Vengeance Is Mine February 4, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s, Shohei Imamura , trackback
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. - Romans 12:19-21
Shohei Imamura’s 1979 film Vengeance Is Mine takes its name and some of its subtext from the Biblical passage quoted above, part of Paul’s contribution to the Book of Romans. On its surface, the film concerns a serial killer named Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata, in an impressive performance) who eludes capture for 78 crime-filled days despite being prominently listed as one of Japan’s most wanted fugitives. It was adapted from a popular Japanese novel that recounted the true story of Ryuzo Nishiguchi, whose name was changed for the book, and his gruesome killing spree. What makes the film so interesting, though, is Imamura’s approach to the material and his almost total lack of concern for any element of suspense.
Instead of teasing the audience with pounding music and frequent cuts to a helpless victim, Imamura treats us to a movie where the killings are far from the focal point of the story. Some of the murders are seen onscreen while others are not, even if the victims are anticipated such as the elderly lawyer we later see lifelessly crouched inside a dresser. The character of Enokizu is a soulless sociopath, as likely to selfishly take a taxi the attorney has waited for in the pouring rain as he is to enjoy a meal and a bottle of wine in the old man’s apartment after he’s murdered him. Yet, by often not explicitly showing the killings, Imamura automatically devalues any shock or suspense element otherwise required for a typical film about a serial killer.
Through this approach, the director is able to emphasize the sociopathic nature of Enokizu as someone who finds no more excitement or rush in his violent crimes than in other mundane tasks, with the idea being that oftentimes neither are important enough to show onscreen. Instead, we frequently see Enokizu engaged in sexual acts and he’s repeatedly shown to have a voracious carnal appetite. He obviously uses sex, not murder, as his main form of pleasure, thus making his multiple killings even more difficult to understand. Maybe Imamura is making some other statement in regards to Enokizu’s apparent addiction to sex, but I’m not sure what else it might be. Enokizu’s manner in each activity sharply contrasts the other since he clearly kills out of opportunity more than necessity, but seems to openly crave, even require, sex.
Part of what makes Vengeance Is Mine so compelling and unsettling is the almost total lack of distinction to be found in the Enokizu character. We see barely anything that makes him different or more monstrous, aside from the actual crimes, than any guy walking down the street at any time. The performance of Ken Ogata allows the character to blend in to his surroundings and make Enokizu seem wholly unremarkable if he were not a vicious murderer. We’re also given no reason for Enokizu’s behavior aside from an early loss of respect for his father that hardly justifies or explains his callous indifference. Imamura avoids any other attempt at rationalizing this evil, as though saying its existence is neither understandable nor preventable, but an undeniable fact of life nonetheless.
It’s that idea that seems to provide the inspiration for the title of Vengeance Is Mine. It’s clear that the general interpretation of the Biblical passage the film takes its name from places God as the ultimate taskmaster for seeking vengeance and instructs His followers to meet evil not with the desire to seek retribution, but with a defiant nature of acceptance and goodwill. The title of Imamura’s film, therefore, appears to be derived from the idea that Enokizu’s actions, whatever his reasons, are completely contrary to the Biblical idea of overcoming evil with good. The people we see Enokizu kill are not threatening him or engaging in horrible activities, yet they suffer anyway. Some of his victims are actually kind to him, fulfilling the command to feed your enemies, but are still not spared a senseless death.
I also wonder if Imamura is slyly taking a jab at Christianity by having Enokizu’s father, Shizuo, who had converted years before from Buddhism, adhere to his religious values and refuse the advances of his daughter-in-law Kazuko, the killer’s frustrated wife. Even though Shizuo’s wife is terminally ill and he shares an attraction to Kazuko, he apparently abstains from that temptation. His reward is to have his son, who had become ashamed of him at a young age when the father allowed his boats to be taken by the navy without a fight, disgrace the family and disrespect him personally.
Throughout the film, Imamura employs a somewhat disjointed and unconventional narrative technique. He frequently jumps from time and place, putting dates and locations on the screen in the style of a documentary to let the audience know when and where he’s moved the story. This can be a tad disarming for first-time Western viewers, unfamiliar with Japanese names and geography, who might have difficulty keeping straight the significance of each new location or person. It doesn’t prove overly distracting though, and it certainly fits the cold, clinical feeling that Imamura seems to want. This method also is consistent with the director’s larger body of work, since he spent ten years exclusively directing documentaries after one of his other projects proved to be an epic flop.
Aside from his blending of fiction with fact, Imamura is known for exploring the seedier side of post-war life in Japan. He had worked with the legendary Yasujiro Ozu as an assistant, but had no interest in the domestic middle-class films the elder director was known for. Imamura instead chose to make noteworthy films with titles such as Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman, and The Pornographers. The latter is the only one of his early films, from the era coined the Japanese New Wave, that’s available on DVD in R1 and it’s a bare-bones edition from Criterion. Theatrical screenings are starting to pop up though, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) cinématek will be having a retrospective of the director’s films during the month of March entitled “Pimps, Prostitutes, and Pigs: Shohei Imamura’s Japan,” including a full week run for Vengeance is Mine.
In the land of R2, the Masters of Cinema label gave Vengeance Is Mine an outstanding DVD release in 2005 that certainly built upon their increasingly impressive catalog. The audio and video are both excellent, but it’s the informative and worthwhile supplements that really set the package apart. There’s a highly regarded Tony Rayns commentary, a 6-minute introduction from director Alex Cox that mostly skims the surface while pointing out a few things of interest, and, finally, a 36-page booklet (with the startlingly unexpected cover image of a topless woman alongside Ogata) that includes a great, lengthy essay from Jasper Sharp and a much more dry, less rewarding one by Alastair Phillips. Since Janus Films has the distribution rights to the film in R1, it seems only a matter of time before the Criterion Collection releases its own version, though I hope they also decide to release additional Imamura titles since the MoC disc is put together so well already.
UPDATE - Criterion will be releasing the film on DVD in May, though the MoC appears to have the advantage in supplements.