To the dissonant announcement of a train whistling twice, a lithe, naked woman takes center-stage, soaring over a swarming crowd with arms outstretched. Her supple bronze figure endows Tokyo’s Ueno Station with simple grace, her gesture an unmistakable expression of humanity’s aspiration for freedom. Her surroundings are bleak — mistakable for a factory farm, its mobile throng kept on course by a gabled fluorescent glow — but her eternal state of longing transcends the myopia of the crowd. The opening scene of Masahiro Shinoda’s 1964 film Pale Flower asks: can a statue of a woman in a train station grow wings? Can a human being, in this world and in this life, feel free?
This scene establishes the unforgiving terms which the auteur director is determined to prescribe to life lived in postwar Tokyo. Shinoda, a young filmmaker at the vanguard of the Japanese New Wave, restlessly sought a new expressive language for his generation. Pale Flower finds its own rhythm and mood, superimposing frictionless cool on tireless ennui, punctuating everyday boredom with an enigmatic tremble. “People, such strange animals,” Muraki (Ryô Ikebe), Pale Flower’s protagonist, cynically contemplates in his opening monologue, “Why make such a big deal about slaughtering one of these dumb beasts?” Hardened by a three-year prison sentence served for the murder of a member of a rival gang, Muraki is broad-shouldered, severe in constitution, spotted most often sporting an authoritative plaid suit. Muraki wears the look of a yakuza boss. Fierce with his rebukes and parsimonious with his betrayals of emotion, he comports himself with a gravity instantly recognizable by others, who wordlessly make way for him throughout the film. Even his boss, a slight, aging man, defers to Muraki, rarely handing him direct commands and fulfilling his requests for money and time without batting an eye. In a scene near the end of Pale Flower, a lanky young man, mouth agape, stands next to the entrance of one of the innumerable gambling parlors that pocket the streets of Tokyo, saying disbelievingly to a friend, “That’s Muraki of the Funada gang. Quite a guy, huh?” He steps to the side, scanning his eyes up and down as Muraki bursts forth, coolly dismissive of his admirers.
But Muraki is not a boss. He is a mere henchman, and his destiny is not his own. Such is the existential crisis at the heart of Pale Flower. Muraki, the charismatic nucleus of the film, remains trapped by circumstance, unable to make the most basic decisions that govern his life. Yet those actions which he is asked to sacrifice his freedom for also appear to him as ineffectual. “It’s a strange thing. Somebody died. But nothing has changed,” he offers. These words might strike as peculiar, voiced over shots attesting to ubiquitous change. Construction projects litter the city and industrialization interrupts the skyline, gas rigs and cranes posing as universal symbols of modernity. Muraki’s gang, moreover, has joined forces with the same gang he once affronted. But while change is indeed rife, the gangster sees the developments that surround him as superficial, maquillage for everlasting loss and meaninglessness.
Muraki’s boss exercises no more individual agency and power than he does, but in any case appears untroubled by this fact. Subject to the whims of shifting power dynamics among the city’s gangs, he is relegated to enacting straightforward, retaliatory measures. The boss is neither a scheming mastermind nor a convincing patriarch, leaving any hint of heroism in Muraki’s bold and unflinching attitude toward life unmoored. It is along these lines that Muraki describes his murder as not criminal but just “ordinary,” communicating this sentiment not by way of absolution but rather to deliver a pessimistic verdict of contemporary society. Yakuza — which if reviled, were also glorified for their chivalric codes — are becoming ordinary, their activities indistinguishable from the homogenized landscape of everyday Japanese modern life. This, Muraki’s dreamy but forlorn eyes seem to say, is a tragedy in its own right. Fixated with dental appointments, watermelon, and his child on the way, Muraki’s boss is ensconced in the concerns of comfortable, bourgeois life. Danger has been all but stamped out of the gang’s daily dealings, replaced by a banally corporate program of meeting at horse races and brokering concerts with pop stars.
Muraki scorns these charades of respectability, resolutely rejecting a long-time lover’s desires to settle down with him. He possesses an abiding hatred of Japanese society’s preoccupation with family life — a recurring motif throughout the film. It is ironic, then, that Muraki’s boss is making preparations for the birth of his own heir, who is delivered near the end of the film. The contributions members make to the gang are rewarded by a regenerative logic that will eventually release them from their obligations when they start families of their own. But Muraki does not care to kindle meaning in his life through marriage, rendering his servitude perpetual. Muraki’s nihilism is a response to these staid norms, pursuant to both crime syndicates and “ordinary” society, in which being childless in middle age is the most devastating possible source of shame.
