Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years. Vol.1 - Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies Review
It never ceases to amaze how, despite being separated by geography, there can be similar artistic movements or genres in vastly different countries. In 1950s America, during the advent of television, film studios tried to attract youth audiences to the cinema with more extreme subject matter which gave rise to a string of movies like Rebel Without a Cause, Blackboard Jungle and The Wild One. Similarly, in 1950s Japan, Nikkatsu tried and failed to introduce audiences to a new genre of Yakuza films called the Taiyozoku, or Sun Tribe, which were lurid tales of decadent upper middle-class Yakuza. Nikkatsu discovered a younger audience that was partial to these type of films, which then led to the studio making similarly-themed pictures dedicated to the youth orientated audiences.
Arrow Academy has sought to bring you a collection of these previously unreleased, almost forgotten, youth movies. These five early films by Seijun Suzuki made between 1958 and 1965 are presented together in a limited edition box set entitled: Seijun Rising.
The first is The Boy Who Came Back (1958), a story of a young offender seeking redemption and forgiveness by his school teacher lover with the help of a volunteer probation worker who also has feelings for the troubled young man. Then comes 1961's The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass, a colourful tale about a wandering student who falls in with a struggling troupe of travelling magicians. Teenage Yakuza is another film about teenage criminals in 1962, two to be exact; friends separated by an unfortunate accident, money and a Yakuza gang terrorising the neighbourhood they grew up in. The last two films are remarkably similar, The Incorrigible (1963) and Born Under Crossed Stars (1965). Both follow a young man in his moral and sexual awaking, helped along by the love of a young girl, an oppressive school system and a Yakuza gang.
Each film brings with it the same youthful energy that fuels each of their respective leads. As our heroes fight against a rival gang, expose their philosophy of life or pine after the girl they love, the films carry the audience with them, thanks to gripping plots that rattle on without hinting at their true runtimes. Similarly, while most of them are in black and white, apart from The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain, they all still have a vibrancy that is lacking in other similar films of the time.
While being concerned with similar subject matter, mainly crime and coming-of-age angst, the variety in the films prevent them from seeming repetitive. While The Boy Who Came Back and Teenage Yakuza are gritty depictions of modern Japan, addressing issues such as discrimination of young people, unspoken social pressures and the headstrong nature of youth, The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass is more magical and carnivalesque. It is filled with colour, comedy, and some pretty tragic scenes. It plays with the conventions of the Yakuza movie that the previous two films seem to adhere to rigidly. This speaks to the talent of Suzuki, even when he is telling the same story, as he does with The Incorrigible and Born Under Crossed Stars, it is still gripping. Both are lavish period pieces, told via protagonists from opposite ends of the spectrum; one is a rich delinquent, the other a poor man with strong ideals and yet both make similar mistakes, in respective tales which are fresh, vibrant and distinct.
This is helped tremendously by the performances of the leads in each film. Ken Yamauchi especially in The Incorrigible and Born Under Crossed Stars is able to do so much, juggling each character's inner issues with an aggressive exterior. His performance in The Incorrigible is extraordinary, as the journey and arc of the character is so well written and plotted, it is wholly believable if unexpected - I would even say that it challenges James Dean's Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause for most angsty onscreen teenager. In contrast, Koji Wada's wide-eyed optimism and joy for life mixed with a hidden dangerousness is similarly engaging in The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass.
This collection could be considered a historical artefact more than a collection of films. While all of the five films that Arrow Academy has compiled are incredibly entertaining in their own right, what is clear is that they act as a way to chart the career of a director of experimental, surreal films that are present in Arrow's previous collection of Suzuki's Taisho Period. You can see it in the way that the films develop through the disc from The Boy Who Came Back's and Teenage Yakuza's slightly more generic beginnings, through the theatricality of The Wind of Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass and finally to the start of Seijun's obsession with the Taisho Period of the 1920s, mingling with his previous Youth Yakuza pictures in The Incorrigible and Born Under Crossed Stars.
This thread seems to be the core argument in Tony Rayn’s introduction to the series of films which is coupled with audio commentary for Born Under Crossed Stars. These are the only bonus features in this four-disc Dual Format collection. This, for those familiar with Arrow's previous output, is a meagre selection for them. The movies are good enough to sustain the collection, but when dealing with films like this it would be good to have a little more of everything; historical explorations of Suzuki's career, commentaries, interviews. This would perhaps be helpful in providing some historical context to the director for those not already familiar with Suzuki and the period.
Aside from the lack of extras, Arrow has provided a perfectly functioning disc. The films transfer incredibly well to 1080p, with the vibrant colour and deep chiaroscuro being on the best possible display. The same high praise can be said of the soundtrack. While some early versions of home releases of classic Japanese films have tended to be on the crackly side, here the dialogue and music is crystal clear. The menu layout is a little confusing but aside from that, with option English subtitles, Arrow has made a technically functioning disc that best showcases these great movies.
I can wax lyrical about the historical importance of film preservation and widening the perspectives of an audience by making a director's entire filmography available. However, what most will want to know is whether these films and this collection is worth purchasing, and in my opinion it's a yes to both. These films are vibrant, thrilling and exciting, with stories and characters that rival the best of Hollywood’s youth movies. There could be a slight accessibility issue, as Suzuki tends to structure these stories in a more dream-like manner than those in his Taisho Trilogy, but apart from that Seijun Rising: The Youth Movies are ripping yarns; a wonderful first volume from a director with great energy.