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Review: Vengeance Is Mine (1979)

Directed by: Shohei Imamura | 140 minutes | , thriller | Actors: , Mayumi Ogawa, Rentaro Mikuni, , , , , , , , , Kazuo Kitamura, , , Kazuko Shirakawa, Kazuko Tarumi Taiji Tonoyama, Sakae Umezu

Respected director Shohei Imamura, who died in , started out as an assistant to Yasujiro Ozu, and although the styles of these directors seem almost opposite – from the outside he is much more clearly a predecessor of , to whom Imamura has long been a mentor. was – in ‘Vengeance Is Mine’ one can certainly discover a preoccupation of Ozu. In fact, Ozu’s cinematic arrows focused almost exclusively on disrupted relationships within families, especially relationships between generations, and Imamura is basically doing the same in “Vengeance Is Mine.” Although initially a drama / thriller about a serial killer and no direct explanations are given for Iwao Enokizu’s (Ken Ogata) disturbed behavior, the problems Iwao has with his father ultimately seem to be the main problem.

Yet Imamura keeps the figure of Iwao elusive and indefinable and that was a daring choice at the time, all the more so because it concerns a truly existing figure. Imamura does not pass a moral judgment, he merely records, in an almost -like manner, the gruesome acts of the seemingly dispassionate murderer. The murders are not made more spectacular with cinematic means, but are approached dryly and factually, which actually makes it even more disturbing, because more realistic. The dry registration of the rest of Iwao’s life and the equal attention that there is for his different behavior means that the film is not a standard work in a specific genre. After all, in a typical crime film in which the police are looking for a serial killer, you expect a certain build-up of tension, which, however, seems absent in “Vengeance Is Mine”. Sometimes Iwao simply gets an impulse to kill and then the viewer sees this act. As a viewer, you also expect the film to pay just as much attention in its structure to the murderer himself as to the agents who are chasing him, but for a long time the agents are completely forgotten and it is purely about the story of Iwao. So, even though the film is somewhat akin to Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” – not least because of the clever ways that keep Iwao out of the hands of the police – it is only part of the film.

About a third of Vengeance Is Mine are only interested in this cop-criminal structure. A second point of interest, as mentioned, is the relationship between Iwao and his father, whom he finds weak and hypocritical. As a boy, Iwao sees his father bow to the will of the Emperor by handing over his boats to him, but, no less importantly, while Iwao is in jail for defrauding, a semi-incestuous relationship appears to be taking place between his father and his wife. It’s an exciting story element that suggests some interesting development and depth in the characters. Even in this relationship, the father shows himself to be weak. He wants her, but does not dare to surrender to his desires. So he practically acts as a pimp, letting a neighbor go about his business with his daughter-in-law, while feigning innocence to his son.

However, this is not clearly a cause for Iwao’s murderous drives. He already looked down on his father, and he doesn’t seem to care very much about others, such as his wife. There is no clear turning point, not a moment when Iwao becomes enraged and his tendencies take shape. He’s a pretty numb person, who just seems to kill because he feels like it. Still. Yet his confrontations with his father are illustrative, and it seems that his father is putting his finger on the sore spot: he does not dare to kill people he really hates, but only good, innocent people. But then why can’t he kill his father? An interesting question, which may never be answered.

Iwao is not easy to put down. The lecture that he has an empty personality and that he just doesn’t care about other people is also problematized by the film. Namely, the last topic on which “Vengeance Is Mine” pays a lot of attention is Iwao’s formation of, in fact, a new with a bunch of female inn workers – the hooker Haru Asano and her mother Hisano. At first he ends up here to go into hiding, but at some point he seems to have built something that is reminiscent of a loving relationship. He not only has sex with Haro, but also goes to the cinema. Even when she discovers a news item in that cinema that he’s a murderer, she wants to stay with him. He doesn’t get violent when she starts crying and beats him in the street after this discovery. And when the inn owner rapes her a little later at the inn, her mother has to stop him from throwing the man by the knife. In short, he seems to really care about her and he has a special relationship with her mother.

But of course this would again be too easy a characterization. Because soon actions follow that also complicate this interpretation. Just when you think you can grab hold of the man, or Imamura’s intention, he slips away again. This is both frustrating and fascinating. It turns “Vengeance Is Mine” into an aimless and loose cannon as well as an infinite analysis object. The ending is strange and surreal, working with suddenly inserted static, “freezing” film images – but seems to want to communicate an important message. One that has to do with the inevitable presence of elusive elements and evil actions. Imamura seems to want to appeal to society and encourage discussion and critical consideration. As such, “Vengeance Is Mine” is an impressive and tantalizing piece of art, although the film may be a difficult, uncomfortable sit when compared to conventional genre works.

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