Vengeance Is Mine (Fukushû suruwa wareniari) [DVD]
Director : Shohei Imamura
Screenplay : Masaru Baba (based on the novel by Ryuzo Saki)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1979
Stars : Ken Ogata (Iwao Enokizu), Mayumi Ogawa (Haru Asano), Rentaro Mikuni (Shizuo Enokizu), Mitsuko Baisho (Kazuko Enokizu), Nijiko Kiyokawa (Hisano Asano), Chocho Miyako (Kayo Enokizu)
Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine (Fukushû suruwa wareniari) is among the small handful of great, disturbing cinematic portraits of a deranged mind. Is it for neither the faint of heart nor the rigorously logical who demand rational answers for irrational actions. Its protagonist is a psychopath who is simultaneously monstrous and pitiable, sinking into a gray abyss of frustratingly vague origins. Imamura gives us a few scenes that armchair Freudians will immediately latch onto and endow with explanatory power, but in the end there is really no way to account for the violence enacted on screen; it is, like all violence, beyond true human explanation.
The film’s protagonist is Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), a fictionalized real-life criminal and murderer who held the entirety of Japan in rapt attention for several months in the early 1960s while police conducted a countrywide manhunt for him (the screenplay by Masaru Baba was based on a nonfictional novel by Ryuzo Saki). However, what is so ironic about Enokizu is his inordinate plainness. This is no brilliantly diabolical psychotic ala Hannibal Lecter or Dr. Mabuse, nor is he the catch-all symbolic boogeyman of so many slasher movies. Rather, he is the humdrum product of Japan’s middle class gone terribly wrong.
Within the film’s first 10 minutes, we witness in excruciating detail as Enokizu commits his first two murders, brutally killing two truck drivers for their money. While he bludgeons one man with a hammer and stabs the other one to death, Imamura’s camera remains frighteningly steadfast in its horrified gaze, neither cutting away nor moving in. It is the very essence of the power of the unwavering cinematic gaze, taking in the graphic moments of violence without heightening or exploiting them via such visual techniques as montage editing or slow motion, both of which had already long since run their course as effective means of rendering screen violence in emotionally unsettling terms. At this point, we see that Imamura is deadly serious about his depiction of a murderous sociopath, which means that we are caught off guard all the more when the film veers from time to time into sickly black humor, one of Imamura’s specialties.
Despite the violence of the opening moments, the vast majority of Vengeance Is Mine does not focus on physical attacks. Rather, its settles into a series of portraits of psychological violence, with Enokizu being the link among a series of disintegrating families (Imamura started as an assistant to the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, and Vengeance Is Mine, while aesthetically far removed from Ozu’s work, nevertheless shares its preoccupation with the breakdown of family relations).
Enokizu’s own family is a portrait of dysfunction, particularly his volatile relationship with his devoutly Catholic father (Mitsuko Baisho), whose humiliation before a Japanese naval officer during Enokizu’s childhood is the closest the film comes to providing an explanation for his behavior. Enokizu’s relationship with his father is further strained by the fact that his father is clearly attracted to Enokizu’s wife, Kayo (Chocho Miyako), and she to him. While Enokizu is in jail for various petty crimes, he has good reason to believe that his wife and father have been having an incestuous affair.
While on the run from the police, Enokizu hides at a back-alley inn in a small town, which places him squarely in the midst of another dysfunctional family. The inn is run by Haru (Mayumi Ogawa), who is the kept woman of the inn’s owner, a boorish and fraudulent man. Haru’s mother (Nijiko Kiyokawa) seems nearly as deranged as Enokizu, as she spends much of her time either fighting with her daughter or spying on the various sexual escapades taking place in the inn (Enokizu is first taken there because he tells a cab driver he wants an out of the way place that would be willing to set him up with “a girl”). Enokizu ends up developing a relationship with Haru that, on some level at least, represents the intrusion of genuine love into his warped worldview. Even though Haru eventually learns of his real identity, she refuses to turn him in. And, while this act of devotion might spell potential redemption in another film, in Vengeance Is Mine it is just one more step down the path to ultimate annihilation.
Enokizu’s crimes are not just of the violent sort, and one of the most shocking aspects of his 78 days on the lam (during which he traversed virtually the entire island of Japan) is the fact that, during that time, he perpetrated a number of scams in which he pretended to be a lawyer and bilked families out of bail money. He also committed several other murders during this time, included the killing of a lawyer he meets while hailing a cab immediately after stealing bail from an elderly mother. This produces one of the film’s most disconcerting, yet blackly comic moments as Enokizu sits down in the lawyer’s apartment, and in the background we see a wardrobe door slowly creak open to reveal the dead lawyer’s body.
By the time he made Vengeance Is Mine, Imamura was already a well-regarded trailblazer of the Japanese New Wave. He had consistently broken down visual taboos over the preceding two decades while maintaining a consistent vision and focus on particular themes (family, voyeurism, the dark corners of Japanese society). Vengeance Is Mine is, in many ways, Imamura’s magnum opus because it concentrates his thematic interests in a film that is simultaneously engrossing and unsettling. The fact that the film’s protagonist is both impenetrable and sympathetic despite his monstrous deeds is testament to Imamura’s grasp of the fundamental contradictions of human nature. While Vengeance Is Mine, like most of his other films, is anything but reassuring, it is also never anything less than brutally forthright in its vision of one deranged mind cutting a swath through an increasingly corrupt society that, ironically enough, is never blamed for creating him.
|Vengeance Is Mine Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Japanese Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||May 15, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Vengeance Is Mine is presented in a new anamorphic widescreen transfer taken from a new 35mm low-contrast print made from the original camera negative. The digitally restored image looks fantastic. While the color scheme used in the film is quite drab and the overall image is somewhat dark, this surely represents Imamura’s visual approach to the material. The monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track print, sounds clean and clear.|
|There isn’t much in the way of supplements on this disc. In addition to a teaser trailer and a theatrical trailer, there is a 10-minute excerpt of a 1999 interview with director Shohei Imamura conducted for the Directors Guild of Japan. While I had been hoping Imamura would talk about the film’s themes, he spends the majority of the interview discussing the screenplay and his work with the actors. The disc does come with a hefty insert booklet that contains a new essay by critic Michael Atkinson, a 1994 interview with Imamura by writer Toichi Nakata, and, most interestingly, several writings from Imamura, including notes on Vengeance Is Mine that originally appeared in a 1979 international brochure for the film and notes on his approach to filmmaking originally written in the late 1950s.|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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