Despite the fact that I co-host a podcast about horror movies, I am not a huge horror fan – a lot of the horror movies I like are old and quite tame by today’s standards. If there is a movie genre I can claim to be a true aficionado of, is certainly noir. And the opportunity of watching an old noir I have so far missed is always a cause for celebration. The British Criterion Collection often helps me celebrate.
So last week I caught Pale Flower, a Japanese noir directed in 1964 by Masahiro Shinoda, and that is probably the bleakest, most nihilistic noir movie I’ve seen in a long time. And it is also beautiful to behold.
The plot: Muraki is just out of prison, where he served three years having killed a man in a gangland retaliation. Now back in the fold, he finds it hard to adjust to the shifted politics of the yakuza families, and kills time gambling. In a gambling den he meets young Saeko, who is rich, jaded and looking for kicks, and falls for her hard. When drug pusher Yoh enters the frame, Muraki finds himself obsessed with jealousy. But gangland warfare is heating up again…
The look and feel of the movie is very much French nouvelle vogue, but the general tone is one of absolute emptiness – this film is up there with Out of the Past and Double Indemnity as far as moral bankrupcy is concerned.
Muraki is a man without a life, looking for a diversion while he waits for the next bout of violence, and basically unable to have a normal relationship (he also has a rather sordid affair with another woman); Saeko is his perfect counterpart, a woman that actually cherishes losing money in criminal-run gambling dens, and is quite eager to try and “shoot up” just for the thrill of being a druggie. To distract her from her self-desctructive course, Muraki will offer her the ultimate thrill – being a witness to a cold-blood murder.
It will be useless anyway.
Beautifully photographed in black and white, with crowd scenes shot on the streets of Tokyo (director Shinoda also had a successful career making documentaries), with atmospheric night scenes and an undercurrent of morbid sensuality, Pale Flower is the portrait of a moral and emotional desert, following two characters that are destined to crash and burn.
It is a perfect little noir masterpiece, and is proof of how genre movies c an bridge cultural divides and give us an action shot of what’s going on in a certain culture, at a certain time in history.
And it is not a Yakuza movie, as it does not give us any of the heroism and rhetoric of honour and sacrifice that informs that other genre; here the yakuza soldiers and the chimpira are presented as losers, pawns in power games played by old fat men growing rich while their followers die, and ultimately impossible to distinguish from bureaucrats or businessmen.
And the ending of Pale Flower is easily the starkest, cruellest I’ve ever seen.
I cannot recommend this movie enough (but expect a downer).