Genre: Bleak Yakuza Tale
review in one breath
After three years in prison for killing a rival yakuza leader, Muraki is released back into his old haunts to find little has changed. There is, however, one new face in the crowd, Saeko, a young and beautiful woman who seems hell-bent on thrill seeking. Together, Muraki introduces her to increasingly high-stake scenarios until they both soon find themselves on the brink of self-destruction. Based on the novel by Ishihara Shintaro, this film will have significant influence over the subsequent formation of the yakuza genre.
Much has been written on the evolution in cinematic depiction of yakuza over the decades, from highly romanticized characters exhibiting traditional bushido to depraved punks unable to break free from a cycle of violence and abuse. In the early 1960's, when the rest of the Japanese cinematic world was still cranking out romanticized yakuza films, director Shinoda Masahiro (篠田正浩) released Pale Flower, a film way ahead of its time and causing no slight scandal upon its debut. Due to its "anarchistic" content, it initially failed to pass the government censors, resulting in a nine-month delay in its release to the public.
Unlike the other directors of the so-called "New Wave" movement of the early 1960's, who all shared a background in graphical arts, Shinoda was the only director whose primary interest and background was in the theater and theatrical history. This unique perspective, as he saw it, allowed him to approach film-making differently from his contemporaries, seeking a higher symbolism and meaning from the material. On this very issue he is quoted as saying:
Reality for its own sake is not what interests me. If my films had to be perfect reconstructions of reality, I would not make them. I begin with reality and see what higher idea comes out of it.
In interviews regarding Pale Flower, Shinoda expressly admits that the "higher idea" he sought was that of the implicit nihilism within its yakuza world. Thus while the film's main characters Muraki (played by Ikebe Ryo / 池部良) and his thrill-seeking sidekick Saeko (Kaga Mariko / 加賀まりこ) exhibit a keen, almost superior understanding of the state of "societal morality" and life in general, their clarity of perception ultimately leads them down a very dark and, well, nihilistic path.
Shinoda's eye for symbolism or higher meaning often takes tangible form in rather striking and well-composed cinematic frames, where backdrops, sets and periphery add as much to the meaningful content as the figures in the foreground. Thus both thematically and visually, Pale Flower comes across as a rather remarkable and profound film. Chris D. almost gushingly deems this film "a startling masterpiece in every respect, a nihilistic film which redefines existential dread as a lived-in experience". (Outlaws of Japanese Film, 114), while Donald Ritchie views it as "seminal" and "the best" of any coming from the "New Wave" directors (One Hundred Years of Japanese Film, 204). Shinoda himself also views this film as a turning point and believes it to be the genesis of the next step in the yakuza genre (by Toei Studios with Fukasaku Kinji's 1975 Graveyard of Honor).
The film itself is based upon the novel by author Ishihara Shintaro (石原慎太郎), and as such is one of 35 films based on his writings. The screenwriter who adapted the novel for the film was Baba Masaru (馬場当). Baba apparently did not share Shinoda's obsession with symbolism. Once he saw how Shinoda's overwhelming use of symbol-centric cinematic shots nearly obliterated his own screenplay's dialogue, the enraged Baba complained to the Shochiku Studio which in turn led to the film's damning scrutiny by the censors. Steer clear of Baba.
This is a very good yakuza film. For those having seen films depicting the latest stages in yakuza evolution, such as those by Mochizuki Rokuro (望月六郎; Onibi, Another Lonely Hitman, etc.) or Miike Takashi (三池崇史; Shinjuku Triad, etc), or even earlier critical films such as Fukasaku's Graveyard of Honor, the foresight and impact of this film upon later generations of directors is strikingly obvious.
The storyline is chocked-full of yakuza tough guys, gambling houses, junkies, cute girls and shiny fast cars. But as mentioned above, Shinoda has more in mind than simply depicting a yakuza tale, and his pursuit of a "higher reality" comes through very powerfully here.
Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD with English subtitles. Available via all mainstream venues.
|This 1964 film by director Shinoda plays a critical role in the later direction of the yakuza genre.||Mild depictions of knife and gang violence.||Both of the babes clinging to Muraki are HOT!||This film is clearly ahead of its time regarding its dark existentialist approach to yakuza depiction.|