Shohei Imamura’s seminal 1979 film “Vengeance is Mine” (fukushū suru wa ware ni ari) is a fictionalised account of a true crime story based on a novel by Ryuso Saki and on Imamura’s own research. Its starting point is a seventy-eight day crime spree, spanning the length of Japan, which was embarked upon by serial killer and petty fraudster Akira Nishiguchi (renamed Iwao Enokizu in both novel and film), while on the run for the double murder of two of his work colleagues in 1963. From this simple premise, Imamura crafts an astonishing and disturbing portrait of the marginalised underbelly of Japanese society. An initial gritty, reportage style, which sees the film start at the end -- with Enokizu (Ken Ogata) finally being picked up and escorted to his first police interview by the detectives who have been hunting him for two-and-a-half months -- then cuts back to, first of all, the discovery of the bodies of his first two victims in a field on the industrial outskirts of a minor city, and then back further to Enokizu carrying out the actual murders themselves. Imamura’s technique in the opening ten minutes here, seems to suggest a pseudo-documentary approach is to be pursued: the police investigations of the crime scenes are even accompanied by on-screen captions detailing the names of the victims, the time of their deaths and the injuries they sustained, as well as the causes of their deaths; this was Shohei Imamura’s first fiction film for ten years, after a bad experience on the big-budget “Profound Desires of the Gods” led to him abandoning fictional cinema for the documentary form. So at first glance, the director seems to be taking a strictly orthodox approach and employing the ’reconstruction of events’ narrative form alongside a documentary-style visual aesthetic which utilises the camera as detached observer of events – especially in its capture of the extremely bloody and brutal first killings themselves. But this proves misleading, for gradually, as the film unfolds further, it becomes apparent that a free association structure, which, to a large extent mimics the human mind’s capacity to flit from subject to subject and between events often separated by vast tracts of time, is consciously being deployed -- creating a dream-like feeling in spite of the films earthy, muted tones and the use of hand-held camera alongside an ‘observational’ approach that often sees the camera being placed outside the room looking in on the scenes as they’re unfolding.
The film soon develops the kind of complex chronological timeframe that makes the average Quentin Tarentino screenplay seem positively linear by comparison, as we jump backwards and forwards in time to eventually encompass Imamura’s entire life, and by implication the experience of his family -- building a portrait of the changing cultural milieu in which all this takes place as we go. It’s unclear how much it all has to do with the real murderer on which the film is ostensibly based; more likely this is an impressionistic portrait, concentrating on the habitual themes and ideas of Imamura’s cinema: it certainly soon begins to dwell upon his usual obsessions, i.e., marginalised, dispossessed and abused women; and sex among the lower classes and ‘untouchables’ of Japanese society. We learn of Enokizu’s early childhood, brought up by Catholic parents on the small Japanese island of Goto, and of his increasing estrangement from his father (accompanied by an equally strong attachment to his meek but sly mother which turns this into something of an Oedipal story). Enokizu drifts into petty crime, but also marries after getting a local island girl, Kazuko (Mitsuko Baisho,) pregnant. It doesn’t last long, as Enokizu ends up in prison for various short stretches related to fraud and other crimes, but the Catholic prohibition on divorce induces his father to beg Kazuko to return, and the possible key to the entire film revolves around a very strong but repressed sexual desire that develops between the father and Enokizu’s estranged wife.
Imamura offers no definite explanation for Imamura’s crimes -- or for his bizarre flight across the country in an attempt to avoid arrest, during which time he possess as a University professor and as a lawyer, and kills three other people. The antipathy to his father and his dysfunctional, violent relationship with Kazuko (and her devotion in turn to his father) seems to have something to do with it though, with Enokizu using his innocent victims as surrogates for the one person he hates more than any other but who, for some reason, he cannot bring himself to kill, despite his complete lack of morality. The second half of the film settles down more to follow Enokizu’s relationship with a manageress of a small Inn he stays in while he’s hiding from the police dragnet. Although the time line of the movie is more conventional here, in most other respects the film is even stranger, with Imamura mixing the blackest of comedy into the brew as we discover the facts behind the twisted relationship between his new ‘love interest’ Haru (Mayumi Ogawa), her rich textile merchant benefactor (who still expects his sexual favours in return for setting her up with the Inn) and Haru’s peeping tom mother, who spies on the guests and their bedtime exploits with the prostitutes Haru supplies for her clients, from a network of spy holes in the floors and walls of the Inn. The relationship between Haru, her mother and Enokizu soon becomes as twisted and strange as that of his real family, and as the net we know will soon ensnare him begins to draw in, Enokizu’s murderous impulses spring into action once more.
The film features astonishing performances from all the leads, especially from Ken Ogata as Iwao Enokizu, for whom this was a breakthrough performance. The original Music score by Shinichirô Ikebe is an amazing reproduction of ‘70s TV cop show thriller music, which belies the initial documentary approach of Shinsaku Himeda’s cinematography, and warns us not to expect a straight exposition of events or facts. This is brought home near the end of the movie when surrealism begins to encroach on the narrative, with one character explicitly shown to be in two places at once as Enokizu prepares to commit his final murder, and in an outrageous coda to events set three years later when, even after his execution, Enokizu continues to defy all tradition, convention or family morality – his very bones refusing to comply with his father and former wife’s attempts to bring closure to their grief and thwarted desire for each other through religious ritual.
Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Blu-ray edition of “Vengeance is Mine” cannot offer a pristine, brand new-looking print, but it does present a pretty authentic representation of how a film made in 1979 should look. The blacks are occasionally a little too washed out and there is occasionally a weird ‘frozen grain’ pattern visible in semi dark scenes, but for the most part this is a pretty fair transfer, with a great deal more detail visible than has been discernable in previous DVD outings. There is a short but interesting video introduction to the film by Alex Cox included as an extra and a fantastically detailed scene-by-scene commentary analysis by film-maker and writer Tony Rayns will prove invaluable to anyone who wants to delve further into the mysteries of this film and of Shohei Imamura’s cinema in general. Japanese trailers and a 56 page glossy booklet of essays and analysis (unavailable for review) has been packaged with the disc, helping to make this a very highly recommended release.