The term film noir calls to mind both formal characteristics and a very specific time and place: America in the 1940s and ’50s. But there was also a distinct Japanese noir movement in the ’50s and ’60s.
Writer-director Masahiro Shinoda’s 1964 film Pale Flower is a gorgeous, haunting example of the intersection between American noir tradition and Japanese sensibilities. The film follows Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), a brooding Yakuza gang member who has just completed a prison sentence for murder. Walking against the flow of a crowd of people in a dramatic early point-of-view shot, Muraki has a very noir-ish monologue: he describes people as “strange animals” who are “desperately pretending to be alive. Why make such a big deal about slaughtering one of these dumb beasts?”
The one pursuit that does engage the deeply apathetic Muraki is gambling, and he dispassionately loses large sums of money playing cards with hanafuda, or “flower cards.” There he meets Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a young woman obsessed with taking risks both in gambling and in her personal life, and the two develop a close relationship. Shinoda establishes an intriguing dynamic between a man who loathes life and a woman unafraid of death. The subtle ways Muraki and Saeko affect each other’s unique brands of nihilism are fascinating to watch–thanks in large part to Ikebe and Kaga’s deftly underplayed portrayals of their deeply troubled characters.
The story is classic noir, especially as the specter of murder haunts the final act. The visuals, too, do justice to the genre; Shinoda and cinematographer Masao Kosugi compose gorgeous, moody tableaux in black and white. Shinoda employs very long takes for more restrained, dialogue-heavy scenes, but also very effectively builds tension in the gambling scenes with a more rapid editing rhythm and a range of more creative shots.
Even as it emulates the subject material and aesthetic of American noir in many ways, Pale Flower establishes a unique tone. Where many an American noir revels in glib, motormouth dialogue and a sense of near revelry in the perverse behavior depicted onscreen, Shinoda gives his characters room to breathe and react. He encourages us to relate to, rather than leer at, an elegant, deeply tragic tale of two truly hopeless people. Pale Flower isn’t just another gritty-chic, willfully cynical crime story; it’s a beautiful and heartbreaking character study, rendered in murky shades of gray.
Pale Flower will screen February 20 at the Michigan Theater as part of the U-M Center for Japanese Studies’ series “KURO: The Dark Edge of Japanese Filmmaking.”