Underworld Beauty (1958; Seijun Suzuki)
Pale Flower (1964; Masahiro Shinoda)
By Daniel Barnes
On Saturday at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, the “A Rare Noir is Good to Find! – International Film Noir 1949-1974” festival offers a trio of black-and-white Japanese crime films from the post-WWII era. All three come from notable Japanese directors, and it’s worth noting that they are all early works for these filmmakers – in America and abroad, film noir was always a disreputable “B” genre, so these are young auteurs finding their voices in an under-the-radar space. There are striking similarities among the three films – all of them begin with a major character arriving on a train, and the set-ups to Underworld Beauty and Pale Flower are almost identical – and yet each one has a distinct flavor.
Koreyoshi Kurahara’s 64-minute Intimidation is a minor noir snack, a mini-Rififi about a corrupt bank manager blackmailed into robbing his own safe, and the less successful friend who gets perfectly positioned as a patsy. While the other two films showing on Saturday are located in a criminal underworld, Intimidation injects some office politics into its genre trappings. The critical relationship here is not between a hard-bitten mug and a dangerous femme fatale, but between rival co-workers climbing the same ladder. Kurahara offers some beautiful tracking and point-of-view shots – I especially liked the slight stylistic shifts between a dream sequence robbery and the messier real job – but the script is mediocre, and the final revelations drop the film into a black hole of character motivation.
More essential is Seijun Suzuki’s hellbent Underworld Beauty, a very early but unmistakably Suzuki-ian effort from the director who would go on to make Youth of the Beast, Gate of Flesh, Tokyo Drifter, and Branded to Kill. When I reviewed Youth of the Best back in February 2014, I wrote that “Suzuki rips apart the conventions and style of film noir, and then reassembles them into a masterfully jagged perversion of the genre.” Much like Youth of the Beast, Underworld Beauty is a jigsaw puzzle of toxic and intoxicating Western influences and hard-partying genre tropes gleaned from gangster movies, westerns, rock-and-roll, samurai, and revenge flicks, all complemented by a comic book tone, audacious camerawork, addictive emotional violence, and an aggressive mise-en-scene.
Michitaro Mizushima plays Miyamoto, a recently released criminal who returns to his old stomping grounds. The scene in which he enters the criminals’ nightclub headquarters, with the wait staff reacting in horror at this unseen, black-clad menace, the oblivious crowd of hedonistic teenagers dancing on broken glass, and the proto-Tarantino touch of Miyamoto switching the music on the jukebox to a tempo more suitable to his temperament, is a particularly memorable sequence. Miyamoto intends to make amends for his past crimes, only to get trapped in the quicksand of criminal life. This film comes early in Suzuki’s career, and you get the feeling that he doesn’t entirely trust his gut yet, but it’s still a very good film, and I was captivated by its raw flashiness.
“Captivated” doesn’t even begin to describe my reaction to and relationship with Masahiro Shinoda’s singular 1964 burrower Pale Flower. Hypnotized is more like it; stupefied and astonished would also work fine. A few weeks before watching Pale Flower for the first time, I had a dream that uncannily played out in one of the film’s final sequences. On the Inception mindfuck scale, I would say that Pale Flower has entered my machine-gun-fight-on-snow-skis level, and may have already reached the vault that symbolizes a vault, and also memories or whatever, and even “Daddy, why did you leave us?” (i.e., the buried theme in almost every Nolan movie). As soon as the film ended, I felt the need to watch it again, to make sure that other people watched it, to share and embed the experience to ensure that this fever dream actually happened. The last film that confounded and intrigued me so profoundly was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and it makes sense – both films possess the inscrutable inner logic of a dream.
Pale Flower mixes styles and influences as readily as Underworld Beauty, yet it feels nihilistic and stark rather than self-consciously flashy. As in Underworld Beauty, the film opens with a recently released criminal returning to his old gang after a three-year prison stint, but instead of expressing remorse for his crimes, Ryo Ikebe’s taciturn hard man Muraki narrates, “What was so wrong about killing one of these animals?” Muraki beelines for a high-stakes, backroom casino (“I gamble. What is there?”), where he plays a bizarrely ritualistic card game and meets the beautiful and mysterious Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a novice gambler and experienced junkie looking for higher and higher stakes. As Muraki grows attached to Saeko, he also gets dragged back into the criminal lifestyle (the bosses here are just older men sipping soup and slicing melons), while she slips into the arms of a heroin addict. It all leads to one of the bleakest and beautiful endings I’ve ever seen. It’s an operatic moment of violence, a gut punch final scene, with an exchange of such pure resignation at the impenetrability of corruption and the futility of morality that it makes “Forget it, Jake…it’s Chinatown” look like a greeting card sentiment:
Saeko: “It’s so meaningless.”
Muraki: “Yeah, it is.”
I won’t shake this film for a while.