Iwao Enokizu is a middle-aged man who has an unexplainable urge to commit insane and violent murders. Eventually he is chased by the police all over Japan, but somehow he always manages to escape. He meets a woman who runs a brothel. They love each other but how long can they be together?Written by
In late 1963 a serial killer and conman Akira Nishiguchi gained nationwide attention in Japan by murdering five people, several of them while on the run from the police. In the late 1970s a book based on his life inspired the master director Shôhei Imamura to use his story as the basis for a cold crime film titled Vengeance Is Mine. The film starts with the capture of the killer Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) and advances non-chronologically, depicting the detectives interviewing his family and former lovers and how Enokizu first came to know them. Particularly the muted relationship of Iwao's wife Kazuko (Mitsuko Baisho) and his Catholic father Shizuo (Rentarô Mikuni) is paid attention to, so is his stay at a brothel-like inn managed by Haru Asano (Mayumi Ogawa) and her ex-con mother Hisano (Nijiko Kiyokawa). The scenes ranging from Enokizu's childhood to his time in death row cast light on what kind of man he is, but avoid serving easy, clear-cut explanations of his inner motives.
Imamura has taken an unspectacular, down-to-earth approach to his enigmatic subject. Some techniques, such as identifying the victims' names and causes of death by subtitles, are not far from the style of documentaries. While some of Enokizu's killings take place off-screen, the depicted murder scenes are not softened by turning the camera away or fading to black, making especially the sexual violence hard to watch for sensitive viewers. Still, Vengeance Is Mine is more of a character study than a crime thriller, as in the latter parts of the film the detectives' role is diminished and the focus turned to Enokizu. He is portrayed as having been belligerent and self-confident from young age, soon blossoming into a full-blown psychopath to whom other people's feelings are of little concern, as exemplified by his cruel psychological treatment of his family. Even if Iwao's basic nature is inherent, it could be possible that the suppressed atmosphere in his parents' home has affected the way he turned out: the deeply Christian father sparks Iwao's hatred for weakness and humility, prompting him to openly mock the lack of action from the family's part when feelings develop between Kazuko and Shizuo.
Besides his twisted relationship with his family, another defining element in the film is Enokizu's stay at the inn with Haru, a mistreated woman who has to look after her unreliable mother. Imamura's portrayal of Haru is highly forlorn; to her Iwao's presence represents a possibility of freedom from her gloomy life, even when his past is no longer a secret to her. It is also during this time when the stress of being a fugitive is starting to take its toll on Enokizu; he turns from a self-confident fraudster to a more serene and openly menacing figure, an interesting change as we, the audience, already know him as cocky and carefree from the first scene that has yet to happen in the story's timeline.
The very dark lighting in the interior scenes and the slow-paced, detached storytelling will alienate those expecting a suspenseful serial killer thriller, but as a flat-out drama Vengeance Is Mine provides a fascinating trip into the world of the suave killer. Ken Ogata handles the lead role with natural charm, effortlessly fitting in the various roles Enokizu assumes over the course of the film. Rentarô Mikuni also makes a great counterforce to him as the guilt-ridden father, but especially the unlucky women Haru and Hisano are powerfully brought to life by Ogawa and Kiyokawa. The visuals are not as aesthetically striking as in Imamura's earlier masterpiece Unholy Desire (1964), but the mood is so heavily tied to the reality of Japanese society in the 1960s and 70s that the depressing mundanity of the surroundings is never out of place. The only moment rising above the strictly realistic atmosphere would be the very final scene on the top of a mountain: Enokizu's spirit will remain lingering in the lives of those around him. All in all, Vengeance is Mine should not be ignored by any enthusiast of crime cinema, but admirers of slow-burning character dramas are probably the ones to find it the most rewarding.
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