Suzuki’s “Youth of the Beast”

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I don’t know why Suzuki Seijun’s 1963 transitional or breakout movie is called “Youth of the Beast” (Yajû No Seishun). Its protagonist, Mizuno Joji (Jo Shishido of the pumped-up cheeks) is not young He’s an ex-cop who has been in prison for three years before seeking a job with the Nomoto gang by demonstrating his toughness beating up and/or disarming its existing goons. My guess is that the title might refer to the warping of the Nomoto brothers growing up with a mother who supported them and herself through prostitution into her 40s. The gay one, Hideo (Kawaji Tamio) is especially sensitive about references being made to his mother’s trade, which Jo uses at the end of the movie.

In a 2001 interview included on the Criterion edition of the movie, Shishido recalls the ferocity of Hideo. The violence of his own character seems to have blended together with what he was called on to do in later Suzuki movies. (He also remembers a shot of his own torture, btw.)

The movie opens in black and white with the police discovering that the man in a love suicide with a prostitute was a (married) police officer. A lone camellia on the ground breaks out in red and the rest of the movie is shot in color—often garish, 1960s colors, though I thought that “mod” bright colors came in later than 1963.

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What follows is sometimes confusing. I guess I should provide a

Plot-spoiler alert

Though there is a (neo-) noirish femme fatale (who reminds me of Brigid O’Shaughnessy from “The Maltese Falcon”), the movie is in essence an updating of Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” stripped of that movie’s humor. Jo conspires to get the two main gangs to slaughter each other. He takes more than a few lumps from the Nomoto gang for suspected perfidy, and has one major fight while tied up and hanging upside down from a light fixture.

The elder Nomoto brother, Tatsuo (Kobayashi Akiji) is a sadist, but is mostly shown holding and petting his cat. (Similarly, Hideo is said to be gay but is only shown with women, though the associations with them are “business” not for pleasure…)

Eventually, the viewer learns why Jo has undertaken the mission of getting the two gangs to destroy each other, which I will not reveal even within spoiler-alerted text.

End plot-spoiler alert

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When Nikkatsu Pictures eventually fired Suzuki, its head complained that Suzuki’s movies made no sense and made no money. “No sense” is an exaggeration, but making the plots easily digestible was not a concern of Suzuki. Aptly, in his own 2001 interview on the disc, he does not remember the plot.

The sets he remembers and certain setups of shots. IMHO the pace alternates between too slow and too fast, but the movie makes sense as does the motivation of most of the characters (two of whom, the Nomoto brothers, are outright psychotic, and another a hopeless romantic (Esumi Eimei’s Minami).

Suzuki went on to make some better movies (Tokyo Drifter, Fighting Elegy, Branded to Kill). His many (30 in eight years) earlier, routine yakuza movies have not made it across the Pacific, let alone on Criterion Collection DVDs, but I presume are less interesting visually and more straightforward narratively.

I can see what Quentin Tarantino et al. like in the visuals and exaggerated (comic-book) tough guy Jo Shishido, but for Japanese new wave directors, I prefer early or late Imamura, and Teshigahara’s films scripted by Abe Kôbô.

The Criterion Collection disc includes a trailer and the short interviews of Suzuki and Shishido I have already mentioned, plus a plot-spoiling booklet essay by Howard Hampton that is also available online. (I like his suspicions that “there was an elaborate, carefully worked out plot here that Suzuki didn’t so much abandon as fast-forward through.”) The audio and visual transfers of the movie are excellent.

And the lone red camellia from the beginning morphs into a screenful in the movie’s last shot.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

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