Most Japanese film fans and cult movie buffs are certainly familiar with maverick director Seijun Suzuki for his ultra-stylish and unconventional yakuza thrillers Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967). Not as well known are the numerous genre films he was assigned by his studio Nikkatsu in the late fifties/early sixties. One of his most atypical efforts is The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (Japanese title: Toge o wataru wakai kaze, 1961), which is like a more adult variation on James Otis Kaler’s Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks with a Circus except, in this case, the protagonist is not a kid but a college student majoring in economics. There is also no circus, just a traveling carnival troupe with an uncertain future. Yet, the tone is surprisingly upbeat and cheerful with moments of slapstick comedy, musical interludes, dramatic incidents and a subplot involving competitive yakuza gangs, who are closer to bumbling schoolyard bullies than menacing gangsters.
The Wind-of-Youth Group is far removed from the more violent, nihilistic crime thrillers that helped launch Suzuki’s career just a few years later such as Youth of the Beast (1963). It is also a fine example of how he could transform a conventional B-movie plot into a quirky ensemble character piece with enough eccentric touches to make it feel both personal and distinctly different from other Japanese directors.
The heart and soul of the movie is Shintaro (Koji Wada), a happy-go-lucky university student who is taking a break from his studies to bum around Japan. He hitches a ride with a troupe of performers who bill themselves as the Kinyo Imai Traveling Magic Show. Shintaro quickly endears himself to this ragtag bunch of entertainers, which consists of a husband and wife magician team, a stripper, a clown, a strongman named Hercules and a few musicians and stage performers.
To finance his travels, Shintaro attempts to sell women’s undergarments but his tactics as a vendor lack polish so a drifter named Ken-san (Nobuo Kaneko) offers his expertise as a seasoned street hawker for a cut of the profits. Ken-san turns out to be a yakuza seeking revenge for a past injustice committed by a member of the traveling troupe.
Complicating matters are two business rivals, the Senba yakuzu clan and the Yamaguchi family; the former steals the troupe’s star attraction, the stripper Akemi (Naomi Hoshi), while the latter, a powerful promoter (Hiroshi Nihon’yanagi), threatens to put the carnival out of business unless the owner’s daughter Misako (Mayumi Shimizu) agrees to marry his simpleton son. Stepping into the fray is Shintaro, who manages to solve everyone’s problems before wandering off into the sunset alone.
Part of the film’s appeal stems from its road movie-like scenario which follows Shintaro and the carnival troupe’s sojourn through rural villages and picturesque locales. There are also parallels – intentional or not – to other movies about carnival life like Variety Lights (1950), co-directed by Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuada, which featured a shabby, third rate caravan of entertainers not unlike the Kinyo Imai Traveling Magic Show. The character of Kurita (Kyoji Sugi), the clown, is also similar to the sad-eyed Buttons (James Stewart), a man in greasepaint running from his past, in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).
Although most of Suzuki’s early work for Nikkatsu was shot in black and white, The Wind of Youth Group is filmed in eye-popping color by cinematographer Saburo Isayama with a dazzling array of rainbow colors – hot pinks, electric blues, lime greens, and luminous turquoise hues. Suzuki has fun exploiting the color palette in specific scenes such as a brawl between Shintaro and a roughneck in which our hero gets splashed with different colored liquids as the entire screen explodes in the same bright tones.
The climatic performance of the carnival troupe in a crowded city theater is also a visual delight with surreal flourishes such as Misako being shot out of a cannon, a stripper transforming into a skeleton and a five man jazz band doing gravity-defying dance moves.
Suzuki’s fondness for the odd detail is also in evidence in scenes like a thumb wrestling match between Shintaro and Hercules or Kinyo’s ill-fated attempt to perform his famous handcuffed escape from a sealed box underwater. Like many of the incidents in The Wind-of-Youth Group, the latter scene unfolds in a surprising and unpredictable manner with a tragic payoff. But there is little time for mourning in this 85-minute tale and the carnival troupe is forced to move on to their next destination with a new identity.
Compared to some of the homicidal protagonists in other Suzuki movies, Koji Wada as Shintaro has a boyish, irrepressible charm that eventually disarms and earns the respect of any potential rival or enemy. His can-do attitude and unflappable determination in the face of adversity or danger offsets all of the negativity coming from the worried carnival performers or suspicious yakuza thugs.
Suzuki also dispenses with the traditional romantic subplot allowing Shintaro to remain footloose and fancy-free despite Misako’s obvious feelings for him. At the film’s fadeout, Shintaro returns to his wandering ways like the samurai of old but still harbors a dream of traveling to America. That would have made an intriguing sequel but it never happened. Instead Suzuki’s next film was another action/crime meller, Blood-Red Water in the Channel (1961), which also starred Koji Wada, who appeared in several of the director’s early works including Fighting Delinquents (1960) and Tokyo Knights (1961).
The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass first appeared on Blu-ray in February 2018 in a limited edition 4-disc set from Arrow Films entitled Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Volume 1: The Youth Movies. The other titles were The Boy Who Came Back (1958), Teenage Yakuza (1962), The Incorrigible (1963) and Born Under Crossed Stars (1965). The 5-film set is an entertaining and rarely-seen collection of the director’s early work and highly recommended if you can still find it.
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