Masahiro Shinoda’s 1964 film Pale Flower is a gambling movie. Like most gambling movies, it’s about a great many other things too, but at its heart it’s about people who wager their money on games of chance. The games don’t matter; it has been suggested that they were simply made up by the filmmakers. The rules are not explained because the characters already know them and the audience won’t need them. There’s only one important thing in this movie, which is the only important thing in most great gambling movies: the house always wins, and you always lose.
Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) is a low-level Yakuza gangster, just out of prison for a murder committed in service to the gang. As in most Yakuza movies, the gangs here make most of their money off of illicit gambling rooms, so that’s the first place where Muraki goes. In one such room he meets Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a beautiful woman whose name seems to mean “Queen of the Mood Swings.” She gambles impassively, without regard for the thousands that she loses, and lives most of her life the same way. But, she becomes recklessly giddy in a drag race on the streets of Tokyo, or after using her relationship with Muraki to cheat in a game. The fact that Muraki has no regard for anyone’s life, including his own, seems to turn her on.
The movie has a very loose plot regarding Muraki’s gang joining up with a former rival, and a third gang which is antagonizing both of them. It’s not really central to your enjoyment of the picture, though: this isn’t The Godfather and is isn’t trying to be. I even nodded off briefly early on in this movie, but I found its last hour and 15 easy to follow. Just wait for Saeko to re-enter the picture and watch the sparks fly between her and Muraki. Just as he seems the only one who can turn her on, she is the only one who seems to stir his blood. Certainly his clingy girlfriend (Chisako Hara) isn’t doing it.
Shinoda builds tension with the presence of another Yakuza enforcer, Yoh, who may or may not be using heroin, may or may not be selling it as well, and may or may not be trying to kill Muraki. Yoh lounges about the same gambling rooms that Muraki frequents, leaning against a wall in the background like a tiger in a zoo habitat. He doesn’t speak much, because he doesn’t need to; like Muraki, we as the audience know another killer when we see one.
Shinoda worked on a few films by the great directing sensei Yasujiro Ozu, and he displays a similar style with his camera. Like Ozu’s films, this one is quiet, which sometimes makes it seem slow-moving. The gambling scenes are long and cautious, with only the clicking of gaming tiles and the hypnotic drone of the croupier as a soundtrack. Yet, there’s the high-speed drag race, a thrilling foot chase through the back alleys, and a genuinely creepy dream sequence. I nodded off during this movie because I had a tough day at work, not because it was dull (it isn’t).
The gambling and gangster plots are a nice framework to put a lot of existentialism into your movie, and Pale Flower is no exception. It’s never completely clear who chases Muraki through those back alleys, and rightly so: this movie is set in a world where there are no simple explanations. We imagine that Yoh is a drug addict and a killer because he looks like it, but it’s never made clear: it’s all hearsay, and Muraki lives a life in which he can’t trust anyone. Even when Saeko tells Muraki that Yoh gave her drugs, the scene is played in an odd way; I wondered if Saeko was lying to toy with Muraki, or maybe Shinoda was toying with me as a viewer. As with all existential movies, the only thing that is certain is that gamblers inevitably lose, and gangsters always get killed.
Pale Flower is a movie of great beauty and even greater intelligence. My only real problem with it was that I had already seen a movie which does everything this movie does, and even better: the 1998 British film Croupier, directed by Mike Hodges and starring Clive Owen. I think Croupier is a spectacular film, one of the best of its decade, so Pale Flower looks a little less good by comparison. However, it still displays some great mastery, and I highly recommend that you see it.
Reviewed by Mark Young