A seemingly straightforward serial killer on-the-run story sees Imamura deliver a devilishly clever examination of the complexities of human nature.
Dir. Shohei Imamura
1979 | Japan | Crime/Drama | 140 mins | 1.66: 1 | Japanese
Not rated (likely to be R21 for sexual scenes, nudity and strong violence)
Cast: Ken Ogata, Rentaro Mikuni, Chocho Miyako
Plot: Iwao Enokizu is a middle-aged man who has an unexplainable urge to commit violent murders. He is chased by the police all over Japan, but somehow he always manages to escape.
Awards: Official Selection (Venice)
Subject Matter: Disturbing/Mature
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on Criterion Blu-ray)
After detouring into documentary filmmaking for the bulk of the 1970s, particularly unearthing stories related to WWII, Shohei Imamura returned to fiction filmmaking in 1979 with Vengeance Is Mine, a rather extraordinary film about a serial killer on the run. To say that it is entirely fictional is a misnomer, as Imamura, famous for his extensive research during pre-production, took the facts of a real case in Japan and fashioned them into a ‘based on a true story’-type movie.
According to those who knew him, Imamura was a filmmaker who prized deep research into his subject of interest, famously asserting his fascination with humans and their natures. Hence, it is not surprising that the story of a psychologically-complex serial killer, Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), would catch his eye. (The real killer’s name was Akira Nishiguchi.)
“You can only kill those who never harmed you.”
Ogata is sensational here, with his everyday middle-class look disguising a truly psychotic man. After inconceivably bludgeoning and stabbing several separate men with hammers and knives respectively, his character tries to evade the law for as long as he can. You get a sense that he knows the inevitability of justice catching up with him one day, but he wants to enjoy his ‘freedom’ while it lasts.
The film sees Iwao impersonate a university professor as he seeks refuge in a quaint inn in a quiet neighbourhood. This entire sequence, which makes up a huge part of the film, is an intriguing psychosexual take on violence and pleasure.
Much of Vengeance Is Mine is, however, intercut with other threads, including an equally important one about Iwao’s family. There are also jumps back in time—the film’s non-linearity may confuse the uninitiated viewer. But taken as a whole, its unconventional structure remains compelling inasmuch as its ‘protagonist’ is interesting.
A winner of six Japanese Academy Awards, including Best Film and Best Director.
Apart from the dialectics of violence and pleasure, another key theme of Imamura’s work here is that of religion, specifically Catholicism. Iwao’s seemingly pious Catholic father has to control his feelings toward Iwao’s wife, who similarly desires him. A fairly sensual scene in a hot spring that nearly spills into the erotic could attest to that.
Vengeance Is Mine is a devilishly clever crime-thriller, examining the complexities of human nature through ‘acts’—the explicit ones involving sex and violence, and the implicit ones involving masquerades. The sensational epilogue will raise your eyebrows.