One night I sat down with my girlfriend and popped in Kinji Fukasaku’s hyper-kinetic 70’s era “Street Mobster”, but the scenes of violence towards women (an unsettling thread that runs through yakuza films) left her totally cold, so out it came and in went Masahiro Shinoda’s cool as ice black and white 1964 film “Pale Flower”. What immediately struck me was that I was watching the same movie.
When you’re watching a yakuza film you’re basically watching one story: a lone gangster usually just released from prison has to adapt to the outside. He’s loyal to the old yakuza code, a code that he finds has fallen out of fashion and has been replaced by Machiavellian back room deals between old enemies who use their foot soldiers as pawns. This offends his old school sense of honour and duty, so with the help of some of his old loyal cohorts and an admiring young chimpira punk he takes on the criminal underworld in a fight for the old ways. Oh, and of course he’s just fallen in love, usually with a prosititute with a heart of gold, or some such down on her luck woman.
So the difference in broad plot strokes between Fukasaku’s Okita (Bunta Sugawara) and Shinoda’s Muraki (Ryo Ikeba) are nominal, but each director has such radically different interpretations of this yakuza archetype that Muraki ends up coming from an entirely different planet than the hair triggered and often comical Okita. Following the formula Muraki has just finished a serving a ten year sentence for murdering a rival gang kingpin and he returns to the only world he knows, the nocturnal gambling dens of Tokyo. Muraki, though, isn’t driven by honour, duty, or any of the other genre clichés. The high stakes life of crime and bloodshed is a conscious choice for Muraki. He enjoys the life of a yakuza and he sees nothing wrong with having to kill a few people along the way because in the end, he thinks, there isn’t much point to life anyway. One night during a game of hanafuda he meets his existential soul mate in Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a young woman with a seemingly unending supply of cash who enjoys slumming it in the Tokyo underworld. Muraki takes her under his wing, leading her deeper and deeper into a war being orchestrated by two yakuza bosses.
If you thought Takeshi Kitano was the first director to reduce the yakuza genre down to its bones you’d be wrong. Shinoda brings his New Wave sensibility to the film and pares down each scene to its bare essentials; only dialogue necessary to the plot is included, the cinematography by Masao Kosugi is sumptuously shadowy and spartan, and the cacophonous score by Toru Takemitsu is less music than sound effects that keeps the viewer on edge… that is until the end of the film. I don’t want to give too much away, but the murder set to Henry Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas” is one of my favorite scenes in Japanese cinema.