Judge Adam Arseneau was once given the same nickname in junior high by a creepy gym teacher.
"How can I afford to pay three million yen?"
Youth Of The Beast was the film that put Suzuki on the long downward spiral toward creative freedom and escapism from the banality of a never-ending stream of dull yakuza B-movies. We see the early developing of his trademark expressionist use of colors, daring script re-writes, and kinetic editing, the cumulative effect of which got him fired and blacklisted by the Japanese studio system for making "incomprehensible" films…all things that made him infamous as a cult legend in avant-garde cinema. These esoteric elements that manifest themselves in his later work, in films like Tokyo Drifter and Branded To Kill, all start to take root in Youth Of The Beast, but the ideas are newly formed, incomplete, still in their infancy. Seijun Suzuki was not yet Seijun Suzuki, at least not the man he would become. He still had regular employment, after all…
Facts of the Case
A rough and tough gangster named Jo appears out of nowhere on the streets of Tokyo, and immediately makes a name for himself by brazenly walking into the headquarters of Nomoto Enterprises, a notorious yakuza organization. There, he beats the crud out of the guards, points a gun at the boss, and asks for a job. Impressed by his tenacity, his muscle, and his absolute fearlessness that borders on the mentally insane, the boss puts him on the payroll. The gang is at war with a rival faction, and they could use all the manpower they can get. Jo's services do not come cheap, but he soon proves himself an expensive yet invaluable acquisition.
Jo then heads over to the rival faction's gang and repeats the procedure, offering to spy and divulge secrets about Nomoto's movements in exchange for huge sums of payroll money. The rival gang immediately agrees, knowing a good turn of events when they see one. Jo feeds the gang information for profit while at the same time taking money to sabotage the gang, and vise versa. Back and forth he goes, managing to stay one step ahead of the wrecking ball.
But Jo's motives are not what they seem, either. He has a secret past, and secret agendas that transcend petty gang warfare. Secretly manipulating the two gangs toward his own ambitions while simultaneously taking their money, Jo plays a dangerous game. What are his motivations? After all, his actions will soon force two rival gangs into all-out war…with Jo caught directly in the middle!
During the opening sequence of Youth Of The Beast, we see two police officers investigating a double suicide. Shot expertly in high-contrast black and white, the police officers read the suicide note left by the woman, who killed her lover and herself, and both feel envious for the dead man for having had a woman who loves him that much. The camera focuses on a full-color flower, in stark contrast to the grey background, seconds before an officer reaches into the dead man's wallet and discovers a policeman's identification badge. As the revelation of this sinks in, suddenly, the film explodes upon the screen into a busy Japanese street in vibrant color, with a woman laughing and a jukebox blaring. Youth Of The Beast literally bursts onto the screen and keeps up its fervent pace until the credits roll.
If you come into the world of Suzuki's delightfully off-kilter films through the infamous Branded To Kill and Tokyo Drifter, in comparison a film like Youth Of The Beast will seem pedantic and tame; but in 1963, it would have been considered pretty weird. Not weird enough to get him fired, of course; that would take a few more years of experimentation and envelope-pushing. In a sense, the film has aged particularly badly in terms of pop culture references, simply because Suzuki decked every scene lavishly with the most chic and modern furniture and fashion sense of the '60s; but as terribly gaudy as everything looks in retrospect, forty years after the fact, the art direction adds to the film's avant-garde styling and flair, as if the film gains modern appeal by feeding off the inherent retro-ness and quirkiness.
Youth Of The Beast was simply at the height of all that was hip, not only pushing the creative and visual envelopes, but also pushing a more violent one. Surprisingly gritty and edgy considering the time period, the film depicts knives being slid under fingernails, women being whipped mercilessly and sexually assaulted, fingers being shot off with guns, and cars stuffed with dynamite being driven into houses. As a protagonist, Jo is tough as nails. Our first introduction shows him strutting down the streets in a black trench coat and suit with dashing white hat, and before a group of street punks can even begin to hassle him, he beats them into the ground. Then, delicately, he wipes the blood off his fine Italian loafers by rubbing them disdainfully onto the shirt of the man whose face he kicked in, before moving on down the street. Jo seems ruthless at first, but slowly the film unveils his true motivations. He has a bone to pick with one of the gangs, but he soon becomes so deep in the subterfuge and espionage that his own intentions are as vague and unpredictable as the film itself.
