Blu-ray Review: ‘Youth of the Beast’

There’s a great deal to admire about Seijun Suzuki’s idiosyncratic, jazz-infused gangster thriller Youth of the Beast (1963). Released shortly after the return of the director’s hallucinatory Branded to Kill (1967) to UK screens, this sui generis Yakuza caper arrives courtesy of Eureka’s excellent Masters of Cinema Collection. Even in charge of what is ostensibly straightforward genre fare Suzuki wears his disdain for the formulaic firmly on his sleeve. With Youth of the Beast he lands somewhere between Yojimbo (1961) and its alleged source, Red Harvest, yet sets the narrative alight with his distinct brand of frantic energy.

Suzuki’s feistiness is personified on screen by the livewire performance of his regular leading man, Jô Shishido. Once again putting his striking physiognomy to perfect use, he excels as tough-guy crook, Joji ‘Jo’ Mizuno. Marauding into the Tokyo underworld fresh from sing-sing, he’s keen on working and announces his arrival – and skill set – by teaching a bunch of hired goons an impromptu lesson with his fists. Numerous variations on this brawling theme follow as Jo gets himself knee-deep in the imbroglio of a gang warfare entirely as a result of his own unexplained design. Shishido’s puffy cheeks and perennial scowl are perfectly suited to the explosive and violent Jo. While his motives eventually do coalesce – even as plot strands appear to be diverge in myriad directions – he remains a hard man for a brutal world.

Quite besides the nastiness of the Yakuza rivalry he’s forced to navigate, this is also a place where the betrayals, machinations and addictions approach Shakespearean levels (though the film would hardly welcome such lofty association). A film firmly placed in the gutter, some sequences quite literally show characters crawling along the floor begging for their next fix and even empathetic supporting players are furnished with the requisite vice. Although Suzuki’s direction is less experimental than in previous outings, there’s still an exhilarating brashness to his composition and wilfully arrhythmic editing. Accompanied by a zinging hard bop score, the action hurtles forward at quite the pace, with Jo’s targets finally revealed, even as stranger elements – a knitting school setting for the climactic dust-up, perhaps? – are introduced to the fray in iridescent Technicolor. Youth of the Beast may favour its squalid and visceral style over substance, but hell – it’s hard to gripe when it’s delivered with such furious and freewheeling panache.

Ben Nicholson @BRNicholson