Twenty five days to shoot and three days to edit — such was the challenging life of Nikkatsu Studios’ Japanese filmmakers in the 60s, as the company required its employees to crank out a tumultuous volume of movies per year. The “Nikkatsu Action” films proved to be the studio’s bread and butter. Seijun Suzuki entered this field as a B director, with little training and the directive to create dramatic youth films that centered on sex and violence. While working on a vanilla assembly line and following strict marching orders, Suzuki and his colleagues produced formulaic scripts and characters. Without the financial means or authority to create original content of his own, Suzuki sought other means to express himself via the text at hand. Rather than deconstructing narratives, the Japanese filmmaker accentuated the violence and capitalized on plot twists, fostering a violent absurdist style in the process. He pushed the limitations of the Japanese noir genre and character archetypes to their very core. No film highlights the birth and hallmarks of “Suzuki Action” better than Youth of the Beast (1963).
Highlighting a yearning for justice and personal loyalties, Youth of the Beast tells the tale of Jôji “Jo” Mizuno (Joe Shishido), based on the novel by Hyakken Uchida. Recently released from prison, Mizuno, a once respectable police officer turned assassin-for-hire, sets his sights for revenge on two yakuza factions, the Nomoto and Sanko groups. He is certain that one of the organizations is to blame for the death of a former police partner, Shigeru Takechi (Eiji Gô). Throughout Youth of the Beast, Jo proceeds as an underground double-agent to manipulate and create chaos within both organizations’ ranks, while seeking the truth of his friend’s death. This leads to a bombastic final battle, with Jo hanging upside down from the ceiling and fighting to save his life.
Much of Youth of the Beast’s script is a point-for-point recreation of Suzuki’s mediocre preceding film, Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell, Bastards! (1963), which also features Shishido in the lead role. Yet, while Go to Hell is relatively lighthearted camp-fodder, Youth of the Beast is a grim story of revenge. Suzuki and Shishido collaborate to create a character who serves well to represent the jaded youth of post-war Japan, instead of a poor man’s James Bond. For his part, Suzuki makes the directorial leap and projects his inner nihilism as a kaleidoscope of bold and often violent imagery. The major advances in stylistic action and pacing first appear in Youth of the Beast’s prologue and set up. Suzuki wastes no time setting the stakes; right out of the gate, he drops viewers into the breakneck-pace of Jo Mizuno’s world, and within 68 seconds, Jo has already beaten his way through several goons and invades the gang turf of Tatsuo Nomoto (Akiji Kobayashi).
Suzuki masterfully lays the foundation for Youth of the Beast’s story by showing the flashback murder of Takechi in black and white, and then immediately using bright color to emphasize amorality, deception and cold-heartedness. From an inner character perspective, this approach helps to convey that Jo’s mindset dwells in the past, as he’s fixated on his dead partner. Jo is stuck in the black and white ways of thinking about the world and the sense of noble Japanese chivalry. He carries a false notion that his vengeful actions align with traditional black and white morality. Jo believes that only by avenging his former partner, Takechi, and protecting Takechi’s wife, Kumiko (Misako Watanabe), can he finally restore nobility in his life.
At one point in Youth of the Beast, Jo discovers a note on his car that reads, “How about a date at Club AOI?” Rather than building up to the revelation of this mystery suitor, Suzuki jump cuts to Jo with a call girl in hand, Tatsuo Nomoto’s drug-seeking mistress, Sawako Miura (Minako Katsuki), and blasts forward to the club that very evening. Suzuki interjects reminders of the plot background through newspaper clippings that address the supposed double suicide of his former partner and his alleged mistress. In addition to being a great way to communicate information visually, it cuts straight to sensual foreplay and bypasses dull plot exposition.
