Seijun Suzuki is one of the more polarizing and ambiguous figures in Japanese cinema. Genius? Madman? Something in between? Perhaps it doesn't matter, the differences between these positions are in any case, quite sleight. An amazingly prolific director - he directed over forty films in the 1960s alone - his very productivity helped lend credibility to those who dismissed him as B-movie man, preeminent among these to be sure, but a B-movie man nonetheless. In recent years, however, his work has been increasingly appreciated, particularly in the West.
In large measure, this uptick in esteem is can be traced to the film industry finally catching up to Suzuki. His classic mid-60s films (Youth of the Beast, Gate of Flesh, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill) featured a powerful combination of brutal, explicit and often sadistic violence, morbid humor, a keen sense of the ridiculous and a visual and narrative style that is fractured and often hallucinatory, all held together (or, rather, defiantly not held together) by a totalizing nihilism that denies any higher or greater meaning to actions beyond the demonstratable consequences of action itself. This made for cinema that, at the time, was incomprehensible to many viewers, and Suzuki was famously fired by Nikkatsu in 1967 for making films that "make no sense and make no money." Decades later, however, the potency of his best films is keenly appreciated by many cinephiles raised on Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers (both almost completely derivative of Suzuki's work).
Suzuki himself identified Youth of the Beast as marking the beginning of his most creatively fertile period, and all the distinctive elements of his filmmaking are in evidence, and meshing perfectly. The basic story - a mysterious tough muscles into the center of a war between rival gangs, then begins pursuing ends of his own as he plays each off the other - is strongly reminiscent of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, but where Yojimbo is a period piece set in a down and out town of the Edo period, Youth of the Beast is a (post)modern gangster film set in contemporary (1960s) Tokyo. Mifune's iconic role as the amoral ronin Sanjuro Kuwabatake is here filled by Jo Shishido as disgraced ex-detective Joji 'Jo' Mizuno.
The film opens with police investigating the apparent double suicide of a detective and his mistress (we later learn that it was actually a double murder). The initial sequence plays at being a traditional police procedural, with middle aged men in rumpled suits and worn hats speaking clinically of the dead. The camera pans to a table and an incongruous splash of color, a single cut red flower in a vase. It is an image of fleeting life that is repeated as the film's closing frame.
Suddenly, the film jumps to full color with a blast of hard bop from the soundtrack, cutting to a crowded street in Tokyo and the maniacal laughter of a woman. The camera soon finds 'Jo' Shisado, who explodes into violent action, attacking three men, pummeling one of them to the ground and kicking him repeatedly before fastidiously wiping the blood from his shoe onto the fallen man's shirt. He then turns with an air of total indifference and strolls into a hostess bar.
His outburst provides an entree into the Tokyo underworld; the men he thrashed were low-level yakuza soldiers, and the ease with which he dispatched them attracts the attention of the local underboss. Soon, he meets the big boss, Hideo Nomoto, and becomes a hitman for Nomoto's gang. It rapidly becomes apparent that Jo is playing a deeper game. He forces his way into the office of Nomoto's chief rival, earning a place on his payroll as well, this time by providing intelligence on Nomoto's activities. He plays the rivals off one another, eventually achieving the cataclysmic annihilation of both gangs.
But why? We learn through flashbacks and his own admission that Jo is a former cop,framed by the yakuza and sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit. More significantly, it is revealed that the detective whose murder was investigated in the opening scene was his former partner. He knows that someone in Nomoto's gang is responsible for that murder, and he is bent on discovering the killer and dispatching him..but he's not at all particular about who else he kills in the process. The purity of his vengeance is eventually undermined, however, when he befriends one of Nomoto's henchmen, and, particularly, after he learns who the real hand behind the killing was. In the end, his success brings no satisfaction, only more death.
The great strength of Youth of the Beast is its combination of superb visual flair and unremitting nihilism. Suzuki's shots are almost invariably dynamic in their composition, a riot of color and movement against a gritty background of corruption and decay. They create at once a hallucinatory detachment and a gut level immersion in the violence. Even the relatively static shots are intensely poetic and loaded with symbolism. Several scenes take place in the office of Nomoto's hostess bar. The entire back wall of the office is a one-way mirror, looking out into the nightclub. The floor of the office is set below the floor of the club. It is a perfect visual depiction of an "underworld" existing side by side with everyday life, but invisible to most people.
One aspect of the film will likely be extremely disturbing to many contemporary Western viewers. Suzuki's films were often possessed of a violent and virulent misogyny, and this is no exception. The female characters are invariably unsympathetic; prostitutes, addicts and murdering adulteresses. One scene features a pimp humiliating an addicted woman while she begs for a fix. In another, Nomoto beats a call girl with his belt and then rapes her. The movie reaches its climax when Jo leaves the woman who orchestrated the murder of his partner to the tender mercies of a straight razor wielding psychopath. It is a fitting end to one of the most relentlessly violent films of its era.