Wow — here’s misery, violence, and cruel fate seen through a prism of yakuza assassinations, gambling addiction, and a sublimated tough-guy love affair. Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) is a hit man fresh out of prison who falls for Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a mysterious, big-eyed beauty who hangs around in gambling parlors and asks Muraki to find her a game with bigger stakes.
Director Masahiro Shinoda lets the story’s yakuza intrigue play out around the margins — Muraki returns to a new world where the gang bosses he knew as arch-rivals have joined forces to close ranks against a threatening newcomer — but is more interested in Muraki’s frame of mind, which tends to nihilism. Muraki has never felt more alive than he did as an assassin; he and Saeko grow close but stop short of declaring their love either verbally or physically. A midnight race through the streets of Tokyo leaves Muraki in awe of Saeko’s thrill-seeking spirit, but a make-believe hand of cards played between the sheets in a borrowed hotel room is the closest they come to an erotic consummation. Muraki is preoccupied with Saeko, but he’s worried about Yo, a glassy-eyed killer from the younger generation of yakuza who he notices in the game rooms. As it turns out, Yo represents more than one kind of threat.
Pale Flower is the only Shinoda film I’ve seen (yes, I know, Double Suicide; I’ll get to it), but I was surprised to see it so skillfully working Seijun Suzuki territory in a somewhat less outré, more naturalistic way. That’s not to say it’s a naturalistic film. It’s at least more restrained than Suzuki’s pistol operas, but all the elements are potent, from avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu’s modernist score and the odd clack-clack of the hanafuda cards (they were replaced with tap-dancing sound FX, per Donald Richie’s A Hundred Years of Japanese Film) to the minimal set design, lithe montage, and expressionistic cinematography. And Mariko Kaga, of course, portraying a woman of leisure infiltrating a man’s world — she is tough, self-assured, but still very vulnerable.
In its shadowy depictions of the city after dark it out-noirs some of the best films noirs ever made, and some of Shinoda’s shot compositions are just dynamite — like the one that has Muraki sitting in a chair in a small, sparsely furnished room in front of a wall that’s blank but for a jagged mark that curves up and around his body on the right, as though gouged by a samurai sword. There’s a great use of negative space throughout (which may be crucial to making good use of the widescreen frame) and repeated employment of camera angles that peer through windows and doorways and down hallways and alleyways, as though taking in the action voyeuristically.
And there’s a moment at the film’s climax, as Muraki is commiting a swift but brutal murder, where Shinoda cuts to Saeko watching helplessly while the camera is still whip-panning to get her in frame — the camera jerks to a stop on her face, a now-common trick that gives the image an urgent, almost documentary edge. In fact, in an essay on the film included with the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release, critic Chuck Stephens says this scene is deliberately modeled on the 1960 assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, a socialist politician, on-stage during a political debate by a 17-year-old nationalist. After looking up the footage on YouTube, I certainly believe him, and the reference gives the film a political resonance that I’m not ready to attempt unpacking. (According to Wikipedia, the kid hung himself less than three weeks later, after writing, “Long live his Imperial Majesty, the Emperor!” in toothpaste on the wall of his prison cell. ) Anyway, it does not surprise me at all that writer Masaru Baba was appalled by what Shinoda did to his script — but the script isn’t what makes this great. Pale Flower grows in my estimation the more I look at it.
Nikkatsu Noir: Eclipse (Criterion) Series 17
The latest addition to Criterion’s budget-priced and barebones Eclipse line-up is this boxed set of five films from a cycle of tough-minded crime dramas that enjoyed popularity in post-WWII Japan. Little-seen in the U.S., this group of films as a whole probably benefits from Japanese settings and attitudes that bring a sense of freshness, even exoticism, to straightforward genre exercises. But the films are entertaining and engrossing on their own terms, and, more than that, they paint an interesting picture of a culture in a generational transition and, perhaps, a bit of an identity crisis — they’re clearly derivative of American film noir and French crime films of the period. And the best ones in the set — for my money, Seijun Suzuki’s Take Aim at the Police Van and Takashi Nomura’s A Colt Is My Passport (pictured at top) — hold their own against any crime film of the period. Together, they provide a sketch, in necessarily broad strokes, of a key period in the development of the popular Japanese cinema. Nikkatsu Noir
is a terrific collection.
Sonny Chiba’s Dragon Princess
Crummy by mainstream standards, this low-budget martial-arts programmer has lots of charm, starting with the opening shot depicting the inside of a church with saloon-style swinging doors banging against the wind and dust outside, and Tarantino fans will make note of some of the source elements he appropriated for his Kill Bill revenge pastiche. But the real attraction here is Yumi Higaki, playing a talented but reluctant martial-arts disciple seeking payback for injuries to the body and pride of her master (Sonny Chiba, in an extended cameo at the film’s beginning). I had seen her previously in Sister Street Fighter, released two years earlier, but her poise and confidence has improved here. A prototype for any number of femme videogame ass-kickers, from Chun Li down the line, she has an overgrown-kid look to her that makes her determination and eventual triumph in the violent coming-of-age scenario more rousing.
