Cast & Crew
A gangster gets released from prison and has to cope with the recent shifts of power between the gangs, while taking care of a thrill-seeking young woman, who got in bad company while gambling.
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
Masahiro Shinoda's Pale Flower
The yakuza Muraki finds that the world outside has changed. His gang has combined with their formerly hated competitors so they may better resist the intrusion of a new gang moving in from Osaka. Muraki tries to pick up with his old girlfriend but is instead fascinated by Saeko, a young woman of unknown background who gambles recklessly and blatantly in Muraki's haunts. Soon he discovers that Saeko shares his own love for transient thrills but pushed to extremes: she's fascinated by speed, high-stakes gambling, drugs. All this while, Muraki has to deal with members of the other gang who despite being uneasy allies haven't quite forgotten that he killed one of their friends.
Pale Flower uses the elements of genre films to create a deep, realized world but with a sense of melancholy. Director Masahiro Shinoda (Double Suicide, Gonza the Spearman) develops his style in rich widescreen black-and-white. His detailed but unobtrusive compositions show something of a painter's eye, especially when he's balancing elements such as a character's head in the foreground against activity in the back. However, the fact that the shots seem natural reveals him as a true filmmaker not somebody straining for impressive effects. Shinoda goes further than a complex style by emphasizing certain elements of the story and downplaying others. (He claims in a ten-minute video interview included as a DVD bonus that the screenwriter was furious but Shinoda also apparently exaggerated his account of the film being banned so this is plausible but may not be entirely accurate.) Yakuza films have been a staple of Japanese cinema for decades and developed their own vocabulary; a few bits in Pale Flower might be opaque to anybody new to this but not so much that understanding the film is hindered. Pale Flower is actually fairly low-key, with the little violence happening mostly off-screen and a spontaneous drag race made deliberately tedious. The focus instead is more on Muraki's confusion and attempts to find a place for himself, something that Shinoda claims was his attempt to investigate Japan's post-war position between the U.S. and Russia but the film itself hardly supports such an interpretation. Most of the characters are in some way reflections of some element of Muraki, his sense of honor, his love of the fast life, his misanthropy, his dedication to yakuza ideals. It gets to the point that wild girl Saeko's background is never revealed and one bit of dialogue shows that this omission was deliberate.
Pale Flower can boast some impressive contributors other than Shinoda. The sporadic but startling music is by Toru Takemitsu, perhaps the Japanese composer best known in the West. Muraki is played by Ryo Ikebe whose varied career included films by the sublime Yasujiro Ozu as well as giant monster specialist Ishiro Honda. His career after Pale Flower followed the same mix of dramas and exploitation outings (including at least one Sonny Chiba martial arts film). Thrillseeking Saeko is played by Mariko Kaga, later in films by Nagisa Oshima and Shunji Iwai among others. One of the yakuza leaders is Eijiro Tono who appeared in around a hundred films in 40 years, most notably Hideo Gosha's Hunter in the Dark, Ozu's Autumn Afternoon and a few Kurosawa films.
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by Lang Thompson