While certainly more subtle in the visual department than his later fare, Suzuki manages to play some interesting games with sound and camera angles that are quite impressive for their time. His audio cuts swing like a sledgehammer, between scenes of total silence and scenes of intense cluttered noise, like noisy streets, crowded bars, and fight sequences. A particularly brilliant sequence in a noisy gentleman's club suddenly cuts away to the yakuza office situated behind a sheet of one-way glass; we watch a lady dance topless with men yelling and hollering and hot jazz music playing, and suddenly cut to dead silence, watching the same sequence, but from a slightly different perspective in the soundproof room. The cumulative effect of the sound and visual cuts are daring and innovative, almost playful in its casual disregard for order and structure. Youth Of The Beast plays like a free-floating jazz riff, back and forth upon itself, swinging between yakuza gang, between friends, and between hidden innuendos, the fast and furious horn soundtrack fueling each cut, each bridge, and each transition.
While the constant back-and-forth of the story is entertaining in a conceptual sense, and makes for a great jazz allegory, the story is the weakest element of Youth Of The Beast, something of a poor man's Yojimbo knockoff. But even the most die-hard aficionados can recognize this weakness in nearly every single Suzuki project. Working at a sweat-shop pace cranking out never-ending streams of Yakuza films with constant emphasis to simply get the product out the door, script was simply the element given the least attention. Toward the end of his infamous career, Suzuki did begin to take creative liberties with the scripts, doing spontaneous rewrites, reorganizing and rearranging scenes in an attempt to liberate the pedantic and stagnant material into something fresh. In mixing up the narrative, the sequences, and the dialogue, he took mediocre and cliché-ridden genre flicks and made them experimental cliché-ridden genre flicks. Unfortunately, in doing so, the quality of the story as a whole did not always improve…in certain situations, it actually worsened. But as with all Suzuki films, style made up for the incongruent aspects of the script, and then some.
Criterion, as always, went swinging for the rooftops and hit a home run out of the park with this DVD. Both the sound and picture are nothing short of fantastic. The transfer has been immaculately restored and touched up with almost no sign of decay, damage, or age. Black levels are rich and deep, and greens, reds, and browns come through especially vibrant. Even upon closer magnification, the picture stays remarkably tight, detailed, and sharp without exhibiting jagged or anti-aliased edges. The audio fares nearly as well, though the simple limitations of mono recording technology of the era can only be improved upon so far. Though no amount of digital tinkering can remove the tinny, centralized mono characteristics of an aged soundtrack, the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio presentation is clear, well-defined, and detailed, and clearly a great amount of work went into cleaning up the crackles and distortions. Considering how poorly comparable B-level Japanese films of the same era have weathered the years, the final presentation of Youth Of The Beast is nothing short of a miracle.
One of the "cheaper" Criterion titles, this DVD comes out light on the supplementary features. Two small interviews recorded in 2001 are included; the first features five minutes of director Seijun Suzuki reflecting on the film as a whole and his complete lack of recollection about the script itself (shows how important it must have been). The second features seven minutes of chipmunk-cheeked actor Joe Shinshido reflecting upon his relationship with Suzuki, his prolific yakuza gangster career, and the absurdly bizarre cheek implants that made him a sex symbol in Japan (apparently). The interviews are of high quality and both interviewees are in fine form, laughing and answering questions with interest and passion. Finally, the original theatrical trailer is included for good measure as well as a film essay by Howard Hampton in the liner notes. The English subtitles, as expected, are flawless and presented perfectly.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Considering the lavish attention doled out to some Criterion titles in terms of extra material and supplements, past Criterion releases of Suzuki's films have been relatively skinny on the goods. Youth Of The Beast, sadly, is no exception.
That being said, of course, that his films even get a North American release is cause for celebration in itself, not to mention with a presentation so slick and sumptuous. So I guess really, I have no complaints. But I had to write something here. You know how it is.
Does Criterion ever really disappoint? Youth Of The Beast is a fantastic representation of a seminal film in Suzuki's esoteric career, the earliest evidence of his experimentation expressed in tiny, timid mews that eventually develop into full-throated roars. Between Criteron's newly renewed interest in bringing Suzuki's films to DVD, and HVE's previously released title offerings, more and more previously unavailable Suzuki films are making their way to our western shores.
Personally, I could not be happier, because I have ratty VHS copies of Youth Of The Beast and Elegy To Violence that I copied years ago from my university library film archive that can now finally be retired. Every day, I get closer to being free from analog…all thanks to DVDs like this.
Keep 'em coming, boys.
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Scales of Justice
• Video Interviews with Director Seijun Suzuki and Actor Joe Shishido
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