Flowers of evil in Cold War Japan: Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower

Pale Flower (Kawaita hana, 1964), set in the yakuza milieu, questions the codes of Japanese gangsters and subverts the gangster codes of the films that flooded the Japanese film market in the early 1960s. It deals with obsessive love but replaces the carnal element with gambling. Shinoda’s film harks back to Charles Baudelaire’s volume of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), published in 1857, and shares the French poet’s themes of gambling, drugs, and the close connection between love and death. There are flowers in the film – those that appear on the hanafuda playing cards –, which seem an almost ironical comment on the implied reference to Baudelaire and on human destiny. 

The frequent gambling scenes challenge the storyline simply by means of fragmentation. They destroy the linearity of action-oriented conventions, fueling the film with moments of great intensity. These many scenes – too many for the censor, who banned the film for several weeks after it had been made – reveal an intriguingly complex structure, with one sentence of the script fragmented into hundreds of cuts, as the director himself stated. Series of shots individualize human faces, other parts of the body and, of course, the cards with their flowery pictures. In his poems, Baudelaire makes use of the imagery of smell and fragrance to evoke memories of the past. The Japanese filmmaker shows men sweating and concentrating hard, completely absorbed by their gambling. The ritualized gestures of card-playing, the placing of the bets, and the monotonous calls of the croupier create a tension equivalent to the excitement of sexual intercourse.

Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a young woman in search of intense pleasure, stands out in this world of men, and Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), a yakuza freshly released from prison for murder, falls for her. He introduces her not only to higher gambling circles but also to death, inviting her to become a witness when he stabs a rival yakuza boss to death. This amour fou is unconsummated, as there is no sexual relationship between the protagonists. The film even pokes fun at this in a scene in which they hide under the quilt of a futon, pretending to make love in order to deceive the police during a raid on the inn in which illegal gambling has taken place. They feign a sexual relationship, and after the departure of the apologetic police officers, they pretend to gamble, using the one card that Saeko has kept.

Both Muraki and Saeko are doomed, caught in a strange relationship in which they meet only for gambling. The portrayal of their relationship relies on facial expressions shown in frequent shot/reverse shot structures, which maintains the distance between the two protagonists. Even when they are out for a drive together in Saeko’s fashionable convertible, her lust for excitement does not project onto Muraki, who is sitting next to her. Her attention is focused on another car, and she starts a race with it on the highway, empty because it is night. At the end, the two drivers share a good laugh, while Muraki’s rigidity expresses his dissatisfaction with his companion’s self-destructive attitude.

At the beginning of the film, Muraki’s voice-over comments on his fellow Japanese in modern-day Tokyo, which is depicted in a series of shots showing crowded streets: “They look like they are half-dead.” He seems half-dead himself, having understood that despite the shifts of power in the yakuza clans, nothing has changed. Referring to the killing for which he spent three years in prison, he asks, “What was wrong about killing one of these strange animals?” and says of himself, “I am a bum. Nothing about me qualifies me as a human being.” He rejects the honour code of the yakuza as non-existent but nevertheless volunteers to kill a rival yakuza boss. Even though he may be acting according to the codes of loyalty which he suspects are meaningless, the killing is above all a means to feel alive. Shinoda makes use of this nihilistic hero to present a critical examination of the conflict between giri (duty, obligation) and ninjo (human emotion) in a society dominated by corruption and violence for which the gangster milieu provides the setting.

The platonic relationship between the yakuza and the mysterious upper-class woman Saeko is set in the political context of Japan’s affluent and highly corrupt society of the early 1960s. The social microcosm of the criminal world, with its strong alliances and attempts at modernization, symbolizes a country which is facing radical change but is still ruled by the same old political and business cliques. Not unlike the yakuza, Japan, rising to industrial power after the destruction of the war, is forced to take sides in the Cold War period, even though the choices are dubious. Of this modern Japan, Shinoda shows only a few images – the crowd in the megacity, empty highways, and industrial plants. He prefers to focus on the emotional state of human beings in search of identity in a modern world by means of mise-en-scène and editing. The fragmented narrative structure has its parallels on a visual and acoustic level. Masao Kosugi’s camera work and the expressionist lighting create a bleak atmosphere of fear and violence. Toru Takemitsu’s soundtrack, with its dissonances, disturbing rhythms, and unnerving repetition of certain sounds, contributes to the overwhelming feeling of destabilization.

Saeko, the childlike siren, is presented as a strange flower in the band of male gamblers. Luminosity is created around her, whereas the men are shadowy figures. She is associated with the colour white, not only by means of the lighting, but also by her white dress and hat during a sequence with Muraki in which he wears his usual dark suit. However, she is not a figure that offers redemption. There is no hope for this gangster, whose encounter with her sets in motion a chain of violence. Nevertheless, he is a man capable of human feelings who cares for the people around him. He worries about Saeko’s drug consumption but has himself a penchant for self-destruction, being attracted by this beautiful but already withering flower, as the Japanese title – Kawaita hana (dry, withered flower) – suggests.

Muraki’s obsession with Saeko, the kind of obsession that can lead to masochism and death, is clearly revealed at the end, when he is informed that she has died – a result of drug consumption and the fascination that the drug addict Yoh held for her. Muraki still does not know her true identity, but he says that this is of no importance because “I now yearn for her, body and soul.” At the end, the huge, black prison door is closed behind Muraki, who is engulfed by complete darkness. Love and human feelings seem only possible through pain and death.

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