Yakuza gangster Muraki (Ryô Ikebe) gets sucked back in to a life of crime in Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower and we get sucked in to, with the film’s unique rhythms and propulsive grace beckoning like sirens. Possessing the ultra-cool nature of a Melville gangster film, but with an added dreaminess that descends into nightmare, Pale Flower is an essential entry from the Japanese New Wave.
After completing a prison stint for killing a man, the reserved Muraki finds himself returning to a previous love — gambling to all hours of the night in hidden corners of the city. It’s at a game of hanafuda — an oblique game played with stiff, almost domino-like cards — where he first glimpses Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a beautiful, casually seductive woman who has no problem holding her own in the male-dominated gambling scene.
She drops large sums of money with ease and asks Muraki to introduce her to a game with higher stakes. When he does, the two are plunged into a whirlwind of illicit thrills. Though the rules to the game are never really apparent, the scenes featuring it are some of the greatest gambling moments in cinema. Shinoda gives us perspectives from all over, ranging from expansive overhead shots to intimate over-the-shoulders. The rhythmic editing is aided by Toru Takemitsu’s remarkable percussive score, which segues in and out of the film’s sound design with a slinking coolness.
Both Muraki and Saeko are characters who struggle to feel anything, and the risks associated with gambling ignite their pleasure centers in a way that nothing — even sex — can touch. A striking scene finds the two in bed together, posing as lovers in the hotel that police have raided, looking for evidence of gambling. After the cops leave, the moment presents itself, but instead, the cards are brought back out.
Trouble is, Saeko is even more deadened to the world than Muraki is, and as he finds himself falling for her, she goes in search of greater thrills. He responds instinctively to her impulsive, reckless behavior, and puts himself in the middle of danger in a mission for his mob boss.
Shinoda combines expressive noirish photography of the stillness of late-night Yokohama with jagged, quick-cut images of the bustling city during the day. As Muraki’s latent desires explode into a literal nightmare, Shinoda shows himself more than capable of bringing slightly crazed imagery into the mix as well. A stylistic marvel, Pale Flower is the work of a director eager to exhibit his unique flourishes and skilled enough to pull them all off.