Japanese New Wave meets old-style film noir in Masahiro Shinoda’s exceptional black-and-white film, every bit as extraordinary as his later Double Suicide (1969), a cubist/minimalist deconstruction of a well-known Kabuki drama. In addition to the prevalent noir tropes (location shooting in a rundown red-light district, for instance), Shinoda also tosses in elements from both the already established yakuza genre and the so-called “gambling film” (bakuto-eiga).
The stunning pre-credits sequence finds gangster Muraki, freshly sprung from a three-year stint in prison for murdering a rival gangster, coming into town (the footage blends the famous statuary in Tokyo’s Ueno Station with lively street scenes filmed in Yokohama) and winding up in a gambling den just in time for a marathon “flower card” (hanafuda) match. The syncopated rhythms of the editing coincide with Toru Takemitsu’s discordant, avant-garde soundtrack, which makes use of ambient sound (in this case, the repetitive “place your bets” chant of the dealer and the incessant clacking of the flower cards) as much as orchestrated music.
Across the hanafuda mat, Muraki first eyes Saeko, a lady gambler with a distinctive, uncanny appearance (pitched somewhere between a generic femme fatale and the “vengeful ghost” (onryō) found in practically every J-horror film, both then and now. He’s instantly smitten and, soon enough, the two fall in together, pursuing a nightlife based on high-stakes gambling, joyriding and other compulsive pastimes. (One of the best examples of amour fou to be found this side of Buñuel; though, given the repressed, sublimated basis of the relationship, Andre Breton’s Nadja also springs to mind.)
The amorality of the film’s protagonists apparently caused quite a stir upon its release; nevertheless, it’s perfectly in keeping with the trend of “sun tribe” films released in the late 1950s like Crazed Fruit (the Japanese Rebel Without A Cause, 1956) or fellow New Waver Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth (1960). Whereas those films focused exclusively on wayward youth, Shinoda presents a wary, weary middle-aged anti-hero. To contextualize the anti-social behavior on display in the film, the director referred in interview to the popularity at the time of the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, the 19th century author of Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil), the very title of which is evoked by Pale Flower. (In fact, the original Japanese title translates more literally as Withered Flower, playing up the druggy, death-haunted atmospherics found in Baudelaire’s “sickly blossoms,” as well as in Shinoda’s film.)
The drug theme produces a remarkable dream sequence late in the film, wherein Muraki envisions the baleful influence of the addict Yoh on Saeko. From a bed floating amid the waves to the peep hole he uses to spy on the couple , the unrealized desire Muraki has for the inscrutable, unobtainable Saeko (her identity and background remain unknown by film’s end) is rendered agonizingly palpable. By Shinoda’s own admission, the stylized, solarized images he struck upon for this scene owed a debt both to the burgeoning counterculture’s black light posters and other Op Art.
With its radical (and contrapuntal) juxtaposition of sound and image, the film’s finale is one of the most stunning sequences ever committed to celluloid. Opening with fractured shots of a stained-glass window and other assorted religious iconography, an abstract mini-symphony of non-diegetically related imagery, the montage then segues into a recognizable scene. (Ever audacious, Shinoda establishes an overt equation between Muraki and Christ. Call it The Passion of the Yakuza.) Making his way up a seemingly endless spiral staircase, Muraki enters a posh restaurant where, with Saeko (along to experience the ultimate “kick”) waiting in the wings, he proceeds to stab the rival Imai gang boss to death, eventually tossing his body back down the stairs. The scene unfolds entirely in slow motion (one thinks immediately of Peckinpah), with not a word of dialogue. Instead, Shinoda and Takemitsu have opted to set this two-minute-long segment to the elegiac “Dido’s Lament” from Henry Purcell’s late-17th century opera Dido and Aeneas. Its plaintive, repeated lyric (“Remember me!”) refers not only to the renown Muraki hopes to gain from the killing (not least of which in Saeko’s eyes) but also to the subsequent events of the coda, set two years later, with Muraki, still in prison, being informed that Yoh has murdered Saeko in a fit of jealousy.
The staging of the coda is avowedly deliberative: As the other inmate is about to spill the beans about Saeko’s identity and motives, a prison guard’s barked “Time’s up, Muraki!” intervenes. As he exits the exercise yard, two mammoth iron doors clang shut behind him, flooding the shot with impenetrable darkness. That darkness embodies the film’s ethical amoralism as much as its avant-garde aesthetic.