Director: Seijun Suzuki
Screenplay: Ichirô Ikeda, Tadaaki Yamazaki
Based on a Novel by: Haruhiko Ôyabu
Starring: Jô Shishido, Misako Watanabe, Tamio Kawaji
Producer: Keinosuke Kubo
Running Time: 92 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
I’ve been aware of Seijun Suzuki in the Japanese cult cinema landscape for some time. I’ve seen his two most famous classics, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, but I haven’t ventured beyond those yet, which is a bit mad seeing as I enjoyed both quite a lot and he’s directed over 50 films so far. His career has been an unusual one though which resulted in (supposedly) quite a hit and miss collection and his story is possibly more well known than his films have actually been seen.
In the mid-50’s, the Japanese entertainment company Nikkatsu started producing films again after a hiatus which began during WWII and, in a bid to keep productions fresh and exciting, they hired a number of young assistant directors from other studios, promising to promote them quickly to full director status, which was unheard of in the traditional Japanese studio system back in those days. Among those directors were Shōhei Imamura and Seijun Suzuki. Whereas Imamura started making his unique glimpses of the underbelly of society pretty much straight away, Suzuki found himself churning out cookie-cutter releases for the studio by the dozen, largely yakuza/gangster pictures. By all accounts, most of the 20-odd films he directed in his first 7 years or so at the studio weren’t particularly memorable. However, growing tired of this workmanlike practise and getting jealous of the freedom allowed to his peer Imamura, he finally tore off his shackles and made what is considered his breakthrough film with Youth of the Beast in 1963. It didn’t make much of a mark at the time, but in retrospect, it paved the way for his most highly regarded period which culminated in Branded to Kill which may have got him fired from Nikkatsu, whose head thought it was “incomprehensible”, but cemented his name in the pantheon of cult classic cinema.
Youth of the Beast and a number of the other films of his ‘golden age’ were still technically ‘director-for-hire’ gangster movie gigs though. Based on a (presumably quite pulpy) novel by Haruhiko Ôyabu, the film is a typically twisty tale of an ex-cop who plays two gangs off on each other to get revenge on those that murdered and disgraced his old partner.
I won’t describe too much else of the plot as it’s a fairly convoluted affair and to be honest, the flow of the story isn’t why I absolutely loved this film and it’s not why it’s considered Suzuki’s breakthrough. What he did with this script and most of the following dozen that Nikkatsu dumped on his desk was he made them his own through a number of bizarre flourishes and breathtaking style.
Whilst what actually occurs in the scenes isn’t as nutty as events in Tokyo Drifter or Branded to Kill, Suzuki adds odd little touches to the sets and scenarios to bring something unusual to the table. In one gangster’s apartment he litters the roof and shelves with model airplanes. One kingpin’s hideout is behind an active cinema screen and another is behind one way glass in a nightclub. In the latter, sound is used to great effect too, with audio shifting between the club’s natural sound to silence and then to the audio as heard through hidden microphones and tinny speakers. Black humour comes through with a lot of these touches, making the whole experience as fun as it is violent.
The editing style gives the film an exhilarating quality too as scenes are stripped to the bare essentials, eschewing any unnecessary pondering or breathing space by instantly jumping into the next scene once the point has been made. This can make the plot tough to keep on top of at times, but that’s all part of the fun.
Most impressive of all however is the visual style of the film. Other than brief bookends which add a little black and white footage into the mix, the screen generally bursts with colour. Lighting is brilliantly handled, most noticeably in a sparsely lit torture scene. The traditional Japanese style of careful framing is apparent too, but techniques are used wildly and boldly to display some stunning imagery the old school of the nation’s directors wouldn’t have dared to attempt.
It’s just pure cinema really, showing what the medium is truly capable of. Suzuki may have not been given anything all that special to work with, but he sure as hell made it special. You can probably call it style over substance, but it totally blew me away regardless. Plus, although I’ve dismissed the script, it’s actually a fairly decent thriller in itself which plays out like a cross between Yojimbo and Infernal Affairs (or A Fistful of Dollars and The Departed if you’d rather), it’s just that the director brought it to a whole other level so deserves more of the praise.
I couldn’t recommend it enough. If, like me, you’ve only watched Suzuki’s most famous pair of films, you have to get your hands on this and if you’re totally new to the director’s work, then this is a great place to start.
Youth of the Beast is out on 27th October in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I watched the Blu-Ray version and it looks and sounds great. The grain is quite strong, but natural-looking.
For extra features, on top of the customary trailer, you get a 26 minute video piece with Tony Rayns. A regular on the Japanese titles in the Masters of Cinema range, Rayns is as thorough and insightful as ever. He’s also very honest about the work of Suzuki, discussing how most of his work prior to this was just director-for-hire stuff and how, in his opinion, Suzuki’s work didn’t actually improve after Nikkatsu fired him. He believes Suzuki’s new found freedom actually caused him to struggle to find a successful outlet for his style and ideas. He also argues that for this reason and others, Suzuki should possibly not be considered an auteur, but rather a “master of mis-en-scene”. I’d be willing to go along with that description.
Finally, as always with Masters of Cinema releases, you get a hefty leaflet in with the package, which contains plenty of stylish publicity material and an essay by Frederick Veith and Phil Kaffen.