Ian Thomas Malone



January 2022



Classic Film: Pale Flower

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Loyalty is a concept that’s fundamentally incompatible with the pillars of capitalism. A worker can spend decades serving the bottom line, devotion impossible to replicate in the opposite direction. Criminal organizations such as the Mafia or Yakuz lean on the history of loyalty to keep subordinates in line, expecting underlings to take the fall for mishaps with time from their lives for which they could never be adequately compensated.

Masahiro Shinoda’s 1964 noir classic Pale Flower centers its narrative on a life spent in service, for the sake of loyalty, with little to show. Muraki (Ryō Ikebe) is released from prison after a lengthy sentence for murder. Lacking a family or any semblance of a meaningful existence, Muraki lives in squalor by day, only coming alive in Tokyo’s nighttime gambling parlors. A fellow player Saeko (Mariko Kaga), catches his interest. One of the few female players of the “Flower Card” game, Saeko’s lack of skill does not hinder her appetite for higher stakes games, urging Muraki to connect her with clubs that can provide more enhanced thrills.

Much of Shinoda’s work focuses on the mundane interactions between Muraki and Saeko as they navigate Tokyo’s criminal underbelly. The bulk of the 96-minute runtime takes place at night, often indoors as rain pours in the background, a dreary, unforgiving world for Muraki to return to after his years in jail. Shinoda carefully deconstructs any notion of glamour to be had in organized crime, a world with little to offer anyone who’s not at the top.

Pale Flower’s lasting legacy comes largely from Shinoda’s carefully constructed aesthetic. The gorgeous cinematography brings the gambling parlors to life, capturing the anxiety on each of the players as they spend their meager savings on flighting thrills. Composer Toru Takemitsu delivers a jazz-infused score that perfectly illustrates the appeal of this lifestyle without ever attempting to offer up an endorsement.

Shinoda digs into the heart of a life in decay, years of unrewarded loyalty blunting the natural longing for a greater purpose. There’s an easy chemistry between Ikebe and Kaga that captures their draw to each other, two aimless souls looking for a friendly orbit, if only for a little while. The audience doesn’t learn much about Saeko, or practically any character for that matter, but the film has a way of speaking volumes without the use of words.

As a genre, noir often concerns itself with exploring the ugly nature of humanity, focusing on morally dark figures with their backs against the wall. You’re not supposed to necessarily identify with someone like Muraki, a cold-blooded killer, but there’s ample beauty to be found in the process of understanding the lives of people who have been cast out by society. Shinoda isn’t just concerned with the story of Muraki, but also the sound of Muraki as he sits alone with his thoughts, coming to terms with the wasted potential that is his very existence.

Pale Flower captures the raw power of noir to shine a spotlight on the corners of humanity most of us would prefer not to visit, at least not in the real world. Few entries explore their dark environments with such unrequited beauty. Less concerned with story than the sheer emotion it evokes, Shinoda’s work is a triumph of the human spirit.