Vengeance Is Mine Review
The 1979 film Vengeance Is Mine, Shohei Imamura's only fictional feature of that decade, served as something of a relaunching of the director's career after he'd been happily slumming on his versions of documentaries since the commercial failure and psychological fatigue of 1968's Profound Desires of the Gods. The Palme d'or-winning Ballad of Narayama followed, as did both Black Rain and another Cannes honoree The Eel. The documentary work has a solid reputation, and it would be a major gift to have those projects available for English-speaking home viewers as soon as possible, but I tend to see Imamura's strengths more in blending nonfiction sensibilities into fiction than vice versa. In this regard, Vengeance Is Mine is something of an apex. It bridges Imamura's Japanese New Wave films of the sixties with his later efforts, and it does so with a brilliant mix of seething vulgarity and the director's characteristic insistence on seemingly holding up a mirror to the events portrayed while letting each individual viewer fend for himself.
Of course, in truth, Imamura isn't holding up a mirror and he never did. His filmmaking was only objective in a relative sense. The blurring of fact and fiction in his A Man Vanishes is as indicative of the futility of ever truly showing reality on film as perhaps anything that's been made. Vengeance Is Mine neither promises an accurate, fly-on-the-wall account of a serial killer's 78 days of evading the police nor does it pretend to care about real life criminal activity and banal suspense. Imamura doesn't even bother to show most of the protagonist's murders. The first and second killings are put on display but, beyond that, it's as if there's no further need to continue with such uninteresting formalities. What is Imamura concerned with, then? Maybe the mysteries of motive that seem to afflict so many sociopaths. Just as persuasively, though, the director presents a lingering attack on the hypocrisy of Catholicism and, as ever in his films, the unhealthy influence of Western culture on Japan. Yasujiro Ozu, a director Imamura apprenticed under in the early 1950s, is often considered to be Japan's preeminent chronicler of the importance of everyday minutiae in the country but I'd actually put Imamura in a special place as the most fervent defender of Japanese heritage and tradition from outside interference. It's perhaps more subtle in Vengeance Is Mine but you can still see American soldiers whooping and hollering for no good reason in a flashback to protagonist Iwao Enokizu's (Ken Ogata) time spent alongside them after the war.
Flashbacks essentially comprise almost the entirety of Vengeance Is Mine, and in what can be a maddeningly complicated manner for the viewer. Imamura begins the film in early January of 1964, with Enokizu having finally been captured after an arduous manhunt. The majority of what follows occurred previously, though even in this context it's all presented in a nonlinear fashion. Iwao Enokizu killed five people. His victims are a mixed bag, certainly not deserving of death by any logical stretch of the imagination but nonetheless all lacking in sympathy. The catalog includes a drunk and his self-righteous co-worker, a lawyer, and a convicted killer mother who watches her daughter be raped. The fifth is the daughter, seemingly killed by Enokizu as a means of denying himself someone who might love him despite his criminal tendencies and as a way to prevent their unborn child the opportunity to attain life. Imamura also shows an incident from Enokizu's childhood where his father, a Christian, relents to the intruding men attempting to take his boat in the name of Japan. The relationship between father and son remains tenuous at best. Adding further complication is Enokizu's wife, who seems to retain some sense of obligation to her husband but has clearly transferred all of her feelings in the direction of his father. A scene between the father and his daughter-in-law at a steam bath cranks up the eroticism for arguably the only time in the entire film and also, along with a later incident between Enokizu's wife and a wonky suitor, provides the most obvious hints at the familiar occurrence of incest in the picture.
It's essential to point out the depths of Imamura's ambivalence toward his protagonist. Since he's such a focal point of the picture, and shown doing more than simply mechanically murdering his victims, Enokizu occupies a place beyond the single dimensionality of a sociopath. That's what he is, absolutely, but Imamura, without trying to really explain the reasons, presents his protagonist as someone who's resourceful and charming when need be but still devoid of any actual redeeming, or even human, qualities. Enokizu is strangely amorphous. He assumes backstories without finding the need to change his name. Still, look for how coldly Imamura grants Enokizu's proclivities. The murder of the lawyer is a bold act that registers as much for its strangeness as it does for the depravity it confirms. And how does Imamura show it? By skipping past the act in favor of having the lifeless victim make an appearance as a dresser door creeps open. Enokizu enjoys a meal absent any emotion.
Again, at some point, either during a quick adoptee's first watch or in the course of further viewings, the question has to arise as to what exactly Imamura was trying to convey with Vengeance Is Mine. It's fair to beg for more from the film despite no obvious indicators that additional substance was intended. Where I seem to settle is with counting Vengeance Is Mine as an obstacle to humanity. The character of Iwao Enokizu exists as an obstruction who very well could be necessary. The ultimate verdict is apparently rendered with the enigmatic final sequence where Enokizu's wife and father attempt to dispose of his bones with little success. It appears that nature has rejected such an offering, suspending the remnants in a state of frozen reproach. Enokizu's actions are unforgivable. It's not that Imamura is endorsing those surrounding his protagonist - indeed, barbed comments seem to be hurled at most every turn and those closest to him are hardly excluded - but, at the same time, there remains a healthy skepticism that's very much characteristic of the director.
