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Review: Youth of the Beast

Dust and debris settle after a violent explosion. Nikkatsu regular Joe Shishido, dazed but more-or-less unharmed (perhaps his baseball-sized cheeks cushioned him from the blast), slowly regains consciousness and finds himself exactly where the bad guys left him: dangling upside-down from a fancy chandelier. He spots his pistol on a nearby table, tries to swing over to it—if he can just reach it, he’ll be able to shoot the rope binding his legs and make his escape. Meanwhile, his former employer staggers to his feet, eyes burning with an unquenchable thirst for vengeance.

The action is so tense, so gorgeously framed, that you almost forget to ask, “Why did the villains tie the hero to the chandelier in the first place?” Most filmmakers would give the predictable answer: “Because if they shot him, then the movie would be over.” But I like to think Seijun Suzuki would shrug and say, “Well, why not?” The director’s very best work rarely conforms to conventional storytelling standards, instead following its own zany internal logic: the protagonist of Tokyo Drifter sings his own theme song, the editing in Branded to Kill warps and distorts space and time to dizzying effect, and Youth of the Beast itself begins as quiet black-and-white drama before abruptly transforming into a pulpy, color-soaked, jazz-fueled crime thriller.

The film sticks to the standard yakuza plot. A cop and a call girl turn up dead in an apparent double suicide. A few days later, a scrappy newcomer starts making trouble for the local gangs. His toughness quickly gets him hired as an enforcer, but it gradually becomes clear that he’s more than dumb muscle; he aims to pit the big bosses against each other. Who is this stranger, and what’s his connection to the deceased police officer? Suzuki’s manic visual style—that wonderful “Why not?” attitude—elevates the otherwise simplistic material, creating a cinematic roller coaster ride the viewer won’t soon forget.

[Originally written September 17, 2012.]

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