Pale Flower – The Criterion Collection #564 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

Masahiro Shinoda’s masterpiece!  Shinoda set out to make a yakuza film that is unlike any other Japanese film and with “Pale Flower”, he succeeded.  What is surprising is that this 50-year-old film looks absolutely near pristine and I was very impressed with the picture quality.  Another quality release from the Criterion Collection that is highly recommended!

Image courtesy of © 1964 Shochiku Co., Ltd.   2011 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Pale Flower – The Criterion Collection #564 (Kawaita Hana)


DURATION: 96 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (2:35:1 Aspect Ratio), Black and White, Monaural, Japanese with English Subtitles


RELEASE DATE: May 17, 2011

Directed by Masahiro Shinoda

Based on the Novel by Shintaro Ishihara

Screenplay by Masaru Baba, Masahiro Shinoda

Producer: Shigeru Iwatsuki, Masao Shirai

Music by: Yuji Takahashi, Toru Takemitsu

Cinematography by Masao Kosugi

Edited by Yoshi Sugihara

Art Direction by Shigemasa Toda


Ryo Ikebe as Muraki

Mariko Kaga as Saeko

Takashi Fujiki as Yoh

Chisako Hara as Yakuza’s Lover

Eijiro Tono as Gang Leader

Seiji Miyaguchi as Gang Leader

Mikizo Hirata as Mizuguchi

Sohei Kurata as Hayakawa

Shinichiro Mikami as Reiji

In this cool, seductive jewel of the Japanese New Wave, a yakuza, fresh out of prison, becomes entangled with a beautiful and enigmatic gambling addict; what at first seems a redemptive relationship ends up leading him further down the criminal path. Bewitchingly shot and edited, and laced with a fever-dream-like score by Toru Takemitsu, this gangster romance was a breakthrough for the idiosyncratic Masahiro Shinoda. The pitch-black Pale Flower (Kawaita hana) is an unforgettable excursion into the underworld.

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.

But the film has resonated strong among cinema fans and those who appreciate Masahiro Shinoda’s work.  With “Samurai Spy” and “Double Suicide” currently available from the Criterion Collection, it was great to see that a Shinoda film was given a Blu-ray release. This is the best version of “Pale Flower” I have seen yet and it is slated for release on May 17, 2011.

“Pale Flower” revolves around a yakuza gangster named Muraki (played by Ryo Ikebe) who was just released from prison.  Murai has served three years and has a nihilistic attitude towards the world.  Doesn’t think too much about the people that live in the world, nor does he care for them.  All that matters is what is in his world.

And when he makes his return back home, things haven’t changed all that much as friends and people in the area he lives in are still gambling.  But what catches his eye is a young woman named Saeko (played by Mariko Kaga), who gambles as much as she wants and could care less if she loses or wins, an attitude that is unlike any person that Muraki has seen before.

Eventually, he meets with Saeko and learns that she has this yearning for risk and wanting to take major risks.  She tells Muraki that she is getting bored and win or lose money, the stakes are not high enough.  So, she asks him if there are other forms of gambling with higher stakes.  Intrigued by this woman (especially since she keeps winning), he introduces her to another gambling area where people bet a huge amount of money.

What is it about this woman that he finds so alluring?  Both get involve in an intense and mutually destructive relationship of wanting to feel that rush of taking on something which the stakes are raised.  From Saeko driving at a high speed on the freeway to teasing Muraki about taking drugs (which he is vehemently against), while their relationship is not sexual, both are nihilistic characters that could care less of what happens to the world but are more concerned of taking part in high risks.

But as the two keep raising the stakes of what they can accomplish the biggest rush, there is one thing that Saeko has yet to learn and experience and Muraki plans to show her what it is.


“Pale Flower” is presented 1080p High Definition (2:35:1 aspect ratio), black and white.  For a film that is nearly 50-years old, the film looks absolutely pristine.  I saw no speckles of white, I saw no defects.  I was amazed of how beautiful this film looked.  The detail was amazing, you can see the textures on the walls, the contrast showcased dark blacks, whites and grays were impressive.

According to the Criterion Collection, this is a new high-definition digital transfer created on a Spirit Datacine from a combination of a 35 mm print struck from teh original camera negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while DigitalVision’s DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.


“Pale Flower” is presented in monaural with English subtitles.  Dialogue is clear and if there is one thing that Shinoda wanted to capture back in 1964 was the sound of the gambling and also showcase its music.  Original music is by Yuji Takahashi and Toru Takemitsu and because of the interesting music selections for this film, it’s great that the Criterion Collection has a special feature commentary on the music.

According to the Criterion Collection, the monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical soundtrack print.  Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.


“Pale Flower – The Criterion Collection #564” on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:

  • Masahiro Shinoda – (22:02) A Criterion Collection exclusive interview shot in 2010, director Masahiro Shinoda talks about how he came to write and direct “Pale Flower”, where the film was shot and how he cast the talent for teh film and how he wanted to make this film different from any Japanese gangster film in the past.
  • Selected-scene audio commentary – (33:41) Selected Scene audio commentary by film scholar Peter Grilli, coproducer of “Music for the Movies: Toru Takemitsu”.  Grilli goes into the music used for the film and how he was surprised by some of the music selections.
  • Trailer – (3:47) The original theatrical trailer of “Pale Flower”.


A 20-page booklet featuring the following essays by Chuck Stephens titled “Loser Take All”,

“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.

As for the Blu-ray release of “Pale Flower”, as mentioned earlier, this film looks magnificent for a film that is nearly 50-years-old.  There are no defects that I could spot while watching this film and because it’s black and white and an older film, I was expecting some darkening for some scenes or even occasional flickering but saw none of that.  Also, aside from Grilli’s audio commentary on the music, it was great to watch the 2010 Criterion Collection interview with Shinoda. While I would have loved the plethora of special features that the Criterion Collection is known for having with each release, I’m quite content with what is on this Blu-ray as is.

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!

If you have been considering a purchase of Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of “Pale Flower”, I can easily give this film and this Blu-ray release my highest recommendation!