Kawaita hana (1964)



(Kawaita hana)(director/writer/producer: Masahiro Shinoda; screenwriter: Ataru Baba/story by Shintaro Ishihara; cinematographer: Masao Kosugi; music: Toru Takemitsu; cast: Mariko Kaga (Saeko), Ryo Ikebe (Muraki), Takashi Fujiki (The killer), Chisako Hara (Yakuza’s lover), Eijirô Tono (Yasouka, Gang leader), Seiji Miyaguchi (Funada, Gang leader); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; Home Vision Entertainment; 1964-Japan-in Japanese with English subtitles-B/W)

“One of the best and most powerful yakuza films ever made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Pale Flower is one of the best and most powerful yakuza films ever made. Masahiro Shinoda’s (“Double Suicide”) Japanese styled film noir drips with despair. It blends in the 1940s American film noir of a struggling lonely protagonist with the chivalrous obsessive character in the Bob the Gambler (59) of Jean-Pierre Melville. Though seemingly a classic yakuza crime genre, it remains through its existentialism alone an atypical yakuza film. On the DVD notes it’s reported that the film was originally shelved for eight months, partly because co-screenwriter, Ataru Baba, protested that Shintaro Ishihara’s original story had been obscured by the visuals and turned into a nihilistic film. Also, the conservative, family-oriented studio, Shochiku (the home of Ozu films), found the display of gambling excessive and immoral. Fortunately, Shinoda had the last word and the film was finally released.

The stark black-and-white photography by Masao Kosugi beautifully captures the atmosphere of the noisy racetracks, smoky gambling parlors, and the shadowy back streets of Tokyo. Toru Takemitsu’s cacophonous score acts as a counterpoint to the film’s jarring rhythms and the fast-cut editing. While Shinoda presents a spare narrative that surprises with gritty and surreal touches. Among Shinoda’s astonishing set pieces are an unexpected drag race through the Tokyo night streets, unfamiliar card games that are never explained but nevertheless remain tense, a creepy nightmare sequence, and a knife attack in a bowling alley set to a string instrumental of “It’s Now or Never.”

The film opens as the world-weary, despairing, hard-boiled hit man, Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), for the Funada gang looks over the crowded Tokyo streets and exclaims to himself “What was so wrong about killing one of these stupid animals?” He has recently been released from prison on parole after serving three years for stabbing to death a member of his rival Yasouka gang. At an illegal gambling parlor run by the mob, he encounters the mysterious Saeko (Mariko Kaga), an attractive young waif who is entranced by the thrill of gambling. She is a big loser, but he’s impressed that she loses so well. Muraki develops a magical attraction to the thrill-seeking girl, recognizing in her a kindred spirit who thirsts for something more out of life and shares his empty vision of life. He develops a shaky platonic relationship with her and never pries to find out who she is, as he just feels good accompanying her around to the nighttime gambling spots and acting as her protector.

In contrast to feeling so refreshed by the waif, Muraki’s encounter with his 23-year-old lover (Chisako Hara) in her clock shop home is symbolic of his feelings of futility that time is running out for him. She is desperately in love with him, in an animal-like attraction, but can’t escape her fate of being dependent on her piggish stepfather for support. He, on the other hand, is looking for more than a hot love affair, though he cares for her in a curiously pitying sort of way but not enough to live with her.

The boss (Miyaguchi) tells a displeased Muraki they needed to modernize during his internment and both rival gangs saw a need to unite because they were having trouble with another rival gang run by Imai, and therefore a truce was arranged. This leaves Muraki, the lone wolf, confused about his role in the new organization.

Meanwhile Saeko seeks bigger thrills as she gets Muraki to find her a gambling parlor through his underworld connections with higher stakes. She also tells of meeting new gang member Yoh, who is half-Chinese and a drug addict. Looking for greater thrills she tries drugs, something Muraki disapproves of with a vehemence as he expresses further disdain that Yoh is not acting like a professional hit man. Muraki’s only addictions are to gambling and despair.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

The plot line leads Muraki to volunteer to revenge a murder by the Imai gang, knowing full well he will be imprisoned again–but life no longer has any meaning to him. The climax takes place at a darkened cathedral-like supper club, where Saeko is a voyeur as Muraki ruthlessly stabs Imai to death a number of times. The action is punctuated by sacred music, making the killing look like a religious sacrificial rite. During the killing, Muraki comes alive and finds his sense of being. He is depicted as being a yakuza only because of his spiritual malaise and desperate need for solitude, not for the usual material and power reasons one becomes an assassin. Shinoda is nonjudgmental about his anti-hero’s misanthropy and homicidal needs and rejection of life as nothing but living in a prison, as the downbeat story ends without hope or the belief that anyone could save another–not even a kindred spirit. While in prison Muraki learns of the death of Saeko, and the last shot shows him stoically returning to his cell expecting life has nothing more to offer him as he always knew in his heart.

In a DVD-feature interview, Shinoda talks about the film as a sweeping allegory for the Cold War situation. As far as I’m concerned the beauty of the film didn’t have to be seen in political terms. Its stunning visual style and engaging aesthetic quality and challenging gangster story cover a lot of territory, at least enough for me. Pale Flower is a masterfully developed work by a great director of the Japanese New Wave.