YOUTH OF THE BEAST (1963; Dir.: 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 bestial and cynical films I have ever seen, a vision of crime and corruption as a grand and uncurable sickness, and yet almost every scene in Youth of the Beast pulsates with an irreverent energy.
The film is unhinged from the opening scenes, as Suzuki veers between color and black-and-white stock, and violence erupts without warning or logic. Jo Shishido is remarkable as Joji, a mysterious and violent street hood who purposefully and violently gets the attention of Nomoto Enterprises, a crime syndicate that is run 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, however, 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, and then reassembles them into a masterfully jagged perversion of the genre.
He presents the quest for power as something inherently sick, a pitiless disease that infects every single person it touches. The Nomoto crime bosses are literally drinking themselves to death; every emotion is expressed through violence; sadism is the guiding ethos; an obsessive love blooms and dies in a matter of minutes; and the tenderest moment in the film is a long, passionate kiss between a man and his cat.
That cynicism and lack of faith in conventional structures is reflected in the style of the film, which with its abrupt fadeouts, quick cuts, showy camera movements, and vivid shards of color, 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 being driven into a house.
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 are viewing 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.
It’s a moment of pure style for the sake of style that literally took my breath away, and 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, and it also 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 equation of big business with unspeakable perversion, Youth of the Beast could almost be seen as a proto-Oldboy. Joji says, “I just want the money,” but of course, he wants a lot more – justice, revenge, and maybe even some peace. In the end, though, even the performance becomes too toxic to bear. No one is immune to the disease of crime, even those sworn to cure it.