“Why do all the big shots say the same stupid lines?”
In the absence of a uniform code of honor, we set out to invent our own amongst ruins and leftovers. Often, rising to the surface in place of strong ideals, is the powerful sway of the dollar and the unambiguous intentions of the gun. Who then are the victims of capitalism and violence when they become tools by which we use to progress and communicate with one another? When our operative language is brutality, betrayal becomes less surprising, more palatable, even expected. Seijun Suzuki’s Youth of the Beast captures the Yakuza in Japanese society at their most deplorable and flimsy. Allegiances are overturned, upset and ignored. Loyalty lacks the influence of the perverse sadism wielded by the powerful.
The protagonist, Jo (played by chipmunk-faced charmer Jo Shishido), is an anomaly in the Yakuza underworld because he exercises violence out of necessity and a narrow-minded goal rather than the sick pleasure derived from the action. The film begins with the commotion surrounding the double suicide of a police officer and a prostitute. Jo was the pal of the cop who was of aid to him during a tough time which produces the film’s most noir element, like The Maltese Falcon or The Third Man, the friend searching for an answer to their partner’s fate. Suzuki gets incredible mileage out of the trope because Jo moves through his world like a force of nature, an immovable object constantly propelled forward by his drive.
Suzuki’s biggest dilemma with delivering a film noir was his penchant for convoluted narratives, while this benefits a film like Branded to Kill, it dampens his more straightforward works like Take Aim at the Police Van, somehow Youth of the Beast mediates Suzuki’s plot ambitions through it’s naked ruthlessness. The picture is blink-and-you-miss-it, each moment is packed to the brim with creativity and character, Suzuki’s unusual and disorienting set-design remains consistent through visual motif. Throughout the film, Jo returns to so many of the same rooms, again, and again, and again, like a possessed automaton, this gives the film narrative, spatial and temporal clarity (typically diluted in Suzuki films).
Suzuki uses silence in an extremely Bressonian-vis-a-vis-Lang style. Bresson said “THE SOUNDTRACK INVENTED SILENCE” and Lang’s M was perhaps the first film to articulate this phenomenon competently on screen. Suzuki similarly utilizes silence as a sound which he doubles as metaphor and an element of stylistic-tension. The film features a kinetic-jazz-score matching the restlessness of the protagonist, when the silence arrives like a vacuum, it inhales the momentum of both the character and the film. The explosive and shocking language of violence that defines the Yakuza underworld is protected from the world-at-large through secrecy and shadows, ordinary people do not speak their language, therefore, they cannot hear.
The surreality and absurdity of Suzuki’s work makes Youth of the Beast a petri dish for existential disenchantment. The Yakuza are depicted as self-annihilating, their proclivity for sadism and violence will lead to their own destruction, which is of no particular concern to anyone in the film, evoking the title’s reference to youth. The young are often held accountable for living like they will never die, these gangsters rush towards death at a feverish pace, with no particular interest in life outside of begetting physical misery. Violence begets violence, as they say, Suzuki depicts a man helplessly participating in the circular movements of brutality out of obligation to a deceased friend.
“You shouldn’t let someone live who has a grudge against you.”