Pale Flower is noir in an almost literal sense, set almost entirely at night or in interiors without windows, obscuring the time of day and suggesting darkness outside drab, cracking walls. Though he made it for a studio, Masahiro Shinoda considered Pale Flower an independent film, and it's easy to see why: it feels like the work of an upstart, chopping up film noir into something new, philosophical and brazenly artistic without regard for commercial interests even as it clearly has an audience in mind. That the film became a hit when Shochiku eventually released it after a nine-month delay only speaks to the crowd-pleasing elements of its tight but perversely constructed nihilism.
Shinoda follows Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), a Yakuza enforcer newly released from prison after committing a murder, as he readjusts to life with a radically altered power structure. I have no idea to what extent the Japanese and French New Wavers knew of each other's concurrent work, but Muraki's existential cool, with his slicked-back hair and laconic stoicism, recalls Jean-Pierre Melville's '60s work and Godard's own gangster deconstructions. Muraki always seems to find himself in areas too cramped or too empty, never finding the right balance of space and people. Beneath his impassive face, confusion at this unfamiliar world rages.
Muraki spends the film looking for some semblance of coherence. He heads to the rule-driven realm of gambling, hanging around a card game in a hidden-away den. No one goes over the rules, suggesting it's a well-known game to native Japanese audiences. Or maybe it isn't; either way, the unexplained rules of the game make the isolated den all the more closeted and secret, a small-scale puzzle Muraki uses to get his bearings before he tries to deal with the unfamiliar dealings of his boss, Funada, to keep power in the face of upstart rivals.
Nevertheless, a sort-of Bushido loyalty compels Muraki to remain true to his boss, despite the nagging sense of disgust that tugs at him. He understands the hierarchy, as do the other enforcers. In one of the film's oddest subplots, a rival gang member makes an attempt on Muraki's life, a situation resolved by the uneasy partnership between Funada and the attacker's boss. This tenuous alliance bewilders not only Muraki but the assailant, and the two ultimately bond over their frustrations at not being able to kill each other. Their friendship highlights the insensible outcomes of Yakuza code, and Muraki keeps the lad's finger, offered in penance, less as a show of victory than a reminder of the absurdity of the life he used to find so clear and organized.
The blunt realism of such scenes, as well as the high-contrast of ink-blot shadows and blinding whites, gives the film a lightly surreal tone, something greatly aided by composer Toru Takemitsu's score. Like Shinoda's direction, Takemitsu's score uses natural elements to unnatural effect, incorporating the diegetic sounds of shuffling wood-plate cards in the gambling den and the speed-talking drone of the dealer's repeated "Place your bets" refrain into the music, building to decentered cacophony as the camera moves around the confined space. At times, those shuffling cards sound like the frenzied splashing of a piranha swarm moving near the top of the water closing in on a wounded, doomed creature. Takemitsu's influence over not only the music but the whole sound design is one of Pale Flower's greatest attributes.
In this swirling underworld of the underworld, Muraki meets Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a young, beautiful, mysterious woman who gambles with abandon. She does not care that she nearly always loses; in fact, she seeks riskier games with higher stakes. Muraki, bored with his devoted but dull lover, cannot take his eyes off this new woman of indeterminate past, someone who, like him, continues a destructive lifestyle simply to feel some kind of thrill. Like Francis Dee's character in Blood Money, Saeko is attracted to danger, almost certainly sticking with Muraki not out of his fascination with her, a pull that softens Ikebe's hard features, but because of his reputation as a killer. One scene turns the hidden dread of the city's narrow lanes and abysmal blacks on its head, pitting Saeko and Muraki in a car chase with a stranger. Just when it seems something might go horribly wrong, the scene ends in unexpectedly comic fashion, the punchline of which is the near orgasm Saeko has from the high.
Drifting around that seemingly never-ending card game, Shinoda focuses only on Muraki and Saeko. Eventually, a third face splits the attention, that of Yoh, a tacit man in black who sits in the corner fidgeting like some half-glimpsed vision of the future. Whispers of drug addiction float around him, and Saeko shows a clear interest in the unsettling man. Muraki knows that she could destroy herself by staying on such a path. But can he see the same thing in himself? When Funada orders one of his men to kill a rival boss, Muraki volunteers despite being exempted for his previous prison term. One wonders why he would do such a thing; by this point, whatever affection he might have had for his boss had long since vanished by seeing the old fool for what he really is, and Muraki knows full well that if he goes back to prison he'll never come out.
Muraki comes to inhabit a curious dichotomy between loner and serf, a man who follows his own code but winds up serving others because of it. Prison gave him perspective, perspective he did not want, perspective with which he cannot cope. If he winds up back there, maybe that's for the best; beats the hell out of this place, anyway. And as a final parting gift to his equally disturbed love, Muraki brings Saeko along for the mission. The look of hunger and fulfillment on Kaga's face as she accompanies Muraki is more troubling than anything Shinoda could possibly have shown in the climax. The music playing over the sequence, an aria from Henry Purcell's opera "Dido and Aeneas" (potentially chosen by Takemitsu when he rejected Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" from the Ninth as too obvious), only makes what's on-screen all the more unforgettable and piercing.
This is the second film I've seen of the Japanese New Wave after the aesthetically transgressive Eros + Massacre, but Shinoda's more conventional, if equally troubling, film shares a few traits with it. Both use high-contrast lighting that suggests not simply good/evil dialectics but of infinite black and whites too overpowering to look at head-on. The various cinematic New Waves all seem to at least implicitly address WWII: the French auteurs looked for innocence, then politics, in the bombed-out, Westernized landscape. The Germans tried to come to terms with their parents' atrocity. The Japanese newcomers, of course, grew up under the dissipated radiation cloud of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe that's why the lights that dot the night of Shinoda's film are anything but comforting: they look like frozen explosions in space, too bright to be just lamps. And when Muraki walks into that endless black in the final shot, the grim mood of the close suggests the fate awaiting all those lost children of the post-atomic age.