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Director Masahiro Shinoda emerged as part of the Japanese New Wave, a loose movement that began around 1960, as filmmakers challenged the rules and conventions of classical Japanese cinema. Shinoda made his first feature in 1960 at age 29; his ninth film, Pale Flower, was released in 1964 and is considered one of his best.
On paper, Pale Flower is about a killer who is released from prison after serving time for murder. He heads back to his old underworld Tokyo gambling haunts and falls for an intensely thrill-seeking woman who has as much a primal need for gambling, racing and drugs as he does for killing. Shinoda, a highly analytical and cerebral artist, put it this way: "My subject is a man in traditional yakuza society who finds himself hopelessly out of place in the modern social structure and learns something about himself through this discovery."
In a 1999 interview with writer Chris Desjardins, Shinoda said, "The daily life of an assassin interests me more than the assassination. The routine of coming home and daydreaming or sitting still and thinking about what you'll do next is what I wanted to capture in Pale Flower. The American movie Odds Against Tomorrow, by Robert Wise, has a scene with gangsters gathered before their big heist. They have to kill time until that appointed hour, and they're doing nothing but hanging out at a place by the riverside. I was very moved by that scene. I think maybe that feeling was one of the big motivations for doing Pale Flower."
Shinoda was especially interested in exploring the aesthetics of ceremony in the world of the Yakuza. "The gang world is the only place where the Japanese ceremonial structure can be fully sustained," he said. His interest in this comes through most strikingly in the film's gambling scenes, which focus on the hanafuda, or flower card game.
As Japanese film scholar Donald Richie wrote of the film's opening sequence, which Shinoda conjured from one page of description in Masaru Baba's screenplay: "The gangsters are gathered in the gaming room and--in a montage of over 140 shots that precedes the first dialogue in the film--the atmosphere of the place and its people is presented. To intensify and dramatize this, the director and his composer, Takemitsu Toru, altered the soundtrack. The actual sound of the cards being cut and shuffled is replaced by the sound of a tap-dancing routine. The degree of formalization which this creates is even now surprising."
Shinoda's theatrical background likely helped form his fascination with a stylized approach. "Reality for its own sake is not what interests me," he told Audie Bock in 1974. "If my films had to be perfect reconstructions of reality, I would not make them. I begin with reality and see what higher idea comes out of it."
His "higher idea" with this film even reached into Japan's position in the world at the time. As he told Joan Mellen, "I wanted to locate this film at the point at which Japan was just getting ready to compete industrially with the West. Thus, there is a mood of uneasiness in the film. I added heavy breathing to the soundtrack to reflect a certain breathing among human beings going on at the time, a tension in the air."
Pale Flower's release was delayed nine months because Japanese censors had issues with the numerous gambling scenes. "[The studio] Shochiku was far too 'moral' a company to feature this type of behavior," Shinoda later explained. "It's my fault that we couldn't release the movie right away."
Shinoda, who as of 2019 is 88 years old, regards Pale Flower as a turning point in his career: "Once I started making this film, I realized that I could no longer pursue naivete as my subject. I decided to pursue my own evil through the film. The heroes would be people who do evil deeds. In this sense the film stands as my protest against established society."
Audie Bock, Japanese Film Directors
Chris D, Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film
Joan Mellen, Voices from the Japanese Cinema
Donald Richie, A Hundred Years of Japanese Film
By Jeremy Arnold