SPOILERS (for a 50-year-old movie)
Masahiro Shinoda’s seminal new-wave noir Pale Flower opens with Yakuza member Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) returning to Tokyo after three years in prison and noting that ‘nothing has changed’. As the camera bobs frantically through Tokyo streets and harsh sounds swell, we soon realise that Muraki’s remark is both right and wrong. An old fishing boat rests on a river as cars pass over it on a bridge, the old world has come to a rest as the future speeds by.
While Muraki was imprisoned, one gang war has come to a close and another quickly took its place. This news doesn’t have much of an impact on our disinterested protagonist. Not much seems to grab Muraki’s attention: even after he has been sent a box containing a human’s finger he proclaims that ‘life is so boring’. Muraki indifferently returns to the same routine he had before being imprisoned, stalking sparse streets alone at night and gambling. Ikebe gives an effortlessly cool performance as he walks around Tokyo shielding his eyes from the sun and smoking, but this film isn’t a glorification of the gangster lifestyle. It is an incredibly solitary experience. Muraki is often slumped over subtly, with a blank expression on his face. He looks away when being spoken to, more interested in limply playing with a lighter than hearing the latest Yakuza news.
Muraki casts an ominous shadow while walking over the shoes of his comrades when he returns from prison, but this isn’t a career chosen out of passion. It is simply something to do and that’s better than nothing. This isn’t a familial mafia, spurned by emotion such as the Corleones. For Muraki, the Yakuza is a business like any other, he shows up and does his job before clocking out, he even has a dental plan. When they have to kill someone as an act of vengeance, they don’t rush from their offices. They slowly deliberate about who should do it, bureaucratic procedures stating that it can’t be anyone with a wife and kids.
The Yakuza boss shudders while watching a nurse handle a newborn baby sternly, but informs his workers to rip their target’s guts out. This is the paradoxical world Muraki inhabits: the most violent men still have hearts. The world is passing Muraki by. He isn’t aware of new popular music, and his life hasn’t shifted substantially.
While most of the world remained static, one thing changed. A mysterious woman has infiltrated the patriarchal poker session. The stunning Saeko (Mariko Kaga) stands out in the grips of vice as she is bathed in light and surrounded by men shrouded in shadows. The entrancing score by Toru Takemitsu, which blends jazz with the manic sounds of tap dancing, draws the viewer into this seedy underworld but ensures we will never feel comfortable in it. Paintings of Geishas cover the walls but it is Muraki who is trapped under Saeko’s spell. Although he now has his freedom, Muraki is still imprisoned, often framed between bars. Even in his home, Muraki can find no respite as a large paint strip blocks him from the outside world and traps him to the wall.
Although he becomes entranced by Saeko’s seductive blend of innocence and impurity, Muraki has a hypnotic hold over another young woman, Shinko (Chisako Hara). When Muraki mesmerisingly manifests at her door, he is dismayed to find her still living at her father’s clock shop. It appears that her life has grown stagnant, waiting for Muraki’s return but in the years he’s been gone the shop has closed due to her father’s illness and the clocks will remain on their walls, a constant reminder of ever-passing time.
Muraki has no interest in the time-honoured tradition of getting married and having kids, but he informs Shinko to settle down with another man before she ends up left on the shelf with the rest of her belongings. Muraki feels his time has passed so he follows the titillating Saeko on a road to ruin, as ‘when you start getting slow you can only enjoy a horse running.’ While racing at night, lights illuminate a path to nowhere. They aren’t racing for their Corona-sponsored ‘familia’, they’re racing just for the thrill of it.
Muraki is addicted to Saeko and she is addicted to raising stakes. They are doomed before they even begin. They have the most carnal of chaste relationships, rarely being seen directly next to each other, often something or someone is between them. As Saeko drifts out of Muraki’s life just as mysteriously as she appeared, he begins to spiral. An attempt on his life leads to a labyrinthine chase scene through atramentous alleys in which the would-be assassin is always just beyond reach. One of the most striking sequences is a nightmare in which Muraki, trapped within a broken circle, helplessly watches as Saeko is pulled deeper and deeper under the influence of drugs.
In a final act of love, Muraki destroys any possibility of a happy ending for him and Saeko. He seeks to satisfy her thrill-seeking desires by allowing her to voyeuristically view a murder. After making his way to the top of a seemingly unending staircase, he viciously murders a member of a different gang and presents their corpse in front of the awe-struck Saeko. Muraki knows that this means another prison sentence but it is also the only thrill that could possibly save Saeko from addiction. By bringing her back from the edge, he knows they will be torn apart.
In the end, nothing has changed and everything is different. Muraki returns to prison and another gang member takes his place in the gambling halls. The cycle of violence continues but the victims are new. The mystery of Saeko’s personal story remains unsolved and unimportant. The immovable clocks tick on, leaving the world in a state of never-changing flux. Muraki has come full circle and like a horse on a race track, he begins a new lap but his destination is unchanged.
Pale Flower will screen at Dublin’s Irish Film Institute (IFI) Saturday, April 2nd as part of the East Asia Film Festival Ireland (www.eaffi.ie).