Pale Flower: Any Number Can Lose

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Pale Flower (1964)

Pale Flower: Any Number Can Lose

By Nicolas Rapold

On Masahiro Shinoda’s influential gambling film, a major win from the Japanese New Wave.

Pale Flower screens at 7 Ludlow, as part of Late Nites: Wanna Bet?, from Friday, June 9.

Pale Flower

Pale Flower (1964)

“Once I started making this film, I realized that I could no longer pursue naiveté as my subject.”—Masahiro Shinoda

Muraki, a yakuza enforcer, has had it. As Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964) begins, he is re-entering the world after a stint in jail for a murder committed in the course of business, only to learn that his bosses have reconciled with their former rivals. You could rightly say that he has lost his lust for life, as he gazes at Tokyo train station crowds and muses on what “strange animals” people are, with their attachment to living. He embraces the void, and spends hours upon hours in gambling dens at tehonbiki, a guessing game of cards with players seated in neat rectangle. Each round starts with a ceremonial flourish as the chosen dealer selects a card while concealing the choice under a piece of cloth. The matchbox-size cards, with leafy motifs, are arrayed on the floor; there’s “place your bets” patter; money changes hands. The game can go on, it seems, indefinitely, until cash or consciousness runs out.

Then Muraki (rough-hewn Ryō Ikebe) notices Saeko (Mariko Kaga) at a game, a poised, petite presence, heart-shaped poker face under a mop of pinned-up hair. He pursues her, and she requests his help in getting into a higher-stakes milieu, clearly accustomed to cruising past the underestimations of the men who are the rule in the more orderly gambling dens. The pair tune into each other’s outsider wavelength, and Muraki drifts away from another woman who had awaited his return from jail, counting the days inside her father’s shop, where clocks tick incessantly. Shinoda would later direct an adaptation of an 18th-century bunraku play, the doomed romance of a paper merchant and a sex worker called Double Suicide, but here he casts a cool eye on Muraki’s attraction: it’s but one possible way out of dreaded boredom, which is to be followed by late-night binges, reckless speeding in sports cars, and, for Saeko, at least, as she offhandedly mentions, dabbling in heroin.

A bona fide independent who blazed his own path away from his Shochiku mentor Yasujirō Ozu, Shinoda filmed Pale Flower with his usual cinematographer, Masao Kosugi, in dynamic black-and-white ’scope. Every other exquisite frame dazzles the eye: the play of shadows and half- and quarter-lit faces at night, or the bustling day shots with a smash zoom here, a dreamlike wipe there. The maverick filmmaker cited Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) as an influence on Pale Flower, and in interviews he cast the movie in terms of post-WWII nihilism following Japan’s defeat by the US. But as with Michelangelo Antonioni, all that nothingness sure looks incredibly stylish, and Shinoda limns the script by Masaru Baba (Vengeance Is Mine, 1979) with glimmers of wry humor. Noir is in the DNA of Pale Flower—Shinoda was an avowed compulsive watcher of American cinema, citing Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) as an impetus for making this film—though it’s also hard to look at Pale Flower today, and not think how many directors outside Japan show echoes of Shinoda.

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Pale Flower (1964)

The tempo of gambling movies has become so familiar—the addictive spiral, the raising of stakes until nothing is sacred—but Muraki’s path lies within the yakuza underworld and its formalized explosions of violence. And so, in a chaotic set piece at a bowling alley, someone tries to take out Muraki, while what sounds like a muzak version of an Elvis Presley song noodles along in the background. Then the same young would-be assassin visits Muraki to present him with his little finger in a wooden box, per apology protocol in yakuza cinema, and somehow, the two end up hanging out. We keep returning to yakuza bosses plotting out next moves, trading jibes about Western culture (at one point dining under a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, which nearly recalls Saeko’s own visage). But Shinoda doesn’t feel locked into these codes, avoiding a weighty solemnity, even as he recognizes that Muraki remains bound to this world.

Saeko can still raise a smile out of Muraki however, and one escapade overshadows the film’s card games for sheer, where-is-this-going suspense: a headlong late-night drive down deserted roads and overpasses around Tokyo. Saeko’s at the wheel, punching the gas until the indicator leans past 120 kph; Muraki looks quietly fascinated by how far she might go. (This also seems to be how far the two of them operate as a couple; when we see them in bed, as part of a ruse to avoid a gambling raid, they end up playing out a round of cards with words alone.) When another sports car looms into view, the race is swiftly on, swapping and screeching among lanes; the other lone driver is apparently a thrill-seeker up for a challenge. The entire sequence lasts for almost four minutes, nearly running it into vanishing-point existential territory, before it all dissolves into laughter. But Saeko’s car figures as a kind of totem for Muraki, appearing in his dream sequence—a partly slow-motion flight from one room to the next, from which he wakes up to... news of another yakuza hit. Back to the grind.

For Muraki, even his dingy home is no refuge, beset by the clanging of a nearby factory—part of a carefully designed soundscape that is defined by Tōru Takemitsu’s typically inventive Sturm und Drang of crashing percussion and unpredictable chords. (Shinoda has said he also added heavy breathing to the soundtrack to brew further tension.) The soundscape seems to reflect and refract Muraki’s stasis, never quite able to outrun the feeling of emptiness; even within his own métier, he’s unsettled by a seemingly nihilistic killer who’s on the ascent and, he worries, has designs on Saeko. When Muraki re-dedicates himself to the business of killing, Shinoda audaciously scores the proceedings to a Purcell aria from Dido and Aeneas. There’s a brutal grandeur to the mission, but for anyone who’s been watching the trajectory for Muraki, a redemption through bloodletting isn’t in the cards. Shinoda’s genius is that, as soon as it’s over, you want to sit down for another hand and watch it play out again.

Nicolas Rapold is a writer and editor whose work has been published in Artforum, the Criterion Collection, Sight & Sound, The New York Times, and the Village Voice, among other publications. He was editor-in-chief of Film Comment magazine (which received the Film Heritage Award from the National Society of Film Critics), and curated the magazine’s Film Comment Selects programs. He hosts the podcast The Last Thing I Saw and the screening series Essential Films, and is a contributing editor at Screen Slate.

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Pale Flower (1964)