Maruki has only been out of prison few hours when he goes to a gambling house in hopes of reconnecting with his fellow Yakuza in one of the city’s three gangs. While there he spots something out of the ordinary: a girl, probably in her twenties, gambling with the men; her name is Saeko, and based on her appearance she does not belong in this place. It’s the first time he’s seen her and Maruki is already hooked (line and sinker, as the saying goes).
Once the festivities are over Maruki and Saeko meet at a small sake stand on a street corner and she asks him if he knows about any bigger “game” in the area; the stakes at this place just aren’t high enough for her — even though she lost most of her money. Maruki gives her his address and tells her to come see him in a few days; by then he’ll have arranged for her to come where the big boys play for keeps.
Maruki was in prison because he killed someone in one of the rival gangs; his lifestyle is mostly impulse and indulgence. He is having a fling with a invalid-clockmaker’s daughter, and does what he is told by the guys higher up in the chain of command. Killing someone in a rival gang apparently earns you a great deal of respect though, so even the Yakuza bosses pay attention when Maruki opens his mouth.
The gang Maruki works for operates out of a bowling alley, and it’s there that he arranges for Saeko to come to one of the big gambling houses; while he is there an attempt is made on his life, but he easily dispatches the would be assassin — apparently not everyone is glad to see him out of prison. Finally Saeko shows up at his house and he tells her that he is going to bring her as his guest to the big Yakuza gambling house; then he asks her if she would be willing to play a gambling game right there, one-on-one; she says that she would.
This film features many scenes of gambling with what look like small pieces of wood with paintings on them. I was never entirely sure how the games worked, but it didn’t seem to matter because I found myself on the edge of my seat with my heart in my throat more than once; sitting there breathless, waiting to see if Saeko or Maruki would win or lose all of their money. It was strangely thrilling watching a room full of people sitting around playing games that I don’t understand.
But the main focus is the relationship between Maruki and Saeko, and how their impulsive and indulgent personalities clash with one another. Maruki is obsessed with thrilling others, Saeko in particular, but Saeko is obsessed with only thrilling herself; even if that means turning to drugs, something Maruki adamantly demands she does not do.
“They’re bums, dope-heads; can’t pull their own weight,” he says as if preaching to her.
The best scene in the film takes place one night when Maruki and Saeko are leaving the gambling house in Saeko’s car. They meet another small sports car on the highway and Saeko and the other driver begin weaving around each other like madmen; a shot of Saeko’s speedometer shows that they are traveling 130 kilometers (roughly 81mph) down the highway. Saeko is laughing hysterically; but Maruki is not amused, and even seems to be falling asleep in the passenger’s seat.
When the race is over the driver of the other vehicle exits his car, approaches Saeko, slaps her on the back and the two of them laugh like maniacs. Later Maruki exits the car and walks away slowly; as if realizing there is nothing he can do to thrill her anymore, that she will find ways to thrill and amuse herself — she doesn’t need him.
But Maruki finds a solution to his problem; he discovers a way to give her a thrill that she’ll never forget. Maruki is going to kill one of the rival gang leaders, and he is going to bring Saeko along. The murder scene is truly one of the best scenes of violence I can recall from any film. The sound drops away leaving only a very calm piece of classical music, and Maruki stabs a man over, and over, and over while Saeko stands at the sidelines and watches. The scene is chilling and disturbing; but not because of the violence (which is surprisingly non-graphic). The scene is disturbing because we know why he is doing it. Cheap thrills.
The film isn’t exactly action packed, or extremely exciting. If pressed I would have to say that very little actually happens during the film, and yet when I watched it there was a tension that was palpable and put me on the edge of my seat. “Pale Flower” isn’t going to be a film for everyone, in fact I suspect that most people would be bored by this film and find it extremely uninteresting. But if you’re into slowly paced character studies then I would recommend checking this one out.
The cinematography is stunning, and the performances are all carefully layered and played against each other. This was the first film Masahiro Shinoda directed and it is a masterpiece of the noir style. For years the film was banned in Japan because of the extensive gambling scenes — the studio, Shochiku, was apparently afraid of what the public reaction would to be such extensive scenes of illegal activity. Seems a little bit silly, doesn’t it?
Here is the trailer on YouTube, courtesy of The Criterion Collection.