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