Friday, December 16, 2011
From the Rental Vault (1963): Youth of the Beast
Welcome to maverick Seijun Sazuki's 1963 noir thriller Youth of the Beast (Yajū no seishun in Japanese, which can also be translated Wild Youth. Neither title has anything to do with the movie's story). Sazuki directed about a million B-movies for Nikkatsu Studios -- Youth was one of four titles he released in 1963 -- mostly in the Japanese "Yakuza film" genre. Like the gangster pictures from American studios in the 1940s and 1950s, these were stylized tales of crime, corruption and tattered honor among the members of the yakuza, or Japanese criminal syndicates. Youth represents Sazuki starting to stretch the restrictive envelope demanded by Nikkatsu in terms of story, acting performances and cinematography, although it was nowhere near the acid-trippy sequences he would stick into Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill a few years later. Those would get him fired.
Youth is the story of ex-cop Joji "Jo" Mizuno (Sazuki mainstay Joe Shishida), kicked off the force after being framed for taking money. He wants to avenge the death of an ex-cop that stood by him during his trial, and so he infiltrates two rival yakuza gangs to try to learn just what happened. He will play one against the other in order to uncover the truth, and if broken limbs, black eyes and bodies are parts of that play, he's got no problem providing them. Sazuki brings Youth home in a zippy 91 minutes, leaving you little time to notice some of the more conventional conventions and limitations of this particular kind of genre movie.
Shishida carries the movie, and he had his own extreme side. After a few years getting blandly handsome leading man roles, he had plastic surgery to add cheek implants and give him more character in his look. It got him noticed and his switch to grim, tough-guy roles soon followed. He doesn't smile in Youth and he rarely changes expression, but the pain of his past and his losses is easy to read on his face when he talks about those times.
Sazuki throws in strange soundless segments, startling color splashes, bizarre settings (one scene takes place partly in a sandstorm that looks like it's happening on Mars) and some realistic butt-kicking by Mizuno and company. They make Youth a lot more interesting that the average genre picture of any language has a right to be.
The other star is Hajime Okumura's soundtrack, a Mancini-esque jazz-bop swirl of sax, trumpet, cool cymbal and swinging bass. Think of "Tank!," the Seat Belts' theme song for Cowboy Bebop, stretched over an entire movie, and you get the idea. If you want a foreign movie that has someone stare meaningfully at a stick for an hour, then you should probably creep someone else's Netflix queue. But if you want to see how skilled performers can work within familiar patterns to create thoughtful and interestingly composed stories, check out Youth of the Beast.