The Sociopath’s Playbook

The Japanese film poster for THE BEAST SHALL DIE (1959), directed by Eizo Sugawa.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a sociopath is a person who has a personality disorder which causes them to behave in an aggressive, violent or unpleasant way towards other people. The general opinion among psychiatrists is that sociopaths are not born that way, which is usually the case with psychopaths. Instead, sociopaths are shaped by their environment and experiences. A classic example of this is profiled in Eizo Sugawa’s Yaju Shisubeshi (English title: The Beast Shall Die). The protagonist of this 1959 psychological thriller is Date Kunihiko (Tatsuya Nakadai), a quiet, well-mannered graduate student who is exceptionally gifted as a writer and athlete. Behind his benign façade, however, is a cunning sociopath with a plan that slowly reveals itself as the film unfolds. As portrayed by Nakadai, Date is a truly chilling figure and one of his least known but most potent early performances. It deserves to be included with his more celebrated work in such Japanese masterpieces as Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (1959-1961), Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom (1966) and numerous collaborations with Akira Kurosawa such as Sanjuro (1962), High and Low (1963) and Kagemusha (1980).

Tatsuya Nakadai plays a dangerous sociopath whose mental state has been warped by growing up in post-WW2 Japan in THE BEAST SHALL DIE (1959).

Set in the mid-to-late 1950s, The Beast Shall Die presents a bleak post-WW2 portrait of Japanese society where the younger generation are disillusioned, angry and rebellious toward the government and particularly the United States. Early in the film we see a group of radical demonstrators from the anti-ANPO movement who are protesting the U.S. – Japan Security Treaty, which allows the U.S. to maintain military bases on Japanese soil. At the same time, the U.S. represents a destination that can provide opportunities to advance your career and improve your life. Date is well aware of these contradictions and plays the situation to his advantage by manipulating the system through subversive means. His end goal is to receive a paid scholarship to Harvard through an essay writing competition but, in case he isn’t selected, he spends his off hours accumulating wealth through murder, impersonation and methodical planning.

Date (Tatsuya Nakadai, right) impresses the other students with his marksmanship at target practice in THE BEAST SHALL DIE (1959).

To his professor and fellow students, Date is a respected, hard-working but aloof loner who supports himself with part-time translation work. Only Taeko (Reiko Dan), a fellow student having an affair with Date knows the nihilistic man behind the mask. Everyone else is fooled except the viewer who witnesses Date murder a cop in cold blood in order to appropriate his badge and gun, which he later uses to kidnap a yakuza boss and steal his money. The latter sets off an underground manhunt for him while the cop murder results in an in-depth investigation by two Tokyo detectives, Kawashima (Eijiro Tono) and his younger partner Masugi (Hiroshi Koizumi).

An alternative Japanese film poster for THE BEAST SHALL DIE (1959).

In the course of The Beast Shall Die, Date commits more murders and engineers a heist of tuition money from the university accounting office with the help of an impoverished student suffering from TB. Date seems incapable of failure and is always one step ahead of his enemies. Yet, he makes the mistake of revealing his true nature in a bar one night where Masugi is visiting his bartender girlfriend Yoko (Yumi Shirakawa). The couple witness Date buying all the flowers from an elderly street vendor (Eiko Miyoshi) and forcing her to drink straight alcohol. He then offers the poor woman a wad of cash if she will sing and dance for the bar patrons. Willing to humiliate herself for the money, she honors Date’s request while he smiles sadistically. Nobody in the bar objects to this cruel manipulation but the incident inspires Masugi to investigate Date and his eventual research connives him that Date is the elusive killer they are tracking. Once Masugi gets his hands on a copy of Date’s prize essay, “Brutality in Modern Human Beings,” he realizes that the paper is an analytical depiction of Date’s own personality traits and beliefs.

Japanese character actress Eiko Miyoshi plays the elderly flower seller who is humiliated by a sociopath in a public bar in THE BEAST SHALL DIE (1959).

Date is certainly a nasty piece of work but Masugi uncovers his back story which shows that the suspect may indeed have been transformed by trauma and rejection. His mother cheated on his father, who ended up committing suicide, and Date became a teenage runaway, constantly rebelling at authority. He joined the Communist party, then rejected that and went to seminary school, which also ended in disillusionment. By the time he moved to Tokyo as a graduate student, his sociopathic personality was fully formed.

Date (Tatsuya Nakadai, right) silences his gay friend as yakuza thugs stalk them in a waterfront warehouse district in THE BEAST SHALL DIE (1959).