Sukiyaki Western Django
The newest Takashi Miike extravaganza arrived in the U.S. (on DVD) last week, and while many of his films are infamous for some bizarre content, Imprint is the first I know of that can credibly place the word “Banned” in a banner across its packaging. Imprint was originally commissioned by Mick Garris and IDT Entertainment as one episode among 13 in the independently produced Masters of Horror series that was meant to premiere on the U.S. cable channel Showtime and then live forever on DVD. Partway through the season, word got out that the schedule had been changed for the last few airings — Showtime had declined the opportunity to air Miike-san’s contribution to the series. In a series that featured contributions from genre stalwarts like John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and Don Coscarelli — and the great Joe Dante piece, Homecoming, about a bunch of Iraq vets who come back in an election year as zombies determined to vote President Bush out of office — the one that succeeded in getting Showtime’s dander up was by the Japanese dude with the crazy sunglasses.
The Great Yokai War79/100
Imagine the Japanese unquiet-ghost anthology Kwaidan cross-bred with The Neverending Story and directed by Terry Gilliam. That’s the gist of The Great Yokai War, an honest-to-god children’s movie from the chameleonic Japanese genre director Takashi Miike. In a little more than two hours, Miike runs roughshod over centuries of Japanese folk tales, spinning a yarn that has a young boy, Tadashi, chosen as the rider of the Kirin — sort of a cross between a dragon and a unicorn, but also, as the film eventually reminds us, a tasty Japanese brew. He finds himself drawn into the titular war of the Yokai, Japanese spirits that take many radically different forms.
As anyone who’s clutched the arms of his chair during a screening of (the original version of) Ring or felt a tightening of her chest during (the original version of) Pulse can attest, there’s something about Japanese horror movies. It’s not that the stories are so much more sinister than their Western counterparts (although there are an awful lot of vengeful ghosts in the Japanese afterlife, which is a rather disquieting notion), but that there’s something in the Japanese filmmaking tradition that gives the supernatural plenty of room to live and breathe on screen. Where American horror movies generally put the monster in your lap, their Japanese counterparts have a way of making you meet them halfway — drawing you in, piquing your curiousity, expertly suspending your disbelief, and finally, with exquisite timing, sending the coldest shiver down your spine.
J-horror has been in serious vogue for the last eight years or so, but the country didn’t figure this shit out overnight. The tradition goes all the way back to Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness, released in 1926, and maybe even farther. One of the best-known examples of Japanese horror filmmaking is 1964’s Kwaidan, which isn’t grab-your-chair scary but manages to work up a pretty good head of creep anyway. It’s an anthology film based on ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn, a Western author who took root in Japan in the late 19th Century, and was apparently tailored to make a splash with Western audiences. The first story is about a Samurai who abandons his wife only to come crawling back to her years later, with dire results; the second has to do with a deadly woman who shows up in very bad weather — apparently the very personification of hypothermia — and is definitely not to be fucked with; the third details the sad story of Hoichi, a talented biwa player who is recruited to sing ballads in the middle of the night for the spirits of dead Samurais and loses his ears for his trouble; and the last, especially curious one, deals with a fellow who sees an odd man’s face appear in a cup of tea — for some reason, not sure why, he reminded me of Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train — and comes to regret gulping it down.
Each story is a gorgeously mounted production, with the art direction taking center stage via ornate sets (at one point I felt like I was seeing the inspiration for every PlayStation 2 adventure game ever made) and deliriously expressionistic backgrounds. (Just as a stranger in this film is never an ordinary stranger, a sky is never just a sky.) And if you let yourself slip into the right frame of mind, each segment is nicely creepy in its own way. The main liability here is an overly indulgent pace — the Criterion DVD is over 160 minutes, and the new (NTSC) DVD from London-based Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection clocks in north of three hours — that makes proceedings soporific as well as occasionally scary.
The extra 20 minutes of material (including a brief sex scene in the second episode) seems to make the new European release a no-brainer, but I’ve got to say that I miss the vivid colors of the older Criterion transfer. Criterion’s picture is quite a bit darker and shadow detail is lacking, but the image is in my eyes more filmlike overall, gives the painted backdrops a chance to blend more smoothly into the image, puts some blood in the faces of characters, and emphasizes the film’s extravagant visual qualities. The new DVD’s colors are frankly bland by comparison. (You can see a side-by-side comparison of three different transfers of this film, including the Criterion, at DVDbeaver.com.) Without having access to a properly timed theatrical release print, it’s hard to say which transfer has the more accurate color — but, for what it’s worth, if I feel like watching this again I may well reach for the Criterion version.