Picture Vito Corleone wearing a lumpy sweater with crumbs from his stale breakfast lobster claw pastry littered throughout the poorly stitched threads. He stands up from his chair and a cloud of powdered sugar fills the air. He wipes the excess orange juice from his lip (foreshadowing?) and hits you with a threatening message. You would laugh your way out of his office.
Audiences demand their protagonists to dress the part. Anything less and you have lost their attention and more importantly, your film’s credibility in the gangster genre. The formula for fashion in gangster films is not as simple as popping into a high end European retailer and picking the most expensive, luxurious pieces. Rather, it can also be stepping onto an Ivy League campus.
Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale flank the sides of the catwalk, the catwalk being cobblestone nestled between the finely groomed lawns. The Ivy League style made its way to Japan in 1954 via the style magazine, Otoko no Fukushoku. One of its readers, Toshiyuki Kurosu, became an early pioneer of Ivy League clothing in Japan.
Kurosu’s first exposure to the early beginnings of the Ivy League style was from African-American soldiers and Jazz LP covers. He was intrigued because it offered a complete departure from his native Japanese fashion trends. “I didn’t like it because it was new, but because it was strange”, Kuroso remarked. In the late 50s, with Elvis on the throne, America was king when it came to fashion, music and food. The Beatles and Stones were around but not yet relevant.
The cultural offerings from a strange land are often enticing, especially to art students. What better muse than one you cannot understand but desperately try to. Artists, filmmakers and fashion designers wanted their products to ooze style to stay hip. Director Seijun Suzuki used the art form of film to document the Japanese style of the 1960s.
YOUTH OF THE BEAST (1963) does not interest me as just a film, and I shudder at it being called a “B-movie” because that diminishes its purpose. YOUTH OF THE BEAST rather acts as a visual catalogue of the development of not only the Japanese New Wave film movement but explorations in music, fashion and automobiles.
The narrative is driven by the wild musings of jazz music rather than a linear narrative from a well-known novel. The fashion featured in YOUTH OF BEAST borrows from the Ivy League style, but in its new context serves to reinvent the gangster genre from the 1930s. We’re not talking nice pressed khakis and boat shoes, but rather sophisticated nods to the classics. The Ivy League style was founded on principles of quality materials that last, such as cotton and wool. Japan was known for manufacturing cheap toys, so this was quite a departure.
Our protagonist, Joji ‘Jo’ Mizuno wears a classic trench coat with some modern updates. His skinny white tie is a departure from the wide style of earlier decades. Many jazz musicians of the 1960s were early stalwarts of this style, such as Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane and Oscar Peterson. Another touch was the “Ivy League fold”, the method for folding a pocket square to be placed in the breast pocket of a suit jacket. Even the button down shirt was difficult to introduce in Japan. Toskiyuko Kuroso requested a button-down shirt from his tailor and received a long-sleeve Hawaiian shirt with a two button collar. Not knowing this was not at all close to the real thing, Kuroso nevertheless proudly wore it because he thought he was on to something. Before our world was connected as it is now, Japanese designers of the 1960s who wanted to imitate the American Ivy League style had little to work from, other than a few grainy photos and some far flung fantasies.
This setback actually allowed room for the Japanese interpretation of the Ivy League style to incorporate touches that are purely Japanese. For example, in YOUTH OF THE BEAST (1963), one character sports a yellow bomber jacket with a black collar. The choice of a bold yellow is a perfect choice for the time period and elevates the style of the film. The shorter brim of the main character’s fedora is an appropriate update. The action of this film requires him to dart from scene to scene of gunfire and fistfights. A film noir fedora, with a wider brim for dramatic effect, correlates with the film’s style of chiaroscuro, or use of shadows. Joji ‘Jo’ Mizuno’s short crewcut requires a smaller porkpie hat.
Japan is an industry leader in cars, but in the late 50s they had to prove it with competition from such stylish delinquents as the Volkswagen Beetle. The Datsun car is heavily featured in this film in both classic black and a preppy mix of Nantucket Red and nautical hues. The Datsun car company was founded in 1911 (now it is owned by Nissan) with the promise right in the letters of its name, DAT: Durable. Attractive. Trustworthy. These are also principles of the Ivy League style, using quality materials but not in an over the top fashion.
YOUTH OF THE BEAST stands alone on style. This film can be enjoyed without subtitles because it is so visually compelling. YOUTH OF THE BEAST is bold because it does so in moderation. By reserving its visual punches for the appropriate moment in the narrative, the audience stays hooked. It’s visual suspense…