An adaptation of a novel that was itself based on the true-life story of a serial killer, Shohei Imamura?s Vengeance is Mine marked the already-respected Japanese director?s return to the world of narrative filmmaking after spending nine years making nothing but documentaries. The experience shows in his resulting work: Vengeance is infused with a kind of documentary-style realism and matter-of-factness about its subject matter that was novel for its time, and is still impressive today, despite many years of blurred lines between fact and fiction in filmmaking and television. The fact that the film is also shocking, disturbing, thought-provoking, and profoundly moving, is a testament to its director, who began his career in the early 1950s as an assistant to master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, and continued making very personal films into the early 21st century, walking an independent road within the world of arthouse filmmaking until his death at age 79 last year.
Not a horror film per se, but a penetrating look into the dark heart of humanity told via the chronicle of a remorseless killer?s 78 days on the run, Vengeance is Mine is less concerned with condemning the actions of its subject than it is with reflecting back the terrifying reality that allowed him to flourish (Imamura wisely stops short of saying that society created him). Ken Ogata, probably best known in the West for his portrayal of writer Yukio Mishima in Paul Schrader?s bio-pic Mishima, stars as Iwao Enokizu, a normal-looking man in his late 30s who begins the film by brutally bludgeoning a companion to death with a mallet. Told out of order chronologically, Imamura shows us his upbringing within a Catholic family ? outcast because of their refusal to support the Emperor during the early part of World War II ? and his fractured relationship with his religiously conflicted father (played by Rentaro Mikuni, who amazingly was only 15 years Ogata?s elder, yet seems a generation older). Enokizu starts out life as a troublemaker, and after the war, turns to being a thief and con man in order to support himself. After impregnating his girlfriend, he marries her instead of going through with a proper marriage arranged by his parents; soon after, the killings that open the film occur, and his trek across Japan begins, impersonating lawyers and university professors while always looking for a weakness in the people he meets that he can exploit for monetary or sexual gain. Meanwhile, in a perverse turn of events, Iwao?s wife Kazuko (Mitsuko Baisho) moves back in with her parents-in-law and begins an affair with Iwao?s father, deepening his self-hating Catholic guilt. Meanwhile, Iwao is on the run, at one point staying several days at an inn run by a woman and her mother, both of whom he kills, despite their keeping his identity secret once they learn what he?s done. In the end, Iwao is caught but that?s hardly a spoiler ? the film shows us at its opening that it?s coming to a Dragnet-style ending with the perp being led away in handcuffs. What?s shocking, however, is the killer?s nonchalant reaction to the events around him, and his final conflict with his father, the man he blames for everything that?s wrong in his life. It?s a cold, unflinching look at the worst parts of humanity, and no one in the film escapes Imamura?s crosshairs ? there are no good guys here.
Vengeance is Mine is a refreshingly alternative style of serial killer movie, and worth watching even if you?re only a casual fan of the subgenre. While the traditional horror elements are downplayed, its character drama and twisted relationships are screwed up enough to provide the backstory for a dozen chain saw massacres. Similar to movies like 2002?s Dahmer or the 1995 HBO movie Citizen X (about prolific Russian serial murderer Andrei Chikatilo), Vengeance straddles the line between horror and intense drama, probably too uncomfortable for mainstream moviegoers but light enough on scares and gore to turn off many mainstream horror fans. But make no mistake ? the murders in the film are cold and brutal, and make you sick specifically because of their stark realism and matter-of-factness. Imamura wants to show the act in its horrifying simplicity, and strives for a realistic feel by making them seem to take forever ? you really get the idea of how difficult it is to actually kill someone.
Sporting an effective synthesizer soundtrack and beautifully-lensed 1.66:1 cinematography that takes place all over Japan, from the Hellish landscape of a hot springs town to the wild southern coast of the main island, the movie looks stupendous on the new DVD from The Criterion Collection. Extras are light, limited only to two trailers, plus a short 1999 video interview which allows the director to share his thoughts about the film with a pair of Japanese critics, including his opinions on working with actors and especially his well-heralded return to narrative filmmaking. Probably not the kind of movie to attract your average Saw fan, Vengeance is Mine will nevertheless be a welcome discovery for adventurous genre fans looking for something that they might have a difficult time getting out of their minds.