Youth of the Beast was the first film that changed that - as the 1960's were developing, in Japan as well as the rest of the world, radical ideas about fashion, lifestyle, philosophy, and every other damned thing, and Suzuki responded to such social movements within the world of his filmic vision. Color schemes, set designs, plot and characters were all twisted to accomodate new sensibilities. The Japanese film world was opening up to the work of directors who experimented with form; characters who in previous years would have been heroes were now anti-heroes.
Youth of the Beast would provide the template for a certain type of modern Japanese gangster movie: stylish and gorgeous, even amid the violence and nihilism that haunted the characters; a protagonist who was as much an object of pity as of admiration. Suzuki would continue to explore this territory throughout the rest of his time with Nikkatsu, through such films as Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill.
The plot of Youth concerns a former Tokyo policeman, recently released from prison where he had gone for taking the rap for others' crimes. He picks a fight with some low-level gang members in order to gain entrance into their society; he is quickly hired by the gang's boss, a weird sadist (another Suzuki trait) to be their new hitman. Jo (which is also the given name of the actor who plays him, Jo Shishido) immediately begins a secret campaign to pit his gang against a rival gang. As time passes we learn that his true purpose is to investigate the murder of a former friend and colleague, which had been made to look like a suicide. Naturally, various complications arise. This being a Japanese film, where puritan Hollywood standards do not apply, the film ends badly for nearly everyone: most of the main characters are killed by the end, or at least have been shown to be maimed and tortured at length. But, from a Japanese standpoint, that's a perfectly acceptable resolution, seeing as how none of the characters are innocent. Because of their own wickedness, foul deeds, and dishonesty, they deserve it.
Parts of the film are terribly violent, which might be a bit difficult for some viewers to take. A knife is thrust under Jo's fingernail to make him talk, the blood spreading down a pane of glass through which we view the event; a woman is beaten by the gang boss for her betrayal, but - his passion inflamed by his own anger - he quickly drops to the ground and fucks her. Again, this is simply a normal part of the yakuza films of the past and present. It's just that the director is so well within his element here that he makes death and sadism look stylish.
And style was something Suzuki displayed from this point forward, in spades. This was the golden age of the Japanese gangster picture, and Seijun Suzuki was at the forefront of the age's creativity. The early-to-mid 1960's would see a small explosion of unconventional filmmaking in other genres as well. But Suzuki was at the forefront with a string of films that are considered classics today: after Youth of the Beast came Kanto Wanderer (1963), Gate of Flesh (1964), Tattooed Life and Story of a Prostitute (1965), Tokyo Drifter and Elegy of Violence (1966), and finall Branded to Kill (1967). And this is only a partial list - where other directors are lucky to make one such film every five years, Suzuki was cranking three of them out every year!
Alas, while Seijun Suzuki's films were creative masterpieces, they did not fare well with audiences of the time - the common moviegoers who simply wanted to watch some formula gangster pictures, or formula samurai pictures, or formula science fiction pictures, or any of the other popular genres. After Branded, Suzuki was fired, and told that his pictures didn't make either sense or money. For the next several years, he mostly worked in television.
Today, we are able to look back at that golden period of filmmaking and recognize it for the incredible creativity it exhibited. Thank Allah, the modern DVD technology gives all of us, even thousands of miles from Japan, access to all of these decades-old classics to study and enjoy any time we like. We have access to books about film to get an idea of where such films stood within the larger frame of Japanese movie history. Youth of the Beast was a fantastic film on its own, but thankfully, it was also the first of many.
Yaju no Sheisun aka Youth of the Beast - 1963
Direction: Seijun Suzuki
Screenplay: Ichiro Ikeda
Featuring: Jo Shishido, Ikuko Kimuro, Misako Watanabe, Tamio Kawaji