Vengeance is Mine (Criterion) Review
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.
Rentaro Mikuni's turn as Iwao's zealous father is another highlight of the film and serves to show how father and son are a reaction to one another - one who rigid beliefs get in the way of happiness and the other who has forsaken any ethical rules simply so he can survive and prosper. Mikuni as the father trying to set things straight and denying his lust for his daughter in law is pitch perfect and the final scene between son and father is a superb two hander. The remaining cast are all fine too with the brokenness of every character compellingly portrayed with humanism, and Imamura allows their demises to almost have a sense of mercy about them as they are put beyond the traps of this world. Imamura creates a depressing picture and even cooks up some great visual metaphors for the darkness of this representation - the scene in the fish farm complete with pools of slimy eels writhing in an otherworldly brown light is like something out of Nagakawa's Jigoku rather than the hell on earth we visit here. The final moments of the film betray an end to faith and the impossibility of forgetting, and they complete a stunning finish to a near perfect film.
Vengeance is Mine is much more than a serial killer tale or a psychological portrait of a psychopath. It is a chilling statement that the world is a place of traps and iniquities, knee-deep in moral effluence and bestial need. It is a film that doesn't try to explain a killer but to describe the world that made him. Excellent stuff.
Since first seeing this film on a cheapo r3 release splitting the film across two single layer discs with woeful subtitles, there has been a fine release from Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema range which Anthony reviewed here. This release from Criterion comes with a new high definition transfer at what they claim is the original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, you will note Eureka claim this is 1.85:1 and good old IMDB has it at 1.96:1. The transfer has undergone digital restoration and I would say it does look beautiful even in the mostly dark scenes of this film. The contrast is exceptional allowing shade in the dimness of the majority of scenes and deep opacity in others such as the reveals of some of the bodies, although others have complained that it has been boosted too far. The limited range of colour in the film is rendered well and the complete lack of noticeable edge enhancement or distracting grain make this an excellent transfer. The mono Japanese audio has also been remastered and restored with no hint of distortion and very little to comment on in way of imperfection. The English subtitles are of Criterion's usual standard with a new and improved translation. I have not seen the Eureka disc but it would be an impressive feat to top the audio and video quality here, if arguments about aspect ratios are put to one side.
On the disc itself there is a trailer for the film and a similar length teaser but the main extra is a 10 minute excerpt from a longer interview for the Director's guild of Japan. The interview is very reverential and polite and Imamura is frank if measured when discussing this film. The rather restrained conversation centres on this being a return to fiction after a bad experience with The Profound Desire of the Gods which had disillusioned Imamura in terms of actors. He reports that working with Ogata and the cast here was a reassuring experience and offers measured praise for the performance alongside titbits about soaking up the local experience of the real-life case. The interview is not revealing and it is shot in a very plain fashion.
This is such a lovely transfer that the concerns over aspect ratio seem less important to me although the difference between 1.66:1 and 1.96:1 is worthy of further comment. R2 owners of Eureka's disc may feel they want to hang onto their discs for just this reason and for the commentary from Tony Rayns, but I have to say I was very happy with the AV quality here and can only recommend this release to potential buyers.