“Just shut up and watch!”
So snarls a frenzied gangster-pimp to baby-faced tough Joe Shishido as the creep whips a prostrate prostitute. There’s plenty for the naked eye to absorb: the delicate calligraphic detail of the bloody lash marks, set off by her tasteful black cocktail dress and the even redder carpet where she’s sprawled like a Jackie O rag doll. The psycho’s horn-rimmed glasses are a nice conservative touch—he fumes like an accountant gone mad. Outside the mansion’s sliding-glass doors, a freakish Forbidden Planet sandstorm is raging, an ill wind blowing straight from the id. If this were a Goya etching, it could be titled The Sleep of Reason Breeds Mobsters. Now the hysterical woman tries to flee into the orange-yellow desert, but Whip Boy leaps the railing and catches her, resuming his attack as the camera captures the whole sequence in one virtually static shot from inside the yawning house. (In its sang-Freud stoicism, this eloquently framed doorway-to-hell view suggests Ozu if an action imp spiked his green tea with acid.) The assailant falls on her, then a jagged cut to him as he fervently kisses his half-nude victim, her limp fingers tracing unconscious lines in the dunes.
With Youth of the Beast from 1963, after eight years and an astonishing thirty features gestating in the nether reaches of the Japanese B-movie circuit, Seijun Suzuki’s axiomatic world comes into sudden focus. It’s a visceral universe of brutal non sequiturs and coolly theatrical artifice (giving genre materials a casual he–Man Ray makeover), one whose limpid irrationality seems to look back toward silent cinema even as it basks in wild crypto-pop stylization. Beast (which is not so big on youth but tilts toward thugs and slatterns who look as if they were born middle-aged) features Suzuki’s patented danse macabre of rough-trade sadists and murderous masochists, with Shishido as the scowling centrifuge around which all these random archetypal particles revolve. This was the second film Suzuki made with his favorite lead torpedo, following on the heels of Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards. Two qualities stand out: the sense of a director hitting his stride, full of devil-may-care assurance and try-anything imagination, coupled with an uneasy, palpable boredom with the stale trappings (in the most literal sense of the term) of the cops’n’yakuza form. Youth of the Beast rapidly escalates into an exercise in making diametrically opposed impulses complementary—Suzuki discovers a special comic-melodramatic gift for turning ennui into excitement, simultaneously outflanking the two-fisted rawness of Sam Fuller and the blank-teller alienation of Michelangelo Antonioni.
At first, the film looks to be a standard film noir setup: good cop and bad girl lie dead, the pair photographed with blunt detachment, while cynical dim-bulb investigators read the note at the scene and declare it an open-and-shut double suicide. But off in the corner of the semidocumentary frame, a startling object beside the black-and-white crime scene: a single radiant red flower. Giddily thrusting us into Unpleasantville, there’s a shocking cutaway from the corpse cop’s upside-down slab of a face to a garish pack of teenage girls dancing in a full-color street (Is that a jukebox next to them? On the sidewalk?). Some swaggering Mancini-esque jazz kicks in as Your Hit-Man Parade introduces Shishido, who in short order proceeds to senselessly stomp some street punks, manhandle a waiter, and get drunk with a beehive of bar girls. In what will become typical Suzuki fashion, the hearty-sullen antihero is soon displaced within the cheap environs, made a forlorn figure isolated from the noise of the crowded bar as the camera observes him from behind a two-way mirror in a soundproof room, an aquarium effect conveying a barracuda’s fishbowl existence. Later, in the rival gang’s headquarters in the balcony of a movie theater, instead of a back wall we see a hallucinatory jumble of moving pictures (back to black-and-white again), American and Japanese flicks projected behind the “real” gangsters, asynchronous clichés mocking the hard-boiled puppet-theater of the main action.
On one level, Youth of the Beast operates as a nasty, pachinko-machine burlesque of contorted triple-cross plotting: it plays like a serial we’ve arrived in the middle of, impatiently bypassing the nuances of narrative except for periodic bursts of catch-up exposition that are sprung on the viewer, then unceremoniously mislaid in the shuffle. Shishido is a disgraced ex-cop called Joji “Jo” Mizuno, trying to atone by avenging the death of the fellow officer who stood by him. Mizuno hooks up first with the nightclub outfit and then cuts a deal with the screening-room bunch, both sets of gangsters arrayed to suggest your basic studio boss-execs-flunkies hierarchy: they “produce” crime with a ruthless bottom-line mentality, with pink flamingo strippers and matinee double features as window dressing to cover extortion, narcotics, hookers, etc. These goons carry a Big Knife (at one point, Mizuno’s forced to suck on one while being interrogated) and wield a mean razor to boot, so they’re easy to pit against each other. Then there’s a third party girl (the trenchcoated junkie-prostitute) enlisting Jo to find the real brains behind the central racket. Because Beast was adapted from a Haruhiko Oyabu novel (as was Detective Bureau 2-3), and bits of clumsy motivational-psychology residue turn up like latent fingerprints, I suspect there was an elaborate, carefully worked out plot here that Suzuki didn’t so much abandon as fast-forward through, saving what plays well, ditching the interstices that connect the A-to-B-to-C dots.
On another plane, the film uses the incongruous beauty of that glimpsed flower as a spore gradually infecting the rest of the picture with irrational feeling. Not necessarily human feeling, though. Using an aerosol can to set fire to a man’s hair during a shakedown is the kind of loving detail Suzuki can be counted on to deliver, a rapturous countersentimentality that paved the way for the likes of Hong Kong’s Clarence Fok (Naked Killer, 1992) and Japan’s Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, 2001). Lean, hungry aestheticism is used strictly to circumvent threadbare conventions, making this in some ways Suzuki’s most self-contained movie, a conglomeration of somersaulting details delivered in quick brushstrokes, a closed circuit transmitting impractical visual information (how to gun down a couple men while tied upside down to a chandelier; how to crawl across a floor to tear the stuffing out from a chair while being whipped and going through writhing, screaming heroin withdrawal).
The emotion is much more disembodied than it would be in the later, greater Branded to Kill or Story of a Prostitute (possibly Suzuki’s finest film). It doesn’t tie into characters or cruel plot twists but to the geometrical forms and fractured compositions, abstraction situated in a histrionically commercial context, the poignant spaces Suzuki carves out of laughing displacement and the shadow of meaninglessness. When the avenger finally slumps along a remote hallway, having succeeded in his quest (“Hirokawa? Yeah, it’s finally over”) and lost everything in the bargain (a real suicide this time), he’s engulfed by desolation, inertia. Mizuno’s haunted, stricken look is replaced by an end title, an ashen painting with bright blossoms superimposed on it: everything’s coming up roses in the graveyard of honor and humanity.
Howard Hampton is a freelance writer. His work appears in Film Comment, The Boston Globe, and The Believer, among other publications.