VENGEANCE IS MINE
This much acclaimed, multi
award-winning Japanese drama from 1979 can be viewed as the
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A
SERIAL KILLER of the seventies. It’s also, in my eyes at least, one of the most
overrated films of all time. Not that it isn’t effective in spots, but it’s
also incredibly labored, unfocused and long-winded.
According to many pundits, the veteran filmmaker Shohei Imamura is “the
leading figure of post-war Japanese cinema.” In direct contrast to mainstream
Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa (Imamura’s foremost rival), Imamura was
often drawn to sordid subject matter in films like THE INSECT WOMAN (NIPPON
KONCHUKI; 1963), THE PORNOGRAPHERS (JINRUIGAKU NYUMON; 1966) and THE EEL (UNAGI;
1997). VENGEANCE IS MINE (FUKUSHU SURU WA WARE NI ARI; 1979) is widely
considered one of Imamura’s most “shocking” works. It was his premiere feature
after a lengthy sojourn making documentaries and is widely considered one of his
finest works--indeed, many critics have voted it the finest Japanese film
of the 1970’s.
Obviously I disagree with that sentiment. For that matter, I find
Imamura’s films in general to be hopelessly overrated. Certainly he deserves
credit for his radical (by mainstream Japanese standards, at least) choice of
subjects, but all the Imamura films I’ve seen tend to be pretentious and
melodramatic, the present one included. However, as outlined above, just about
everyone else appears to disagree. Am I missing something?
Iwao Enokizu is a (seemingly) emotionless serial killer who is apprehended
by authorities amidst a storm of public scrutiny. Enokizu is interrogated by
police inspectors, who find themselves unnerved at how matter of factly he
recounts his crimes. They also track down his father and former lady friends,
who fill in the gaps of his reminiscence.
It seems that Enokizu was a problem child from the start, and graduated to
petty crime when he became a young man. After a stint in jail, he was shocked
to arrive home and find his wife, the product of an arranged marriage, engaged
in a relationship with his father. Enokizu then embarked upon a 78-day spree of
murder (most of which occurs off-screen) and crime. He eventually shacked up
with a naïve young woman and her elderly mother--needless to add, neither lasted
long. He was eventually turned in on his way to a pawn shop to sell his
deceased girlfriend’s goods.
Back in the present Enokizu is sent to the gallows while his father and
ex-wife attempt to reconcile themselves to the realities of his crimes. They
toss his bones off the top of a mountain, but the apprehension remains.
What distinguishes this film from other serial killer flicks--or at least,
what distinguished it--is its steadfast refusal to condemn or even fully
explain the murderous behavior of its protagonist. Then again, anyone who’s
seen HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER or any of its innumerable imitations
won’t be too surprised; that film, after all, did everything this one does in
far less than the 142 snail-paced minutes it takes Imamura. VENGEANCE IS MINE,
in short, hasn’t dated well at all.
Of course, Imamura had extremely lofty aims, as evinced by his statement “I
think I can see the forlorn inner soul of today’s man.” He imparts quite a
few none-too-subtle points about modern Japan herein, which makes for a rambling
narrative that often loses sight of its subject (superbly played, I might add,
by Ken Ogata, the star of Paul Schrader’s MISHIMA). Imamura’s dense and complex
visual compositions are often impressive, but they tend to draw attention away
from the narrative, which is cluttered enough as it is. I’ll have to give this
film credit for being one of the first to examine, in unflinching,
non-moralistic fashion, the exploits of a serial killer...but the fact is Henry
could kick this guy’s ass any day of the week.
VENGEANCE IS MINE (FUKUSHU
SURU WA WARE NI ARI)
Shochiku Company Ltd.
Director: Shohei Imamura
Producer: Inoue Kazuo
Screenplay: Baba Maseru
(Based on a novel by Saki Ryuzo)
Cinematography: Himeda Shinsaku
Editing: Uraoka Keiichi
Ken Ogata, Mikuni Rentaro, Baisho Mitsuko, Ogawa Mayumi