Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Writer: Masahiro Shinoda and Ataru Baba (screenplay), Shintaro Ishihara (original story)
Cinematographer: Masao Kosugi
Stars: Ryo Ikebe, Mariko Kaga, Takashi Rujiki, Naoki Sugiura
Studio/Running Time: Criterion, 96 min.
Like its namesake to the West, the Japanese New Wave movement of the late ‘50s and and ‘60s was always a lot less monolithic than many make it out to be. Politics, themes and styles were never consistent from one movie to the next, let alone one director to the next, such that the main unifying aspect of its films is throwing out the old with a burst of creativity. While Seijun Suzuki and Nagasi Oshima were blowing up Japanese film’s stylistic traditions, Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower is a much subtler and in some ways more timeless film, attempting to destroy the cliches of the Yakuza genre not by reinventing them but by diving deeper into their meanings.
Pale Flower sits comfortably as one of the darker noir films ever made, beginning with a gangster’s release from prison after serving a three-year term for murder. He immediately heads back to his old haunts and connections but much of his lust for life is gone except when it comes to gambling. He meets a femme fatale with the same passion and the two begin playing together, amidst which Yakuza violence is heating up. It’s a film couched in nihilism that deglamorizes Japanese gangsters in the same way that Martin Scorsese would deglamorize American ones a decade later in Mean Streets—the honorable thieves that were such a part of earlier depictions of Yakuza are replaced with thugs and low-lifes.
Facilitating this genre deconstruction is how carefully Shinoda constructed every shot. His co-screenwriter was incensed at how much of the movie wasn’t in the screenplay, not because words were changed but because of how visual its storytelling is, with Shinoda drawing out subtexts and nuances that fill in its somewhat limp dialogue. There’s a Hitchcockian level of control at work here and it creates a world of menace and mistrust. Complementing this is a nearly avant-garde score by Toru Takemitsu that assists in communicating how cold and forbidding this world is. The movie’s story is certainly dark on its own, but its the stark black and white visuals and odd score that put it in an abyss, creating a world in which time moves forward but lives don’t.
Pale Flower’s only real weakness is that its characters lack any real depth or interior life—one major character literally has no speaking lines. They’re moved around as per the plot and Shinoda’s political ideas, but this too is part of a commentary on both Yakuza and post-occupation Japan. There’s no empathy possible for people living like this and in a world that supports this status quo. That doesn’t make the picture itself any less humane, though, and instead of the characters we empathize with Shinoda himself and his despair, such that Pale Flower never becomes merely an exercises of style. The result is a picture with a beating heart despite its calculation and one of the best Yakuza movies ever made.