Supplementing efficient cutting, Suzuki’s visual flair and creative matching shots bringYouth of the Beast’s violent and sexual undertones to the forefront. A great example is the stylized transition between Jo and Nomoto’s torture scenes. Right after being caught in the act of roughing up Tatsuo’s brother, Hideo (Tamio Kawaji), Nomoto’s goons cart off Jo and put him through the wringer. In a darkened room with only a yellow beam of florescent light shining upon him, a barely conscious Jo almost achieves the upper hand and outlasts his torturers, until Tatsuo rushes Jo and jams a knife down his throat. The intense yellow beam combined with Jo biting down on the blade creates a mise-en-scène that is both violent and symbolic with its phallic vibe. Suzuki complements this scene with a shot of Tatsuo sadistically whipping his gold-digging consort, all while yellow windstorms rage in the background. The director’s usage of lurid color and violent wind effects create an immersive atmosphere and project the characters’ violent amorality. Again, garish yellow appears as the smoke of Sanko gang’s dynamite, which erupts during their surprise attack at the drug deal. However, Suzuki’s best visual poetry occurs early in Youth of the Beast at Nomoto’s club. The director stages and blocks the actors in the form of pyramid triangle, with the voluptuous fan dancer on top, Nomoto and his assistant on both sides of the foreground and Jo smacked dab in the middle beating gangsters to a bloody pulp. This pyramid imagery is especially noteworthy, as one of Nomoto’s men stands behind an illustration of a female dancer as Suzuki cuts to Jo’s gangster sidekick, Minami, (Eimei Esumi) caressing a female goddess. The visual sets the merged tone of sex and violence, establishing the strength of the gangsters in terms not only of their brutality, but also their simultaneous worship of and domination over females.
The fabulous twist in this caper is the reveal of Takeshita’s widow, Kumiko, as the most clever and deceptive kingpin of the Nomoto empire. Laying down the betrayal hard, Suzuki zooms the camera closely upon Jo and proceeds with a rapid montage of “innocent’ Kumiko, only to jump cut and reveal her smoking, playing cards and cackling like a witch. Suzuki again employs symbolic florescent light as Kumiko confesses to Jo’s shadowy vengeful face. Jo, the self-proclaimed adjudicator of justice, replies, “No mercy for you either.” Rather than pulling the trigger himself, he leaves Kumiko to Hideo Nomoto, who punishes her for calling his mother a whore, and cuts her face up to resemble Venetian blinds.
What’s unfortunate about Youth of the Beast’s shocking Kumiko revelation is that Jo never realizes the truth. At the half way point, Minami encounters a drug dealer’s mistress, whose delicate and innocent-looking eyes bare resemblance to that of Kumiko. However, this woman proves to be a literal back stabber and ultimately delivers Minami’s death, as she represents the victim’s ideals and foolish beliefs. The symbolism continues with the display of Minami’s dead body lying next to a World War II Japanese fighter plane. As for Jo, he similarly believes that he is fighting for a noble cause, but ultimately dies a figurative death at the end of Youth of the Beast. His actions have led to the death of his gangster friend, Minami, and sent numerous additional men to die in a blood bath turf war, and all for what?
While Suzuki’s overly-stylized and sometimes incomprehensible films ultimately led to his termination from Nikkatsu in 1968, his legacy safely lives on in modern day Japanese cinema — evidenced by Takashi Miike’s 2019 film First Love; a blend of absurdist violence and dark comedy. In reflecting upon Japanese noir, specifically the works of Suzuki, I recall an in-depth interview by Dwight Decker with an up-and-coming cartoonist named Frank Miller (Daredevil, Dark Knight, Sin City), in which the latter expresses deep enthusiasm for Japanese comics and Japan’s direct and unapologetic representation of violence. He says, “The Japanese comics are as violent as anything I’ve ever seen… the violence in them is relatively honest. They’re willing to be violent and admit that that’s what they want in their fiction… It’s obvious that people want it; it’s obvious that people get a certain degree of pleasure out of it, and it’s obvious that people feel guilty about it.”
Miller’s comments are applicable to Japanese crime films as well. While modern western audiences may not embrace this bombastic violence in the same way, Suzuki fans can delight inYouth of the Beast’s presentation of highly-engaging plot threads and twists that challenge one’s preconceived notions.
Youth of the Beast is available to stream as part of The Criterion Channel’s 17-film Japanese Noir collection.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.