Seijun Suzuki was a prolific director. For Nikkatsu alone, he directed 40 pictures from his debut in the ‘50s to his dismissal after 1967’s Branded to Kill. Overlooked at the time, Youth of the Beast (1963) is now recognised as a turning point for his personal style. It is a film oversaturated with style, as if Suzuki approached every scene – every frame – with a playful, or perhaps unhinged, effort to make it interesting. He flips between black and white – with a single splash of colour – and full colour production. He pans the camera across a noisy cabaret bar, and abruptly cuts to a soundproof room, the volume dropping precipitously. A scene transition is smothered by a fan dancer. Conversations take place to a roiling backdrop of black and white movie footage from the office of a movie theatre. In one bonkers blink-and-you’ll miss it moment, star Jo Shishido (as Jo Mizuno) walks past a movie theatre covered in Nikkatsu bunting, complete with portraits of all the Nikkatsu stars – himself among them. All this contributes to a lively film that while perhaps not good is nevertheless great.
Shishido’s Mizuno is introduced in a quick flurry of thuggish behaviour, picking petty fights, stealing Pachinko balls, and casting himself as a high roller in a cabaret club. It’s all a front to get in with Nemoto Enterprises, a yakuza gang, filled with some of the quirkiest misfits ever put to film. They’re like Bond villains from a first draft written by Quentin Tarantino. Minami, perhaps the most fleshed out of the side characters, first appears fondling a nude statue’s breasts; later, he announces with madcap conviction that guns are his obsession, his only interest. The head of the group is a knife-throwing, cat-carrying weirdo. Other henchmen dress in out of date suits that look ripped from the Meiji or Taisho era, and much is made of one of the men missing his arm (which leads Mizuno to think he’s hiding a gun – he isn’t, he’s just tucked his empty sleeve into his pocket). Why Mizuno wants into the gang – and why he agitates them into war with the theatre-dwelling Sanko group – is the crux of the film’s mystery.
A common thread in many Japanese films of the era is that while it all basically makes sense in the end, it can be difficult following the logic carrying one scene into the next or to understand the motivations of the characters. It’s clear Mizuno is playing the two gangs against each other, but the explanation for why is hazy. At times I got completely lost; in one scene, Mizuno is being tortured for a perceived slight, in the next he’s still working with the Nemoto group, and I couldn’t figure out what I’d missed. But then something else extraordinary would happen, and I didn’t mind that the film was lurching from plot point to plot point. Suzuki had a real eye for set pieces – the best here probably involves Mizuno dangling upside down from a rope, grabbing for a nearby gun, while chaos unfolds around him.
Inconsistent but rewarding, Youth of the Beast is a fine example of Suzuki and Shishido’s frequent partnership. Held up as the turning point for Suzuki’s inventive filmmaking, it’s better seen than described.
Youth of the Beast / 野獣の青春 Yajū no Seishun
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Japanese Release Date: 21st April 1963
Version Watched: 92 min (Eureka! Masters of Cinema)