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A Surreal Spin on the Familiar
Seijun Suzuki's Youth of the Beast

The plot of Seijun Suzuki’s Youth of the Beast should be familiar to most viewers, even if they’ve never heard of the film or Suzuki.

An alienated stranger with anger management issues joins two rival gangs and uses his dual roles to destroy both sides.

It has served most famously as the plot for Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as well as Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, but its revenge-themed triple-cross has driven countless storylines before and since.

But most people don’t watch Suzuki for his plots. They watch him for his hallucinatory action and surreal spin on the familiar.

Measured by that standard, Youth of the Beast pays off big.

Released in 1963, Youth of the Beast was Suzuki’s breakthrough film. He’d already racked up thirty B-movies in the previous eight years, but Youth of the Beast was the first film that gave us the ‘real’ Suzuki in full, confident bloom.

It’s hard to think of something in it that is ordinary. In the opening scene, we watch as police investigate what they believe is a double suicide. It’s a rather generic noir scene shot in black and white, but in a short close-up of a nightstand (on which have been set an overturned pill bottle and a wine bottle), a single flower winks at us in brilliant red: you may have expected a standard gangster feature, but Suzuki will plant shocking visuals throughout the film to wake us (and him) from our dogmatic slumbers.

Hey, after making that many films, you’ve got to do something to keep yourself awake.

Take, for example, the way Suzuki staged a scene set in one of the gangsters’ offices. As he points out in a 2001 interview included on the Criterion DVD release of Youth of the Beast, the Nikkatsu studio, for which he made the film, always had a standard way of presenting offices.

“In just about any movie that Nikkatsu made, offices looked the same way,” he said. “A certain look of gangster films.”

As Suzuki shot it, though, the office is set about four feet below a nightclub’s floor, and we can watch the nightclub’s action through giant panels of one-way mirrors. The gangsters can also pipe in music from the nightclub, which they do when the alienated stranger is confronted. (For an added touch, Suzuki shoots the initial confrontation scene from below, with the men standing on a glass floor. In the ensuing fight, a burlesque dancer performs a risqué dance in the background.)

The other gang’s offices are set in a movie theater, and a surreal montage of gangster films play on the screen that appears in patches behind them.

Throughout the film, you can feel Suzuki pushing the visual envelope in an effort to raise the film above its standard, B-film material. But perhaps the greatest moment comes when one of the gang bosses whips his mistress while a surreal sandstorm swirls across a strange desert behind him.

The scene begins with a landscape shot through a bank of windows. The yellow sky is filled with dark clouds, and a stand of tall grass whips wildly in the sand-blown winds.

The camera tilts down to a closeup of the girl writhing against a bright red carpet. Her low-cut black dress reveals a series of bleeding lashes. The gang boss walks around her, holding the whip. He whips her again, and she flees into the landscape. The boss pursues her behind the grass and whips her again before falling onto her, overcome with passion.

“He always gets like that beating up women,” a gangster tells the stranger (played to sullen perfection by Joe Shishido), by way of explanation. “It excites him.”

It’s a singularly striking, grimly sadistic moment in a film full of such moments. But Suzuki isn’t interested in dwelling on the twisted ethos that drives the gangsters’ acts anymore than he is willing to linger long enough to provoke an emotional, empahtic reaction from us. Instead, the gangster simply pulls the stranger to the side, out of view of the id-driven sandstorm and the rape and tells him about a drug deal that will serve as a major plot point.

Sure, it’s a twisted world…but isn’t that why we watch it with bated breath?

A quick note to Suzuki novices curious about Joe Shishido’s face: yes, his cheeks are strangely swollen. Chipmunk-like, even. But it’s not a proto-Brando put-on (or a botched homage to the youthful Jacques Tati). In a 2001 interview included on the Criterion DVD, Shishido acknowledges that he had had plastic surgery done to give him movie-star looks, but it didn’t turn out quite the way he expected. Having his cheeks injected to make them look round and full didn’t work out either. (Apparently, cheek implants weren’t up to today’s standards.) Discussing it in the interview, he seems only slightly chagrined about the procedures, but long scars are prominent on both his cheeks. It’s a grim detail, but it’s entirely at home in a Suzuki film.

—Review by Woody Arbunkle

Posted January 31, 2005



Special Features of the Criterion DVD

• New, restored high-definition digital transfer

• Video interviews with director Seijun Suzuki and actor Joe Shishido, make by Nikkatsu in 2001

• Original theatrical trailer

• A new essay by film critic Howard Hampton



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