“Tokyo… After three long years. It makes my head spin. Just look at it. Why so many people crammed into tiny cage-like boxes? People… Such strange animals. What keeps them all going? They look like they’re half dead. Making a frantic pretense of being alive. What was so wrong about killing one of these stupid animals? I served three years… This is my territory… With no second thoughts, I’m back again.” – Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) in Pale Flower

Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964) opens with this telling monologue recited by the Japanese actor Ryo Ikebe. Ikebe plays an aging Yakuza mobster called Muraki who has just been released from prison after serving a three-year sentence for killing another gang member. Instead of being overjoyed by his newfound freedom, Muraki expresses his personal despair as well as the disappointment that many of his fellow countrymen were feeling in post-war Japan.

The film smartly examines the constant upheaval Japan was undergoing under American occupation. Many Japanese shared a deep-seated anger and resentment towards the powers that be both at home and abroad. As a result, the country’s unease and aggravation often found an outlet in popular cinema. This is particularly apparent in films made during the 1960s and 1970s, eras that gave birth to the Japanese New Wave as well as Pinku Eigu (Pink films). Although the Japanese New Wave isn’t as familiar to western audiences as its French counterpart, Pale Flower is one of the finest examples of this extraordinary period in Japan’s cinematic history.

After our protagonist leaves prison he immediately heads to a gambling den, which he will return to again and again throughout the course of the film. The location and stakes may change but the game is always the same. During one of these risky games, Muraki sets his eye on a beautiful young newcomer named Saeko (Mariko Kaga) who projects an easy smile while using her feminine charms to disarm her fellow gamblers. She is the only woman who dares to play alongside the all-male clientele and it is fascinating to watch the old men, scarred hoodlums, and unscrupulous criminals squirm with discomfort when she places her bets.

These lengthy card games are microcosms of the wider world that Muraki and Saeko inhabit. Old Japan is collapsing all around them and modern civilization, where women are treated as equals and demand the same rights and privileges as their male counterparts, is starting to infringe on this antiquated game. However, independent women are not the only problem the Yakuza face. New clans are encroaching on old territories and imported drugs would soon become one of the biggest threats to organized crime as well as one of its biggest moneymakers.

Saeko’s upper-class background, bold beauty and restless spirit appeal to the aging Muraki. He’s not particularly interested in sex or a serious relationship but the bond that he develops with this young female thrill-seeker transcends conventional expectations. Their atypical relationship has also awakened Muraki’s insecurities. The middle-aged gambler is unsure sure if he’s worthy of young Saeko’s attention. These two unlikely soulmates are destined for tragedy and before the film ends Muraki will sacrifice everything to sedate Saeko’s deepest and darkest desires.

Pale Flower is an incredibly beautiful film that makes great use of its stark black and white photography to express radical ideas while telling a very compelling and intimate story. Director Masahiro Shinoda meticulously frames every scene and composer Toru Takemitsu’s dissident, jazz-inspired soundtrack underscores the nihilistic themes while the serpentine script (written by Shinoda along with Shintarô Ishihara and Masaru Baba) deftly explores the dark underworld of Tokyo where illegal gambling houses operate until dawn and criminal bosses rule the night.

When the film was originally released Shinoda was heavily criticized for shooting lengthy gambling scenes as well as long driving sequences that make up a good percentage of the film. Some viewers might not appreciate the picture’s leisurely pace and poetic ambiance but fans of Jean-Pierre Melville’s brilliant crime films (Le Doulos; 1962, Le Samouraï; 1967, Le Cercle Rouge; 1970, etc.) should find Pale Flower well worth their time.

Besides the apparent influence of French crime films, I suspect that Shinoda was also influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s output including Stray Dog (1949) and High and Low (1963), which both share similarities with Pale Flower. Shoda’s film also contains an incredible surrealistic dream sequence that emphasizes the main character’s inner turmoil and well-founded fears that’s somewhat reminiscent of Dali’s contribution to Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1949). In addition, Hitchcock’s influence is noticeable in the way Shinoda maintains a level of suspense and claustrophobic unease that fans of the master of suspense will appreciate.

In an interview with author Chris Desjardins for his book Outlaw Masters of Japanese Cinema, director Masahiro Shinoda also expressed how much Robert Wise’s classic film noir Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) had inspired his direction. While watching Wise’s film again recently I was taken aback by the number of similar qualities that both movies share.

