Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant has a long way to go before he reaches anything like a comprehensive understanding of the full
range of Japanese films, but I took a liking to Pale Flower almost immediately. Unlike some other
yakuza and crime films celebrated in the US, this beautifully-directed story of a man and his directionless
life of duty and murder doesn't seek to be outrageous or extreme. Its concentration on
character and atmosphere reminds of introspective American films noir, perhaps the old Barry
Sullivan movie The Gangster. It neither celebrates or condemns the yakuza way, or really has
any moral message to sell. It simply shows the kind of valueless life led by its hit-man hero.
Yakuza killer Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) comes out of prison to find that gang politics have
changed. An old enemy clan has aligned with his own to defend against insurgents from Osaka. In
a gambling hall, Muraki meets and becomes obsessed with Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a thrill seeker
interested in gambling, street racing, and eventually hard drugs. He has a steady girl that
won't leave his side no matter how much he tells her there is no future with him. But a future with
either woman seems impossible when Muraki volunteers to do another high-profile murder, one that
will surely put him in prison again.
"I'm just a bum." With those words, the self-loathing shows through Muraki's poise and calm. He admits
to liking killing, but we don't see him enjoy it. He faithfully follows the orders of his equally faithful
boss (Eijiro Tono) yet no longer feels the spirit of the yakuza code. He only comes alive when he's with
Saeko, the girl who loves to gamble even though she loses a fortune each
time out the gate. When they challenge an MG to a race on a Tokyo freeway, empty at 3 a.m. (sure ...),
they laugh at the thrill of going 130 miles and hour (in a Sunbeam?).
Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower is a handsomely shot B&W 'scope film that always finds great unforced
compositions and interesting lighting. Unlike some other 'radical' 60s crime films from Japan there's no
attempt to Wow us with crazy compositions or extreme stylization. But the style is there, as controlled
and cool as Muraki's low-key lifestyle.
Pale Flower doesn't play like a genre picture. It doesn't follow a pattern of betrayal or show the
sad result of hubris or bad luck. The various Yakuza aren't given bizarre personalities or pulpish names.
The gambling scenes are fascinating, even though we don't understand
how the ritualized games are played.
In Muraki's world, an attack might come at a bowling alley, from foes
he'll never get to know. A former enemy has to give him one of his fingers to repay a debt of shame. When
they later become friends, Muraki gives the fellow a suit - returning the finger in one of its pockets.
Muraki's boss looks after his boys, and takes meetings while in a dentist's chair. The old man insists
that a rival gang boss be 'disembowled' by knife instead of shot with a gun, and follows that by
remarking that the maternity ward nurses aren't gentle enough with the babies.
Muraki's curse is that he develops feelings, yet he knows he must stay within the yakuza code. The film is
satisfying even though ordinary story points end up as unresolved as Muraki's own life. At one point he's
lost track of his love Saeko, and has nightmares about her being with a hated Japanese-Chinese drug addict named
Yoh. But he knows that none of these things matter. The picture ends with our hero never learning some
crucial information. Nothing is important to him.
In his interview on the disc (essential viewing) director Shinoda says that for many of his generation,
Japanese culture and tradition died with defeat in WW2. He explains that he and writer Shintaro Ishihara
turned to evocations of nihilism as a way of venturing away from the traditional films of their senior,
Muraki and especially Saeko personify the concept of valueless living. They're not alienated, as later
American antiheroes would be, because they know exactly who they are and how they fit in. It's just that
they've decided that life is a big nothing. Saeko says she's bored and tries heroin just for the
hell of it. She races through the Tokyo night proclaiming that she loves the darkness, that the dawn has
nothing for her. When they laugh out loud, Muraki breaks from his eternally deadpan lack of emotion. Saeko's
tittering laughter still has a girlish quality, when she is really a sensation seeker, looking for
a fast way out of life.
The movie is greatly enhanced by the discordant but fascinating music of Toru Takemitsu, indescribable
combinations of noise and rhythm. Sound effects are put to careful use as well. In the first scene, the
puffing of a railroad train threatens to become a musical bar.
Mariko Kaga would seem to be a Shinoda favorite from an earlier movie. Star Ryo Ikebe has a face immediately
familiar from the Toho science fiction films Uchu Daisenso (Battle in Outer Space) and
Yosei Gorasu (Gorath). Its refreshing to see him in this very different kind of part. Mob
boss Eijiro Tono was a
standout in a score of Kurosawa favorites - he was the kidnapper in Seven Samurai.
I compared Pale Flower to the American noir The Gangster because both are mostly character
There's little violence and no generic displays of weaponry or fetishistic battles. Yet the craft and
seriousness of this strange crime film held my rapt attention. It was very different from any of the
other 4 or five yakuza films I've so far seen.
HVe's DVD of Pale Flower sings the praises of B&W 'scope - the richly textured film uses light and
shadow magnificently. The almost flawless image is abetted by an equally clear soundtrack that brings out
the Takemitsu score, and ambient noises such as the room packed with clocks when Muraki visits his old
The interview section with the director is a big success; Masahiro Shinoda is concise and direct in his
statements on a number of subjects. He very tellingly explains how in Japan there wasn't even a word to
express the concept, 'personal identity'. There's also a filmography of his entire career.
HVe's artwork, menus and packaging is very classy, all except the critic quote on the back. The American
Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater is the creative source for the disc, so it seems fishy to have them
provide the text endorsement. 'Chris D', one of the more intense of the Cinematheque programmers, provides
an excellent set of liner notes on an insert decorated with impressive stills from the film.
I didn't catch the significance of the title 'Pale Flower' to the film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pale Flower rates:
Supplements: Interview with director Masahiro Shinoda, liner notes by American Cinematheque
programmer Chris D.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 18, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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