Toru Takemitsu

Pale Flower (1964, Shinoda Masahiro)

Pale Flower opens with lead Ikebe Ryô narrating his first day out of prison. Not what he does—we get to see what he does—but how he feels about being out, what he notices. He’s killed a man, been in prison for three years, and nothing has changed in Tokyo. The dead man’s absence doesn’t matter, Ikebe’s absence doesn’t matter. Ikebe’s indifferent to existence, particularly his own; so what better thing to do with one’s time than the endorphin rush of gambling. Oh… right: Ikebe also talks a little about the thrill of killing. Not anything to get a rush—dope’s out, for example—but almost anything. Ikebe’s looking for a (relatively) safe rush, whether it’s from gambling or hooking up with lady friend Hara Chisako. Hara’s in a bad situation—abused by a now senile stepfather she now cares for, romantically pursued by a civilian at her office, she too is looking for a rush, one only bad boy (again, relatively speaking) Ikebe can provide.

But Hara doesn’t offer Ikebe that same rush. Especially not after he goes gambling and discovers things have changed a little since he’s been gone—there’s now a girl (Kaga Mariko) in the gambling scene. At first, Kaga just slightly piques Ikebe’s interest—he’s busy trying to adjust to the new yakuza ground situation. Ikebe went in for killing one of Tôno Eijirô’s men, on boss Miyaguchi Seiji’s orders. Only there’s a new player in town and Tôno and Miyaguchi have had to team up, something not all of Tôno’s men are all right with; they want to avenge themselves on Ikebe, which ends up providing Ikebe with his only steady acquaintance. Foolish young yakuza Sasaki Isao tries to take on Ikebe and botches it, leading to Sasaki having to apologize (multiple times) and Ikebe taking Sasaki under his wing. Of course, since Ikebe doesn’t do much besides gamble, it just means he and Sasaki play cards a lot.

Most of Ikebe’s time—and Pale Flower’s runtime—is spent with Kaga. She wants a bigger game, bigger thrills, and Ikebe lines it up for her. She’s something of a mystery; besides getting her name and having some suspicions about her day life, Ikebe doesn’t find out much and doesn’t care. He’s protective of her, worries about her, but is also a little awestruck. As the film progresses and the pair reveal more of themselves to each other, it becomes clear just how much they’re alter egos, bound by the thrill seeking. One of director Shinoda’s great successes with Pale Flower is not making it icky as Ikebe’s concern goes from paternal to romantic. He goes from mild disapproval of youthful, apparently wealthy Kaga’s excesses to longing for them, even as his obligations to Miyaguchi make it hard if not impossible for their relationship to continue. Or, at least, to intensify.

When Hara finds out about Kaga, she gets extremely jealous without ever understanding the nature of the relationship, which is an excellent, subtle device for Shinoda to examine it as most of the time spent with Kaga and Ikebe is about the thrills. There are the exquisite gambling sequences—Shinoda could care less if the audience understands the gaming being played (at one point, Ikebe asks Kaga if she understands a new game and she says she’ll figure it out on her own as she plays; the audience has to do the same as they watch)—and then a fantastic, out of nowhere car race. Shinoda’s direction, Kosugi Masao’s photography, Sugihara Yoshi’s editing, and Nishizaki Hideo’s sound design sit the viewer next to the leads, encapsulating their visceral experience of the moments. The down time, when Ikebe sits around his sparse apartment with pals Mikami Shin'ichirô and Sugiura Naoki, is just treading water until he can get to the next game with Kaga.

There’s also the completely silent Fujiki Takashi, a half Chinese yakuza dope addict psychopath; Fujiki interests both Ikebe and Kaga, but for different reasons. For Ikebe, Fujiki presents a threat to Kaga’s attention. Dope’s the easy thrill and Kaga’s too young to understand why easy thrills are wrong. Ikebe’s jealous of Fujiki before he and Kaga even discuss him. And since the exposition is always delayed about ten minutes in Pale Flower, Ikebe’s got to convey the character development in his performance. Shinoda and the crew help, obviously, the way they present Ikebe and his experience of the situations, but Pale Flower doesn’t rush to explain anything. Explanations are overrated anyway, something the film all of a sudden forgets in the epilogue.

After a flawless finale, Shinoda and co-screenwriter Baba Masaru jarringly sync the calmly delayed exposition to scene. Worse, they do it with narration. It makes sense, there’s not enough time left in the film for the traditional delay, but it’s also a needless gesture. Pale Flower needs to be five minutes shorter or five minutes longer.

Great performances all around—Ikebe, Kaga, Hara. Bosses Tôno and Miyaguchi are awesome together, these almost adorable old men as they determine the fates of those around them.

The plotting is excellent; Pale Flower’s expansive but concise. Shinoda’s got these specifically directed sequences with different styles but the same tools used to create them. The car race, for instance, looks and feels entirely different than the foot chase, but it’s the same tone, it’s the same filmmaking techniques applied. And the narrative distance is the same. It’s almost always about Ikebe’s experience of the moments; when it’s not, it’s about Kaga’s and Ikebe’s experience of observing her experience of them.

It’s phenomenal.

It just needs to be a little shorter, or a little longer. Pale Flower’s an objective lesson in the trickiness of epilogues.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Shinoda Masahiro; screenplay by Baba Masaru and Shinoda, based on the novel by Ishihara Shintarô; director of photography, Kosugi Masao; edited by Sugihara Yoshi; music by Takahashi Yûji and Takemitsu Tôru; produced by Shirai Masao and Wakatsuki Shigeru; released by Shochiku Company.

