The aueteur theory. The trademark style attributed to a director throughout his or her work. It can range from visual content such as the long takes and split screens of a Brian DePalma film to thematic content such as the guilt and redemption themes that run through Martin Scorsese’s work. If one were to apply the auteur theory to the work of Seijun Suzuki one word quickly arrises: Crazy.
Japanese director Seijun Suzuki has been a cult hero in the film world for years thanks to his odd mixture of pulp and art in his crime films. Creatively stifled for years within the Japanese studio system, Suzuki rebelled the only way he could, by taking the mundane B-picture scripts that fell onto his desk and making them as offbeat as the studio would allow. The closest comparison is current Japanese director Takashi Miike and his hyper kinetic yakuza splatter films that continue to push the envelope. Suzuki’s minor reign of terror lasted only a few years as, after multiple warnings, he was finally fired after directing what many consider to be his masterpiece “Branded to Kill”. If “Branded to Kill” was the culmination of a decade’s worth of rebelling then “Youth of the Beast” was his first shot fired. A loosely based adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s seminal crime novel “Red Harvest” (also the basis for “Yojimbo”, “A Fistful of Dollars” and the not as highly regarded “Last Man Standing”) “Youth of the Beast” had the potential to be just one more paint by numbers yakuza thriller as was popular at the time in Japan. After years of making well made but unchallenging fare (“Underworld Beauty”) Suzuki upped his style a notch turning “Youth of the Beast” from routine to a offbeat classic.
“Youth of the Beast” works on two levels, the first being the basic pulp story of a mysterious loner, Jo (Jo Shishido), infiltrating two rival gangs and then playing them off one another. As far as plot goes the film flies by as we follow Jo putting his plan into action. The second and more lasting level is Suzuki’s manic style which overshadows the revenge story. Bright colors, offbeat humor, graphic violence for the time and blaring inappropriate jazz fill the film, attempting to spice up a story that might have played out as too grim with another director. The fusion of the revenge story and off kilter direction fuses well, creating a film that is both entertaining and thought provoking. “Youth of the Beast” is filled with memorable oddities such as- the mob boss who is quick with a knife, loves his cat and only gets aroused by being sadistic – the fight scene choreographed with our hero tied upside down – a hired goon whose apartment is FILLED with model airplanes – finding the connection between the gangs and the Takeshita knitting school.
Criterion has released a beautiful copy of the film as well as an original trailer and interviews with both Suzuki and Shishido. This is the fourth Suzuki release by Criterion along with “The Fighting Elegy”, “Tokyo Drifter” and “Branded to Kill”. Whether “Youth of the Beast” is either an art house film with a gangster plot or a crime picture with ADD is up to the audience, but what can be agreed upon is that this film (along with Suzuki’s other work) is a treasure for the adventurous movie fan.