“What are they living for? Their faces are lifeless, dead. They’re desperately pretending to be alive.”
The words are spoken, in voiceover, by a yakuza who has just been released from a prison stretch after a gang-related killing in the Japanese “squid-ink noir” Pale Flower, the 1964 movie now reissued as part of the Criterion Collection. The yakuza, Muraki (the stoic Ryo Ikebe), is referring overtly to the sad-eyed, robotic sararimen (businessmen) who trudge out of Tokyo’s commuter train stations every morning and evening, but in fact nobody in this movie appears more weary and dispirited than Muraki himself.
Shortly after making his inadvertently self-directed observation, Muraki is back in his old milieu, gambling with his mob cronies, consorting listlessly with his mistress and scuttling away from police raids. There isn’t a great deal else to do, because during his internment, his gang and their main rivals established an alliance. Thus, we observe them numbly “playing” their zero-sum game (it’s called hanafuda, but it could just as easily be any other form of gambling in which the cards are laid down, the money scooped up, the cards picked up, and the money laid down again, all through the night, obsessively, at the end of which nothing has been accomplished except that a fixed amount of well-thumbed currency has been circulated among the participants, temporarily “won” and then lost again.) It’s not hard to see the incessant gambling as a metaphor for these gangsters’ unproductive lives, with their endless making and breaking of alliances, wars, prison terms, mechanical sexual dalliances, and literal and figurative back-stabbings.
Into this scene arrives a dewy young woman named Saeko (pronounced, more or less, “psycho”) who is very young and, for whatever reason, very tired of life. Saeko (Mariko Kaga) is magnetic and enigmatic — we learn virtually nothing about her except that she’s in love with gambling, fast driving and excitement — and soon she and Muraki are spending a lot of time together. Their relationship is curiously sexless — one-on-one gambling seems to be their preferred form of intercourse. (She says to him, “Since that night I first saw you, I’ve wanted a private game with you.”) Eventually, she is allowed the privilege of witnessing Muraki murdering someone (he says, “when I stabbed him, I felt more alive than I ever had before”), but throughout, it’s clear that nothing but her own eventual death will ever bring Saeko whatever it is she is searching for.
This is not a terribly plot-driven film, though Muraki dodges a couple of attempted assassinations, and viewers are likely to come away from it remembering the story less than the compelling, nightmarish score from the great Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu. Another thing viewers likely will remember: The hopelessly glowing face of the petal-like Mariko Kaga in the otherwise pitch-black mise-en-scene. The actress went on to a long and successful career in Japan, but as for her character, it’s useful to know that the movie’s title is more accurately translated as “‘withered flower’, clearly indicating that death, more that simple pallor, is what’s most crucially at stake” (these words, as well as the invaluable term “squid-ink noir” are taken from a well-written essay about the movie by Chuck Stephens, included in booklet form with the Criterion package.)
Pale Flower is a bit too diffident and, for its time, too fashionably existential to truly qualify as a great film, but it’s certainly a haunting one. Once you’ve asked yourself what those anonymous Tokyo commuters are living for, and then what those benumbed yakuza gamblers are living for, it’s hard, indeed, to switch off the DVD player and, in the darkness of your own living room, not ask yourself the very same question.