Youth of the Beast: Seijun Suzuki’s wildly comical Yakuza tale

In a key scene, Jo Shishido is holding up a mob boss, and out of fear, the older man tells him, “Whatever they are paying you, I’ll pay double”, to which Shishido responds, “Why do all you big shots say the same stupid lines?” This is just one of the film’s several funny moments which tells you that you are not supposed to take any of the Yakuza gangsters in it seriously.

It’s as if all these men grew up watching the same gangster movies when they were kids and decided that they want to be like the men in those films.  These guys are all idiots, except for Shishido’s character, although he occasionally indulges in some mild stupidity.

The plot is not too different from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which came out three years earlier. The difference is in the setting – 1960s Japan – along with some minor changes here and there in the sub-plots and character arcs.  While Yojimbo had some really dark moments, Suzuki’s film is relatively less serious.

Shishido plays an ex-cop who joins a gang to avenge the death of a friend and later pits this gang against their rivals. He doesn’t have the towering macho personality of Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name but what he lacks in looks and appearance, he makes up for in derring-do.

The characters are all trademark Suzuki: an oddball protagonist; a mob boss walking around with a fluffy white cat as if he is Blofeld; his gay brother who is ready to slash the face of anyone who calls his mother a whore; the women are all weaklings, whom the men use and manipulate for their own nefarious purposes.

In my opinion, Youth of the Beast is Suzuki’s most accessible film as it is more coherent and less experimental than his Branded to Kill or Tokyo Drifter, which are still cool films in their own right.  Much of the film’s chaos has the manic energy of a Road Runner cartoon, with fist fights, car chases and explosions that are as thrilling as they are funny.


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