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Hollywood can't be topped in technical innovation, but one often finds that meaningful genre developments occur elsewhere first. Unhindered by the Production Code, Japanese filmmakers strayed into challenging territory with their action and horror films way back in the 1950s, and their films with progressive political themes are often a decade ahead of ours.
The serial killer movie got a big lift in 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs and hasn't slowed down since, especially on television. But Shohei Imamura's Vengeance Is Mine pretty much takes the prize for a true-life film tale about a lone wolf murderer. The emotionally cold, unnerving 1979 film emphasizes the horror a maniac can create in an open, stable and trusting society. Star Ken Ogata plays a Japanese who undertook a 78-day killing spree before the cops finally tracked him down.
The movie is too clinical to be a commercial thriller and too expressive to be an objective case history. Ken Ogata plays Iwao Enokizu, whose almost random murder spree begins with the brutal stabbing of a truck driver. But the police investigation format drops away when Imamura suddenly jumps to scenes from the past. A wild, troublemaking son, Enokizu is pressured into marriage so he'll 'calm down'. He instead brings home and marries a pregnant girlfriend, Kayo (Mitsuko Baisho). Flashbacks show the Enokizu family, part of Japan's Christian minority, being harassed by a navy officer in WW2. Iwao's father (Rentaro Mikuni) is forced to sell his fishing boats and opens an inn. He rails against Iwao's irresponsibility, but eventually forms a relationship with Kayo when Iwao is in prison.
Life on the run requires Iwao to adopt disguises and think on his feet. He ingratiates himself to the owners of another inn and poses as a benign science professor. Haru Asano, the unhappy innkeeper's wife (Mayumi Ogawa) falls hopelessly in love with Iwao and refuses to turn him in, even when she discovers his true identity. Her aged mother Hisano (Nijiko Kiyokawa) forms an odd bond with Iwao as well, for she once served a long prison sentence for murder.
But when it comes to killing, grandma is definitely not in Iwao's league. Enokizu takes ridiculous risks. He stabs some victims and strangles others, all to get a little more money to keep going. We see him mercilessly swindle a woman trying to get a loved one out of jail, by posing as a lawyer who bribes judges. Iwao has barely taken her money when he links up with another lawyer on a train. He murders the man, stuffs his body in a closet and squats in his house while spending his money.
Vengeance Is Mine was adapted by Masaru Baba from a novel by Ryuzo Saki. Director Imamura (The Ballad of Narayama, Black Rain) uses Iwao Enokizu's murder spree to show a morally corrupted Japan, where twisted sexual situations seem to be the norm. Iwao's devout father gives into Kayo's sexual needs but refuses to marry her, as he is too old for her. When Haru's faithless husband has no girlfriend available, he rapes his wife. Hisano enjoys a vicarious sex life by peeping at other couples at the inn. The film's frequent sex scenes indicate a close relationship between sex and killing: Iwao seems content only when he's in control of other people.
The film gives no specific answer as to why Enokizu has become filled with so much hate for the world. The childhood memories of his father's persecution don't in themselves provide an adequate rationale. Iwao is alienated and contemptuous of everything he sees, especially his father's Christian teachings. The film seems to say that abusive and selfish young men like Iwao are mostly tolerated, while women are trapped in confining roles. The inn where Iwao hides out regularly hires prostitutes to entertain the guests. One of them recognizes Enokizu when his pictures flashes on the television, but balks at turning him in because of her shady profession. Iwao takes Haru to see a violent Russian war movie, and a public service announcement in the theater shows his face to the entire audience. From then on it's only a matter of time before the cops track him down.
Vengeance Is Mine is a disturbingly creepy true-crime story -- it's scary when one realizes how easy it can be for the right psychopath to avoid capture. It avoids the grandiose pseudo-psychology and mysticism that clog much of today's serial killer subgenre. In the just-the-facts framing story, Iwao's captors discover little about his motivation for killing. Iwao behaves as if he never really needed a reason to kill. Director Imamura aims at a wider social statement about Japan's changing values. The many scenes set in cluttered modern inns contrast with the calm, classical cinema of masters like Yasujiro Ozu, and in themselves seem a comment on the moral corruption of Japan.
In a note totally out of keeping with the serious nature of Vengeance Is Mine, one of the lead detectives pursuing the killer is Frankie Sakai, one of the lovable characters from Ishiro Honda's 1961 Mothra. He's very good.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Vengeance Is Mine is an excellent HD transfer of this visually rich drama -- the moody cinematography presents the Japanese landscape as rainy, overcast and cold. Criterion has had this show for a long time; a laserdisc set from the early 1990s sported a disturbing full-color cover of Ken Ogata sitting calmly before a presumably dead naked woman.
This month Criterion is changing back from its Dual Format policy; all releases will now appear as separate Blu-rays and DVDs. The disc extras have been repurposed from an earlier (2007) DVD. Director Imamura discusses his career in an interview before the Directors Guild of Japan. The insert booklet contains critic Michael Atkinson's essay, in which he aligns director Imamura with 'sardonic objectivists' like Fritz Lang and Claude Chabrol. Imamura is interviewed in print and writes about his film as well.
The original trailer shows Shochiku's unusual promotional approach for its 'shocking' movie. Disc producers Kim Hendrickson and Alexandre Mabilon put a crime map on the back cover of the fat insert booklet, showing the real Iwao Enokizu's various movements and killings by date and location.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Vengeance Is Mine Blu-ray
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.