The images aren’t unfamiliar to those acquainted with Japan’s metropolis. A voice surmises over images of the bustling train station. “Back in Tokyo. 3 years. It makes my head spin. Why are so many people crammed into cage-like boxes?”
I couldn’t agree more with our narrator. The sentiments aren’t lost on me from my time living abroad and riding those very same trains with some of those same people. However, he goes further still.
They are strange animals, their faces lifeless — even dead. Later on, he equates step-fathers with pigs and young lovers in a darkened movie theater are much the same. His is quite the high view of humanity. If all of this feels detached and unequivocally unfeeling, then you’ve caught on to the despondency at the core of Pale Flower.
We realize we are in the presence of some sort of present-day philosopher. Of course, Muraki ((Ryō Ikebe) just happens to be a member of one of the local Yakuza gangs. This is his turf. Someone has died since then — someone he killed — but otherwise, nothing has changed. It’s the same place he left during his stint in prison. He returns to the gambling dens to seek out the former crowd.
What’s immediately apparent about Pale Flower, at least from a visual perspective, is the texture of the images. They are pristine and drop-dead gorgeous if generally detached. They come off as silky smooth as their protagonist, who sits down with the other gamblers just like old times catching the eye of a lucky young woman (Mariko Kaga) with quite a winning streak.
Already, it gives off the smoky, self-assured vibes of an old Paul Newman or Steve McQueen movie — something like The Hustler or the Cincinnati Kid — films that had atmosphere and residual cool in spades.
It starts with our hero Muraki. If he’s a little of Newman, he might be a bit of Robert Mitchum too with a cigarette perched between his lips. Or he’s casually walking the streets in his shades like a mature Alain Delon. In a word, it’s the kind of confidence you don’t teach. It feels like it’s been inbred.
As a filmmaker, Masahiro Shinoda displays a few of the same characteristics. Some of his shot selections are awesome feats quickly garnering appreciation. I would be remiss not to mention an overhead shot of all the players gathered around the gambling table, a bold portrait of visual symmetry. It requires a resolute confidence in what your frames have to offer on their own merit.
Recently, I watched Seijun Suzuki’s Youth of The Beast, and it showcases a very different kind of artistry. He willfully blows through all the rules with a blatant disregard and bombastic energy verging on the absurd. This is his calling card throughout his most well-received offerings like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill.
Shinoda’s film takes an entirely different approach, sliding casually through conventions without ever losing their sense of cool. Both give us defining portraits of yakuza cinema, but there’s a seriousness even a solemnity present that carries through, down to the black & white imagery. Suzuki would rarely be caught dead with such dourness. Here it works.
It’s also totally reinforced and enhanced by its use of sound, whether clocks, flowing water, clacking tiles, whatever it may be — there’s something about the cadence adding a pace and an innate rhythm to the beats of the story. They’re not always fast, but there is a purposeful confidence in them as they move from one to another. And sometimes, there’s silence — just street noise or feet clopping — other times the bold screeches and scrapes of the score.
If we’ve skimped on plot, it’s because Pale Flower doesn’t necessarily need much to remain effective. Aside from gambling houses, Muraki can be found at the racetrack or paying a visit to his old boss — an unassuming, aging man who takes frequent trips to the dentist.
Coming back, the faithful mobster has come to realize some things have changed in his absence. The two-sided gang war serving as the bulwark of the underworld now has a third party from Osaka complicating the works as they gain ground.
He’s also got a girl waiting for him — a girl who loves him — even as a sensible salaryman asks for her hand in marriage, and Muraki gets distracted by so many things. There’s his work and then other women. For one, Saeko the doe-eyed baby-faced beauty leaves quite an impression wherever she goes. Maybe that’s what happens in an entirely paternalistic society. Regardless, Muraki takes particular interest in her.
She, for one, is young and totally bored with life, riding the highs of gambling, although they can never get quite high enough. One is reminded of the compulsive steadily rising addiction and gambler’s fallacy at the center of Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels.
Still, Saeko needs something else. She’s insatiable. When she can’t gamble anymore, she lets herself get carried away racing down the highways — drunk on adrenaline — and when that still doesn’t satisfy, she needs something more to get off on. She and Muraki in some ways are alike. Up to a point.
He scoffs at the ghostly-faced gangster Yoh. He’s a sleazy dope addict, who always sits in the corner like a gaunt specter. His brand of small-time criminal is a far cry from what Muraki knows. Saeko is drawn to him because he is a concrete gateway to drugs, her latest hobby.
Then, one day Muraki’s ambushed by a young punk at a bowling alley, and he proceeds to beat him to a pulp as other thugs drag him off to the tranquil melody of “Mona Lisa” playing the loudspeakers. It means very little to him even as he considers the cause of the pitiful retribution.
He opens up to the girl. I killed a man I had no reason to kill. It was just a business matter; his number came up. He felt the same exhilaration in the act of violence. It made him feel alive. Now he plays cards because what else is there to do? It’s as defeatist as it is depressing.
At the same time, Muraki’s not the most charismatic figure. He’s not about to be a PR man or make amends for past grievances. It’s not his style even as he’s called on to fill in for the boss in their latest business proposition.
However, this is not all that unnerves him. There’s an eery confrontation in a back alleyway showcasing the apogee of the film’s style. He has nightmares about Saeko, feeling more protective of her than ever. Worst yet, their cohort Tamaki is knifed.
The boss calls out his men. Someone needs to avenge the death of their own and everyone’s hesitant to take on the job. It falls on the shoulders of the one man who is a traditionalist — unswerving in his devotion to duty, honor, and all those unflinching codes.
Very rarely does it feel like the plot is imposing its will on the movie. Much of what Shinoda is doing is not only an exhibition in style but totally invested in creating a tactile world. This allows the pervasive worldview and the characters to dictate what we spend our time seeing and doing.
Gambling, driving fast cars, smoking, and throwing around a bit of shop talk in bars and backrooms. There’s not much to it on paper, but you have to witness it to really appreciate what’s being accomplished.
Even in the lingering moments, we begin to realize we’ve very rarely seen Muraki do anything. Instead, it’s his reputation that proceeds him, including his three-year jail sentence. And yet to watch him in his natural habitat, there is a certain dignity and undoubtedly a kind of code dictating his life. He feels beholden to something.
His final actions are as dutiful as they are fated. He knows what he is going to do, and the scene gives way to what feels like a choreographed dance, playing to the music as only a Yakuza film could pull it off. It’s gut-busting and shocking as a solemn final coda to the film. In some perverse way, it’s his final passionate offering to Saeko. And there is obviously a consequence.
He pays for his crime with another stretch. While he’s on the inside he hears the news. Saeko is dead. His pale flower gone. Muraki’s nightmare proves more prophetic than he’d ever wish to acknowledge. And why should it matter now? It doesn’t. It makes no difference who she was. Life cannot be redeemed by a few all-encompassing words. Not “Rosebud” nor “Pale Flower.”
After all, life is, in the words of the characters, “pointless.” For those folks lifeless on the train. For the young women deadened by drugs. For the gangsters beholden to a code and a lifestyle that feels so senseless. It’s noir sentiments laid bare in the heart of Japan.