Shohei Imamura's "Vengeance is Mine"

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, December 13, 2016 01:22pm | Post a Comment

Vengeance Is MineBy Nazeeh Alghazawneh

At least once a month an elderly woman approaches me and tells me that I remind her of her son, either in the way that I look or because of my demeanor or simply because of my age. They’re very sweet and a little bit sad but most of all, full of nostalgia, which is always more sweet than sad until you think about it too much. They love to tell me about them. These mothers love to tell me about the love they have for their sons - an unconditional, boundless love that’s familiar and intimate at the same time but mostly uncomfortable. However, I nod my head and I listen because a heart is speaking to me and that’s the best thing about mothers: they always speak with their hearts.

It’s 1979 and Japanese New Wave director Shohei Imamura releases his first feature-length fiction film, Vengeance is Mine (available on DVD and Blu-ray), after a decade of making documentaries. For 140 minutes we’re introduced to Iwao Enokizu (played by Ken Ogata), a textbook sociopath with a penchant for murdering innocent people for reasons he couldn’t explain. Based on the real life serial killer Akira Nishiguchi, the film depicts the 78-day killing spree with faithful objectivity; Enokizu’s exploits aren’t glorified or celebrated, but they are fully realized. Imamura’s camera hangs low and aloof behind our protagonist, following him with that lecherous sense of dread and paranoia that a hunted murderer on the run probably feels. Ogata’s performance finesses a presence on the screen that is volatile, dripping with an anxiety that ultimately makes you feel uneasy, but dedicated to him nonetheless. The worst part is just how charming he is. It’s a concoction of Kit’s (Martin Sheen) aimless nonchalance from Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Bronson’s (Tom Hardy) gleeful desire for violence from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson. Enokizu lacks any regard for anyone in his life, including himself, which appears to fuel his desire to kill; he seems to be angry that he’s even alive.

Imamura presents the film in a nonlinear fashion through a series of flashbacks that go as far back as Vengence is MineEnokizu’s childhood, in which his father cowardly gives up their land without any resistance. At that point resentment towards his father washes over Enokizu and we realize that he’s always been the way he is. That’s why it’s so crucial that the film begins with Enokizu’s capture, because there are no surprises as to who he is on a fundamental level. He uses whatever is at his disposal to manipulate the people in his life such as his Catholic upbringing to guilt his wife into never divorcing him even though he constantly emotionally tortures her, or the fact that his mother never ceases to give him money despite all of the evil her son has committed. As a consistently controversial figure of Japan at the time, Imamura always used his medium of film to expose what was wrong with his culture and society. Whether it’s the hypocrisy of organized religion or the fact that women were casually allowed to be sexually assaulted by men, Enokizu’s lack of a conscience in the film is the perfect vehicle for Imamura’s perspective; Enokizu was never supposed to get as far as he did, however he was allowed to because everyone around him gave him several second chances despite his sociopathic behavior. What’s even more unsettling and astute is that these events were real, so the director’s basis for how he feels is warranted whether you agree with him or not.

Shohei Imamura
Shohei Imamura

I get the sense that in the end Enokizu understood and accepted that his capture was inevitable. Innocent people were murdered, so of course someone must be held responsible and punished. However, it’s arguable that his worst crime is the lack of a motive for murdering these people, a reason for it all. The curiosity of what drives a man to needlessly destroy, left unanswered, leaves viewers and the families of the victims at the time in an almost perpetual state of confusion -- “Why me? Why did it have to be my family member?” Like Enokizu, it’s the type of film that refuses to explain itself; instead you’re just left there with your own thoughts, wondering why people are who they are.

Relevant Tags

Film (184), Criterion (13), Japanese Cinema (7), Japan (42), Shohei Imamura (1), Nazeeh Alghazawneh (2), Akira Nishiguchi (1), Serial Killers (2), Ken Ogata (1), Asian Cinema (15)