Anthony Nield reviews the latest Masters of Cinema release, Vengeance is Mine. A searing portrait of a serial killer, this Region 2 release comes with a fine presentation and some notable extras.
“In fact, I don’t know anything about you.”
Vengeance is Mine kicks off in a fairly mundane fashion. The scene is the capture of a serial killer who’s committed a string of murders over the previous 78 days. Yet there’s no action as such, just a policeman humming in his car as he escorts the prisoner to the station. It’s an intriguing start as it allows us a long, hard look at this character without giving too much away. What is disclosed, however, is the fact that this isn’t a film to conform to our ideas as to what a serial killer movie should perhaps be no matter how much its brash, brassy score reminds us of any number of US cop thrillers being made at the same time.
Documentary is the key, director Shohei Imamura having made numerous non-fiction works for television before initialising this picture. We find ourselves continually treated to onscreen titles divulging snippets of information: dates, causes of death, amounts of money and the like. It’s a very precise approach and it succeeds in drowning out the sensationalism inherent in such a story whilst also drawing us in further. It’s as though Imamura is demanding that we pay attention to the details, and of course we duly do.
To complement this, Vengeance is Mine opts stylistically for a simple, matter-of-fact approach. The camerawork is near invisible, perhaps almost incidental in its placement. Indeed, you could almost describe it as apologetic owing to the manner in which the camera often stays outside of room, peers through windows or appears to be sitting at another table; even when Imamura goes handheld, you get the feeling that he’s doing so simply because there was no alternative.
Furthermore, it’s important that we get the film in such a way as Imamura’s structural approach is often remarkably complex. In a manner usually reserved solely for film noir and Alain Resnais, Vengeance is Mine reveals itself through a number of layers, what Tony Rayns refers to in his commentary as “lines of thought”. Thus we are witness, in some cases, to the murders themselves; the scenes after the arrest; the cops on the case; the killer’s youth and his adolescent years. On top of this we also get the bits in-between, the moments which a more mainstream director would no doubt disregard as being unimportant.
Yet they are important and imbue Vengeance is Mine with an unpredictable edge. On the one hand, we are never quite sure as to where the film is heading next. On the other, it creates a mosaic which impels us to make connections, though doing so isn’t especially easy. You claim, for example, that Imamura is offering the killer as some kind of representative of post-war Japan (in the manner of, say, Kurosawa’s Stray Dog), but then this would be too simple and, moreover, the director is being far more elusive than that. Indeed, every time we think we’ve caught hold of some clue and may be on our way to an explanation, Imamura only forces us to look deeper.
In part this is also down to a superb performance from lead actor Ken Ogata. Though initially presented as something of a blank figure, there’s an inherent charisma in Ogata which makes him utterly fascinating. Moreover, he attacks the role with a chameleon-like sensibility which only furthers the unpredictability; we’re never sure as to which side of the character we’re going to see next. Plus we have the fact that, save for the cops, he appears to exist within a near amoral universe. Those around him make for a compendium of infidelity (his wife and father, no less), prostitution, gambling and fraud – on top of which we have his own murderous impulses.
As such Vengeance is Mine doesn’t make for light viewing. Much like Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood it offers a complete immersion in the serial killer way of life, if you will. Yet the comparison isn’t wholly successful as Imamura’s film contains more killers and as a result a broader canvas. There are more gaps to fill in and as such much more for the viewer to take in. Indeed, he may try to alter the tone on occasional with the injection of some mordant wit (such as when Ogata buys a hammer – we presume it’s for his next murder, but is instead used to nail a corpse in a wardrobe), the occasional dash of irony (his mother is told by a fortune teller that he will “rise above others”) and some overtly surrealist touches (the entire coda, not least its cable car full of nuns), but we’re still left with a stark, searing character of remarkable intensity.
As we’ve come to expect from the Masters of Cinema, Vengeance is Mine comes with a fine presentation. We get the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced and a print in decent condition. Certainly, there are intermittent signs of damage, but these are negligible and hardly a distraction. Otherwise, there’s little else mention, though do note that the muted colour scheme and overall brown-ish tinge is intentional. As for the soundtrack, we get the original Japanese mono in absolutely fine condition. There’s no damage to speak of and both the score and dialogue come across equally well.
Equally noteworthy are the attendant extras. The booklet, a Masters of Cinema standard, is typically chockfull of information comprising as it does a number of essays and interviews. Tony Rayns’ commentary is even more impressive. The film critic/filmmaker opts for a scene specific approach, taking each moment in turn and discussing the various motivations (undoubtedly welcome given the many narrative layers) whilst also digressing to take in actors’ careers, cultural considerations and the like. All in all, it’s not dissimilar to the approach taken by many of the hagiographies in the BFI’s ‘Film Classics’ series of books, an aspect all the more enticing seeing as Rayns has yet to write one. Rounding off the package we have a comparatively lightweight introduction by filmmaker Alex Cox, but then this is to expected within such esteemed company.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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