Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on June 9, 2011
“Tokyo… After three long years. It makes my head spin. Just look at it. Why so many people crammed into tiny cage-like boxes? People… Such strange animals. What keeps them all going? They look like they’re half dead. Making a frantic pretense of being alive. What was so wrong about killing one of these stupid animals? I served three years… This is my territory… With no second thoughts, I’m back again.” – Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) in PALE FLOWER.
Masahiro Shinoda’s PALE FLOWER (1964) opens with this telling monologue recited by the handsome Japanese actor Ryo Ikebe. In the film Ikebe plays an aging Yakuza mobster called Muraki who has just been released from prison after serving a three-year sentence for killing another gang member. Instead of being overjoyed by his newfound freedom, Muraki expresses his despair as well as the disappointment that many of his fellow countrymen were feeling at the same time. Post-war Japan was in constant upheaval and the country was undergoing major changes under American occupation. There was a lot of confusion, anger and resentment towards the powers that be at home and abroad. People’s uneasiness and aggravation often found an outlet in many of the Japanese films made during the 1960s. Although the Japanese New Wave isn’t as familiar to western audiences as its French counterpart, PALE FLOWER is one of the finest examples of this extraordinary period in Japan’s cinematic history.
The film explores the dark underworld of Tokyo where illegal gambling houses operate until dawn and criminal bosses rule the night. After Muraki leaves prison he immediately heads to a gambling den, which he will return to again and again. The location and stakes may change, but the game is always the same. Muraki quickly sets his eye on a beautiful young newcomer named Saeko (Mariko Kaga) who is quick to smile and uses her female charms to disarm her fellow gamblers. She is the only woman who dares to play alongside the all-male clientele and it’s fascinating to watch the old men and scarred criminals squirm with discomfort when she places her bets. These lengthy card games are microcosms of the wider world that Muraki and Saeko inhabit. Old Japan is collapsing all around them and modern civilization, where women are treated as equals and demand the same rights and privileges as their male counterparts, is starting to infringe on this antiquated game. But independent women aren’t the only problem facing the Yakuza. New clans are encroaching on old territories and imported drugs will soon become one of the biggest threats to organized crime as well as one of its biggest moneymakers. Saeko’s winning smile, bold behavior and restless spirit appeal to the aging Muraki. He’s not particularly interested in sex or a serious relationship but the bond that he develops with this young female thrill-seeker transcends conventional expectations. It’s also weakened by Muraki’s insecurities because he’s not sure if he’s worthy of Saeko’s attention. These two unlikely soul-mates are destined for tragedy and before the film ends Muraki will sacrifice everything to sedate Saeko’s deepest and darkest desires.
PALE FLOWER is an incredibly beautiful film that makes great use of stark black and white photography to boldly express ideas while telling a very compelling story. Director Masahiro Shinoda meticulously frames every scene and composer Toru Takemitsu’s dissident, jazz infused soundtrack underscores the film’s nihilistic themes. Shinoda was criticized for shooting the lengthy gambling scenes as well as long driving sequences that make up a good percentage of the film and some viewers might not appreciate the movie’s slow pace. But fans of Jean-Pierre Melville’s brilliant crime films (Le Doulos; 1962, Le Samouraï; 1967, Le Cercle Rouge; 1970, etc.) should find Shinoda’s PALE FLOWER worth their time. I suspect that Shinoda was fond of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963), which share similarities with PALE FLOWER as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s films such as Spellbound (1949). PALE FLOWER contains an incredible dream sequence that emphasizes the main character’s inner turmoil and well-founded fears that’s somewhat reminiscent of Hitchcock. The film also maintains a level of suspense and claustrophobic unease that Hithcock fans might appreciate.
