I’ve gone well and truly off-program for the last few days of the Japanese Film Festival. Although I still have one more short animated film to write about, today’s post is a quick journey into the world of the yakuza film, a genre whose popularity exploded in 1963.
Suzuki Seijun was a contract film director for Nikkatsu who worked on whatever script he was assigned, turning out films at a rapid pace – reaching a total of 40 movies (mostly supporting features) made for the studio between 1956 and 1967. As long as a director could deliver the required work on time and meet the demands of a small budget, the studio didn’t particularly care how they went about it – which left a space for directors like Suzuki to allow their imagination free reign to experiment with the form and style of the finished pictures.
Suzuki’s first film of 1963 was the evocatively titled Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! [Tantei Jimusho 23: Kutabare Akutōdomo], an action comedy about a private detective who infiltrates a new yakuza group. It’s a lot of fun, but I get the sense it’s looked down on to an extent for not being distinct enough from others of its type. It was adapted from a novel by Oyabu Haruhiko, as was Suzuki’s follow-up Youth of the Beast [Yajū no seishun] – but it’s this latter film which is generally agreed to be the point at which his personal style really began to flourish and to dominate the source material.
Leaving aside the inevitable twists along the way, the story concept itself is fairly straightforward. Mizuno Joji (Shishido Jō) is a disgraced police officer fresh out of jail who served time for embezzlement and assault (charges which were trumped up but had some basis in fact). Learning of the death of his mentor in what appears to be a murder-suicide pact involving a call girl, Mizuno is suspicious of the official verdict. He sets out to establish himself as a troublemaker in order to get closer to the underworld and discover who was responsible. In the process of his investigation he joins one gang and informs on them to another, playing the gangs off against each other much like in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo [Yōjinbō] (1961), whittling down their numbers while he looks for the truth.
Leading man Shishido Jō appeared in six of Suzuki’s films and is well-suited to the tough guy cop/detective/gangster type of character. Although his bizarre decision to undergo cheek augmentation surgery in 1957 lends his face a chipmunk-like appearance which could make it difficult to take him seriously, in this context it serves as the sort of distinctive physical oddity traditionally sported by comic book gangsters in both the east and west.
Suzuki adds all sorts of interesting touches to the film, from set design to use of colour to camera techniques. To make the gang hideouts more visually appealing and easier to tell apart, Suzuki has added busy backgrounds which stretch the full width of the screen. The first gang’s hideout is based in a nightclub panelled wall-to-wall with one-way mirrors, so while the gangsters discuss their plans in the bottom half of the screen, the nightclub activity continues in the top half as a dancer clad in a sparkly bikini and bright pink feathers performs her act. The cinema location of the rival gang’s hideout allows for a constant stream of black & white gangster films to accompany their scheming. Although filmed almost entirely in colour, Youth of the Beast is book-ended with two black & white sequences – one setting up the inciting incident, the other representing an inconclusive coda. Splashes of intense red are used throughout the movie to draw the eye away from the centre of screen, even intruding on the B&W sequences in the form of camellia flowers. And in one vividly realised sequence, a scene which begins on a grey carpet with ripples resembling a sand dune transitions through the rear wall into a mustard-yellow-saturated wilderness of unbridled nature.
If you’re watching primarily for the plot, I’d lean towards the earlier Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! – the comedy elements, while perhaps not always successful, make it more of a madcap romp. But if you want to see how cinematic choices can elevate a straightforward story to another level, Youth of the Beast is a good place to start.