Directed by Masahiro Shinoda
Nothing ever changes. It’s been three years since they locked Muraki up. Imprisoned for killing another gangster, Muraki served his time like a good yakuza soldier. Now back on the outside, he sits on a subway, silently regarding the crowd that surrounds him. What stupid animals, he thinks to himself. They’re practically half-dead, going around as they do every day. Was it really such a crime to kill one of them? Don’t misunderstand him. Muraki is not some villainous psychotic or murderous sociopath. He looks upon his fellow man with resigned contempt bred from many years of disillusionment. Come to think of it, he may feel a bit sorry for those masses of humanity doomed to lives of meaningless repetition and pointless existence. Was it really such a crime to kill one of them? After all, were they alive in the first place?
Nothing ever changes. The illegal gambling game run by his boss still operates every day with the same dealer calling bets. When he enters the gambling den, his fellow gangsters regard him not with joy or respect, but mild surprise. Has it really been three years? Time flies when you’re standing still. There is no future. There is no past. There is only the present and the clinking of gambling tiles. The players change, but the game stays the same. This is the world of Masahiro Shinoda’s gritty masterpiece Pale Flower: an existential wasteland populated by wax figures with fists full of money and lost souls searching for a purpose in a world without meaning.
It is during his first trip back to the gambling den that he finds a strange young woman participating in the festivities. She gambles without any caution, throwing down stack after stack of bills only to lose them as soon as they hit the table. After the game ends, she approaches Muraki. Her name is Saeko, and she wants more. Not more money, mind you. She could care less about the money. She wants a bigger thrill. She asks if there are any larger games taking place, with stakes in the five to six digits. Perhaps sensing a kindred spirit, Muraki takes Saeko on a journey through the Tokyo criminal underground.
As they bounce from thrill to thrill, Muraki and Saeko partake in a kind of nihilist communion, throwing caution to the wind. They seek bigger and bigger kicks, all in some vain attempt to feel something, anything at all. The moments of excitement break up long periods of devastating ennui. Indeed, when they are not in immediate danger, they seem bored; bored with their lives, and bored with each other. It makes one wonder about the true nature of their relationship. Are they really in love? Or do they recognize each other as a means to an end, serving a symbiotic relationship of mutual destruction? The film gives hints, but no answers.
But there are bigger things brewing in Muraki’s world. During his stay in prison, his gang joined with a rival group in order to stave off the intrusion of a third gang from Osaka. It isn’t long before one of Muraki’s friends is murdered. Such an affront to the yakuza cannot be ignored, so Muraki is ordered to kill a rival yakuza in retaliation. Despite his three year sentence for killing somebody, Muraki accepts his fate. It’s his job, his raison d’être. How could he turn it down?
But something is worrying him. Saeko has been acting particularly strange lately. She soon reveals that she has started taking dope in order to get a bigger high. The temporary thrill is so succulent that she no longer needs Muraki and his yakuza antics. So Muraki offers her the chance at the ultimate thrill: to witness a hit. Certainly that is a high that she has never felt before. In a phenomenal sequence, Muraki knifes his target in a restaurant in front of Saeko. He is taken away to prison where he awaits another long prison term. Another body, another sentence. Nothing ever changes.
Pale Flower is more than just a yakuza story. It is an examination of the cultural zeitgeist that pervaded Japan during the 1960s. Shinoda said that he chose to do the film on the yakuza because he believed it to be the only place where Japanese ceremonial structure was still sustained. So we see Shinoda’s characters in their underground world, trapped like flies in amber. Without a purpose, their only option besides the maintenance of the status quo is self-destruction.
But perhaps I have given this film an unfair description. Most of the time when I encounter the words “ennui,” “existential,” and “zeitgeist” in a film review, I am almost always guaranteed a slow, cloying film. Pale Flower is the opposite of that kind of film. It brims with an almost uncontainable energy. It is one of the rare films that makes gambling scenes suspenseful and exciting despite the fact that we are literally watching people sit in a row and play with tiny tiles. Toru Takemitsu, one of Japan’s greatest composers who would go on to score over 100 films including Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), provides a dense, nervous score that keeps the ears on-edge and tensions high. The black-and-white cinematography is second to none, reminiscent of classic American film noir and French crime films. In the scenes that take place in dimly lit back alleys, I was amazed that the characters didn’t run headlong into Humphrey Bogart or Jean Gabin.
Indeed, the film’s true power is its ability to depict such nihilism, such complete languor despite its energy. There is never a dull moment. Shinoda simply doesn’t allow them to occur. It moves with such speed and bravado that one could be forgiven for mistaking it for another dime-a-dozen yakuza flicks that were churned out by movie studios during this era. It looks, sounds, and acts like one of those B-movies that sustain such directors as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. But it is something much more. It is nothing less than a cry in the dark from a generation with no direction to go but down and out.