Starring: Jo Shishido, Misako Watanabe
Director: Seijun Suzuki
There’s a fine example early on in Youth of the Beast (1963) of why movie buffs get so excited by Seijun Suzkuki. Our sharp-suited hero is pistol-whipping a goon in the swanky back office of a nightclub, while behind him, seen through a bank of two-way mirrors, the club’s floorshow, a sultry feather dance, goes on oblivious of the mayhem. It’s an image that crystalizes the glamour and danger of the yakuza lifestyle, while simultaneously flirting with a kind of parodic overstatement, and it’s typical Suzuki – no one makes a widescreen frame drip with style quite the way he does.
That said, the script of Youth of the Beast is a pretty workaday affair. Jo Shishido plays an ex-cop seeking revenge for the death of a colleague at the hands of mobsters. Posing as a hired hoodlum, he pits two rival gangs against each other in a Yojimbo-like way and uncovers a seedy world of drug deals and call girls. It’s the sort of formulaic material that Suzuki was stuck with time and again in his career as a contract director at Nikkatsu, and he rattles through it in a near-contemptuous, devil take the hindmost manner, paring down exposition and linking material. Plot-wise, it all becomes a bit of blur – Shishido’s character is always beating people up and getting beaten up in turn, men in trench coats and natty threads are forever cramming themselves into little cars. But visually, it’s cool, hip, brimming with flair.
Crazy, OTT characters (a villain who juggles a white cat and throwing knives, a drug fiend who literally chews the carpet) are matched by bold, intense colours, lavish, clean-lined Ken Adams-style sets and tilted camera angles. There are a couple of brilliant set-pieces – including one where Shishido finds himself engaged in a shootout while dangling upside down, his feet tied to a chandelier. And it all snaps along nicely to a sizzling big band jazz score.
Youth of the Beast isn’t quite in the league of the later Branded To Kill – not so anarchic or dazzlingly hallucinatory – but it’s still a real treat to see it on Blu-ray. The Nikkatsuscope film stock looks just a little soft on this HD transfer, but there’s no grain or other blemishes and the colours are rich and bold. The disc comes with a 26-minute talking head piece with expert Tony Rayns, who discusses Suzuki’s insanely prolific career as a maker of low-budget quickies at Nikkatsu (Youth of the Beast was his twenty-eighth film), his eventual break with the studio and the ups and downs of his later years.