Youth of the Beast (1963; Seijun Suzuki)
By Daniel Barnes
Youth of the Beast is the first movie I have seen from Seijun Suzuki, the Japanese director best known for flashy crime films like Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter. I am eager to discover more of Suzuki’s work because if Youth of the Beast is an accurate indication, he is equal parts Sam Fuller and Vincente Minnelli. This is one of the most animal and cynical films I have ever seen. It’s a vision of crime and corruption as a grand and incurable sickness. However, almost every scene in Youth of the Beast pulsates with irreverent energy.
The film becomes unhinged from the opening scenes, as Suzuki veers between color and black-and-white stock, and violence erupts without warning or logic. Jo Shishido does remarkable work as Joji, a mysterious and violent street hood who purposefully and violently gets the attention of Nomoto Enterprises, a crime syndicate that runs like a degenerate corporation.
Joji quickly proves himself to the Nomoto bosses, but he also sells information to a rival gang, and much of the core story becomes a film noir rewrite of Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo. Unlike Kurosawa, though, Suzuki throws out slashes of cinematic style like a modern artist of the era would throw paint onto a canvas. Suzuki rips apart the conventions and style of film noir, then reassembles them into a masterfully jagged perversion of the genre.
He presents the quest for power as something inherently sick, a relentless disease that infects every single person it touches. The Nomoto crime bosses are literally drinking themselves to death. Every emotion gets expressed through violence. An obsessive love blooms and dies in a matter of minutes. Meanwhile, the tenderest moment in the film is a long, passionate kiss between a man and his cat.
That lack of faith in conventional structures gets reflected in the style of the film. With its abrupt fade-outs, quick cuts, showy camera movements, and vivid shards of color, Youth of the Beast seems to be in constant danger of harming itself. Suzuki stages near-epic sequences like a bizarre shootout with speeding cars in an open field, a scene that ends with a suicide bomb driven into a house.
“Pure Style for the Sake of Style”
But then Suzuki infuses every scene in Youth of the Beast with his bee-bop speed freak mentality. In the scene where the Nomoto gang first notices Joji, they view him from behind a two-way mirror in a soundproof room. With the sound turned off, we see a few thugs accost Joji, and the camera tracks screen left as they lead him into the back room. As they pass one of the windows, the lights darken and the camera holds as a spotlight opens on a fan dancer unfurling her limbs.
This moment offers pure style for the sake of style that took my breath away. It’s comparable to the feverish, design-as-psychosis atmosphere that Minnelli brought to dramas like The Cobweb and Some Came Running. That scene is also the first of many times we see a criminal den located in the backroom of a legitimate business. Furthermore, it establishes an air of omnipresent surveillance and double-crossing.
With its vivid style, caustic view of humanity, themes of false imprisonment and revenge, disturbing violence, and the equation of big business with unspeakable perversion, you could almost view Youth of the Beast as a proto-Oldboy. Joji says, “I just want the money,” but of course, he wants a lot more. He wants justice, revenge and maybe even some peace. In the end, though, even the performance becomes too toxic to bear. No one remains immune to the disease of crime, even those sworn to cure it.