If we think of a plot as a person then we might imagine the mild mannered, naive plot of 1963's Youth of the Beast (野獣の青春) being led into a nightmare, a churning labyrinth of unchecked creative energy. Few will remember much about the typical gangster movie plot about a cop who goes deep undercover to investigate the murder of his partner. Viewers are more likely to remember strange juxtapositions, absurd and frightening visual extremes that pay little attention to the conventionality of the screenplay. This is a glorious assault on complacency, a real heart from Japan's New Wave asserting itself over a jaded, sleepily constructed story.
Director Seijun Suzuki was already well established as a yakuza film director and he was chafing under the yoke of formula. Later in the 60s he would make the wonderfully experimental Tokyo Drifter and the chaotically subversive Branded to Kill. But with Youth of the Beast he did something much simpler.
I wonder if Marlon Brando saw any films starring Joe Shishido before he made The Godfather. Both men seemed to feel strongly about having strangely swollen cheeks though Shishido actually had permanent implants. Presumably he hoped they'd look natural but his face is one of the bizarre extremes that confront the viewer in this film. As an angry young man capable of swift and deadly violence, his character, also named Joe, is quickly picked up by one of the big yakuza outfits in town. He gets noticed by picking fights all the way to the club run by the gang, the shot of his being taken to the back room is one of my favourites in the film. Starting from behind a one way glass where the club's owners are watching the interior, it's silent because the sound proof glass blocks the music. As Joe stands to follow the beckoning toughs, the lights go out, the camera tracks left as though to follow Joe, but suddenly there's a spotlight on a pile of pink feathers and an almost naked exotic dancer stands to dance to music we still can't hear. Then the camera tracks down to where one of the bosses quietly awaits Joe.
How does this eerie shot connect with the events? Like so many in the film, it's brash and disorienting, conveying a sense of an environment that conforms to no particular laws of sequence, cause and effect. The film starts with a murder shot in black and white, a flower among pills and booze the only thing inexplicably in colour.
In another scene, Joe confronts a yakuza boss with a shotgun, a film projected behind him like a significant layering of cinematic reality but what does the hall of mirrors mean except to say, "Here is a hall of mirrors"? A replicating reality perhaps to show that whatever strident actions one may take one is caught in an uncontrollable sea of sensory impression.
The aesthetic conceit is not totally opposed to the story as it is one with hidden motives and secret alliances. Joe blunders through this forest where no-one is exactly sure what is what but everyone is willing to kill or feels compelled to just to survive in a world of killers. In this way, the title makes a great deal of sense--all these yakuza are like beasts and a beast is wary because there's so much in the forest that is unknown and treacherous. Particularly for a beast who is young.