Director: Seijun Suzuki
Arrow Video USA

Arrow Video USA brings five previously unreleased on digital media early works by Seijun Suzuki with their Blu-ray/DVD combo set SEIJUN SUZUKI: THE EARLY YEARS, VOLUME ONE.

Starting as an assistant director at the studio Shochiku, Seijun Suzuki was lured to Nikkatsu when it reopened after the war in 1954 with a salary three times larger for the same position. He worked as an assistant director and screenwriter for two years before getting his first chance to direct with VICTORY IS MINE. While he would become known internationally for his yakuza films at Nikkatsu before was blacklisted in 1968 for taking the company to court for breach of contract, he was a journeyman director taking on projects of various genres as the studio was finding their footing with a modern audience, particularly the younger viewers wishing to escape nights by the television set with their parents. THE BOY WHO CAME BACK (1958; 99:12) is Nobuo (Akira Kobayashi, TOKYO MIGHTY GUY), just released from reform school and the first assignment for young case worker Keiko (Sachiko Hidari, THE INSECT WOMAN). While he is cynical about his job prospects and feels that he is destined to become a gangster whether he likes it or not, Keiko withstands his digs and attempts to scare her off. Her attempt to reunite Nobuo with his mother, a cleaner at a nightclub, is disastrous but she tries then to convince him to see Kazue (Ruriko Asaoka, THE RAMBLING GUITARIST), the girl he loved before he was sent away. Although Kazue tells her that Nobuo will not want to see her because she kissed his enemy Kajita (BRANDED TO KILL's Jô Shishido, apparently just before he underwent cheekbone surgery), Keiko believes that Nobuo's lack of self-confidence is the reason he is staying away. Keiko encourages Nobuo to pursue art because of his interest in drawing when the multiple job rejections (citing his inexperience) put him back in his cynical frame of mind. When Nobuo beats up his old friend Spiky after discovering that he is stealing despite their pact to go straight, his embittered friend joins forces with Kajita to spoil Nobuo's chances at a brighter future.

Suzuki's eighth feature film – following the first two of his yakuza films SATAN'S TOWN and the better-known UNDERWORLD BEAUTY – THE BOY WHO CAME BACK and was the first of many of the studio films dealing with varying degrees of cynicism and exploitation with the issue of juvenile delinquency. Long before the likes of STRAY CAT ROCK, this film possesses a noir-ish dead end cynicism that ultimately gives way to a sincere belief in redemption and the ability of level heads to prevail. Although Kobayashi's moody youth commands the frame, the focus of the film is actually Hidari's Keiko who gets too close and too involved but her unwavering belief in Nobuo and the suffering she goes through are borne out of concern for the boy who calls her "sis" while the gutter intimations come from her superiors – who read her journal aloud in a meeting after Nobuo is wrongfully jailed – and other authority figures rather than Nobuo's friends and enemies. The optimism of the film's finale is carried over to the next two films in the set: his twenty-first film THE WIND OF YOUTH GROUP CROSSES THE MOUNTAIN PASS and his twenty-fourth TEENAGE YAKUZA.

The only color film in the set, THE WIND-OF-YOUTH GROUP CROSSES THE MOUNTAIN PATH (1961; 84:35) is entirely light-hearted family-friendly fare that entertains despite the absence of Suzuki's ability in the other films in this set to contrast broad comedy and dark drama. It is a generic variation of the "let's put on a show to save…" type of escapist comedy popular in the United States in the forties, but it shares in common with the latter three films in this set a strong-willed, principled young male protagonist who first uses his wits and then his fists if all else fails. The romance is as flat and predictable as the yakuza subplot, but neither ends as expected. College student Shintaro (singer Kôji Wada, GATE OF FLESH) who is traveling Japan in between terms. Laid off by his boss who could only pay him in stock, he hopes to make some money at a village's shrine festival and hitches a ride with the Wind of Youth troupe of magician Kinyo Imai, his three daughters, clowns, and stripper Akemi. The festivals are patrolled by the Senba Yakuza lead by Akita who controls the space and shakes down the dealers and the acts. Although Shintaro cannot afford a space, Akita is curious to see how he will manage to sell women's unmentionables; fortunately, wandering yakuza Ken (Nobuo Kaneko, GODZILLA 1985) offers to be Shintaro's hawker for a cut of the profits. Meanwhile, Akita poaches stripper Akemi from Kinyo's group and they find that subsequent venues will only pay half the agreed-upon fee and cut the schedule in half without a headlining act. Shintaro takes it upon himself to help even before he falls for eldest daughter Misako (Mayumi Shimizu, RED PIER), who stubborn Kinyo agrees to marry off to the slow son of promoter Yamaguchi if his show is not a success. Kinyo hedges everything on a suicidal new magic act but pays the ultimate price. Eager to help Misako, who has longed to leave the group and find her own way in Tokyo, Shintaro helps the group put together a review show. Their paths cross again with Ken who is actually hunting an escaped yakuza member who is one of their troupe, as well as Akemi when clown Mura absconds with her from Akita's show to help the Wind of Youth succeed.

