Vengeance Is Mine first published by EyeforFilm, 29 Oct 2005
Shohei Imamura worked his apprenticeship as an assistant to the great Yasujiro Ozu on Early Summer (1951), The Flavour Of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) and Tokyo Story (1953), but the younger director despised the stately middle-class classicism of his mentor, preferring his own films to be “messy”. This aesthetic, characteristic of the so-called Japanese New Wave, is still clearly evident in a film as late as Vengeance Is Mine (1979), a fictionalised account of a real-life one-man crime spree across Japan in the early Sixties.
The film is far less concerned with bourgeois manners than with a marginalised demi-monde of strippers, gamblers, prostitutes, panderers and stone-cold killers. It is a morality piece which, like its principal character, has no discernible moral core – and if its wild leaps in chronology are not confounding enough, there are also occasional touches of irrationality that threaten to bring the whole structure tumbling down. In short, this film is as messy as murder itself.
Vengeance Is Mine was the first feature that Imamura had made in more than a decade, after the hellishly over-long and over-budget Profound Desire Of The Gods (1968). In the intervening years he had worked on a number of documentary series for Japanese television and the experience gained from this was profoundly to inform Vengeance Is Mine, which was not only based on the 78-day manhunt for an actual swindler/murderer, but is frequently punctuated by the kind of handheld camerawork and expository captions that are associated with documentaries.
However, this is no documentary, as is signaled from the start by Shotaro Yoshida’s brassy soundtrack, straight out of a conventional noir thriller. The killer’s real name, Akira Nishiguchi, has been changed to Iwao Enokizu (as it was in Ryuzo Saki‘s biographical novel from which the screenplay has been adapted), and, more importantly, Imamura has made it impossible to tease apart objective facts from far more subjective details. For this is a highly unreliable narrative, purporting to derive from the testimony of a skilled con artist and impostor, interspersing reportage with dreamy visions, fantasies and premonitions, including a scene where the killer’s mother appears in the same house where he is about to commit murder again, even though she is, in fact, in a different part of Japan altogether.
The film begins in January 1964 with the arrest of Iwao (played with mesmerising intensity by Ken Ogata) and then weaves together multiple flashbacks that not only follow the last three months of Iwao’s outlaw escapades and police investigation, but also go right back to his childhood. What emerges is an Oedipal tale of two contrasting, but equally dysfunctional, families.
Iwao’s rebellious delinquency begins when, as a child, he witnesses the refusal of his devoutly Catholic father (Rentaro Mikuni) to stand up to humiliating and discriminatory treatment from the Imperial Navy and is only worsened later when he sees (or, at least, imagines) a repressed passion developing between his father and his own neglected wife (Mitsuko Baisho). Unlike his hated parent, however, Iwao has no compunction about acting on his urges and, while on the run for a series of crimes, finds temporary sanctuary with a downtrodden innkeeper-cum-madame (Mayumi Ogawa) and her homicidal old mother (Nijiko Kiyokawa), where for a while it looks as though he may have found his ideal family unit.
Vengeance Is Mine is a compelling portrait of a sociopath, a figure who endlessly fascinates without ever managing to attract our sympathies. It also depicts the changing face of post-war Japan in a manner that is highly arresting. With the approach of 1964’s Tokyo Olympics, an event that came to symbolise the arrival of modernisation in Japan, forming the film’s explicit backdrop, we see a man of self-made rootlessness, who has turned his back on the three mainstays of authority in traditional Japanese society – the Emperor, the father and religion. Iwao’s ready adoption of disguises, rejection of the established order and mocking contempt for the values of restraint exercised by his father, all reflect a new Japan whose fugitive identity is as unstable as it is hard to stop. As Iwao criss-crosses the country in search of a freedom he knows he will never attain, he is also mapping out the darker corners of a nation in transition and unwilling to confront its past directly.
Bold and intense, Vengeance Is Mine makes a welcome antidote to the cliches of the Hollywood serial killer genre.
strap: Shohei Imamura’s disruptive docudrama uses the true story of a serial killer to show the darker side of Japan’s modernisation