VENGEANCE IS MINE, SHOHEI IMAMURA, 1979
Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine was his first foray into narrative films after more than a decade of working with documentaries. It shows, as this is based on true events. With a couple of exceptions, Imamura does not rely on artistic storytelling methods. Aside from bouncing back and forth across the timeline via flashbacks, the storytelling itself is a straightforward portrayal of a man who has committed crimes and is on the run.
Within the confines of this narrative, Imamura uses a great deal of creativity with his shot selection. Even though he had more than established himself as an auteur during the Japanese New Wave, he still borrows from his heroes, namely Kurosawa and Ozu. You’ll see a lot of unique framing, such as shooting through doorways or blocking shots with walls, which Ozu was famous for. The lead character Iwao Enokizu, played by Ken Ogata, is usually subdued, but has moments of rage and extreme behavior. He is reminisicent of Mifune characters in Kurosawa films — tough minded and rarely showing weakness, and generally a tough character to penetrate.
At the center of the film is a moral crisis. That is not confined to just the serial killing of the protagonist, but most notably by the peripheral characters and how his live impacts theirs. His father is a devout Catholic that is tempted by Iwao’s wife, who holds him with high esteem. She is also Catholic, but her husband has left her with an emptiness and she clings to his father for support, sexually or otherwise. The only instance that she encounters another man, she only succumbs (and this is not perfectly clear) because he was recommended by her father-in-law.
The other moral question is with the ladies of the Asano Hotel, who harbor Iwao after he masquerades as a professor. At first they are taken with him, and when they discover his true nature, they respond in curious ways. The mother, also a former killer, is opposed to Iwao being a part of their life, whereas the daughter believes in him and tries to hide and protect him.
The flashbacks are put together well, not to the point where they confuse the narrative, although the film benefits from being watched a second time. They range from when Iwao defies his father at a young age prior to Pearl Harbor, and continue to the time of his murders, his subsequent escape and time on the run, and his subsequent arrest and interrogation.
Iwao is not a character that is easy to understand. We do not and cannot see inside his soul to see why he does things. Instead, Imamura plants little clues that shows that he has complete disregard for anyone else. There are a couple occasions when he shows a bit of humanity, like in the second half when he is carrying on an affair, he at times shows feelings towards her. You wonder whether he is falling in love or just playing with her. Yet he ends the relationship in a way that clouds his feelings even further. The character is mostly an embodiment of evil. Anyone that he encounters is either an obstacle or an opportunity, and he has ways of handling both.
The title of the movie is ambiguous. Who is taking vengeance? Is it Iwao for all the people who he feels have wronged him the past? His father perhaps? I’m sure there are plenty of theories on the internet, which I have not read, but I have a feeling it relates to the final scene. His ex-wife and daughter throw his bones into the air, only to have them freeze midway through. Even though his final wishes were an act of rebellion, just to throw his bones off a mountain, they were not granted. You could argue that the vengeance was of the Christian God that he turned his back on, not letting him have his final resting place, damning his bones from reaching the earth. You could also argue that this is Iwao’s spirit, rejecting any sort of resolution, especially anything coming from his despised father. Imamura leaves this open-ended, which punctuates the film. Why did he freeze the bones in the air? We’ll never know the answer, just as we’ll never understand what possessed Iwao to perform such unspeakable acts.
Movie Rating: 8/10
Audio Commentary with Tony Rayns: This was an exceptional commentary. He filled in a lot of the gaps regarding the source material, Imamura’s career, his influences, actors, themes and styles. For the entire 2:20 running time, he barely pauses and always shares interesting details.
Interview with Imamura: This is a brief interview where he talks about the film. You can tell he is pleased with how it came out. One interesting tidbit was how the crew would frequent a noodle shop run by the real killer’s sister.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10
ZATOICHI: THE BLIND SWORDSMAN (DISCS 1-3)
First off, the Zatoichi boxset from Criterion is a gem. You can tell just by holding it or flipping through the discs that it’s on a completely different level than all other box sets. It is the largest, most ambitious release, with 25-films total. That’s too much to tackle in a short period of time, much less to summarize in a single post. For that reason, I’m dividing these into a series of three posts.
Zatoichi is genre filmmaking and it unquestionably follows a formula with few deviations, but it is still a treasure. A lot of this has to do with the time in which these films originated. They were produced during some of the best years of Japanese cinema. They followed in the footsteps of Mizoguchi’s samurai films and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy, and were contemporary of some of Kurosawa’s best films. One of the films even included Yojimbo, one of Kurosawa’s most iconic characters. Meanwhile, the Japanese New Wave was in its prime, most notably Seijun Suzuki and his Yakuza films. The Zatoich was a serialized amalgamation of all of these narrative forms, and it even shared some of the same crew and cast as these classical Japanese artists. These essentially were template art films, with some thrills and adventures to keep audiences hooked.
The quality varies on each film. None that I have so far seen come close to the highs of the contemporaries that I just discussed, but I didn’t expect to see Ozu, Kurosawa or Naruse. At best, they are excellent, stylized, escapist genre films. At worse, they are mediocre yet still engaging and watchable. In many respects they are like a high quality TV series today (and Zatoichi did become a series), with some amazing episodes and some that are just okay. None are poorly put together or not worth watching. Again, like a TV series today, they are easy to binge watch just to see what happens to the hero next.
The premise is usually that Zatoichi wanders into a town inconspicuously where there is corruption present. There’s usually a woman in the picture, often (although not always) innocent and being taken advantage of. There are often warring factions, and when they realize who Zatoichi is, they try to lure him to their side with food, money, comfort, or whatever it takes. They are almost always unscrupulous, evil people. Zatoichi has his faults. He is greedy, likes to gamble, is susceptible to the charms of woman, but he is basically good and looks out for the common man. Regardless of what side he takes, he looks down on all who will make trouble for others.
You have to suspend a lot of disbelief. Yes, Zatoichi is blind, yet he gets around very well for himself and hardly ever stumbles or runs into walls. He is always deadly with the sword, and most battles have him engaged with several people. He never strikes first, and will often kill 2-3 people with a single spin and sword stroke. And, spoiler alert, he doesn’t get killed – there are 25 movies, after all. He barely gets hurt. Sometimes the action can get monotonous because the outcome is clear; other times it is thrilling.
Of the nine that I have seen so far, I appreciated the ones where they peeled away at the character. The first two, which happen to be the only black and white ones, establish the legend and develop the character. They are not short of action either, but they spend more time investigating this unique character. The films shift to color with the third film, and there’s a little more action, and they settle somewhat lazily on the formula. The high point for me was the seventh film, Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword because it makes the best use of color and is the most stylized, while deviating from the formula enough to show that Zatoichi has some weakness, can be harmed, and is capable of blood lust. The films blend together to a certain degree, but Flashing Sword’s imagery has stuck with me the most. The latter two films I felt suffered from monotony as they tried to unsuccessfully break away from the formula. One of them has Zatoichi interacting with a child and a flawed woman, which would normally be a nice change, but it came across stilted and less confident.
1. The Tale of Zatoichi – 8/10
2. The Tale of Zatoichi Continues – 7.5/10
3. New Tale of Zatoichi – 7/10
4. Zatoichi the Fugitive – 6.5/10
5. Zatoichi on the Road – 7/10
6. Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold – 6/10
7. Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword – 8.5/10
8. Fight, Zatoichi, Fight – 5.5/10
9. Adventures of Zatoichi – 5/10
Special Features: None yet until the end.
Criterion Rating: 9/10