It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
At the center of "Pale Flower" stands a very quiet man, closed within himself, a professional killer. He works for a gang in the Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia, and as the film begins he has returned to Tokyo after serving a prison sentence for murder. He did the prison time as the price to be paid for committing a murder, but although we see his gang boss several times, even in a dentist's chair, there is no effort to make him seem worthy of such loyalty. He is an ordinary older man. Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), the yakuza, seems loyal more to the ideal of loyalty, a version of the samurai code. It is his fate to be a soldier and follow orders, and he is the instrument of that destiny. He thinks his crime was "stupid," but he is observing, not complaining.
"Pale Flower" is one of the most haunting noirs I've seen, and something more; in 1964 it was an important work in an emerging Japanese New Wave of independent filmmakers, an exercise in existential cool. It involves a plot, but it is all about attitude. Muraki, elegantly dressed, his hair in a carefully stylized cut, his eyes often shielded by dark glasses, speaking rarely, revealing nothing, guards his emotions as if there may be no more where they came from. He glides through nights and an underworld of high-stakes gambling clubs and hooker bars, but lives in a rude and shabby room as if it is merely a cave for sleeping.
After his first night back in his familiar world, he goes to a clock shop where Shinko (Chisako Hara), his young lover, lives and works. She clings to him abjectly, and they have sex without ceremony. He betrays no affection. He advises her to find a husband and start a family. He returns to the customary life of the gang without ceremony, as if dwelling on the prison term would be unseemly.
He likes to gamble. The movie began with a gambling sequence, there are several more of them, and visually they're as elegantly composed as a scene by Ozu. The director of "Pale Flower" is Masahiro Shinoda, whose visual choice is widescreen black and white and whose characters move with the grace of Antonioni's at about the same time. That Shinoda worked a an assistant to Ozu may explain some of his precise framing. The gamblers play the Flower Card game involving thick cardboard chips that click when they touch; listen carefully to the sound track by Toru Takemitsu, the masterful composer who, Shinoda says, told him "record all the sounds and I will use them." He segues from the clicking of the cards to recorded tap-dancing and then to discordant chords, as if the rhythm of the game gives way to angular interior emotions.