Amidst the routinized rhythms of ticking clocks, clicking trains and the mesmerizing dealer’s chant (a repetition of “place your bets” that continues until all bets have been placed), Saeko (Mariko Kaga) comes into view as Pale Flower’s femme fatale. Saeko — immaculately dressed, her hair fixed in coiffed updos — is irreverent to the fact that she is persistently the only woman in rooms of over 20 men. However improbably, she consistently finds herself physically seated at the center, where she commands the attention of the entire room. Saeko’s beguiling power is due to a combination of her inscrutability — a trait that she and Muraki share — her undauntedness, and her youth. She bets at almost every turn, and her gambling strategy, or lack thereof, encapsulates her approach to life, in which she never turns down a good thrill-seeking opportunity.
By the flash of the title card, Muraki and Saeko have established unspoken interest in one another. Saeko is on a winning streak. Her slick and sudden flicks of the wrist, which put large sums of money at stake, are matched by smooth and quick swings of the camera. Muraki pays little heed to every other man in the room — who each lavish him with pleasantries celebrating his return — instead closely observing Saeko. Wishing to be registered by Saeko, Muraki puts down a hefty bet, even though it is a bad play. The contrariness of his play wins Saeko’s attention, whose disproportionate eyes glance up from the mat to examine her opponent.
Muraki and Saeko develop an unlikely closeness. In their first private conversation, they trade inveterate sentiments of existential malaise, seated on either side of a smattering of petite hanafuda flower cards. The room is barely furnished and austere. Like children, they lounge on the ground, two adults fashionably rejecting the ceremony attendant to dining rooms, tables and proper chairs. More compelling than their conversations, which are as futile as their outlooks on life, are the multiple shot/reverse shot sequences documenting their intent awareness of one another as they gamble.
The attraction between Saeko’s girlish daring and Muraki’s blithe suave is haunted by who they were and who they might become. Saeko, on one hand, is stalked by Muraki’s jealous lover. As she caresses the windshield of her convertible, a snippet of smooth jazz supplements the air of casual sophistication she performs. But then Pale Flower abruptly cuts away and zooms in on a portrait of Muraki’s lover, who is silently surveilling her from the sidewalk. The edit is sharp and disorienting. Muraki, on the other hand, is troubled by the presence of Yoh, a Chinese-Japanese fugitive from Hong Kong. Having fled on charges of murdering two men, Yoh, a noted drug addict, lurks in the shadows of the new high-stakes gambling parlor they frequent, dressed in all black. With the same sudden cut away, Yoh unnervingly smiles straight into the camera, his look distant. In a nightmare sequence which marks a key turning point in the plot, Muraki forces open a set of heavy doors, moving progressively towards freedom, only to be halted by a scene with Yoh injecting Saeko’s arm with heroin. Muraki screams silently through the peephole.
While Muraki’s spying lover represents the vigilant scrutiny of a distrustful society, Yoh embodies racialized anxieties of contamination. If Muraki and Saeko can both agree on the pointlessness of life, Muraki cannot accept, it is implied, a subhuman life so evacuated of meaning it can be replaced by mere chemical stimulation. Contemptuously, he calls drug addicts “cowards,” and reprimands Saeko like an authoritarian father when she boasts after shooting up.
Saeko and Muraki never act on their sexual attraction. Muraki craves her spry hunger for life, but he eventually adopts a paternal relationship with her, his concern overshadowing his lust. In their last encounter, Muraki brings Saeko along to witness his next killing. Frightened by her insatiable pursuit of excitement, and feeling dreadful that she will follow in Yoh’s footsteps, Muraki shows her the bare face of death. Wide-eyed but expressionless, Saeko watches without flinching, meeting Muraki’s demonic gaze from afar. Does this theatric scene arouse an imminent reevaluation of her life, or does it instead demystify even death as banal? Jaded as he is, Muraki proves to be a traditionalist, loyal to an elusive ideal of the value of life even as it escapes his grasp.
“The daily life of an assassin interests me more than the assassination,” Masahiro Shinoda said in an interview with Chris Desjardins for the book Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film. And indeed, the climactic killing is out of step with the rest of Pale Flower, hyperbolized with and accompanied by a Henry Purcell aria — a baroque choice emphasizing that antiquated notions of honor belong only in prison in this new postwar era. As for Muraki’s short-lived freedom, it is spent sauntering the delightfully crammed alleyways of Tokyo with silent swagger, tunneling between gambling rooms where the rounds never seem to end. The sleek click of the hanafuda cards, the mesmerizing repetition of game after game, even Muraki’s ultimate return to prison (under much the same conditions that sent him there the first time around) epitomize that resignation to the droll continuum of life can hold a certain allure. Nevertheless, the dash of recognition that passes between Muraki and Saeko is a mutual identification of hunger for more from life.
Pale Flower is available to stream as part of The Criterion Channel’s 17-film Japanese Noir collection.
Jasmine Liu (@jasxliu) is a freelance writer from the San Francisco bay area. She recently wrote a senior thesis on European classical music festivals, and likes to read newly-released contemporary fiction titles in her free time.