In Odds Against Tomorrow, American actor Robert Ryan gives one of his greatest performances as a bitter conman who expresses his disappointment in life with racist and violent outbursts. Ryo Ikebe’s character in Pale Flower is much more controlled and doesn’t display any race-based prejudices but the two male protagonists share a similar outlook on life. They’re both men in decline with criminal histories who care deeply about their outward appearance and have no problem attracting the opposite sex. But they’re also keenly aware of the passing of time and their own eventual demise. Death seems to linger all around them.

Both men have longtime lovers that passionately care for them but they’re drawn to younger women who are eager to listen to stories about their criminal pasts and are excited by their juvenile propensity towards violence. The films share a sadistic streak that links the tenuous ties between sex and death, which are apparent in many film noirs. But in Pale Flower, Shinoda takes things one step further and explores the fertile ground laid by the French poet Charles Baudelaire in his masterpiece Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil).

Some joy to leave their native skies, 
some fear their birthplace, some events 
foretold by drownings in a woman’s eyes, 
or Circe’s tyrannous and dangerous scents.

Escaping that bewitchment, men embrace 
new light, new heavenly latitudes arrayed
in fire, where sun and tonic winds efface
the wounds that incandescent kisses made.

– Charles Baudelaire, an excerpt of Le Voyage from Flowers of Evil

Despite its literary ambitions, you don’t need to be familiar with decadent French poetry to appreciate the darker and more unsettling aspects of Pale Flower. Shinoda’s film contains its own rewards for viewers who are willing to give in to its many pleasures.

One of the most telling qualities that Pale Flower shares with Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow is the repeated focus on ticking clocks that signal the passing of time. A large clock hangs outside of a bank that Robert Ryan’s character and his cohorts (Harry Belafonte and Ed Begley) intend to rob and it ominously counts down the hours until the film’s brutal final act is played out.

In Pale Flower, Ryo Ikebe’s character is haunted by the clocks that clutter the home of his one-time lover (Chisako Hara). The woman’s family owned a clock shop that has since gone out of business and the timepieces that crowd the shelves and walls of the woman’s home act as loud ticking reminders that the hours are continually slipping away.

When asked about his use of clocks in Outlaw Masters of Japanese Cinema, Shinoda said, “It symbolizes the time when nostalgia for the past is repeatedly broken. It’s an affair he  can’t go back to, it’s a love that cannot be recovered. When he visits the place again, only a sense of futility remains. ‘Time’ is broken and the clocks represent this.”

The clocks are also reminders of the character’s mortality. The aging Yakuza in Pale Flower exudes a kind of world-weary melancholia that suggests he has many regrets and not much hope for the future. His bleak world-view, which is expressed in the film’s opening monologue, seeps into every aspect of the film while the clocks count down the minutes toward the final eruption of violence that closes the drama much like the bank clock did in Odds Against Tomorrow. Both films use the passing of time to shape the worlds they are depicting but they also express the resolute lives of the withdrawn and solemn characters that populate those worlds.

Although the influence of Odds Against Tomorrow on Shinoda’s film shouldn’t be underestimated I think it’s equally fascinating to consider the influence that Pale Flower may have had on filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese. The similarities between Taxi Driver (1976) and Pale Flower are evident to me but I’ve never come across another comparison of the two films despite the fact that they share similar monologues, characters, and endings.

One of the most memorable scenes in Pale Flower involves an attempted hit on the film’s protagonist by a member of another Yakuza clan. Muraki is attacked in a bowling ally while the classic Italian song “O Sole Mio” (later recorded by Tony Martin as “There’s No Tomorrow” and Elvis Presley as “It’s Now or Never”) plays in the background. The scene is beautifully orchestrated and predates similar scenes found in the work of directors like Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola as well as John Woo and Ringo Lam. Whether or not Shinoda’s film inspired other director’s is debatable but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a worthy predecessor to the modern mobster movies that are still incredibly popular today.

Pale Flower was originally released on DVD by Homevision/Image Entertainment but there is a new Criterion Blu-ray that comes with some notable extras including an interview with the director, an audio commentary by film scholar Peter Grilli, the original theatrical trailer and a new essay by critic Chuck Stephens.

I’ve admired the film for years so I’m glad it’s getting a new lease on life thanks to the Criterion disc. The film should impress crime film buffs, particularly noir fans, and it’s essential viewing for anyone interested in seeing one of the most fascinating films to emerge from the Japanese New Wave.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published on 6/9/2011 for Turner Classic Movies official blog at TCM.com