Starring Ikebe Ryô (Muraki), Kaga Mariko (Saeko), Fujiki Takashi (Yoh), Sugiura Naoki (Aikawa), Mikami Shin’ichirô (Reiji), Sasaki Isao (Jiro), Nakahara Kôji (Tamaki), Miyaguchi Seiji (Gang leader), Tôno Eijirô (Gang Leader), and Hara Chisako (Muraki’s lover).


Woman in the Dunes (1964, Teshigahara Hiroshi)

Episodes of the “Twilight Zone” ran thirty minutes, or whatever without commercials, for a very good reason. Stretching a one-note story out to an hour would be too exasperating. Woman in the Dunes stretches it out to, I guess, two and a half hours.

The film starts interestingly enough. An entomologist looking for bugs finds himself in a strange village (where the people live in houses surrounded by sand) and hears about a new species of insect. Having read Abe and seen another film he wrote before, I expected Woman in the Dunes to go somewhere, namely to exploring this strange world. But it doesn’t. It gradually–the scenes are lengthy and padded–becomes clear the film isn’t going anywhere, just like the trapped entomologist and his trapped insects (the symbolism is blatant–actually, it isn’t symbolism… it’s simile). The characters are poorly written. While the man’s captor is just a woman trying to survive, she’s also a raving lunatic, so it isn’t a strike against him when he tries to ransom her for his freedom (if anything, it takes him five or six minutes too long). Except he’s not a good character either, Abe’s fast and loose with him–being an entomologist is his defining trait–and Okada’s either just as lazy (or a rather mediocre actor).

There are some decent shots of sand. Sometimes it falls, sometimes it looks like water running across the surface, but mostly it’s just there. There’s never any point to the shots of the sand. It’s never a symbol of man doing this or that or feeling this or that. It’s all filler and sometimes neat-looking filler. But mostly not.

I can appreciate, like I can appreciate an episode of the “Twilight Zone,” some of the generative reasoning behind the film. I can’t imagine the novel’s similarly paced, since I’ve never heard of its mass burning by attempting readers, but it’s way too long and way too shallow. I guess the director’s cut, which I attempted, runs a half hour longer than the theatrical, which puts a lot of the blame on the, well, the director.

Films appearing to be pretentious and empty are often not difficult to consume–if there were content, even pretentious content, they’d be consumable–they really are just pretentious and empty. And Woman in the Dunes is definitely one of those films. While it’s harmless (except to my time), Abe and, particularly Teshigahara, who fills the film with meaningless shots of sand, knew they were playing to a particular audience and knew they didn’t have to do much work and exploited them.

It’s astounding they not only went on to make an acceptable film, but a decent one (The Face of Another).

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Teshigahara Hiroshi; screenplay by Abe Kôbô, based on his novel; director of photography, Segewa Hiroshi; edited by Shuzui Fusako; music by Takemitsu Toru; production designers, Hirakawa Totetsu and Yamazaki Masao; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Okada Eiji (the entomologist), Kishida Kyoko (the woman) and Ito Hiroko (the entomologist’s wife).


The Face of Another (1966, Teshigahara Hiroshi)

Novelists make interesting screenwriters (though maybe not as much any more). When they adapt their own work, however, it might not be the best idea. The adaptation allows them to package their interpretation of themselves, as opposed to actually adapting a work from one medium to the next. The Face of Another, adapted by Abe Kôbô from his own novel, is a good example of how not to adapt a novel into a film. Besides including some decidedly bad visuals–not everything can be visualized for film and work in the context of a film, after all–he also made some really bad pacing decisions. The first hour of the film, about a man whose face is horribly scarred in an accident, drags along. It opens well with a scene between the man and his wife and the marriage scenes do play well in the film and should have been it’s secondary focus. However, most of the first hour is spent with the man (who is in bandages for that first hour, until he gets a life-like mask in the second) and his psychiatrist. The psychiatrist somehow becomes the film’s focus, which doesn’t fit….

What does fit the film is the rather novelistic juxtaposition between the man and a pretty young girl with a radiation burn (from Nagasaki) on her face. She appears in the second half and the film switches focus a few times. While he’s desperately trying to fix his psychical appearance amid people who really don’t care (except his wife), she’s kind and good and trying to help people even though child point and scream. In her scenes, there’s a real sense of the post-war condition. His scenes aren’t just missing that setting, they’re missing any subtext. The psychiatrist’s mad dreams of lost identity are a poor substitute for anything going on with the man below the surface. Even the relationship with the wife, which disappears for a good forty minutes only to come back with some promise, fizzles in the end. The end really fizzles as the film gets visually theatrical and Abe keeps novelistic elements film is incapable of presenting.

The acting is excellent, which makes the film’s faults all the more glaring. If this cast couldn’t iron them out, they must be bad. The scarred girl, Irie Miki, never appeared in any other films. The lead, Nakadai Tatsuya, has an impressive emotional range given the first the bandages, then the mask, which stays static, and the character is too shallow. As the film’s configured, the suffering wife (Kyō Machiko) should have been the protagonist, but obviously she isn’t. Only the psychiatrist, Hira Mikijiro, gives a less than stellar performance in one of the main roles, but since his character changes so much from scene to scene, it’s not really his fault.

When I started Face of Another, I was expecting something great, but as it drug on and on–and particularly when it failed to stay on the good course it found in the second hour–I really wondered whether or not a novelist should be adapting his own work. Especially Abe (though I’ve only read one of his novels), who seems to have a good setup then a poor resolution.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Teshigahara Hiroshi; written by Abe Kôbô, based on his novel; director of photography, Segewa Hiroshi; edited by Shuzui Fusako; music by Takemitsu Toru; production designer, Awazu Kiyoshi; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Nakadai Tatsuya (Okuyama), Hira Mikijiro (Doctor), Kishida Kyoko (Nurse), Kyo Machiko (Mrs. Okuyama), Okada Eiji (Director) and Irie Miki (Girl).


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