Pale Flower is probably Masahiro Shinoda’s best-known film alongside Assassination, which he also directed in 1964. He also directed the first of the three adaptations of Shūsaku Endō’s Silence—the most recent and well-known was directed by Martin Scorsese. Shinodo is one of the leading directors of the Japanese New Wave, along with Nagisa Ōshima and Yoshishige Yoshida, and their films generally dealt with sexuality, violence and radical politics.
Pale Flower was Shinoda’s take on the Yakuza genre of crime films. It’s a pretty standard story, in which Ryō Ikebe plays Muraki, a Yakuza hitman who has just gotten out of prison. Muraki meets a young woman, Saeko (Mariko Kaga), and after he loses a large sum of money gambling he enlists her to help him find larger stakes. The relationship from the get-go is mutually destructive, and you get the sense it’s all going to end tragically for both involved.
The most striking aspect of Pale Flower is the cinematography, which is just gorgeous. The film actually got held up for release for a bit by the film’s studio, Shochiku, because they felt the director focused too much on the visuals over the story. Screenwriter Ataru Baba was incensed, thinking that Shinoda had destroyed the script, which he had laboured at. There is perhaps some truth to Baba’s complaints, the story does take a backseat to the visuals and probably suffers somewhat. There have been suggestions that part of the reason it was held up for release was concerns that it over-glamourized gambling, which is illegal in Japan.
The film is anchored by a fantastic lead performance by Ryō Ikebe, whose career was in the gutter after he had publicly humiliated himself, having frozen on stage due to forgetting his lines. Shinoda saw the pain he was suffering, which translated into the character Ikebe played in the film. He gave the actor a second chance in his career, and Ikebe never stopped working again until 1989. Pale Flower may not be a bonafide masterpiece, but it’s a film that I will undoubtedly go back to, and I’m sure it will unveil more cinematic pleasures on subsequent viewings.
The Blu-Ray release from Criterion includes a video interview with director Masahiro Shinod, selected-scene audio commentary by film scholar Peter Grilli and the film’s theatrical trailer. These were all compiled for the 2011 US Blu-Ray release. The release also includes an essay by film critic Chuck Stephens.