Pale Flower (1964)
Directed by Masahiro Shinoda
Written by Masaru Baba, Masahiro Shinoda
Story by Shintaro Ishihara
Cinematography by Masao Kosugi
Edited by Yoshi Sugihara
Music by Yûji Takahashi, Tôru Takemitsu
Distributed by Shochiku
(1:36) Noir City International, AFI Silver, streaming
Pale Flower brilliantly succeeds in taking familiar film noir concepts and transplanting them into a place with just enough of an otherworldly vibe to make us rethink everything we thought we knew about noir. We can try to put this movie in a box by calling it an example of the Japanese New Wave or a Yakuza story, but it transcends both categories.
If you want the simple version, Pale Flower is a story about a Yakuza hit man named Muraki (Ryō Ikebe) recently released from prison after serving time for murder. He discovers that the local gangs have gone through some changes while he was away, but more importantly, he meets an upper-class young woman named Saeko (Mariko Kaga), who loves to gamble recklessly. We know Muraki and Saeko are attracted to each other, and we think we’re watching just another film noir from Japan, but we - like our protagonist - have a lot to learn.
Muraki struggles trying to understand the shifts in power that have changed the Yakuza landscape. The gambling atmosphere is largely unchanged, but Muraki discovers his old boss has hired a young man named Yoh (Takashi Fujiki) to keep tabs on the games and who plays them. It becomes clear that Yoh is not happy with Muraki’s return.
The gambling scenes (and there are several of them) are responsible for the film’s most mesmerizing moments, filled with games we (at least I) can’t quite understand, but we certainly recognize the looks in the eyes of those gambling on them. The flower card game involves rectangular chip-like cards that make an audible clicking sound, which the film’s composers integrate into the soundtrack, combining those sounds with a repetitious rapid-fire “place your bets” mantra and a dissonant yet rhythmic score. This use of sound brilliantly captures how Saeko is slowly becoming the presence Muraki can’t get out of his head.
As Chuck Stephens mentions in his essay for Criterion, there’s a sense of the young Saeko leading Muraki to his eventual doom as he realizes that the world (especially his world) has changed and for a man approaching middle-age, eventual doom is the only door open to him. Even the director Masahiro Shinoda confessed to an interviewer, “When I finished shooting it, I realized that my youth was over.”
If Pale Flower is nothing more than an existential character study of two people in postwar Japan, it is an exceptional one, yet it is much more. The film is wrapped in a visual style filled with noir shadows, which doesn’t surprise us, but also with surrealism, symbolism, theatrics, and sound. This is a film to get lost in over and over, yet one that loses none of its impact upon repeat viewings. Do yourself a favor and watch it.
Photos: IMDb, SIFF, Janus Films, Film School Rejects, Amusings