In an interview with Chris Desjardins for his book Outlaw Masters of Japanese Cinema, Masahiro Shinoda expressed how much Robert Wise’s classic film noir Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) had inspired his direction in PALE FLOWER. While watching the film again recently I was taken aback by the number of similar qualities that both movies share. In Odds Against Tomorrow, Robert Ryan gives one of his greatest performances as a bitter conman who expresses his disappointment in life with racist and violent outbursts. Ryo Ikebe’s character in PALE FLOWER is much more controlled and doesn’t get the opportunity to display any race-based prejudices but the two male protagonists share a similar outlook on life. They’re both middle-aged men with criminal histories who care about their appearance and have no problem attracting the opposite sex. But they’re keenly aware of the passing of time and their own eventual demise. The men both have longtime lovers that deeply care for them but they’re drawn to younger women who are eager to listen to stories about their criminal pasts and get excited by their propensity towards violence. The sadistic streak in both films displays a desire by the directors and writers to link the tenuous ties between sex and death that are apparent in many film noirs. But in PALE FLOWER, Masahiro Shinoda takes things one-step further and explores the fertile ground laid by the French poet Charles Baudelaire in his masterpiece Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil). The director has articulated how Baudelaire’s sensuous work influenced his film but you don’t need to be familiar with decadent French poetry to appreciate the darker and more unsettling aspects of PALE FLOWER. The film contains its own rewards for viewers who are willing to give in to its many pleasures.
One of most telling qualities that PALE FLOWER shares with Odds Against Tomorrow is the repeated focus on ticking clocks that signal the passing of time. A large clock hangs outside of a bank that Robert Ryan’s character and his cohorts (Harry Belafonte and Ed Begley) intend to rob and it ominously counts down the hours until the film’s brutal final act is played out. In PALE FLOWER, Ryo Ikebe’s character is haunted by the clocks that clutter the home of his old girlfriend and one time lover (Chisako Hara). The woman’s family owned a clock shop that has since gone out of business and the timepieces that crowd the shelves and walls of the woman’s home act as loud ticking reminders that the hours are continually slipping away. When asked about his use of clocks in Outlaw Masters of Japanese Cinema, Masahiro Shinoda said, “It symbolizes the time when nostalgia for the past is repeatedly broken. It’s an affair he can’t go back to, it’s a love that cannot be recovered. When he visits the place again, only a sense of futility remains. ‘Time’ is broken and the clocks represent this.” I think it’s also easy to assume that the clocks are reminders of the character’s mortality. The aging Yakuza in PALE FLOWER exudes a kind of world-weary melancholia that suggests he has many regrets and not much hope for the future. His bleak world-view, which is expressed in the film’s opening monologue, seeps into every aspect of the film while the clocks count down the minutes toward the final eruption of violence that takes place at the end of PALE FLOWER much like the bank clock did in Odds Against Tomorrow. Both films use the passing of time to shape the worlds they are depicting but they also express the resolute lives of the withdrawn and solemn characters that populate those worlds.
Although the influence of Odds Against Tomorrow on Masahiro Shinoda’s film shouldn’t be underestimated I think it’s equally fascinating to look at the influence that PALE FLOWER may have had on filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader. The similarities between Taxi Driver (1976) and PALE FLOWER seem self-evident to me but I’ve never come across a comparison of the two films, which share similar monologues, characters and endings. One of the most memorable scenes in PALE FLOWER involves an attempted hit on the film’s protagonist by a member of another Yakuza clan. Muraki is attacked in a bowling ally while the classic Italian song “O Sole Mio” (later recorded by Tony Martin as “There’s No Tomorrow” and Elvis Presley as “It’s Now or Never”) plays in the background. The scene is beautifully orchestrated and predates similar scenes found in the work of directors like Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola as well as John Woo and Ringo Lam. Whether or not Shinoda’s film inspired other director’s is debatable but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a worthy predecessor to the modern mobster movies that are still incredibly popular today.
PALE FLOWER was originally released on DVD by Homevision/Image Entertainment and recently Criterion released the film on DVD as well as BLU-RAY with some wonderful extras including an interview with director Masahiro Shinoda, audio commentary by film scholar Peter Grilli, the original theatrical trailer and a new essay by critic Chuck Stephens. I’ve admired Masahiro Shinoda films for years and I often mention PALE FLOWER when I’m asked about my favorite Japanese films. PALE FLOWER should impress serious noir film buffs and it’s essential viewing for anyone interested in seeing one of the most fascinating films to emerge from the Japanese New Wave.
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