Vengeance Is Mine Review
It's a sad fact that for many the Japanese New Wave of cinema remains largely overlooked. Arguably only Suzuki, with his noirish tales of criminality and bespoke suited hitmen as in Branded to Kill, has received more than a glancing nod from more mainstream audiences. The problem being that, for many, a Japanese film must fall into the traditional pigeonhole of Samurai (surely not a bad bet as to why Kurosawa's name still resides in even the uninterested filmgoer's consciousness) or cultured social observation. Either way, the predominant theme is usually some link to feudalism, be it the setting or how the attitudes still entrenched in the society pervade even when up against the eras of modernisations. Shohei Imamura could arguably be seen as one of those who have fallen to some extent in the shadow of Kurosawa and Ozu, lacking the inclination to pursue the clinical path of polite observation, he instead pushed for more visceral and oblique messages, of which Vengeance is Mine could be considered a prime example.
Having made an impact in the 60s with his tales of the lower stratas of society as in Intentions of Murder (1964) and The Pornographer (1966) he seemed to hit his peak with Profound Desires of the Gods (1968), but having taken on the production of the title, the increased budget and relatively low Box Office returns forced him into a sort of exile, whereby he focussed on smaller (often made-for-TV) documentaries, that is until he re-emerged in 1979 with Vengeance is Mine. Based on the true story of a Japanese fraudster and killer, Akira Nishiguchi, it contains all the blueprints for a classic Imamura tale; a cast of the downtrodden and underclass, twisted emotions, contrasting motives and a central element being character development in relation to the world. Named here as Iwao Enokizu (played inimitably by Ken Ogata), the film charts his crimes as well as the way in which his actions had an effect on those around him, be they his suffering family or those who come to know the truth of his deeds.
We are introduced to the narrative by way of Iwao's capture, though one aspect that may surprise those who've not seen the film, but are aware of the true story behind, is that Imamura doesn't go into detail as to how he was apprehended given that it was a young girl who was primarily behind the end of his running, and not a brilliant piece of police work. The director leaves the “how” behind though, as Imamura focuses more intently on the events that unfolded which brought this seemingly mild mannered man to be whisked away in a procession of police vehicles. The manners in which the crimes are presented to us each represent in some way the character's progression. The initial acts that cause him to run from the law are shown to be brutal but also bungling - he is unsure of how to go about achieving his aims and thus allows raw emotion to override. The result is about as far away from a serial killer who has eluded capture due to his cunning as one could imagine, as it is hard to conceive how he remained at large in this initial period (though police ineptitude was thought to be behind the elusiveness of the real killer Nishiguchi during this first investigation). The flashbacks jump back and forth a few times before the timeline settles and we are basically passengers viewing Iwao's attempts to stay one step ahead of the authorities and forge a living by nefarious means.
To a certain extent, quite how freely you are able to appreciate this film may depend upon your thoughts with regards the depiction of such killers on screen. Those who prefer Lecter to Lektor may find the lack of Machiavellian mind games and grandiose yet absurdly unrealistic gestures profoundly unsatisfying. Yet it is in this realm of the mundane and distinctly grubby that Imamura finds the meatiest issues and genuine substance to play with. It may only come with a repeat viewing, but there is something strangely transcendental in the journey the character of Iwao takes, his poor victims pointing towards the change in his state of mind and how his use of personas comes to affect him. The osmosis of disguise and true personality becomes somewhat bewitching to watch and Ogata's performance, once in the guise of a mild mannered university professor is every bit as chilling in its mundanity as Attenborough's Christie or Morton's Hindley. The staid approach is very much in the field of The Talented Mr Ripley rather than Silence of the Lambs, however unlike Patricia Highsmith's depiction of identity theft and murder, Imamura is at pains to show the very bestial nature of Iwao is always beneath the surface, most prominently depicted during his many carnal episodes. There is an argument that this necessity to highlight the baser instincts, namely lust, is actually a flaw. The idea is sound, but there is the very real feeling that perhaps this trick is played too many times to be effective. Showing characters at their most vulnerable and stripped of their external trappings is one that has been used many times in cinema, but the sheer number of telling conversations that take place mid-coitus detracts slightly from those with something genuinely important to tell us. Thankfully though, these scenes can also be used to show Imamura's absurdist streak, as one particular instance of cramp proves.
For a film that focuses on the true story of one individual, the run time may seem long, but that is because a large amount of the time is spent inspecting the lives of those who have been affected by Iwao's actions. They are shown to be almost drawn into his gravitational field, as what he does, or sometimes doesn't do, have consequences far and wide. From the wife he leaves, the father he feels unconnected with and the woman he meets on his travels, all have not only their own stories, but also help to show us a key segment of this predatory man's journey, from bungling killer to a form of realisation about himself. The first hour or so gives us few clues as to his motive or what shaped him, and Imamura's token gesture of an incident that could be seen as sowing the seed of his antipathy towards his father or a hatred of authority figures is more of a joke than anything else, as it is far too brief and underdeveloped to offer any real insight. It is there more as an example than a reference of cataclysm - ultimately the director offers no easy answers. The strange love triangle can be trying for it seems to be as obtuse as Iwao, but once the character of the father is explored more the juxtaposition and traits shared with his son become all the more telling. Similarly, the slow emergence of a lover's mother, from a scary oddball pervert to a nemesis, is highly important. She not only is an obstacle to be erased but also a living lesson about the futility of the life of a murderer without self knowledge and as such is pivotal.
What Imamura has crafted is a bizarre mix of lunacy and reason, which the final reel of the film perfectly embodies. When all is finished, the conclusion refuses to give way to logic or yield to the viewer with a satisfying epilogue. Few true crime films require a repeat viewing, but the construction of the murders in terms of symbolism, the touching progression of the many figures caught in Iwao's whirlwind and the absurdist yet strangely poignant clash of generational feudalism and religion colliding with modern atheism and solipsism positively demand it. If your tastes sway towards the Jonathan Demme-esque high camp tales of psychopathic geniuses then this won't fulfil your want, but if you can appreciate a bleak and studied look at a sociopath wrapped in layers of peripheral stories and psychological conundrums then this remains highly rewarding.