Youth Of The Beast (1963), or Punks In Pinstripe Suits

3 05 2009

Gangster flicks always have the same modus operandi. It’s the same thing shown the same way; a heist goes awry, some of the criminal underworld get a few feathers ruffled, and shootouts ensue. Okay, fair enough. But where are the innovators? Where are the new ideas? That is where Japan comes in. Japanese director Seijun Suzuki, in 1963, burst onto the scene with a gangster movie with more than just Tommy guns to back itself up with. It had substance along with style, at least enough to challenge the established format of your typical gangster film.

We drop down into the jazz-drenched Japanese underworld for a battle against rival Yakuza gangs, all caused by a ruffian named Joji “Jo” Mizuno. Jo creeps into the inner circles of one of the Yakuza bosses by displaying a striking amount of spitfire and violence. But it is discovered that he is double-dealing with another gang, and this starts an all-out war in the criminal underworld. Questions abound: did Jo plan all of this? Is he setting everyone up? And if so, why? What are the motivations behind this lone wolf upsetting the balance of the brutes and thugs of Okinawa?

This is a really fun and entertaining film to sit down with. Suzuki wasn’t reinventing the genre here; just reinvigorating it. He was changing it to fit his own particular view of the Japanese underworld. This isn’t your typical gang thriller; there’s an awful lot of go-go dancing, psychedelic colors, exaggerated posing, and dark comedy in here compared to your average stuffy crime film. It’s something very stylized and slick, very similar to Tarantino today. But while Tarantino’s style is presented as more of an homage to earlier works by earlier filmmakers, this was intensely original material for 1963 and unswervingly visionary craftsmanship for a director truly coming into his own.

It’s entertainment of the highest echelon. Some scenes have to be seen to be believed. When Jo meets with one of the gangs early on in the back of a club, the visuals coupled with a very long stretch of silence create a masterful moment of tension and suspense. It’s not trying to say anything important about crime or violence, but by focusing on making an efficient, tight thriller, it breaks through the boundaries of the ordinary and becomes great.

The atmosphere here is a blast. An immediate precursor to the psychedelic scene in the late 60s, Suzuki’s Okinawa players were cooler than they knew. The style, the language, the club locales, and the attitude were ahead of the curve, and a lot of people would take what they saw here to heart when they made their own movies. It’s no coincidence that Suzuki’s career runs concordant to that of the James Bond series…

Jo Shishido, who plays Jo in the film, is a man on a mission. His objective and motivation as an actor seems nothing less than complete assimilation into Suzuki’s frenetic background. He becomes the ruthless criminal, the man with ulterior motives, and makes the viewing experience all the more immersing. The rest of the cast tries to follow his lead, but Shishido is nowhere to be found, and we are left with Jo the strong-arm, a force to be reckoned with, and its hard as hell to follow something like that.

It’s a fun, stylish film that would help open up the Japanese film scene into its next phase of innovation, as well as a top-rate gangster film that goes above and beyond the constraints of the genre. It’s definitely the kind of movie that should be watched with friends, so grab your buddies, sit them down on the couch, and tell them that this will be great even though it’s an “old movie”. If you want something a little more meaningful, I would hold out for something with some depth, but this isn’t high art, to be fair. It’s a wonderful work of pop art, though, and it needs to be revered in that respect. I give Youth of the Beast 8 1/2 lone wolves out of 10. Check it out!

Tomorrow I tackle a classic; Michael York’s Logan’s Run!