Vengeance is Mine (Criterion) Review

The Film

The crux of Shohei Imamura's serial killer movie is not the pain caused by its sociopathic lead, but the unrelenting postwar misery that gave birth to him. All around the central story, misery cuts a swathe across Japanese lives. Human beings' potential is ruined by events beyond their control which act to trap them in their miserable lives whilst the opportunities of fate mock them. From the Christian father brought to his knees by the imperial decree to give up his fishing boat for a war he doesn't believe in, to the old woman disgraced by killing a bully in her youth, to her procuress daughter who is forced into her profession because of the shame brought by her mother, there is not a great deal of happiness on show in Imamura's film even before Iwao Enokizu creates his carnage. The film piles humiliation upon ignominy upon disgrace on all of its characters, and their respectively shady lives are wholly understandable survival responses to the fates they endure. The film's title is a dark atheistic comment on these shells of human beings and the ravages of fortune.

Starting with Iwao's arrest after 76 days on the run after his first theft and double murder, we are introduced to this brittle monster who has destroyed everyone around him because of the hatred he feels for his own existence. Flipping back and forth in time we are introduced to Iwao and the people he has murdered and used as well as the uptight religious upbringing he has rebelled against. We see him bloodily trick two truck drivers, killing one incompetently with a mallet and stabbing the other using a cut price knife whilst he makes off with the takings. We see him humiliated as a child by his father's turning the other cheek, rebelling as an adolescent, getting a girl pregnant and getting jailed whilst she brings the kids up with his father. Blackmail, frustrated passions between father in law and daughter in law, and his final act of madness lead Iwao to go on the run. He tries to fake his suicide and to hide out in Tokyo whilst seducing a low-rent hotelier and stealing to make his way. Zoning in on the vulnerable in his con tricks Iwao survives by murder and perfidy until his identity is properly rumbled by the loving procuress and her peeping mother. All the while the police close in and his deeds are intercut with scenes from his prison cell with his poisonous pride still intact. Vengeance is Mine ends at the beginning and regardless of Iwao's cruelty shows the world that spawned him as just as harsh.

Imamura catches the air of desperation in the lives of his characters and benefits from a committed cast where the actors concentrate on making their roles real rather than meaningful or showy. Ken Ogata as Iwao conveys spurned energy and demonic resignation with his killer doing anything he needs to survive and even more than he understands. When he is asked about two of his final murders he admits he doesn't know why he did them before adding that it was actually three as his lover was pregnant. His lack of qualm or common affection is spectacularly cold as another human being is simply extinguished so he can liquidate their assets and get a little money to escape again. Ogata's performance reminds me of the rebelliousness of Bunta Sugawara in Fukasaku's films and Tatsuya Nakadai's chilling psychopath in Sword of Doom and it is the equal of both those talents. There is one particularly brilliant sequence where the banality of his evil hits home after a scamming Iwao shares a cab with a lawyer only to win over the lonely old man on the train. When we next see this gentle old gent he is revealed as a cupboard door opens in his own apartment as Iwao feasts at the old man's table and the former occupier is seen crumpled, bent over and very much dead in the cupboard.