Muraki (Ryô Ikebe), the yakuza protagonist of Masahiro Shinoda’s 1964 film Pale Flower, wastes no time in establishing himself as a nihilist, if not an outright sociopath. After serving three years in prison for killing a member of a rival gang, he returns to Tokyo, where the bustle and strain of daily life only make human existence seem all the more meaningless. “People… such strange animals,” he muses in a voiceover as the film opens with shots of the crowded city. “What are they living for? Their faces are lifeless, dead. They’re desperately pretending to be alive.” He can see little reason why “slaughtering one of these dumb beasts” should have been considered a major crime, especially when it appears to have had no lasting effect. “It’s a strange feeling. Somebody died, but nothing has changed.”
One of his first acts as a free man is to revisit a gambling den he used to frequent. “I see nothing’s changed,” he remarks. “But why should it?” He’s wrong, though. Amidst the usual participants — some sweaty, some tattooed, some balding, all male — is a decidedly unusual one: a wide-eyed, almost childlike young woman named Saeko (Mariko Kaga) who, despite her innocent looks, plays the game with a mixture of intensity and recklessness. Muraki, perhaps in spite of himself, is intrigued. The attraction proves mutual, and an odd friendship arises between the two, rooted in their shared fondness for gambling and Saeko’s insatiable desire for excitement.
Saeko, of whom nobody at the gambling den knows anything, is presented as a mystery, an enigma; surely it’s no coincidence that, at one point, the film cuts directly from her to the Mona Lisa. Neither Muraki nor the viewer ever obtains much in the way of hard facts about her, yet the few clues that are provided seem to offer a clear, albeit simplistic, explanation for her behavior. The key scene takes place at a hotel where Muraki has gone to conduct business on behalf of Funada (Seiji Miyaguchi), the boss of his gang. During a break in the negotiations, he spots a well-dressed group of people entering the building, apparently meeting in hopes of arranging a marriage. In this crowd is an unhappy Saeko, who shares a startled glance with Muraki and then turns away. From this, the convertible she drives and the large amounts of money she bets, it’s reasonable to assume that she comes from a fairly affluent background, and the near-reveal of her true identity at the end of the film reinforces the idea that she’s somehow a person of note. If so, she becomes more stereotype than enigma, a bored rich girl who counteracts her stifling existence by seeking bigger and bigger thrills: gambling, speeding, drugs. The real enigma in Pale Flower is Muraki.
Unlike Saeko, Muraki doesn’t gamble to get his blood racing — or, if he does, he won’t admit that that’s the reason. “There are no whys,” he says when she asks what compels him to gamble so often. According to him, it’s just something to do. “What else is there?” he asks as he and Saeko sit in his dark, dingy apartment, playing a private game of cards. This rhetorical question and the bleak surroundings reflect his jaded, indifferent attitude toward life, and in the same scene, he makes a chilling confession about the murder that sent him to prison. The act meant nothing to him personally, he tells Saeko, yet “when I stabbed him, I felt more alive than I ever had before,” he says. It’s a jarring reminder that, despite his cool exterior, he’s still a remorseless killer.
However, this conversation with Saeko also hints at a different side of Muraki. Even though the murder was mere business to him, he admits that he hated his victim when the dying man said, “You don’t have a wife and kids.” He hardly seems the domestic type, and he doesn’t have any apparent interest in settling down with his devoted longtime girlfriend (Chisako Hara), but if that comment enraged him to such a degree, he must regret his lack of family. Maybe it’s a matter of pride (Funada, about to become a first-time father in his fifties, notes that he “can barely go out in public from the shame” of being childless); maybe it’s a simple human desire for companionship, stability and love; for all the viewer knows, Muraki may even have had a wife and children in the past and lost them.
When Saeko wonders how it would feel to wager a million yen, he replies that “you or I wouldn’t let it show.” Not letting his feelings show is second nature to him, although he does open up to her, describing himself as “the scum of the earth” before adding that he’s forgiven himself for his crime. The unanswered question: Is he scum because he’s a killer, or is he a killer because he’s scum? Saeko, for her part, later says that she considers him a decent man, much to his surprise. Being around her does bring out some of his more admirable qualities. He becomes concerned about her welfare, for instance, when she expresses interest in Yoh (Takashi Fujiki), a drug-addicted murderer and yet another character shrouded in mystery. She also manages to make a few cracks in Muraki’s world-weary facade, adding zest — even a kind of meaning, perhaps — to his empty life. (Notably, their relationship isn’t a sexual one, despite the physical attraction that seems to exist between them. During a gambling raid, they get in bed together to fool the authorities, pretending that they’re an innocent couple staying at the inn. Once the danger has passed, Muraki gazes longingly at Saeko for a minute, leans toward her — and then he lies down and they talk their way through a hand of cards.)
Muraki, then, is not as depraved or heartless as his opening narration suggests. He can be sympathetic and even likable, and it’s easy to forget about his past when no one is talking about it. Nevertheless, the film doesn’t redeem him or render him innocuous, much as Pale Flower itself remains fundamentally dark in spite of its quirkiness and considerable style. Whatever his good points, he’s still a man whose livelihood is organized crime, who has resigned himself to an uncertain, often violent world and is willing to play an active role in it when necessary.
After a member of his gang is slain by the rival Imai gang, Muraki volunteers to avenge his death by killing boss Imai (Kyû Sazanka) himself. On his way to carry out his mission, he confides in Saeko: “There’s a bitter taste in my mouth, but I feel almost giddy. I’m about to do a job it feels I was meant to do. Fate, you might say.” Moments later, as he ascends a grand staircase to reach the restaurant where the murder is to take place, he finds himself surrounded by stained glass images of cherubim and the Virgin Mary, while plaintive choral music plays on the soundtrack. The song continues as he stabs Imai to death. Muraki has finally found a purpose for his life, but only an ugly, brutal one; and, like the first killing, made irrelevant shortly thereafter when his gang and the victim’s gang formed an alliance, his new crime may prove as senseless as any other.
So why does Muraki gamble? Is it, as he implies, nothing more than a way to fill his time? Does he get a secret thrill out of it? Or is it simply an embodiment of the random, meaningless nature of his life? “It wasn’t about honor, or duty, or saving face,” he says of the first murder. “I killed a man I had no reason to kill. It was just a matter of whose number came up, whose turn it was.”