The Beast Shall Die can be seen as an even darker version of the popular ‘Sun Tribe’ films of the mid-fifties like Crazed Fruit (1956) in which Japan’s youth were depicted as bored, amoral hedonists living only for their own pleasure. Date is more focused and ambitious than the teenager characters in those films but, like them, he is a self-serving narcissist. Tatsuya Nakadai, in one of his early leading roles, is brilliant as the cunning Date and his portrayal of this sociopath is so convincing that it’s a miracle he wasn’t trapped into playing roles like this the rest of his career. The most disturbing aspect is that Nakadai’s Date can be handsome and charming and even shows kindness toward the student with TB. He also appears to be bisexual as witnessed by his encounter with a former gay friend.  But, like any true sociopath, he can turn in an instance and show you it is all an act. And it is this unpredictable behavior and his ability to blend into the crowd that baffles the police but…guess what?  He really is more cunning than his unimaginative pursuers and he knows it.

Reiko Dan plays a philosophy student who moonlights as a morgue attendant in the 1959 psychological thriller THE BEAST SHALL DIE.

Date’s classmate Taeko could be describing his behavior when she makes this statement in philosophy class. “Can a robotic, truly ruthless personality only come from a mechanistic society like the U.S.? Criminals in Japan are more or less emotional…they commit crimes with petty humanistic motives so they easily get caught.” The ironic part is that Taeko becomes even more enamored of Date when she learns he is the target of a police manhunt. “I’ve always liked that cruel, animalistic side of you,” she confesses to him while adding that she just had an abortion (the result of their affair).

Guess who is hiding behind a mask while stealing money from the university accounting office in the 1959 film noir THE BEAST SHALL DIE starring Tatsuya Nakadai (pictured).

The Beast Shall Die succeeds on multiple levels – as a film noir, psychological thriller, police procedural and a critique of Japanese society in the late fifties. Haruhiko Oyabu’s hardboiled novel was so popular it inspired a 1974 remake Yaju Shisubeshi: Fukushu no Mekanikku, also directed by Eizo Suguwa and starring Hiroshi Fujioka as Date.   It was also remade in 1980 under the original title by director Toru Murakawa with Yusaku Matsuda as the sociopath and resurfaced as a two-part video adaptation in 1998 by Takeshi Watanabe under the title Yomigaeru Kinro 2 – Fukkatsu-hen.

The Japanese film poster for the 1980 remake of THE BEAST SHALL DIE aka Yaju Shisubeshi, directed by Toru Murakawa.

I can’t vouch for these later adaptations but Suguwa’s original 1959 version is a mesmerizing mood piece powered by Nakadai’s chameleon-like performance, Fukuzo Koizumi’s mostly nocturnal black and white widescreen cinematography, Toshiro Mayuzumi’s cool jazz score and an ending which is open to interpretation; either Date is victorious in his grand scheme or he is doomed to failure because, in the words of detective Masugi, he is “an elaborate machine created by a modern, twisted society but even machines falter and get rusty.”

Japanese director Eizo Suguwa

Suguwa is not a name that most U.S. fans of Japanese cinema will probably recognize because few, if any, of his movies were distributed in America. In recent years, thanks to repertory screenings at venues like NYC’s Japan Society, some of Suguwa’s work has been rediscovered like his 1964 musical satire, Kimi Mo Shusse Ga Dekiru (You Can Succeed, Too), which skewers business practices in both Japan and the U.S. through candy-colored Frank Tashlin-like comedy skits and songs.  Other key works include the yakuzi drama ‘Minagoroshi no uta’ Yori Kenju-yo Saraba! (Get’em All, 1960), the taut hostage thriller Yaju Gari (The Black Battlefront Kidnappers, 1973) and the time travel romance Tobu Yume wo Shibaraku Minai (1990), his final feature.

The Japanese film poster for Eizo Sugawa’s YOU CAN SUCCEED, TOO (1964).

The Beast Shall Die is not available on any authorized format in the U.S. though you might be able to buy an import DVD from Japanese online distributors (no English subtitles option) if you have an all-region DVD player. You can also purchase a decent DVD-R of the film with English subtitles from European Trash Cinema or stream it on the website Cave of Forgotten Films.

Date (Tatsuya Nakadai) has no problem resorting to violence if anyone tries to stop him from getting what he wants in THE BEAST SHALL DIE (1959).

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