Can an ex-yakuza just released from jail rebuild his life or will he be drawn back into underworld conflicts by a reckless and mysterious young woman?
New wave director Masahiro Shinoda’s breakout film is this crisp, black-and-white noirish adaption of Shintaro Ishihara’s novel. It begins with Murata (Ryo Ikebe), a yakuza who has just come out of prison for killing a man. He becomes attracted to the angelic, innocent looking Saeko (Mariko Kaga), who is hooked on gambling with hanafusa cards.
Saeko’s manner is coyly flirtatious as she persuades Murata to invite her to a secret high-stakes game. She drives them to and from the game, engaging in a high speed race with another vehicle to celebrate their winnings. Unmoored by his attempts to restart his post-jail life- Murata lets her take them on a reckless drive. Saeko’s seemingly naive enthusiasm is an antidote to Murata’s pessimism. The lack of clarity as to the nature of their relationship only makes the film more intriguing.
Midway through the film an antagonist is introduced in the shape of a young man (Takashi Fujiki) who tries to assassinate Murata. He also seems to be rival for Saeko’s affections- at least in Murata’s mind. This character has no dialogue; his face always shown in shadow. Apart from throwing knives- he is mostly in the background, not interacting directly with other people. He is almost like a manifestation of Murata’s fears and his anxiety to protect Saeko.
Ryo Ikebe’s subdued acting and air of melancholy add greatly to the film’s emotional impact. Murata may be a tough and slightly taciturn yakuza – however the many close-up shots of his face show us the character’s weariness, struggle and sadness. Drawn back into the underworld, Murata decides to give Saeko one last thrill.
Shinoda has a strong artistic style- one that usually enhances his films’ stories rather than obscures them. In his later film Double Suicide (1969), he blurred the line between reality and the stage by taking Chikamatsu’s famous traditional Japanese puppet play and casting it with real actors. At the same time, he kept the stage-like movable sets and the black clothed puppet handlers in the background. Pale Flower shares the later film’s melancholy aesthetics but is grounded in reality. Murata’s dream in the later half of the film is the most overtly artistic segment. The crisp black and white photography and long shadows give Pale Flower a classic film noir feel. In addition, Toru Takemitsu’s discordant score is sparely used to enhance the tension, especially in the gambling scenes.
Overall, Pale Flower forgoes the flashy abundant fights of yakuza action movies in favour of a quietly nihilistic, psychological human drama centered on its contrasting main characters.
Pale Flower (乾いた花) is available on US DVD and Bluray as part of the Criterion Collection (Spine 564). It is available on Amazon through the following link: Pale Flower  [Blu-ray] [US Import] .