Unlike his work before or after, Imamura's treatment of Vengeance Is Mine is chilly all around. It offers no real empathy while presenting nothing positive to cling to either. The film is boldly uncompromising in that regard. It's not difficult to assign labels to Imamura's films that encompass everything from clinical and observant to steady and ambitious. The list goes on. Regardless, what Imamura did with this particular picture remains as impressive as anything he ever crafted. There's a slight point of view but it's well-hidden and refuses to hint at ideas regarding the larger motives. I'm not sure Imamura much cared about those rationalities. He seemed less concerned with why people acted as they did than the subsequent, immediate consequences of their actions. Enokizu, particularly as embodied in a downright frightening performance by Ogata, is surely Imamura's most striking male protagonist in a career that often saw his focus turn to strong female heroines. The character comes across as overly charming and much too adept at blending in to society when not defying its rules. Like the film when untangled, he's deceptively straightforward. What's shown seems clear on the surface but impenetrable underneath it all.
The Masters of Cinema Series first brought Vengeance Is Mine to DVD five years ago, in 2005. Time moves swiftly but it's still difficult to believe it was that long ago that the film became the first of Imamura's back catalog to be available in the UK. (That disc will not be pressed again, so when current stock is exhausted the title will no longer be available in standard definition.) The Criterion Collection subsequently issued its own DVD release (with a much different color palette). This dual-layered MoC Blu-ray is restricted to players capable of handling Region B discs.
What was strange about the Masters of Cinema DVD versus the one from Criterion was how wildly the two varied in the shades and hues of the film. The former had a somewhat unattractive, if not inappropriate, affinity for greens and yellows while the latter was suspiciously bright and vibrant. Neither was probably ideal. I don't exactly know what happened in the meantime but the MoC 1080p HD encode has found a seemingly happy medium that retains an overall dark and grimy look while still brightening it up in comparison to the DVD. A prominent layer of grain does remain, particularly in the frequent interior scenes where light is at a premium. Compared to the recent Blu-ray of Imamura's Profound Desires of the Gods, this effort uses less eye-popping colors and doesn't have that same level of detail. Still, it appears to be a faithful rendering that improves on both of the DVD editions I've mentioned. MoC puts the film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio while Criterion had it at 1.66:1. Both claim to be in the "original aspect ratio."
Japanese language audio is presented in a two-channel DTS-HD track. There's a well-sculpted score by Shinichiro Ikebe that needs a strong audio track to be fully appreciated and this disc seems to capture the subtleties and more overt insinuations of Ikebe's work without issue. It also picks up dialogue fine and at a consistent volume. The lossless audio makes for a good listen overall, though one lacking in any hint of flashiness. English subtitles are optional, white in color.
The extra features repeat Tony Rayns' commentary and Alex Cox's introduction (6:36) from the DVD release. Also carried over are the film's original Japanese trailer and teaser. The Rayns commentary serves as a much-needed guide through what can be a difficult film to navigate. It's of particular interest when Rayns shares direct comments given by Imamura at the time of the 1994 Edinburgh Film Festival. Much of the other information shared in the commentary has been repeated over and over again by other sources before and since, to the point where it might be best appreciated by those lacking a basic familiarity with the director's life and work. Some things about Imamura are so fascinating as to be irresistible to mention when discussing him - and, to be fair, this remains the only English language commentary on an Imamura film available anywhere - but Rayns' commentary nonetheless strikes a lot of the same basic points that can be read and heard elsewhere.
The thick, 56-page booklet differs in content from the MoC booklet included with the DVD. Gone are written pieces by Jasper Sharp and Alastair Phillips (ones that served as fine, less time-consuming alternatives to Rayns' commentary). Now there's a career-spanning interview Imamura gave in 1994, also at the time of the Edinburgh Film Festival. It's a great read, but should be familiar to those who already own Criterion's DVD since the included booklet there has that interview, as well as reprints of Imamura's director's statement and another blurb from the promotional material that MoC provided here. Eureka's version does have those last pieces in their original context via scanned copies.
This was my own introduction to the work of Shohei Imamura a few years ago, and it felt a little like being thrown into the fire without the proper equipment. Attending a local retrospective of the director's films soon afterward confirmed a deep affinity and connection I feel for Imamura. I don't think that means Vengeance Is Mine is in any way a bad place to start or continue with this most fascinating of Japanese filmmakers of his generation, but the main point is to not let a potentially confusing first watch prevent future exploration of Imamura's work. Further from that, I'd urge some additional consideration beyond the somewhat limited information and analysis available on his pictures. Much of it tends to be repetitive and consisting largely of establishing qualities that only get you so far down a road that I tend to see as much more interesting than simply basic observations. As for the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release, it's predictably a gem and really only gives me reason for pause by omitting the two written pieces that had been included in the earlier DVD booklet (though I should add that Jasper Sharp's essay can be found on the MoC website). I suspect that the MoC DVD release may have elevated Imamura's name a bit and established admirers other than myself, and I'd only hope that high definition follow-ups like this will continue to keep him at the forefront of the conversation on Japanese cinema.