‘Vengeance Is Mine’ or — Them Dry Bones?
It starts with yellow highlights cutting through white snow and an unidentified man in the back of a car. We soon discover he is Iwao Enokizu, a serial killer captured after a 78 day manhunt across Japan. All we can sense of Enokizu is defiance.
Based on a true story that shook Japan in 1963 Shōhei Imamura’s ‘Vengeance is Mine’ (1979) details these disturbing events by means of a disrupted chronology, oscillating between Enokizu’s present, recent murderous past and volatile early youth. Yet this carefully, and deliberately, constructed timeline is less to explain Enokizu’s actions (his murders appear terrifyingly motiveless) than to comment on the undercurrents of Japanese society as Enokizu moves through them.
Sometimes the flashback transitions are obvious such as the recurring device of cutting to a speeding train as ticker-text scrolls across the screen informing us of current time, date and Enokizu’s latest actions. These are abrupt insertions as though the train is a screeching cinematic shuttlecock weaving the spatial and temporal fabric of the film, and Japan itself, together. Other times the shifts are subtle, possessing a careful flow but are no less arresting. At one point a character from one time impossibly enters a place they never were, pulling the entire movie with them into a different date and location. This structure allows the various aspects of the film to comment and inform each other, most specifically the parallels between Enokizu’s familial home and the inn he takes up in when disguised as a professor (although these are never precise parallels as that wouldn’t be messy enough for Imamura).
In fact it is Enokizu’s family who almost dominate ‘Vengeance is Mine’ as it goes on, especially his Catholic father whom Enokizu sees humiliated as a young boy by the Japanese navy. Yet this isn’t used, as it could be, to provide an explanation for Enokizu’s actions and, instead, seems to be another comment on Japan. Likewise with the father’s relationship with Enokizu’s wife which could’ve been played as an act spurring vengeful retribution but, surprisingly, isn’t (Enokizu seemingly couldn’t give a damn). Like everything Imamura does it feels more like a stripping away of the social veneer to see what’s writhing, eel-like, beneath.
So where (or what) is the vengeance of the title? After all, Enokizu’s crimes seem arbitrary and meaningless other than the provision of temporary funds. His Catholicism provides a possible source but only God can exact vengeance (now hear the word of the Lord!). Or is it his Japanese heritage where vengeful ghosts might dwell? Yet once again Imamura uses this dichotomy between Enokizu’s Western faith and Japanese ancestry to illustrate the impact of the American occupation of Japan, something Enokizu seems to embody himself (notice how he has the habit of slipping in the occasional English word in the middle of his Japanese) and could be why he has no soul.
So Enokizu’s reasons remain unclear, as messy as his initial, bloody killings. He threads his way throughout Japan revealing nothing other than the territory he is passing through. He adopts various disguises meaning we almost know LESS about him as the film moves on other than the fact he knows he has killed and must die.
‘Vengeance is Mine’ is an incredible movie packed with all of Imamura’s hallmarks — the underbelly of society, sex, Japanese identity and possible loss of it, a nonjudgmental eye, deceptively impressive compositions and, as always, a pitch black sense of humour (although this might be his least funniest movie even if it’s one of the funnier serial killers movies ever made). Ken Ogata is phenomenal as Enokizu, effortlessly fluctuating between solipsistic impassivity and brutal rage; he murders with a coldness yet explodes when he can’t find the can-opener.
The ending, as nearly always with Imamura, is as impressive as it is shocking yet the shock comes not from any form of violence but from Imamura pulling the rug of any carefully constructed “realism” brutally out from under our feet and smacking us with a slice of the impossible. To emphasise his point he repeats the shock and the second jolt is even more powerful than the first because we know it is intentional. What does it mean, apart from Imamura reminding us that for all his delving into the dirt of life that we are still in the process of watching a film? It could be the ultimate rejection, the spurning of evil from eternal rest… or it could be a last act of ultimate defiance.
In the end I think the question of vengeance is answered by the incredible quality of the film itself. This was the first fiction film Imamura had made in ten years after the commercial failure of ‘Profound Desire of The Gods’ (1968). To return with a film of this power and brilliance makes me think, in the end, the vengeance was ultimately Imamura’s.