Seijun Suzuki’s 1963 yakuza thriller Youth of the Beast (Yaju no seishun) is a kind of mutant off-shoot of film noir, although it actually reminds me more of French crime movies influenced by noir (like some of the very early films of Godard and Truffaut) than of American noir. It has a slightly surreal and rather stylised feel to it, which is something I’m very fond of. There’s also a hint of Sam Fuller to it. The plot is never really the point in a good crime movie – style and character are what matter (at least in my view). Which is perhaps just as well in this case, since the plot is so outrageously convoluted. A mysterious stranger, Jo Mizuno, muscles his way into a major yakuza gang, proving his mettle by beating up just about everybody whose path he crosses, so that the gang boss decides he’s just too dangerous not to hire! It soon becomes evident that Jo has some agenda of his own, and what follows is a bewildering series of double-crosses and plots and counter-plots. And of course, lots of violence, although mostly not particularly graphic. There’s also a definite hint of sadism, which you seem to get in Japanese crime movies. Jo Shishido makes a very effective obsessed tough guy loner hero. The major debt to film noir involves a plot element that would reveal a major spoiler, so you’ll have to watch the movie yourself to find out what it is. There are some other noirish touches, with a palpable feeling of paranoia and betrayal, and institutionalised corruption. Mostly it’s an exercise in style, and a very effective one. There are some wonderfully atmospheric scenes, plenty of imaginative camera angels, and some great visual set-pieces. There’s a scene early in the movie in a night-club, with a soundproofed room and a one-way mirror, that is a great example of visual style that not only looks great but genuinely adds to the mood of the film. The use of black-and-white segments in a colour film can come cross as gimmicky, but it works well in this one. The splashes of colour in the black-and-white sections are also notable.
I’m now totally hooked on Seijun Suzuki, and amazingly enough quite a few of his movies have been released in Region 4, so I’m just about to add them all to my rental queue. I highly recommend Youth of the Beast.