Title: Youth of the Beast (Yaju no seishun)
Release Date: 1963
Length: 93 minutes
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Starring: Jo Shishido, Misako Watanabe, Tamio Kawaji
Before talking about the movie itself, let me say something about the star. Jo Shishido was an odd duck. A pretty big star in Japanese cinema in the middle of the last century, he had a Western-style first name and a…distinctive look. The latter was the result of plastic surgery for “cheek augmentation.” You kinda have to see a picture to believe it. Still, he does a good job of portraying a hard, hard man you don’t want to mess with while at the same time looking far more like a chipmunk than you would expect anyone to look.
Youth of the Beast borrows heavily from Yojimbo and Fistful of Dollars. Jo rolls into Tokyo and auditions for the yakuza. He does this by demonstrating his willingness and ability to beat the ever-lovin’ snot out of their minor members. It works better than you might think.
He gets hired on at a high price and immediately showcases intelligence as well as toughness and starts to play both sides against the middle by joining up with a rival gang and persuading each that he’s their best chance to take down the other. But this is no Yojimbo clone; there are hidden depths and secret machinations. some are slowly revealed over the body of the film and a couple are left to the end.
It’s not the classiest noir you ever saw; there are some gratuitously bare breasts, some unnecessary hints of sexual deviancy, but not overmuch. There’s a fair bit of violence and brutality; some explicit and some implied. In the end it’s both an interesting film in its own right as well as a fascinating late Japanese take on the noir style.
Part of the uniqueness is the bright color palette throughout. Noir, of course, works best an is traditionally done in black and white. This is one of the better color noirs. Suzuki made a number of noir films in Japan which take the traditional genre and turn them on their ear in very interesting ways. Here the bright (almost garish at times) colors start by feeling out of place with the movie’s tone, but by the end that disorienting effect contributes to feel from the narrative dissonance.
It lacks the full tragedy of the traditional style too, only getting as far as semi-tragic. I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoiling things too much. But are these variances because of how (relatively) modern it is? Or because it’s Japanese? I’m not sure. But it’s beautifully shot all the same.