There’s something uncomfortable in the way that gangster films often ask us to empathise with central characters who are, in effect, psychopaths.
‘Anti’ and ‘heroic’ are separated by a very thin line as the movie gangster is made of sterner stuff than us mere mortals, seemingly existing in a place once removed from normality; a dark netherworld which requires stealth, foresight and a blunt force of will in order to survive.
Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), the middle-aged protagonist in Masahiro Shinoda’s masterful Pale Flower is a classic example of just such a character; a gangster defined by a shady moral compass, fully aware of his own shortcomings and apparently able to forgive himself for the many sins he’s committed.
The film begins as Muraki is released after three years in prison for killing a man to find his Yakuza gang has joined forces with a rival clan to fend off the ambitions of a third. The young girlfriend (Chisako Hara) who has waited patiently for his return, is clearly not a good fit and Muraki himself is intent to see her married to a ‘good man’. This is our first glimpse at the contemplative yin to Muraki’s self-destructive yang, which provides the tentative human thread with which to connect. Life may not have much meaning to him save the thrill of danger, but there is a deep need for human connection that his chosen profession ensures is always out of reach.
He lives in a squalid apartment and passes the time walking the streets, bowling, at the race track or gambling, which is where he first meets the mysterious Saeka (Mariko Kaga), a lone female in the city’s illicit card dens who’s youthful beauty and recklessness prove magnetic. The two form a gambling partnership of sorts, but Muraki quickly becomes besotted while Saeka’s increasing need for thrill-seeking pushes them both towards ever rasher and ill-judged decision making. Muraki’s emotional guardedness (a necessity in his line of work) is matched by Saeka’s inaccessability, and it’s this detachment that makes her all the more alluring to him.
But It’s also the thing that compromises his rational thinking.
Gangsters and their tightly controlled patterns of existence often come undone when uncertainty of some kind is introduced. Think Neil McCauley’s relationship with Eady in Heat or Tony le Stéphanois’s rescue of a kidnapped child in Rififi for comparison.
Saeka is a wild card who’s boredom with life makes her a dangerous liability. Once Muraki is able to grant her access to a higher stakes card game, she catches the eye of Yoh (Takashi Fujiki), a shady new Yakuza recruit who sits but doesn’t play. He is a known drug user and his ‘don’t give a damn’ attitude is instantly appealing to the impressionable Saeka. Muraki is both jealous and protective, as drugs – particularly in Japanese culture of the time – crosses the line. Yoh’s introduction leads to a tense power play where Muraki begins to realise that Saeka’s insatiable lust for danger can only be satisfied by witnessing the ultimate sin, and in order to win her back, he will need to ‘gift’ this to her.
The film is drenched in the gloom of noir, with stark blackness invading almost every scene as a reminder of just how far into the shadows these characters have receded. The musical score by Toru Takemitsu is an avant-garde masterpiece that foregoes any harmony in favour of dissonance; each of the orchestra’s instruments used percussively to suggest the fractured, unpredictable nature of the film.
The only break from this approach is at the end of the film, when Muraki accepts the job to assassinate a rival mob boss – less to please his own employer as to fulfil his grimly romantic promise to Saeka. The music that accompanies his slow ascent up the restaurant stairs to complete his mission is Purcell’s haunting ‘Dido and Aeneas’ with its repeated intonation of ‘Remember Me’; a sombre refrain directed at Saeka’s gleefully watchful gaze and a plaintive last prayer to accompany Muraki back to prison.
Inspired by the French new wave, Pale Flower is fantastic example of a daring, experimental film-making style for which a new generation of Japanese directors of the 1960s would embrace and make their own.
The Blu-Ray disk includes a 2010 interview with director Shinoda and selected-scene commentary by film scholar Peter Grilli about the compositional work of Toru Takemitsu.
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