Youth of the Beast(The Criterion Collection, 1.11.2005)
Prior to Youth of the Beast, my only exposure to the films of Seijun Suzuki came in 1999 when The Criterion Collection released two of his greatest (that is to say, craziest) films on DVD: Tokyo Drifter and the visually astonishing, if narratively incoherent, Branded to Kill. Criterion has just released two more Suzuki gems (Fighting Elegy is the other) and, combined with the enthusiastic praise of high profile Suzuki admirers Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, this should cement his reputation as one of Japan's greatest crime film directors.
With its convoluted, Yojimbo-like narrative concerning a mysterious criminal who allies himself with rival gangs, Youth of the Beast is not always coherent. But who cares? If ever a filmmaker made a case for style-instead-of-substance, it's Seijun Suzuki. He was clearly some kind of visual genius, a fact made immediately apparent in the film's striking green-on-black-and-white opening credits. The use of color and production design is inventive throughout and it's all beautifully rendered in Criterion's new anamorphic, widescreen transfer.
At first sight, the extras on this disc are pretty minimal but, as far as minimal extras go, Criterion does a good job. First up are liner notes by film critic Howard Hampton and they provide helpful contextualization -- situating the film somewhere between 40s film noir and the contemporary Japanese cinema of Takashi Miike -- for Suzuki beginners. More importantly, Hampton gets you excited about the movie.
The film's lengthy theatrical trailer takes this to the next level, promising "senseless cruelty vividly portrayed" and "every kind of vice." It's not kidding. Among other things, Youth of the Beast includes yakuzas, whips, heroin use, shoot-outs, prostitutes, dynamite, robberies, and knitting! If you're interested in any of these things, see it immediately.
Best of all, the disc includes a pair of interviews totaling about 13 minutes, one with madman (now old-man) Suzuki and the other with his frequent collaborator, actor Joe Shishido (who also stars in Branded to Kill). Looking mysteriously like Asian cinema icon Pai Mei, Suzuki covers a variety of topics in less than five minutes: the film's original ending, the deleted nude dancing scene, and even his own incomprehension of the film's title. And, oh yeah, he laughs a lot. Shishido even makes note of this in his interview, suggesting that Suzuki's laughing tendencies go back at least four decades. Shishido also talks about his own famously unsuccessful attempts to improve his appearance with plastic surgery and injections. In a sad and kind of touching moment, he admits that he never thought he was very good looking.
Be that as it may, this a wild and energetic movie full of eye candy unlike anything in modern cinema (not even the imitators can duplicate Suzuki). While this is not Suzuki's best, it's essential viewing nonetheless. -- Jonathan Doyle