Gakuryu Ishii has made something of a career of confounding fans and critics alike with his big shifts in artistic direction, his long silences and, in 2010, his name change from the unusual, if memorable, Sogo to the pretentious, if still hard-to-forget, Gakuryu (a combination of the kanji for “mountain” and “dragon” better suited to a martial arts fighter than a reedy 56-year-old director).
Once an avatar of the Japanese punk movement — most notably for “Bakuretsu Toshi (Burst City, 1982),” a hyper-kinetic biker film set in a dark-future Tokyo that featured Japanese punk bands — Ishii re-emerged, after a decade-long hiatus, with some more poetic and spiritual films in the mid-1990s. These included “Mizu no Naka no Hachigatsu (August In the Water, 1995),” with its odd mix of teen love triangle, wispy apocalyptic storyline and enigmatic, if visually striking, water metaphors.
After frantic, high-volume attempts to return his punk roots at the turn of the millennium, such as the 2001 “Electric Dragon 80.000 V,” a 50-minute industrial-noise music video starring Tadanobu Asano and Masatoshi Nagase as rival electro-charged fighters — Ishii went silent again.
Now he is back with “Shanidaru no Hana (The Flower of Shanidar),” which revisits the tropes of “August in the Water,” if in remixed form. It’s somewhat like seeing a punk band of your youth after a lapse of a generation or so — and realizing that they’re still playing the same three chords, if with different words and, of course, grayer hair.
Once again there is an sci-fi-ish story, this time about the mysterious Flower of Shanidar, which grows on the breasts of young women and is highly prized for its medicinal properties. A pharmaceutical company team led by the tightly wound, but basically decent, Dr. Yoshiaki (Kanji Furutachi) monitors the flowers until they are ripe for cutting from their human planters. Among the team’s members are Dr. Otaki (Go Ayano), an intense, dishy medic who is all science, all the time, and his new assistant Kyoko (Haru Kuroki), a pure-hearted type who cares for the women’s emotional needs.
Those needs turn out to be deeper and stronger than if the women were, say, blood donors recruited at Shinjuku Station. In fact, the whole set up, with the women isolated from the outside world, restricted in their activities and made to wear white costumes with elaborate harnesses to protect the precious buds, is reminiscent of maternity clinics of a previous era where unwed mothers-to-be would hide from prying eyes until their due dates — and mull over the babies they were to give up for adoption.
Some women, such as the quiet, big-eyed teenager Haruka (Yuiko Kariya), have doubts about the whole business, while others, such as the 30-something Yurie (Ayumi Ito), with her hopeless crush on Otaki, and Miku (Rio Yamashita), acting out over her flower’s slow growth, upset the all-is-well atmosphere Kyoko strives to maintain. Then Kyoko herself falls for Otaki, while the women begin to die on the operating table, with no clear cause. The film, we realize, is going to be about a lot more than flowers-as-fetuses.
But what exactly? The affair between Otaki and Kyoko, whose temperature never rises above tepid and seems motivated more by the needs of the plot than the attraction of their oil-and-water characters? The various melodramatic complications stirring up the film’s becalmed surface?
Or is it the flower metaphor, overburdenedwith the heavy thematic weight it is assigned to carry? Flowers, we are reminded in a portentous voice-over, may have been responsible for killing off the dinosaurs, as well as spurring our evolution from ape to homo sapiens. (The title refers to a cave in Iraq where Neanderthal remains were found mixed with the pollen of flowers possessing medicinal properties, suggesting a “flower burial” — though later research indicates that the pollen was deposited naturally.) What all this has to do with the buds that find fertile soil in nubile flesh, as well as their dangerous blossoming, is left for us to decipher, though Ishii gives us some stunning close-ups of flowers that evoke both their beauty and danger.
But for all its visual impact, including haunting images of an otherworldly landscape beyond time and life on this sad planet, “Shanidaru no Hana” has little of the anarchic energy of Ishii’s early work. Also, as a vision of our dystopian future it has a 1990s feel. When Kyoko becomes suspicious about the company’s research, she performs a search on a clunky office PC — and is discovered in Google-delicto. What, I wondered, happened to her smartphone?
Fun fact: Ishii decided to change his name to Gakuryu in 2001 and reveal it with the follow-up to his period fantasy “Gojoe,” but when the film flopped spectacularly, taking its production company down with it, Ishii held off the announcement until the making of his comeback drama “Ikiteru Mono wa Inai no ka (Isn’t Anyone Alive?)” in 2010.