Pale Flower is a seemingly lesser known example of the Japanese New Wave of the 1960s directed by Masahiro Shinoda. In it we see Muraki, a tough Yakuza henchman, leaving prison after a frightfully short sentence of three years for the murder of a fellow gang member. He returns to Tokyo where he reconnects with his former bosses and makes new friends and lovers along the way. Sadly though, the dark world of organised crime catches up to him and he has to make life changing decisions in order to quell the flames.
Shinoda definitely was somewhat ahead of his time if this film is anything to go by. There’s a frequent use of close ups, along with one dream sequence in particular which is almost Lynchian in nature. It shows there was a willingness to really explore what one can do with a camera. It’s certainly very impressive to see this on display especially when its within a film not only from over fifty years a go but from a country that was still recovering from its Second World War defeat.
However, the film as a whole doesn’t flow very well and ends up being an awfully slow and dull affair basically from the get go. The story centres quite frequently on the world of underground gambling which does sometimes include horse racing but is mostly concerned with a Japanese card game – the most cinematic of all illegal activities. Many a shot is spent looking at the cards being thrown to the floor while the game’s host repeats his line “Place your bets…” over and over again. So much so that the subtitles give up translating this line as it’s probably engrained into your mind after about thirty seconds.
While Pale Flower does sometimes feel ahead of its time, during most of its runtime it shows its age quite obnoxiously. No where is this more plain than in the performances of the entirety of the cast. The acting is of a style that has become almost extinct in this day and age, when the performers thought they were still on a stage rather than in front of a camera. Everything is very dramatic and there’s no subtleties or hints of realism. Ryo Ikebe, the lead actor playing the role of Muraki, gives a very on the nose portrayal of a tough, no nonsense muscle man. Rarely does his expression ever change from stoic boredom but when it does, it’s often only to raise his eyebrow in an inquisitive but still sleepy manner. The same can be said for the rest of the cast who all basically just read out the script as if it was just placed directly in front of them.
Pale Flower is a tedious example of how far we’ve come in the world of filmmaking. It demonstrates tired examples of old acting that really haven’t aged well. Though it has got some moments of innovative direction, it doesn’t really have much of a voice and it’s no cult classic.
Pale Flower will be re-released as a part of the Criterion Collection on 14th March