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Youth of the Beast (The Criterion Collection)
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Seijun Suzuki's delirious take on pulp-gangster films blows the lid off the genre with mad energy and stylistic excess, twisting a cliché-riddled revenge plot lifted from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (which also inspired Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars) into a wild yakuza explosion. The somber black-and-white opening with a single color element--a pink flower lying on the floor--explodes into bright color, blaring music, and random violence. Chipmunk-cheeked Suzuki regular Jo Shishido hides behind dark glasses as the brutal thug Jo, who auditions for the Nomota mob boss by beating up underlings in his own nightclub (we watch the spectacle from behind soundproof glass while a go-go dancer shimmies in the foreground). Quickly establishing himself as the outfit's most ruthless debt collector and enforcer, he visits a rival gang (headquartered in a loft overlooking a movie house) and before long is playing the two against one another. The tangled plot also involves the Nomota honcho's gay brother, a scheme against his sixth wife, and the mysterious Takeshita School of Knitting, all set at a barreling pace and spiced with jagged narrative leaps, avant-garde riffs, and glowing colorscapes that would make Douglas Sirk jealous. In one bizarre scene, a raging wind whips an amber-hued desert into a surreal dust storm just outside the picture window of the Nomota boss's living room window as he blithely flogs his mistress. Suzuki's cinematic madness finds its culmination in Branded to Kill and Tokyo Drifter. --Sean Axmaker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
"Youth of the Beast" ("Yaju no Seishun") is no exception. A typical revenge-plot, with the "good cop" posing as "bad cop" to get in good with the gangsters before enacting his vengeance, Suzuki takes it up a notch with innovative camera work and vivid, colorful imagery. By no means the wild ride of something like "Branded to Kill," it is still a quality Yakuza flick, Suzuki-style. There is more than a hint of "Yojimbo" in this film, but the similarities are soon forgotten.
Suzuki's visuals are well-served by tough-guy standby Shishido Jo, famous for his plastic surgery to give himself a more rugged look. Veteran of many of Suzuki's flicks, he brings an authenticity and a grounding-point in the convoluted world of gang-politics. Watanabe Misako brings a nice tenderness to the tough-guy world, as the wife of a detective who was killed.
The Criterion DVD for "Youth of the Beast" is fairly bare-boned, on par with their release for Suzuki's "Fighting Elegy." The picture is lovely, the original soundtrack and dialog are preserved, and it is a film not likely to be offered elsewhere. One could have hoped for more on the DVD release, but it is nice to have it available at all.
The film opens in black and white with a large crowd that has gathered in curiosity outside a small hotel. A man is found dead with a dead woman on top of him in one of the hotel's tiny rooms. The police are investigating the scene while one police detective is reading out loud what seems to be a suicide note. Consequently, the police detective voices the obvious nature of the deadly incident that has taken place in the room hours earlier while another police officer comments on how lucky the dead man must have been to have had a loving mistress such as the dead woman on the floor. Further investigation of the room reveals the dead man's line of work, as he used to be a police detective. After this short opening, the film turns into a colored cinematic experience, as it makes a short leap into the future.
Initially, it seems a little confusing where the story is going, as the audience is allowed to follow a thug trying to enter the world of yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Nonetheless, a patient audience will be rewarded, as the story will help reveal the identity of this gangster, Joji "Jo" Mizuno (Joe Shishido). By raising some havoc in the Nomoto Enterprises turf Jo succeeds in getting their attention, as he quickly climbs the ladder of criminal success. He is offered a lucrative position in the Nomoto organization, as he is obliged to perform extortion for the organization in another gang's turf to show his loyalty.
Eventually, the audience is introduced to Jo's true identity, as he has been released from jail and wants to repay a debt he has to the police detective that was found dead in the apparent double suicide at the beginning of the film. The film turns into an intricate cat and mouse game between Jo and the mobsters, as he attempts to find the true killers of the dead police detective. However, it is not as easy as Jo anticipated, as he finds himself in a quandary while encouraging gang war in his approach to find the killer.
Seijun's gangster tale depicts a Japanese film noir with some possible influence by Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961). Nonetheless, Seijun makes sure that it is not a rip-off of another film, which is evident as the story is told. The criminal and corrupt atmosphere in the film is elevated through scenes from backrooms and soundproofed rooms. Through these rooms the mise-en-scene brings wall-to-wall two-way mirrors, exotic dancers, and film clips on the back of theater screens that should help evoke additional emotional impact of the situations on the audience. This displays Seijun's personal interest in film, but also intentional contemplation by him. Maybe he wanted the audience to actually think more about the moment than just to merely enjoy the ride through the story.
One notion that has been suggested is that the audience should reflect on their own folly while viewing Seijun's films. This notion is increasingly interesting while contemplating Suzuki's heavy use of sadism, violence, and sexual symbolism in the film. In some aspects, this is very similar to what one can see in Ichi the Killer (2001) by Takeshi Miike, but Miike brings the violence to the next level by visually illustrating what Seijun only suggested. In any case, there is something more in each scene than what meets the eye, which leaves much for the audience to ponder.
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