I dare anyone who has seen the 1964 Japanese film, Pale Flower, to say that they did not get totally immersed in the dreamlike atmosphere. Never before have I seen a yakuza film that blends together the elements of noir, gangster, romance, and avant-garde to create such a unique experience of sight and sound.
Muraki (Ryo Ikebe in a career saving performance) is a Yakuza hitman who has just been released from prison after serving a murder sentence. Back on the streets, Muraki goes to an illegal gambling den where he meets a mysterious woman named Saeko (Mariko Kaga) who is addicted to thrills wherever she can find them. As Muraki begins taking Saeko to more impressive gambling dens and card games, the more suspicious he gets of who Saeko is and what she is really all about, and that worries Muraki. More complications arise as new gangs threaten the old ones and a man named Yoh (Takashi Fujiki) begins to lure Saeko into the world of drug use.
The story of the new Yakuza gangs becoming more violent towards the old ones is an interesting story, but is far from what this movie is really about. The true essence of this dreamlike gangster tale is a character study and how the life and code of these people effect their lives. Muraki is a killer and the only time he admits to happiness is when he talks of murder. This is a dark kind of happiness, but it is the effect of the Yakuza lifestyle. Muraki effects Saeko’s life by showing her more thrills in the Japanese underworld, until she soon becomes insatiable in her thrill seeking.
The cinematography in Pale Flower is some of the best I have ever seen and should definitely be used as an example in film schools for lessons in lighting. The opening scene in the gambling den is beautifully lit with ceiling light that illuminates the gamblers and casts shadows around the walls of the room, directing the focus totally on the game. The blocking also works along with the lighting to stress importance. Another scene with Muraki chasing a would-be assassin through a labyrinth of back alleys evokes a dark and shadowy atmosphere broken only by the lighted signs of near by shops.
Everyday sounds that would seem unimportant are enhanced to better create a hypersensitive atmosphere. The clacking of the pieces in the gambling scenes, the footsteps echoing on an empty street, and most importantly, the haunting other worldly score composed by Toru Takemitsu. The score occasionally coincides with the images on the screen, but also seems to venture into a haunting and discordant explosion of sound.
Masaru Baba, the writer of the film, was not happy with the end result because he claims that it was not what he had written. The director, Masahiro Shinoda, took Baba’s story and made it into something more dark and artistic. Apparently, the original screenplay had a very direct and simple storyline. I feel like Shinoda’s version is a lot more interesting than the original Baba screenplay. The film was shelved for months because it deviated so much from the first screenplay.
I read nothing but good things about Pale Flower before I saw it, but I was still worried that it wasn’t really going to suit my fancy. Luckily I had absolutely nothing to worry about. This is a gangster film like I had never seen before. It hurls the viewer into a dreamlike underworld that you will not want to leave. The sights and sounds are an audio/visual overload that creates a startlingly beautiful atmosphere that is impossible to resist. This film should be on everyone’s “must watch” list.