Who wants Vengeance, anyway? Appellate Judge Dan Mancini is all about Lust and Power.
"Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'"—Romans 12:19
In 1979, director Shohei Imamura (The Pornographers) adapted Ryuzo Saki's novel based on the rampage of real-life serial killer Iwao Enokizu into Vengeance Is Mine. A down-and-dirty thriller and police procedural on its surface, the movie is another of Imamura's critiques of the garish excesses of postwar Japan.
Facts of the Case
Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata, The Hidden Blade) is a middle-aged man from a devoutly Catholic family. He's also a compulsive thief and swindler, who's been in and out of prison. Eventually, Enokizu's unquenchable rage and sociopathy drive him to serial murder. On January 4, 1964, he's arrested in Tamana after a 78-day spree of thievery and murder that began with the execution of two truck drivers. Under police interrogation, the cool, composed, and seemingly mild-mannered man reveals the gory details of his crimes, his broken relationship with his father (Rentaro Mikuni, Kwaidan), failed marriage to a dutiful wife (Mitsuko Baisho, The Eel) unable to cope with his emotional remoteness and stints in prison, and tragic love for a prostitute (Mayumi Ogawa, Glowing Autumn). None of the details of Enokizu's biography explain his angst or justify his violent criminal acts.
Iwao Enokizu is an odd protagonist to be sure. Outwardly tame and bourgeois, he hides (at least for a time) feral savagery born of an existential vacuum in his soul. Imamura's movie is about Enokizu's insatiable hunger for meaning, peace, contentment, or a reprieve from psychic torment. His identity is a collection of fractured, compartmentalized, and inadequate descriptors—Christian, son, husband, father, laborer, thief, ex-con. In each role, he seeks a unity of self. Never finding it, his anger eventually turns outward in a series of violent and subversive actions against the society that divided him up and placed him in so many boxes.
Released in 1979, Vengeance Is Mine was a late arrival to the Japanese New Wave of the '60s and '70s, but it's a key work in the movement. Set in the early- to mid-1960s, it explores the identity crisis and weird mix of malaise and fierce anger that defined Imamura's generation, which came of age at the tail-end of World War II and during America's occupation of Japan. A generation younger than directors Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu), Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story), and Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai), the war left Imamura and his peers—most notably Seijun Suzuki (Story of a Prostitute), Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses), and Hiroshi Teshigahara (Woman in the Dunes)—feeling culturally unmoored, angry at both Japanese imperialism and Western interference. This social identity crisis produced a nihilistic cinema more interested in expressing confusion and rage than offering pat answers.
For my money, Vengeance Is Mine is an even more satisfying expression of the hollow anger in the Japanese zeitgeist of the '60s and '70s than Imamura's earlier, more famous film, The Pornographers. This more mature, experienced, and sure-footed Imamura uses genre forms so cleverly that Vengeance Is Mine works as a thriller, though an admittedly unconventional one. Instead of a whodunit, it's more of a whydunit. By tracing the history of Enokizu's life and crimes through a complex series of flashbacks, it's as though Imamura is searching for the source of his dark protagonist's angst. The focus isn't on a motive for the crimes (there is none), but a broader understanding of the cultural environment capable of producing a man like Enokizu, common in manner and appearance but hiding sociopathic depravity just beneath his surface. Imamura's art film sensibilities ensure there are no easy answers for the questions he poses.
Enokizu's Christianity isn't germaine to his life of crime, but it's useful to Imamura because it makes the Enokizu family outsiders in a mostly non-Christian nation (during Enokizu's boyhood in the 1930s, his father is humiliated by a military officer because of the family's religion), acts as a symbol of the clash between East and West inside postwar Japan, and enables Imamura to springboard off of a concept he lifts from Paul's New Testament letter to the Romans: that Enokizu's members are at war with one another, desiring both virtue and vice, nobility and depravity. Enokizu's husbandhood, fatherhood, various attempts at establishing a career, series of tumbles into petty crime, or nearly frantic attempts to find either romantic love or erotic satisfaction (or both) don't explain his descent into murder any better than the religious background of his family. They are merely ways for Imamura to show that societal roles cannot provide meaning or fulfillment when the society itself is defeated, stripped of its tradition, and struggling to invent itself anew.
In keeping with the theme and substance of his story, Imamura's camera is raw and brutal. Copious amounts of handheld camerwork endow the picture with a documentary quality. Everything Imamura shows us has visceral immediacy. The world of Vengeance Is Mine is so ugly, it's beautiful. The rugged, naturalistic framing of characters in the gritty world of the working classes in 1960s Japan is offset by the elegance of Imamura's structuring of the narrative. Flashbacks are used aggressively to underscore theme and maximize the entertainment value of a relatively straight-forward plot. Imamura prods his story towards a startling and disturbing climax that manages to delivery closure even though it offers no simple explanations for Enokizu's behavior.
Criterion's edition of Vengeance Is Mine is a beauty to behold. The image is several orders of magnitude superior to North American VHS releases of the flick. The presentation is 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer—sourced from a 35mm low-contrast print struck from the original camera negative—is smooth and detailed with accurate flesh tones and deep shadows. Digital restoration has left little in the way of nicks, scratches, or other flaws. A fine layer of grain will make you believe you're looking at celluloid running through a projector.
The original Japanese analog mono track has been fully restored and is presented in a single-channel mix. It sounds great.
The feature is augmented with a video interview of Imamura, shot shortly before his death. The disc also offers a teaser and trailer, both of which are lengthy, well preserved, and presented in anamorphically-enhanced widescreen.
A 32-page insert booklet contains a brief statement about the movie by Imamura (originally printed in a brochure for the movie produced by Shochiku, the studio that produced it), an academic-style essay by Village Voice critic Michael Atkinson, Toichi Nakata's lengthy interview of Imamura for the essay collection Shohei Imamura, and "My Approach to Filmmaking," a brief essay by Imamura.
It's not a huge slate of extras, but what's here is high-quality and full of substance. The absence of a commentary is the only real bummer.
Simply put, Vengeance Is Mine is one of Shohei Imamura's finest pictures. If you like The Pornographers or any of the director's other films, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
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Scales of Justice
• Video Interview with Shohei Imamura
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