One of the most important reasons why Masahiro Shinoda became a prominent figure in the Japanese new wave movement is not only due to his refined aestheticism but also due to his interest in the cultural turmoil of the sixties and the impact it had on subjectivity. One of the first times Shinoda analyzed this turmoil was through his yakuza gambling film Pale Flower.
One day, Yakuza Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) is released from prison after serving his sentence for murdering a member of the rival Yasuoka clan, He immediately returns to his family’s turf and soon learns that the Funada and the Yasuoka clan have entered a truce to counter the rise of the Imai clan from Osaka.
The same night, he encounters a beautiful but mysterious upper-class lady Saeko (Mariko Kaga) in one of the clan’s gambling dens. Later, when meeting her in a local restaurant, he agrees to introduce her to gambling games with higher-stakes. It does not take long for Muraki to feel uncomfortable by a drug-addict that haunts the dens with his ghostly face. When Saeko shows interest in him, Muraki fears that her desire for pleasure will lead to her self-destruction.
Pale Flower might, at first glance, seem like a straightforward gambling film, but Shinoda’s visual style, his choice of imagery, and his play with speech and silences turns Muraki’s story into a nihilistic exploration of the subjective and societal consequences of a blossoming consumerism on Japanese subjectivity.
That the theme of societal change is Shinoda’s main concern is underlined by Muraki’s observation thar opens the narrative. He observes many lifeless faces and argues that many are merely pretending to be alive. These signifiers allude to nothing other than the negative impact of the post-war surge of capitalism on subjectivity and desire. Traditional identities start to dysfunction as traditional structures disintegrate and the newly-formed ‘modern’ identities (e.g. the salaryman) endanger ‘intersubjective’ desire.
Moreover, Muraki’s observation introduces a contrast between Japan’s capitalistic machinery that hollows out subjectivity and the highly hierarchical societal structure called gokudo (extreme path) that, at first glance, tries to protect a kind of traditional identity. Muraki, as a matter of fact, can only express his disdain about current society because his subjective logic is shaped by the traditional values (e.g. honor) of the extreme path.
As the narrative progresses, it soon becomes evident that the alluded rise of capitalistic consumerism is a ghost that haunts the imagery of the film and a societal poison that radically problematizes the subjective position of Saeko and Muraki.
In the case of Muraki, he finds himself at odds with the ‘modernizing’ impulse of the yakuza to ensure their hold of their territory and to exploit the blossoming of a societal desire for pleasure – either via gambling (e.g horse-racing, illegal mahjong parlors, … etc.) or via other kinds of entertainment like bowling and hostess clubs. The thirst for power compels the yakuza to inscribe themselves into the unstoppable capitalistic machinery and betray, in a certain way, the code and values of the past. As this machinery puffs on, he becomes increasingly aware that he is an anachronistic element within a societal transformation that cannot be stopped.
Muraki’s signifiers, furthermore, reveal that the murder he committed was an attempt to ‘heal’ the depression created by such capitalistic upheaval. The stabbing was, in this sense, not only a matter of surviving – to erase his emptiness, but also an act to reanimate his body with some form of ‘happiness’. Muraki’s interest in the elegant ‘pale flower’ Saeko is, in this sense, motivated by a smoldering desire to regain some pleasure in his own life.
Saeko’s facial expression elegantly underline that her subject is radically marked by a capitalistic ‘emptiness’ – she is poisoned by the capitalistic logic and the consumerism it advocates. The compulsion to gain pleasure and excitement determines her acts and her speech. Yet, the pleasure she seeks is not relational, but onanistic in nature. The other is thus only important for her as a tool, insofar as this other creates the possibility for her to attain a shot of bodily pleasure that can fleetingly re-animate her subject.
The instrumental use Saeko makes of the other is beautifully highlighted in her first encounter with Muraki. Both the content of her speech (e.g. asking where she can play for higher stakes) and the subtle flashes of anticipatory excitement on her face when touching upon the subject of gambling underline that she, who is addicted to pleasure, can only see Muraki as a tool to get access to a better shot of pleasure. Yet, such compulsive search for pleasure is eventually self-destructive – the ultimate pleasure is only found in one’s own destruction.
The spectator easily feels that the relation between Saeko and Muraki is doomed because both exploit the other to escape their ‘emptiness’. Muraki utilizes Saeko’s bursts of pleasure to momentarily escape his anachronistic position, while Saeko utilizes him to find better ways to re-animate her body and subject with pleasure (Narra-note 1). The finale, a powerful piece of nihilistic poetry, movingly explores what kind of radical consequences can to be expected from a compulsive search for more pleasure or a way to ‘heal’ the suffocating emptiness caused by the capitalistic machinery.
The composition of Pale Flower stands out due to its refined stylistic nature and its rhythmicity (General-note 1). The stylistic dimension of Shinoda’s narrative is most evident in his shot-compositions. The beauty of these compositions is not only caused by an elegant and often sensual play with shadow and light, but also by creating monochrome tensions, either by thoughtfully positioning characters or by exploiting the geometrical dimensions of interiors and exteriors, that speak. Shinoda’s visual formalism is thus not merely a decorative exercise, but a poetic instrument to evoke meaning beyond words and emphasize the subjective significance or impact of silences.
The rhythmic element of the composition is most evident in the gambling sequences (General-note 2). The quasi-meditative rhythm of these scenes is function of a formalistic play with either repetitive visuals, the repetition of speech (of the bookmaker/bank) and sounds, or a mixture of both. This compositional rhythm is not merely a way for Shinoda to give a poetic flavour to these sequences, but a way to visually unfold the very theme of his narrative. It is by poetically emphasizing the very repetition of the gambling ‘ritual’ combined with the sounds that echo the unstoppable nature of the capitalistic machinery (e.g. ticking of clocks, …etc.) that Shinoda evokes how the societal blossoming of a desire for pleasure feeds itself on the tradition of gambling and how such empty desire slowly hollows out the traditional structures of the yakuza. The music of the avant-garde classical composer Toru Takemitsu strengthens, in its own way, the nihilistic flavour of Pale Flower.
Shinoda’s emphasis on imagery and mood over speech is also effective in emphasizing the elegance of Mariko Kaga and giving her presence a mysteriousness that mesmerizes the spectator. With a refined subtlety, Shinoda invites the spectator to perceive Saeko in the same way Muraki does, as someone whose singular focus on pleasure and risks escapes understanding.
Pale Flower is a ‘seductive’ nihilistic masterpiece that explores the unescapable subjective problems created by the rhythmic capitalistic machinery. The compelling nature of Shinoda’s monumental film lies in the exquisite synergy he crafted between elegantly composed imagery, sounds, speech, and silences. This balance does not only allow Shinoda to delineate the very societal transformations the burgeoning consumerism is causing but also how these transformations radically affect subjectivity – by hollowing out subjectivity and by installing a compulsive need for pleasure.
Narra-note 1: That Saeko as subject was not important for Muraki is elegantly underlined by his last statement: ‘I do not care who she was (as subject) …’.
General-note 1: This kind of visual formalization caused Baba Ataru, the screenwriter, to vent his anger by complaining to Shochiku and call Shinoda an anarchist. This event supposedly caused a nine-month delay in the film’s release. Yet, this delay had more to do with the legal authorities deeming the many scenes of high-stakes gambling excessive and a bit too detailed.
General-note 2: The gambling games played in Pale Flower are a version of Atosaki (a simplified version of Oicho-Kabu) and Tehonbiki, a card-guessing gambling game. For those interested in a more in-depth explanation of tehonbiki, I gladly refer to the following website: https://l-pollett.tripod.com/cards70.htm.