TEENAGE YAKUZA (1962; 71:57) is the first of the youth films in the set in which the strong-willed, well-intentioned protagonist is the victim of a series of betrayals borne out of fear and jealousy, but it is nowhere as thought-provoking as the next two films in the set, being a very breezy little B-feature with some light comedy, a couple fighting set-pieces, and very predictable plot turns. Best friends Jiro (Tamio Kawaji, TOKYO DRIFTER) and Yoshio are college-bound until a series of misfortunes befalls Yoshio's family. After the pair are robbed by a teenage band of proto-yakuza called K-Club who have started shaking down local businesses, they fight with a pair of them and Yoshio is stabbed in the thigh, his carpenter father collides with a garbage truck rushing to him, and many of his father's customers brush off the needy family's attempts to collect his debts to pay for his funeral. When Jiro foils the K-Club's attack on his mother's coffee shop and other businesses, the locals start paying him protection money which he reluctantly accepts until he is jailed for extortion when the K-Club pairs up with the Nomura yakuza and frightens the locals into sworn statements to frame Jiro. Returning from jail, Jiro is an outcast in the yakuza-controlled town with the locals and with his own family since he has brought embarrassment upon his sister Hatsuko and her banker husband. He has also fallen out of favor with the local teenage rebels who had admired him as an outlaw until he learns that they shook down businesses to take up a collection in his name. Although he was not the recipient of the money, he resolves to pay it all back. The only people on his side are his mother whose business has not been patronized since, the local noodle salesman who nevertheless cannot hire him as a delivery man for fear of yakuza reprisal, and Yoshio's sister Keiko (singer Noriko Matsumoto, THE WARPED ONES) who expresses concern about her brother who has joined the K-Club to feel tough even though the yakuza took a substantial cut of his father's debts that they forcibly collected for him. Realizing that he cannot rid the town of the yakuza on his own, Jiro hopes to change minds and rally support, including that of Yoshio who has been ordered to kill him.

Made the same year as YOUTH OF THE BEAST, THE INCORRIGIBLE (1963; 95:05) is a period youth film that embraces a sense of deep romanticism uncommon in Suzuki's early works. Based on the semi-autobiographical writings of Tôkô Kon, the film is set in the Taisho period and opens with Tôgo Konno (Ken Yamauchi, TOKYO NIGHT) and his mother (Mieko Takamine, THE INUGAMI FAMILY) on a spa trip after Tôgo has been expelled from private school in Kobe. They make an impromptu stop in Toyooka to visit headmaster Kondô (Shinsuke Ashida, MEN AND WAR), a friend of Tôgo's uncle. The younger man is thrown for a loop when he discovers upon returning from taking Kondô's son on a boat ride that his uncle has advised his mother to leave him in Toyooka to attend the local school. At first, an angry and hurt Tôgo decides to tanks the entry exams so that he will not get admitted to the school but finds himself having to repeat a grade, and must do so if he is to pursue his passion for literature. He finds a reason to stay when he runs into Emiko (Masako Izumi, CHERRY BLOSSOMS IN THE AIR), daughter of the lecherous local doctor (Asao Sano, FIGHTING ELEGY), who is reading Strindberg's "The Red Room". When he runs afoul of the Public Morals Unit, a group of students who police the lives of the school's students even outside of class over his reading of novels, he both outwits them by instructing them on the difference between pulp fiction and literary novels as well as draws his dagger on them and warns that he will not be intimidated by them. After frightening off his pimply rival Tako for Emiko's affections, he secretly courts her with the help of her friend Yoshi (Midori Tashiro) and Yoshi's mother (Emiko Azuma, FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES) who, like Tôgo objects to the Public Morals Unit's overreach when it includes trying to enter her home to catch Tôgo and Emiko together. When Tako becomes the new head of the Public Morals Committee and Emiko's father finds out that his daughter spent her vacation in Kyoto not with aunt but with Tôgo, the couple may be ripped apart forever and Tôgo may have forfeited his chances at an education; the latter being just as important to the protagonist here as in the set's final feature BORN UNDER CROSSED STARS.

