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