In Tokyo, a pair of corpses have been found, a man and a woman, the latter having left a note stating this was a double suicide because he was married and she was his mistress, and they couldn't bear to live without each other when his wife was so adamant the marriage should endure. Making this all the more murky was the fact that the male half of the couple was a police inspector, but his colleagues on the force take the note at face value and close the case fairly swiftly. Later on, there's a new man in town, Jo Mizuno (Jô Shishido) who announces his presence by beating up a bunch of gangsters in the street, and going on to wreak mayhem in a restaurant club, then not even paying his bill there. Who is this guy and what is his problem?
Youth of the Beast was cult director Seijun Suzuki's first movie to really take the bull by the horns and do what he wanted with the style of the project. Alas for him, he was pretty much only a cult director in reputation once he had been fired by his studio for making films nobody could understand, such was the density and oblique nature of his storytelling, though that was precisely what attracted the attention of fans wishing for something that bit more eccentric in the varied landscape of the Japanese gangster flick, and today those followers eagerly collect every instance of Suzuki's idiosyncratic oeuvre available. It's ironic that for work that failed to find its audience way back when it has assuredly made up for that in popularity now he had long since retired.
Not that it has ever reached must-see blockbuster level for most of those who take an interest in movies, not even vintage gangster movies, yet for the folks who wanted something defiantly ploughing its own furrow, Suzuki's efforts were a distinctive, if not always coherent, treat. Even if you didn't quite make sense of everything going on in his movies, you could at least drink in the atmosphere and exquisitely composed cinematography, his colour material right up there with Mario Bava on the other side of the planet for vivid hues from the nineteen-sixties. Although Youth of the Beast (a deliberately nonsensical title which nevertheless gives you an idea of the weirdness to follow) began in black and white (and ended there, for that matter), the bulk of it was gloriously coloured and patterned.
As to the plot, in fact this was one of Suzuki's easier to understand narratives since it was more or less pinched from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo - if it was good enough for Sergio Leone it was good enough for him - as Jo sets about pitting two clans of gangsters against one another for reasons he does not reveal until the last few minutes of the film. That said, even with a fairly straightforward storyline there was a sense of watching five films at once, so densely packed were the visuals and so eventful, often downright bizarre, the scenes which breathlessly carried on as if either the director wanted to make the last word in Yakuza films or more likely, was so uninterested in presenting his characters, who were rather hackneyed, in a conventional manner that he was determined not to fit in.
You could tell you were in the hands of a rule breaker, but whether Suzuki was exhibiting contempt for a genre pressed upon him that he was not interested in, or whether he was making the best of his circumstances by kicking back and going his own way was up for debate. Certainly the characters do not behave in exactly the right way you'd expect, with tough gangsters tripping themselves up when faced with Jo, played by a staple of this type, Shishido, his cheek implants rendering him one of the most recognisable, if curiously fat-faced, stars in this decade (he came to regret the cosmetic surgery he had hoped would make him look like a tough guy). Jo cuts a swathe through these duplicitous and petty people, as anarchistic as the director until we find out what the method in his madness actually is. With scenes played in deep focus so we can appreciate an exotic dancer seen through a mirror in the background, or a scene apparently for the hell of it where one evildoer works himself up into a sadistic frenzy over his girlfriend, this was full of striking imagery. Music by Hajime Okumura.
A true rebel in the system, Seijun Suzuki marked out his distinctive style by taking a pop art approach to the gangster cliches he was ordered to make for the Nikkatsu studio, such as Youth of the Beast, Gate of Flesh, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, but he eventually fell out with them over his wild visuals and spent a decade in the wilderness of television and the independents before he was rediscovered in the late seventies. He was making films into his eighties, with Pistol Opera and Princess Racoon winning acclaim in the 21st century.