Also based on serialized writing by Kon, BORN UNDER CROSSED STARS (1965; 96:59) features another strong-willed, quick-witted, and principled young male protagonist with social debits against his advancement but whose ability to rise up beyond his upbringing, the pettiness of his peers, and the hypocrisy of his elders assures the few who actually do have his best interests at heart that he will find his way in life even as he walks off into the horizon empty-handed but resourceful (allying the climax of this film to that of THE WIND-OF-YOUTH GROUP CROSSES THE MOUNTAIN PASS). Made after STORY OF A PROSTITUTE and GATE OF FLESH – both of which achieved international distribution and acclaim – BORN UNDER CROSSED STARS opens as student and milk delivery boy Jûkichi (Yamauchi again) is beaten up on the road by locals resistant to the business of his boss, a rancher who has returned from a stay in Texas and adapted the cowboy mentality, including rounding up a posse to root out the boy's attackers. Jûkichi, on the other hand, resolves to win them over by making customers out of them while also convincing his boss to give the other delivery boys a commission on the new accounts they make. He is equally magnanimous in his dealings at school. When the Discipline Committee administers a beating to schoolmate Yoshio (Jushiro Hirata, THE SANDS OF KUROBE) for being seen in the company of a young woman, Yoshio explains to Jûkichi that the girl was his cousin who had spurned the attention of Discipline Committee leader Oka (Keisuke Noro, DANGER PAYS). Jûkichi in turn calls out Oka and challenges him to a duel. Oka leaves school in shame after being defeated by Jûkichi who subsequently learns that Yoshio has deceived him when he catches him with necking with "cousin" Taneko (Yumiko Nogawa, CAT GIRLS GAMBLERS), the daughter of the local pawn broker. Feeling that he has now wronged Oka, Jûkichi administers a beating to Yoshio whereupon Taneko becomes enamored of him and starts to aggressively pursue him even though he has fallen for Yoshio's sister Suzuko (Izumi again) with whom he connects over Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina". The son of reprobate gambler Jûbei (Jun Tatara, SEVEN SAMURAI) and long-suffering Osen (Kotoe Hatsui, CASTLE IN THE SKY) who live off of his delivery job, Jûkichi is eager to better himself by getting into the Kyoto grammar school but the local Buddhist priest (Masao Mishima, CASTLE OF OWLS) soon becomes concerned with the boy's flagging interest in his education in the context of his romantic entanglements. When Jûbei pawns his son's delivery bicycle and goes gambling with friend Nakazô (Masahiko Tanimura, TRUCK RASCALS), they run afoul of a pair of yakuza gamblers (RUSTY KNIFE's Shirô Yanase and TOKYO DRIFTER's Hiroshi Chô) and receive a brutal beating. Jûbei, who has found out about his son's romance and believes he will marry wealthy, also deceives his son into thinking that he was beaten for no reason in order to garner sympathy. Unbeknownst to his father, Jûkichi retaliates against the gangsters only for a jealous Yoshio to put them right on his trail.

Never before released on DVD or Blu-ray, even in their native Japan, the five films of SEIJUN SUZUKI: THE EARLY YEARS, VOLUME ONE (the second volume is set for April) come to Blu-ray in variable condition. Although Arrow have done their usual top tier encoding and perhaps some digital clean-up, none of the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen transfers look immaculate. THE BOY WHO CAME BACK and BORN UNDER CROSSED STARS probably look the best of the monochrome ones while TEENAGE YAKUZA's B-movie status may explain the preponderance of in-camera vertical scratches. THE WIND-OF-YOUTH GROUP CROSSES THE MOUNTAIN PASS looks more like a well-archived color print than a negative or intermediate source. BORN UNDER CROSSED STARS was censored by the BBFC for animal cruelty for some shots intercutting the fight between Jukichi and Oka that are intercut with a cockfight. The checkdisc supplied is complete when played through both region A-locked and region B-locked players but retail copies of the UK edition (which was slightly delayed) reportedly feature a disclaimer at the start of the film and cut to black during these images when played on region B-locked players while it plays uncut with region A. It is currently not known whether retail copies of the US edition are the same or use as their basis the earlier checkdisc pressing. The LPCM 1.0 mono tracks are all clean-sounding while the optional English subtitles are free of any glaring errors.

All but TEENAGE YAKUZA have a theatrical trailer but each title includes a stills gallery of promotional material. BORN UNDER CROSSED STARS also comes with an audio commentary by film historian Jasper Sharp whose discussion is as much about the film as THE INCORRIGIBLE due to their scripts' common origin in the works of Kon and featuring the same romantic leads. "Tony Rayns on The Youth Films" (39:39) is a brand new video featurette in which he discusses Nikkatsu's earlier stab at catering to a youth audience with the Sun Tribe films that depicted wealthy juvenile delinquents and prompted a public outcry about their immorality, and the subsequent youth films in contrast. He provides brief overviews of all five films, focusing on common themes and the careers of their performers. He singles out TEENAGE YAKUZA negatively as a "B movie" that is "uninspiring", generic, and "not compelling." Code for regions A and B, the limited edition of three thousand copies includes a sixty-page illustrated collector's book featuring new writing by critic and author Jasper Sharp and region 1/2-coded NTSC DVD copies. (Eric Cotenas)