all right against Paul Le Mat’s roadrunner in American Graffiti. Worse, she’s a little more interested than she should be in one of the story’s hood hangers-on (very handsome) who is said to be a heroin addict. And worse than that, heroin itself.
This sets up a memorable dream sequence that’s probably the closest thing this not quite love story (and one-sided at that) has to a sexual encounter — though there is a scene where Muraki and Saeko avoid a gambling den raid by hiding under the covers as she gets the giggles (oh, you tease). To get an idea of the characters’ age differential, the two lead actors were 25 years apart when they made this movie. And even if the service and for hat matter, the Internet had existed at the time, they probably weren’t going to find each other on Match.com, anyway. Regardless, this is quite a dream sequence — quite unlike anything in Hollywood movies from the early ‘60s, at least this side of The Manchurian Candidate. It’s also an obvious showcase for Toru Takemitsu’s feverish score. In one of the bonus extras, an amazingly youthful-looking Shinoda (he was 80 in March) says it was probably the most avant-garde music around anywhere at the time.
Film scholar and Takemitsu expert Peter Grilli does a partial commentary for one of the other extras, and I like the accompanying essay by Chuck Stephens — without whom I’d never have put it together that Okebe was also in Ishiro Honda’s Battle in Outer Space. The old Home Vision release wasn’t bad (I put it on to do a little sampling), but this one gets more out of the movie’s visual rawness. And by the way, Flower has one of those endings that make you reconsider everything that’s come before, which makes one want to find the time to take a second look.