Pale Flower: Criterion Collection
June 13, 2011
Masahiro Shinoda is considered to be one of the filmmakers that pioneered the Japanese New Wave of cinema and with Pale Flower (1964) he created a moody film noir, a story of a doomed love affair between two gambling junkies. Shonda got his start as an assistant director in 1953 and became a full-on director in 1959 with A Town of Love and Hope, which was a critical darling but he didn’t hit his stride until Tears on the Lion’s Mane in 1963. Pale Flower is arguably his most accomplished film and its influence can be seen in many yakuza films of the 1970’s.
Newly released from prison, Muraki (Ikebe) is a yakuza attempting to re-integrate into the Tokyo criminal underworld culture. He almost immediately goes to a gambling place. A good-looking young woman by the name of Saeko (Kaga) catches his eye. She is quite a skilled gambler, a high roller who beats him. Muraki learns that a lot has changed in the three years he’s been away. Rival gangs have been infringing on his organization’s turf and so his boss brokered a truce with one of their enemies. Muraki and Saeko end up bonding over their love of gambling. For her, the stakes are never high enough and she has become bored. After spending some time together, he realizes just how much she’s addicted to gambling. She is not just addicted to high stakes gambling but taking risks in her life, like when she races her sports car against another on the city streets late at night.
Shinoda’s film humanizes the yakuza by portraying its members as people with problems like everyone else. We see them hanging out in common places like bowling alleys where Muraki gets into a fight with a rival gang member trying to kill him with a knife. Shinoda instills tension in several of the gambling scenes, especially the one where Saeko beats a yakuza boss, angering him. Muraki notices a rival yakuza named Yoh (Fujiki) watching her closely, foreshadowing an inevitable conflict. The director masterfully juggles Muraki’s yakuza duties with his personal relationships and how they bleed into each other. With its avant garde score and Expressionistic cinematography, Pale Flower is an excellent example of the Japanese New Wave of the 1960’s. Shonda crafted an artsy yakuza film very much of its time.
There is an interview with filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda. He talks about the genesis of Pale Flower. He says that his film reflected the frustrations Japanese intellectuals had at the time being unable to choose their destiny because of the shadow of the Cold War hanging over Japan. Shinoda shares many filming anecdotes in this engaging extra.
Also included is a selected-scene commentary by Peter Grilli, president of the Japan Society of Boston. Having lived half of his life in Japan, he points out all kinds of cultural customs and significant locations. He explains why this film differs from yakuza films that came before with a focus on its unusual score.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.