Arguably one of the most influential Japanese films of the 1970s, Shohei Imamura's Vengeance Is Mine is a cold, cynical and at times rather disturbing look at a psychotic criminal's downward spiral.
The story follows a man named Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) who, when we first meet him, has been arrested. Through a series of flashbacks we learn how his relationship with his father, Shizou (Mitsuko Baisho), soured and subsequently how that affected him in his younger days. From there, his crime spree begins. At the end of the Second World War he steals a Jeep from some American G.I.'s, and when he's captured he winds up in jail. When he's let out, he has to deal with his wife, and when Iwao kills two men that he works with, it all starts to go downhill fast. The cops are after him but he's not interested in stopping, instead he uses everyone around him and hides out in a small hotel. Though Iwao is in hiding, he continues to kill and to steal, and all the while the authorities close in on him.
Shohei Imamura directs the film in a sort of loose documentary style and it's not a stretch to see how this film could have influenced more modern, avant-garde fare such as Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer or Man Bites Dog. By placing a madman as the central character of the story and focusing on his actions rather than those of the police out to apprehend him, we are almost forced to root for the bad guy here. Obviously Iwao is a despicable man, a worthless human being who takes advantage of everyone around him, but the film makes us care for him in a twisted sort of way. We don't get a lot of background information on him or why he does what he does, just a few snippets about his father's cowardice during the occupation, and that's probably the film's weakest point - but Ogata completely sells himself in the part. Sure, he's a bastard, but he's slick and clever and even rather charming when it suits his interests and because of this we can see how his victims are pulled in and as such, he's even all the more frightening.
In terms of style, the film uses some frantic camera work to capture some of the more intense scenes in a method not unlike the handheld camera movements that Kinji Fukasaku made famous in many of his Yakuza films from the same decade. With that said, the camera does a great job of capturing the intensity of a few key scenes as well as relaying the more subdued side of Iwao and the people he affects.
Not for the faint of heart, the film is exceptionally dark (though not without humor) and some of the scenes of sexual violence could still be considered quite strong. One the opposite side of that coin is the fact that the movie is so well made and so well directed that it doesn't feel exploitative or unnecessary, rather, it's completely in keeping with Iwao's character. Even if we don't know why he does what he does, he's still a darkly fascinating character who proves that, like it or not, actions still speak louder than words.
Criterion presents Vengeance Is Mine in a very nice 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Like a lot of older Japanese films, the color scheme for the movie isn't exactly eye-popping, but Criterion's transfer does justice to the hues that the film does make use of. There's obviously been some effort put into cleaning up the image as there's virtually no print damage to complain about and only a very natural looking coat of light grain can be seen. Mpeg compression artifacts are never a problem nor is heavy edge enhancement. Skin tones look lifelike and natural and aside from a couple of darker scenes, detail levels are quite strong in both the foreground and the background of the image.
As is to be expected, Criterion presents Vengeance Is Mine in it's original Japanese language mono mix with optional subtitles available in English and English only. There's a faint bit of distortion in the high end of the mix but it's extremely minor and not really distracting at all. For a forty year old film, Vengeance Is Mine sounds pretty good on this DVD. The levels are well balanced and the background music and sound effects never overshadow the dialogue at all.
The primary extra feature on this disc is an interview with director Shohei Imamura that clocks in at roughly ten-minutes in length and which was culled from a longer documentary on his career. Here Imamura discusses adopting the book that the film was based on, casting the movie, and his feelings on the finished product. He's very relaxed here, almost seeming shy at times, but it's nice to hear him discuss his work even if the piece is a little brief.
Rounding out the extra features are a pair of trailers for the film, some nice menus, chapter stops, and a thirty-two page insert booklet containing an essay on the film from the director, an interview with Imamura, and an essay from film critic Michael Atkinson. Unfortunately the commentary track that was included on the Region 2 PAL Eureka! Masters of Cinema release has not been ported over to this domestic disc.
An exceptionally well made tale of murder and one man's personal demons, Vengeance Is Mine is dark, brooding material that might put less adventurous viewers off but which will definitely appeal to fans of dark cinema. Imamura's direction is as solid as it gets and Ken Ogata's performance is impeccable. Criterion's disc is light on extras but the transfer is very nice and this disc easily comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.