Thursday, November 5, 2009


Seijun Suzuki's color noir for Nikkatsu studio is stuck with an inexplicable title in its present day English edition. Most of the cast isn't especially young, and many of them are beastly enough to force the question of which beast and what youth we're talking about. It's also been called Wild Youth but that gets even further away from the real thing, making it sound like a juvenile delinquent film when it really is a film noir, albeit in vibrant color, with a story that could easily be transplanted into an American setting, if the vice versa hasn't already happened.

It's about a guy named Jo (Jo Shishido) who we meet while he's muscling in on the local vice operations. His appearance follow a black-and-white intro in which detectives discover an apparent double suicide: a prostitute and her john. The john proves to be a police detective himself. The film shifts to color to tell Jo's story, and at first I thought that the color stuff would all be flashbacks. Not so, for in the course of establishing himself with the local underworld and proving himself such a tough guy that the mob would rather hire him than punish him, he pays his respects at the home of the late detective's wife. The widow asks him to tell her a story, any story, about her husband, but there isn't time for that now. As it happens, Jo does have a kind of story about the guy; he thinks the man was murdered. And what's that to him? Well, the detective took care of Jo's wife while Jo did time in jail, so Jo feels that he owes the detective, and now his widow, a moral debt. Jo himself is an ex-cop. The ex part has to do with his jail time; he was framed for malfeasance by the mob. Now he's going on a private undercover vendetta, determined to find out who killed the detective if he has to take the yakuza apart in the process. But his hunt will end up taking him back virtually to where he started.

Jo has a way with the ladies (above) and a different way with the opposite sex (below).

This film has a more western feel than a lot of the Japanese crime films I've seen. It's detached from the usual yakuza genre trappings or any real social context in its focus on the lone-wolf antihero. Jo's surrounded by a variety of eccentrics, including his moronic sidekick Minami who abhors women and booze in favor of guns (we later learn that this was wise while it lasted) and a gang leader who hates being reminded that his mother was a whore. Bring that up and he acts like you'd said "Niagara Falls" and gets into a stabbing mood. This actually matters to the movie, since one of the ultimate villains is disposed of by being tricked into discussing this person's parentage in his presence. That was corny but overall Suzuki gives the film a hard-boiled quality that Shishido expresses quite effectively. The novelty of the Japanese setting and Suzuki's colorful style actually made what should have been a predictable noir plot twist more of a surprise for me.

If you think that Jo was mean to the people in the pictures above, consider these scenes his comeuppance.

Yaju no seishun is a sensory treat, from Kazue Nagatsuka's vivid cinematography to Hajime Okamura's brassy, jazzy score. Karyo Yokoo contributes one brilliant piece of production design: the panopticon nightclub whose glass walls and floors allow the gangsters to observe everything from their own drab lair while allowing Suzuki to shoot shots through the floors to get unique angles on the action. As a matter of all-around style the film has that distinctive Sixties feel you might associate with the early Bond films or a lot of Italian product. Noir fans who aren't dogmatic about black-and-white will get a kick out of this Japanese variation on some familiar themes, and fans of Sixties pop culture should dig it too.

Scenes from a nightclub, designed by Karyo Yokoo

Compared with his more kinky (Gate of Flesh) or just plain weird movies (Branded to Kill) this is probably the most accessible Suzuki film I've seen to date. The later, crazier stuff is probably more characteristic but taking a look at Youth of the Beast might make people more willing to give the rest a try.

The badass trailer (with English subtitles) was uploaded to YouTube by rodazi.

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