Home Video Hovel: Vengeance Is Mine, by David Bax
Shôhei Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine flaunts most of the characteristics that define it from the very first scene. We begin with a car winding along a road on a snowy night. Then we cut to inside the car, where a man in the middle of the back seat, flanked by two detectives, is singing. He stops singing and begins opining about the likelihood that he’ll be put to death for his crimes and how unfair it is that he won’t be allowed to live a full life. One of the detectives remarks that the same is true of the five people the man murdered. Unfazed, the man, whom we’ve come to learn is named Iwao Enokizu (brought to terrifying but alluring life by Ken Ogata), changes the subject. He remarks that it will be “cold in the clink.” We cut to what could be his point of view, looking through the windshield where all that we can pick out of the dark is a bit of snow falling and the taillights of the car ahead. We hear Enokizu again. “It’s gonna be damn cold in the clink.” Then the music blares and the title splashes across the screen in huge letters: VENGEANCE IS MINE.
Vengeance tells the tale of the life of Iwao Enokizu, how he got to be in that car with those detectives, and what he does immediately after. We learn that his violent, troubled tendencies started when he was a child and that they were more or less constant. But one minor infraction, after he was grown and married, landed him in prison for months. What happened in his family while he was jailed sparks the months-long rampage on the run that results in those five murders.
As evidenced by the singing and musing in that first scene, Ogata injects Enokizu with a confident charm, which certainly explains why people were always getting close enough for him to stab or strangle. But it also makes us like him. Without thinking, we find ourselves on the side of our psychotic protagonist. Imamura helps this along at the beginning by making the first two victims all but anonymous. Thanks to the jumbled chronology, they are already corpses when we meet them. As Enokizu’s descent progresses, though, Imamura allows each successive victim a little more screen time and, by extension, a little more of our sympathy. A queasiness sets in and spreads like spilled ink.
The bold declaration offered by the score and title card in that opening hint at what will be a reoccurrence, a superficial lack of nuance masking a great deal of nuance underneath. Vengeance is crammed with so many vicious murders and explicit sex scenes that a cursory appraisal could see it as mere pulp. But Imamura is presenting a uncompromised breakdown of Japanese life in the decades after World War II. Even a very old country with all its traditions can’t hide from humanity’s rotten core. Enokizu may be the murderer but he’s not the only transgressor. He’s not even the only killer. Everyone he meets in his time on the lam is a liar or a cheater or a peddler of vice or all of the above. Imamura’s compelling, if disturbing, view of mankind is that it is not getting better or worse but simply hurtling perpetually forward, barely cognizant of the damage in its wake.
Finally, beginning the film with a scene that takes place late in the story’s chronology turns out not to be a simple bookending device. The telling is fractured – especially in the first half – in a way that reflects Enokizu’s nebulous motivations like a shattered mirror. Eventually, it catches up to the last couple murders and settles into a straightforward telling after seemingly making clear what’s driving Enokizu to this violent frenzy. Once Imamura has ostensibly declared one character to be the target of the titular vengeance, we could perhaps just sit back and see how it plays out. But such an easy answer turns out to be a feint. Maybe the most horrible thing about people is how inexplicable our horrors are.
Special features include and audio commentary by critic Tony Rayns, excerpts from a 1999 interview with Imamura and a booklet featuring essays, interviews and writings by Imamura himself.