I’d suggest watching Pale Flower before reading this. The film was released on the Criterion Collection, but you might be able to find it elsewhere.
So, admittedly this one is a bit odd. I tend to write about a set number of subjects on this blog that I don’t really deviate from; JRPGs, Ace Attorney and occasionally sitcoms make up the bulk of my writing. But every so often I think it’s worth branching out and exploring some other avenues of critical writing. So why not a Japanese Yakuza film from the 1960s?
Pale Flower, released in 1964 by director Shinoda Masahiro, is a film that came out in a period of Japanese cinema that was extremely politically charged – the so-called ‘Japanese New Wave’ of the 60s was mostly defined by film-makers like Oshima Nagisa, who were releasing extremely unconventional films that dealt with big identity issues that the youth of Japan were struggling to come to terms with at the time. To talk about the films of directors like Nagisa, you have to delve deep into the political history of Japan, which has its own value, but is also something I’m not that interested in doing on this blog. Shinoda’s Pale Flower, however, despite learning a lot from the mainstream New Wave, takes its ideas into some interesting places that can be examined slightly further away from that political context.
The main thrust of Pale Flower is the Yakuza narrative, and to that end, the film follows and embraces a lot of Yakuza tropes. Like American mafia movies, there’s a lot of common tropes that define a film as ‘Yakuza’ – you need to have, say, gambling (an illegal pastime in Japan), characters going to or being released from prison, men in suave suits hanging out in seedy bars, old and noble Yakuza bosses, and, of course, the ritualistic cutting off of the finger for the henchman who’s done the family dirty. Pale Flower has all of these tropes, most of them condensed within the film’s first hour, but it does something to try and make more out of each of them.
The Yakuza plot of this film is relatively clichéd – a gang member is released from prison after killing a member of a rival family. However, his family (the Funada clan) and that rival family (the Yasuoka clan) have now teamed up to take down a new threat, and our protagonist must choose to sacrifice himself for his clan yet again when the time comes to take down the boss of this new family. And yet, most of that is relegated to the background. That central narrative is mostly described to the audience through the Funada and Yasuoka heads, who seem to spend most of their time in a void like room separated from the protagonist and his central journey throughout much of the film. Other Yakuza-specific moments, such as the severed finger, are almost dismissed – when Muraki receives the finger from his apologetic attacker he simply tosses away the box.
It’s important to note that most of this is done by the direction rather than the script. In fact, Masaru Baba’s screenplay takes a bit of a backseat to Shinoda’s direction. That’s not to say that this dismissal of Yakuza clichés in favour of something different wasn’t in the original script but suffice to say Shinoda amplifies it. Shinoda himself says that “After the screening, the writer said it wasn’t the film he had written…” and that the lengthy gambling scenes in the film are only written as “they gamble” in the script.
Instead of concentrating on the Yakuza story, Shinoda devotes himself to examining the main relationship between Muraki and Saeko, a mysterious wealthy girl who shares his gambling addiction. To mark this shift, the film is shot in a mostly film noir style, defined by its incredible use of shadows (seriously, the lighting in this film is absolutely gorgeous – if you’re reading this and haven’t seen the film yet idk what you’re doing). Film noir is known most for its moral complexities and its central figures being victims to hamartia; here, Muraki caught by his addiction to gambling and Saeko, and Saeko herself caught by an addiction to excitement.
The relationship between the two starts at the gambling house, and the two seem to be caught in a somewhat mystical bond through the cards; Muraki’s companion claims that he seems to have taken over Saeko’s losing streak when he enters the game. At the start of the film, there’s a lot of scenes where the camera cuts between the two characters without showing them in the same frame. Even when they meet in the ramen stall, the chef’s silhouette divides the two of them in the shot, so that they’re still kept somewhat separate until she visits him in his apartment and the two play a private game of cards together.
The Japanese New Wave, in films like Cruel Story of Youth and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, seems obsessed with the link between sex and crime, but Pale Flower does something a bit more interesting than point out the connection and instead equates the two fully. Muraki and Saeko never have sex in the film, despite some scenes of sexual tension. Instead, they fulfil those urges in other ways; mainly through gambling and other criminal activities. If you’re looking for the obvious example of this, it’s the imaginary game of cards they play when in bed together hiding from the police, but it’s there in subtler ways throughout the film, again leading up to the climax (something something sex joke) of Muraki taking Saeko to witness him killing someone.
Muraki’s personality is revealed through these scenes and his relationship to Saeko – perhaps because of his mental connection between sex and crime, he’s insanely protective of Saeko’s criminal activities with the Chinese hitman Yoh. However, while the film confirms his fears by having her death be at Yoh’s hands, Muraki’s protectiveness isn’t always an opinion shared by the film. There’s a joy that both Saeko and Shinoda take from the car race about halfway through the film that Muraki seems disgruntled by – his woman having illegal fun with another man isn’t something he’s too keen on. It’s only when she’s dead and he’s in prison that he admits his “hunger” for her, confirming potential suspicions about his disturbed mental state.
Saeko is much more of a traditional thrill-seeker type than Muraki – there’s an urge to compare her to a darker version of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ archetype, but her presence in the narrative doesn’t really help Muraki find himself in the same way as most of the characters that trope seeks to define. She is similar in how her backstory remains untouched upon by the narrative; she’s rich, and bored with life, but aside from Muraki seeing her in the hotel, there’s no scenes where we are allowed to observe her life away from him. I think the ending, in which Muraki rejects finding out about her past, is sort of unnecessary for this reason; the film has already made Muraki’s choice for the audience. She’s a character who we only see one side of because it’s the only side that matters. Whatever it is that bores her about her life away from Muraki is only a distraction from the main point of Saeko’s character – she’s someone who longs for an escape, and finds it in someone whose whole life embodies that escape, without realising that it hasn’t made him happier. The happiness for these two characters comes in their connection, but neither realises this until it’s too late.
Pale Flower is a film that I wanted to write about because it really stuck with me; most of that is due to the visuals, which are thick with atmosphere and some of the most gorgeous cinematography I’ve seen. But another part of the film, the way it tells a complicated relationship story through the backdrop of a Yakuza film, is almost just as hauntingly beautiful. In a way, the film it reminds me of is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, my favourite film of last year. Like that film, Pale Flower manages to find the bittersweet beauty in a relationship built on an ultimately unhealthy foundation. While Phantom Thread ends on a much different note, both films manage to say something interesting about love through exquisite film-making.
Yeah that’s right, this was all leading up to an eventual post about Phantom Thread – had to warm up my film writing skills before tackling that bad boy. Watch this space.