Yakuza hitman Muraki has just been released from prison. When visiting an illegal gambling parlor, he finds himself attracted to a strange young woman named Saeko. She regularly loses money gambling, and asks Muraki to find games with larger stakes. In his first days of freedom, Muraki finds himself entering a mutually destructive relationship that could threaten to destroy them both.
Pale Flower opens with the ramblings of its protagonist. With the way he describes people being ferried in boxes to their destination, he clearly has nothing but contempt for his fellow man. From the very beginning, you know this is going to be a film that embraces its darkness. It’s highly fitting giving that the arc the protagonist undergoes, emerging from hell only to wind up right back there again once the credits roll – albeit in an entirely different manner.
It is in many ways somewhat difficult to parse the story of Pale Flower because it’s not really driven by a plot. Though some consider it a yakuza picture and others a film noir, I feel one could make a legitimate case that it’s a remarkably dark slice-of-life story. This is because there really isn’t an overarching plot; characters simply go about their lives on their own accord. There often isn’t a higher reason for them to do what they do; they just are.
Despite her upper-class background, Saeko seeks out thrills wherever she can. When she gambles, she doesn’t care about winning or losing; she is a character who lives and breathes danger. This is further evidenced when she challenges a random person to a street race. Amusingly, this is one of the few things to genuinely horrify Muraki. She even goes as far as shooting up heroin simply because the thought excites her. When the gambling parlor is raided by the police, she can barely contain her excitement as she and Muraki flee the scene. What makes this relationship intriguing is how they never physically consummate. Indeed, when they hide from the police by disrobing and hiding in a bed, Muraki refuses to take Saeko up on her offer. Instead, he lets her calm down, and from there, they play cards instead.
There is quite a bit of irony to be found in how the story of this film pans out. In the beginning, Muraki is utterly devoid of emotions. He states that the only time he felt alive was when he killed a man purely because he wanted to – not out of revenge, a sense of duty, or even self-defense. It’s Saeko’s rampant thrill-seeking that manages to get through to him. However, this isn’t a story in which a flawed protagonist finds redemption through love. In fact, the central romance, while not overtly dysfunctional, eventually produces a domino effect, causing Muraki to kill again – this time as revenge for a hit on one of his comrades. There is a bit of subtext to how Muraki stabs his victim in the stomach. It was inspired by the assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, a member of the Japan Socialist Party stabbed to death by right-wing member Otoya Yamaguchi while speaking in a televised live debate in 1960.
While this is the most interesting scene, I feel it accents the lack of substance to be found in the rest of the film leading up to that point. There are plenty of interesting story beats to be found; one moment I enjoyed was when Jiro, a member of a rival gang, attempts to kill Muraki in a bowling alley. He was attempting to get revenge on Muraki for killing his friend, but in doing so, he violated the peace agreement between the Funada and Yasuoka gangs. Jiro then apologizes by severing his finger and giving it to Muraki, a ritual practiced by the yakuza to appease offended parties. After that, they strike a bizarre friendship. The gambling scenes are also intriguing. How the game is played isn’t explained to the audience, but the cutthroat nature is conveyed extremely well, from the mediator who constantly tells players to go forward with their bets to the shifting eyes of the players.
In the end, the Achilles’ heel of this film is that while it has plenty of great individual moments, there’s little cohesion between them, ensuring the arcs don’t get a chance to go anywhere interesting. Although I resign that, being a slice-of-life story, Pale Flower would naturally be a little weak when it comes to plot, it doesn’t make the issue any more palatable. The result is a film with the basic affectations of a film noir, but little of the intrigue that makes the genre so appealing.
All of these problems are then exacerbated by the ending. Two years later, another yakuza member is imprisoned with Muraki. He tells him that, in a crime of passion, the tight-lipped assassin Yoh had killed Saeko. Not only is it an unsatisfying conclusion for such a prominent character, when the member tells Muraki who Saeko actually was, he is summoned by the guards. Muraki then claims he doesn’t care who she was. It usually isn’t a good idea to hint at a twist without informing the audience of what it is. It was probably meant to complement Muraki’s selective apathy, but it leaves me questioning why the subject had to be brought up in the first place.
Pale Flower is emblematic of the Japanese New Wave movement of the sixties. It was a time in which directors were given more control over their craft by the studio executives who had to find some way to meaningfully compete with the emerging medium of television. Much like the French New Wave, a movement occurring around the same time, the Japanese New Wave had a habit of placing attitude and style above plot. While the resulting films make for interesting conversation pieces, I find them an extraordinarily difficult sell more often than not. This isn’t to say they were bad movements, but the films that spawned from them really require the audience to enjoy films on the director’s terms rather than their own. Unfortunately, Pale Flower is no exception to this general rule. I want to make it clear that I, in no way, believe it to be a poorly made film; it is shot in a hauntingly beautiful manner, but its thin plot renders a lot of the goodwill meaningless. If you’re a fan of the Japanese New Wave movement, it’s worth looking into, but it’s not a film I would use as an introduction for newcomers or to convince skeptics.
Final Score: 5/10