When I think of 1960s Japanese gangster films I generally think of Seijun Suzuki‘s Branded To Kill and Tokyo Drifter – eclectic, idiosyncratic, cult films that are often quite inaccessible and over the top. Alternately, there are the noir films that Akira Kurosawa made – Drunken Angel, Stray Dog and especially High And Low, which fit the aesthetic but aren’t exactly genre films – they tend to be more natural in their direction and performance style (albeit with some stylistic flourishes).
Pale Flower is different. It’s film noir in the very best way, fatalistic, sombre, with a plot and tone that is more comparable to Jean Pierre Melville than any Japanese director, and the classic Hollywood films that influenced him. Masahiro Shinoda was at the forefront of the Japanese New Wave, and he brings all the stylistic choices that go along with it. The use of slow motion, quick cuts and the unconventional narrative, along with the film noir aesthetic lend the film a unique feel.
Ryo Ikebe is incredible as the laconic Muraki, a Yakuza recently released from prison. An antecedent of Alain Delon‘s hitman in Le Samourai, he makes even the simple act of eating an apple look effortlessly cool. Disinterested in his role in the Yakuza gang, he instead turns his attention to a mysterious woman (Mariko Kaga) who frequents the same gambling parlour as him. Elegant and refined, she’s out of place among the seedy clientele, but quickly turns the tables on her fellow gamblers. As Muraki finds himself drawn to her, he discovers that she is a compulsive thrill seeker, recklessly speeding in her car, and throwing herself into volatile situations, a habit that gets increasingly dangerous the more time she spends with Muraki, leading to a grimly inevitably conclusion.
There are several impeccably constructed sequences – the fast paced foot chase between Muraki and the knife throwing Yoh (Takashi Fujiki) is supremely tense, and the ritualistic gambling scenes themselves are beautifully constructed. The sound design is particularly effective here, as the clacking of the chips / tokens essentially becomes part of Toru Takemitsu’s avant-garde score. Takemitsu combined the sound of the tiles with audio recordings of tap-dancers on concrete, infusing the games with a hypnotic, percussive quality, while the operatic murder at the films climax is majestically set to a piece from Dido and Aeneas by Purcell.
There’s also a wry sense of humour running through the film – the gangsters bosses aren’t your usual cool gangsters; their conversations revolving more around mundane things like the weather and horse racing, while meeting their subordinates at the dentist. They feel more like salarymen than gangsters, and the disdain Muraki holds the organisation has changed since Muraki’s imprisonment is printed all over
There are words and phrases that get overused in reviews, a lot, and “Stark black and white cinematography” is one of these and while it’s true of Pale Flower, this really doesn’t do justice to Masao Kosugi’s stunning cinematography. Every shot is beautifully framed and positively drenched in inky black shadows and silhouettes, and the use of lighting and sharp focus is simply breathtaking. Criterion’s new high-definition digital restoration looks incredible, and makes the location photography and shifts in focus all the more striking.
There’s nothing I like more than discovering a forgotten classic, and Pale Flower certainly fits the bill – it’s an impossibly cool, bleak film, and one that is well worth a watch. It’s at once romantic, fatalistic and full of existentialist dread, with an enigmatic gut-punch of an ending. The noir-iest Japanese noir I’ve ever seen.
Quite sparse for a Criterion release, but it’s a matter of quality over quantity. This release comes with a new video interview with director Masahiro Shinoda, partial audio commentary by film scholar Peter Grilli, where he examines the unique score in more depth; Original theatrical trailer; newly improved English subtitle translation; Finally, a new essay by film critic Chuck Stephens