The program notes for "A Lust for Violence," a 2002 retrospective of Japanese maverick auteur Seijun Suzuki implored the audience, "Please invert your mind before taking in these movies, and chortle at the expense of your own stupidity," an apt piece of advice particularly for Western viewers not accustomed to Suzuki's freeform exploration of the psychosis of post-World War II Japan. In writing about Suzuki's last film, Pistol Opera, Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wondered, "Can I call a film a masterpiece without being sure I understand it?," a question that vexes most astute critics of Suzuki's oeuvre.
In the last few decades, since his films began making their way across the ocean, Suzuki has become a cult figure in the U.S., a brashly original and rule-breaking genius of logical disconnect and aesthetic emotionalism. His often manically weird films have been compared to the most incendiary works of Sam Fuller and David Lynch, and he is a personal idol of fervent indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who thanked him in the credits of Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999).
Suzuki entered the film industry in the late 1940s after serving on the front lines in World War II, and he was directing features--lots of them--within a couple of years. By the time he made Youth of the Beast (Yaju no seishun), which many consider to be his real stylistic and formal breakthrough, he had already directed nearly 30 films in less than decade. Most of them were "program pictures," a term used in Japan to describe what in the U.S. would be "B-movies". Cheap, simple, and fast to make, they provided Suzuki not only experience behind the camera, but a wealth of material to play with.
Youth of the Beast is film noir by way of Suzuki's wonderfully warped worldview. It begins in black and white with two police officers investigating the apparent double suicide of a call girl and the married man with whom she was having an affair. Suzuki drops the first visual clue that this is not your ordinary crime potboiler with a simple shot in which a flower burns blood red on the screen, set off against the grayscale of the background. It's a beautiful, even elegant shot, and it's immediately put into relief as the film cuts to a crowded city street and full color.
Here we meet Jo (Joe Shishido), a mysterious and violent stranger who muscles his way into a job with a local gang and then turns around and sides with an opposing gang (his pairing a white hat and black suit makes an amusingly obvious statement about the typical symbolism equating white with good and black with bad). At first, this looks like a riff on Yojimbo, with the modern rogue samurai playing both sides of the local yakuza turf war for his own gain. However, as the story begins to unfold, we learn that Jo has a specific reason for what he's doing, one that is tied back to the opening double suicide.
However, as with most of Suzuki's films, the story is hardly central. As his career went on, his narratives became more and more jumbled and implausible, to the point that he was fired in the late 1960s by the Nikkatsu Studio for making films that were "incomprehensible." Youth of the Beast is not so narratively fragmented, although style certainly supersedes story at every turn. For example, a sequence depicting one of the gang leaders brutally whipping a prostitute takes place partially in a crimson-hued wind storm that feels ridiculously out of place (not to mention patently fake). Similarly, the two yakuza lairs are tantalizingly surreal in the way they function as portals onto other worlds, with one looking through a one-way mirror into the decadence of an upscale nightclub and the other dominated by a huge screen that plays clips from various film noir and B-movies from both the U.S. and Japan. Yet, like the overtly fabricated mis-en-scne of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, the setting so perfectly reflects the over-the-top emotions that style and substance melt into one long headrush.
Youth of the Beast, like most of Suzuki's films, freely mixes sex and violence. There is a playful sadism to his works, and he lavishes attention on bizarre characters who flamboyantly act out their personal psychoses as vicious personality tics. A central character in Youth of the Beast is the gay brother of a yakuza don who uses a straight razor to make short work of anyone who dares remind him that his mother was a prostitute. It's not pretty, but there's something so ridiculous about it that it borders on parody (one of Suzuki's thematic trademarks is his treatment of organized crime as a patently absurd lifestyle).
For those approaching Suzuki's films for the first time, Youth of the Beast is a good place to start. It maintains a fairly routine crime-mystery narrative and sees it through to the end, even if there are plenty of small, non-sequitur detours along the way (unlike many of his later films, you can get most of this one on the first viewing). Having already directed so many films, Suzuki was clearly in command of his B-movie universe and was thus in a better position to start toying with the formal conventions, injecting his own hyperbolic visual wit and tendency for overkill. It's never so much that the film splits at the seams in true avant-garde fashion as some of his later films did, but it certainly gives one a taste of things to come.
Copyright 2005 James Kendrick
All images copyright The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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