Youth of the Beast

As beloved as it may be, Yojimbo wasn’t held in the highest of esteem yet it did champion universality in its storytelling that saw it remade and reinterpreted the world over, such where Akira Kurosawa’s talents. Whether that’s with Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars or the closer to home output from Japanese New Wave Wunderkind Seijun Suzuki with Youth of the Beast, a deserving addition to the Masters of Cinema catalogue. Whether it’s through the lens of Suzuki, Kurosawa or Leone, the plot depicted a rogue playing two crime outfits off each other for reasons never fully articulated, Youth of the Beast doesn’t have the cultural cache of those two kin still it betters the pair by fleshing out its story with a much more satisfying arc.

Youth of the Beast [Yajû no seishun]

Joe Shishido (Branded to kill) is Jo Mizuno, a violent thug who plays two Yakuza families creates a conflict between two families in order to eke out his revenge. Youth of the Beast takes this loose concept and gives its lead a more rational reasoning, Suzuki gives him something more than the “just because” school of motivation. This affords Joe Shishido a better role than he was traditionally allowed. Jo Mizuno has all the bravura of the garden variety Shishido role with the added bonus that he has a history that turns the black and blue of his violence into a field of grey. A theory validated by the film’s climax, one which doesn’t offer a simple resolution either attaining his revenge of failing in the process, on the contrary Mizuno is a constant state of flux, bouncing between victim and agitator. For such a rebel without cause concept, Youth of the Beast travels further from simply asking questions.

For those countless many of you who are uninitiated with Seijun Suzuki there is one word best fits his work – weird. His films are composed of non-sequential editing, non-linear narrative, gorgeous cinematography and set design that turns simple concepts into flamboyant and stylish oddities. To sum that up in general terms, the films of Seijun Suzuki are effortlessly cool, hard to follow and brilliantly stylish. This marks Youth of the Beast out as something of an oddity within the new wave phase of his career simply because it’s more appreciable to a wide audience than his characteristic works. Editing is the reason for this, traditionally the editing in a Suzuki film cuts out absolutely everything that he deems unnecessary, this could be something as vague as taking his characters from one location to another or it could be something as important as exposition. That has been stripped back to an absolute minimum and in that one sees how good the eccentric auteur is at telling a story underneath his flamboyance. Flamboyant and deceptively frank in its relationship with violence.

Youth of the Beast [Yajû no seishun]

With one of his key tropes being diminished one could argue that this is Suzuki roughing the edges off for the masses, especially considering the film was made for his then studio. There would also be a legitimate case if he had dropped the ball with any of his other tropes, which he most certainly did not. Youth of the Beast is a glorious film to behold. The cinematography Kazue Nagatsuka takes the beautifully designed stages and offers up a bevy of pop art goodness, the scenes in the club in the first act and Mizuno’s first dalliance with the bigger of the crime families shout this loudest. All it takes is a gigantic one-way window and the collaborative forces of Nagatsuka and Suzuki to frame images that you’d want in picture frames. The other side of that fence is the unorthodox framing of the action scenes, which turns battles of wits and fists into games of chess. For an action film there is remarkably little action, an odd fate that never dawns thanks to the vision behind the lens, Kazue Nagatsuka was a constant presence in Japanese film from the 1927 to 1967 and it’s easy to see why.

Seijun Suzuki is not an accessible voice in world cinema, but if there was ever a perfect entry point into his bizarre filmography Youth of the Beast would be it.  A uniquely Japanese film that manages to be both idiosyncratic in its design and accessible in its approach, an impressive feat on its own and a scarcely crossed bridge. Masters of Cinema have cleaned the film up a treat, with the presentation looking like a brand new print and while the extras are atypically slight its made up in their consistency, especially the booklet which contains essays from respected voices in the critical faculty, all of whom agree – Youth of the Beast is a lost icon of Japanese and World Cinema. Shame about the hideous box art.



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