Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower opens with a near-perfect sequence that says pretty much everything the film has to say about it’s main characters. Centered around a gambling den, the camera pans across the many people trying their luck, which include a pretty young woman and an ex-convict. It is a virtuoso sequence, but what makes it truly intoxicating is the score by Toru Takemitsu, who is in my (not-so-humble) opinion the greatest film composer of all time. Interspersed with, and often vaguely mimicking the sounds of money bills and gambling chips, and played against images of men (and a woman) whose faces display a desperation that borders on insanity, it perfectly evokes the recklessness that defines the lives of these characters, a trait Shinoda observes and examines with some gravity, but often with a lot of amusement. A similar sequence is repeated a little while later, this time with the stakes even higher.
These two sequences are so magnificently executed that the rest of the film simply cannot hope to match them – and to be honest, it doesn’t – yet it’s never less than compelling. Shinoda’s films, at least the ones I’ve had a chance to see so far have struck me as being among the most deliberately stylized among the Japanese New Wave filmmakers. All of the leading lights of that era have had their unique signatures, both visual and thematic, yet in many of those cases (especially Oshima and Imamura) the styles are an extension of their political ideologies and/or respective worldviews. On the other hand, Shinoda’s style, while also personal, serves more aesthetic purposes and is more indebted to external sources like Japanese theater and in the case of Pale Flower, American crime films; it is one of the reasons why his films are visually breathtaking (Buraikan being one example). It is not much of a stretch to imagine either Suzuki or Oshima gravitating towards the source material for Pale Flower – it involves crime, gangsters and young people – yet all three would come out the other side with utterly disparate results.
Pale Flower begins with a brief voice-over from ex-convict Muraki before the scene at the gambling den where he first meets the beautiful, yet strangely eerie Saeko. Muraki has spent three years in prison for a murder, which he admits he committed for no particular reason and displays absolutely no remorse for his actions. Saeko on the other hand is primarily defined by her boredom, which leads her to seek thrills through reckless gambling. It isn’t long before the two get together, though their liaison is characterized by neither love nor physical desire but a shared spiritual emptiness and nihilistic outlook towards life. They desperately seek shallow thrills and exhilaration, though their endeavors seem strangely joyless.
Pale Flower is somewhat reminiscent of the great French master Jean Pierre-Melville, who often turned genre material into elegantly stylized vehicles of personal expression. It is also similar in the manner in which the unusual relationships between the main characters are delineated. In a film like Le Cercle Rouge (one of Melville’s masterpieces), characters are bound not by love, but a certain unwritten code of honor. Pale Flower on the other hand has two characters who again share not love but a feeling of contempt (about their lives, and about life in general). They exchange looks of intense passion mostly when gambling (even when she first visits his house, they gamble) and the final “consummation” of the relationship has an unmistakably coital undercurrent. The flip side is that Shinoda is content to merely gaze at the characters’ moral bankruptcy with detachment. This impassivity means neither of the characters ever rise above their basic traits and impulses to embodythe existential despair that the film tries to convey. What could have been a complex and thought-provoking yakuza noir eventually becomes not much more than an exercise in chic nihilism, albeit an undeniably stylish one.