Continuing our crime movie season with a look back at what is perhaps the most outrageously delirious Japanese underworld film ever made.
Every so often, you find yourself watching a film that on the most basic level is a simple, generic genre piece, and yet is so batshit crazy in terms of execution that it exists in a universe all of its own. Seijun Suzuki’s 1963 movie Youth of the Beast is just such a film.
If you were to simply read a plot synopsis, then the film would seem like any other Yakuza crime movie of the era – yet this is a movie that is more than the mere sum of its parts and under Suzuki’s unrestrained direction becomes a breathtakingly lurid, hysterical slice of modernist hysteria, where the shock of the new is evident in almost every scene. It’s a heady collision of a Western crime movie, comic book imagery and very Japanese ideas – hardboiled as a rock, frenetic and delirious, the movie manages to become something that goes beyond the genre conventions and cliches thanks to a devil-may-care attitude to coherence and an arrogant defiance that positively dares you to scoff at the melodrama and the madness. It’s pretty damned astonishing.
The film is essentially another re-run of the Yojimbo theme, dressed up in pop art colours and transposed to modern-day Japan, where two rival crime gangs are battling for supremacy. Into the middle of this walks a stranger, Jo (Jo Shishido), who draws attention to himself by roughing up members of one gang, the Nomotos. He treats the assaults like a job interview, and before long is a leading enforcer for the gang. But he also makes contact with the rival gang, offering his services as a spy. The remainder of the film sees Jo playing the two sides off against each other, provoking conflict and sowing the seeds of distrust. Meanwhile, various gang associates on both sides have their conflicts with him, try to manipulate him into furthering their ambitions or fall under his spell. But what is behind this manipulation? As it turns out, it’s the old motive of revenge and retribution, as Jo seeks to find out who was responsible for the death of an old colleague, who we have seen as an apparent suicide pact victim in the opening scenes.
As is always the case in such stories, it takes a long time for Jo’s motives and loyalties to be revealed and the film remains ambiguous about just how much of a good guy he is – if he’s a good guy at all. To call him the film’s hero would be a bit of a stretch, as there is nothing really heroic about him. He’s motivated by personal anger, not the desire for justice, and he’s happy to beat, brutalise and even kill anyone who gets in his way, making him not that much different from the thugs he is trying to bring down. This nihilistic attitude continues with the other characters – with one possible exception, no one here can be trusted, especially if they are female. Women don’t have a good time of it in this film, frankly – they are either hookers, junkies, strippers or two-faced manipulators, pretty much without exception and the movie certainly seems to be saying that we should not trust any of them, an idea that seems misogynistic now and even at the time might have raised a few eyebrows. Of course, this is a movie that is heavily influenced by the classic works of hardboiled crime fiction and film noir where the femme fatale is a classic figure and where many a man has been brought down by the love for a bad woman. Seen as a cartoonish exaggeration of those themes, Youth of the Beast makes a lot of sense.
The hysterical sense of comic book heightened reality runs through the whole film. From the opening black and white scenes that suddenly feature a red flower bursting in colour through the monochrome (an effect that looks crude now, but of course was much harder to achieve in pre-digital days; for all its technical limitations, it still manages to be a startling and unexpected image that sets us up to know that this film will constantly pull the rug from under us and play with visual trickery), the film is clearly set in a world that is a few steps from reality. The screaming modern Jazz soundtrack immediately lets you know that subtlety will not be the strong point in the film and early on it almost drowns in style, the vivid colours, the odd characters and the jumps between blasting sound and absolute silence being so dramatic that you are exhausted within the first ten minutes. Even Shishido, with his cosmetically altered cheeks that give him an unfortunate chipmunk appearance, feels like a cartoon character – you’d never see anyone who looks like this in the real world.
The comic book nature also extends to the use of violence. Make no mistake – this is an ultra-violent movie, with some scenes of torture and beating that still seem savagely shocking today. Japanese cinema of the 1960s always had a reputation for sadism and bloodletting, primarily because it showed the sort of imagery that you could never get away with in Western (mainstream) films and this is a prime example. One character has his fingers shot off one by one – another has a knife jammed into the top of his fingers (yes, fingers are a definite theme), and there are plenty of savage beatings and bloody shootouts. Yet even here, it’s so excessive that for the most part, it stops feeling real. It’s cartoon violence, albeit with more blood and pain.
Because of the style of the film, it’s hard to judge performances – everyone is on full tilt here, deliberately so, and to criticise someone for over-acting or being melodramatic would be spectacularly missing the point. For all his oddness, Shishido is a compelling presence, it must be said and is clearly relishing sinking his teeth into his tough-guy role and worrying it to death. The real star, though, is director Suzuki, who ensures that every single scene is an eye-candy feast while keeping the story ripping along and managing, just about, to hold everything together. The result is a unique experience that successfully reinvents the noir concept for a pop culture audience, something that feels as fresh and original now as it must have done at the time.
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