The Shohei Imamura interview included with the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Vengeance Is Mine barely touches on the film itself. But nested in one of Imamura’s off-topic responses is a simple revelation that cuts to the dark heart of his most feral work. When asked what advice he has for young filmmakers, Imamura replies: “Stick with human beings, be curious about them and interested in what they can reveal to you. All people are complex and strange and hard to fathom. But until you really examine them closely, it’s impossible to find out what really makes them tick.”
Vengeance Is Mine is a densely knotted dramatization of a sociopath’s 78-day killing spree, but in Imamura’s hands it’s also a curious and uniquely humane portrait of individualism and the infinitude of a species that fears nothing more than not being able to diagnose itself. A sprawling 140-minute work that traverses Japan from tip to tail, hopping between time and perspective like a stone skipping on the surface of a lake, Vengeance Is Mine is essentially the polar opposite of a Jason Reitman movie, refusing to diagnose its protagonist so that it can more easily solve him.
The legendary Ken Ogata plays Iwao Enokizu, a loose fictionalization of real-life serial killer Akira Nishiguchi. When the film begins, Enokizu has already been captured by the authorities, and is a bona fide media sensation after months of being Japan’s most wanted man. While the film is ostensibly told via flashbacks as Enokizu is interrogated by police, Imamura is quick to unmoor his narrative from its framing story, opting instead for a more freewheeling approach. The film observes as Enokizu murders, relocates, and assumes new identities. Peripheral characters claim unexpectedly large gobs of Imamura’s attention, all of them united by the stasis of their miserable lives.
The charismatic Ogata wears Enokizu’s sociopathy like a mask, his face betraying none of the thoughts that inspire his character to kill. Enokizu commits his murders like a man running errands, harried but not especially engaged in the moment. As the film goes on, it’s easy to get the sense that Enokizu remembers his murders the way that most people do their friends from grade school, with an “oh yeah…” of recognition when someone brings them to his attention. The film offers every traditional explanation for Enokizu’s violence, only to embarrass them all by refusing to nominate any of them as the “right” answer. Is he this way because of his distaste for conformity? It’s hardly an accident that the first two men he murders are uniformed employees of the Japan Tobacco Monopoly Corporation, defined by their positions rather than their personhood. And yet, as soon as Imamura plants that idea, he cuts to a flashback in which Enokizu—a child on the cusp of World War II—watches his Catholic father get bullied and publicly emasculated by a Japanese soldier. Is he the victim of childhood trauma, a vaguely Freudian casualty of the conflict between Christianity and Japanese culture (the film’s title is lifted from Romans 12:19)? Perhaps, but there’s no single key to this puzzle.
At times a frustrating experience, Vengeance Is Mine transforms over the course of its running time, Enokizu’s impenetrable nature eventually bottoming out and blossoming into a perverse relatability. Imamura, who was spurred to make this film due to his frustrations with the documentary form (whose subjects are more inclined to give pat answers than pose good questions), may not discover what really makes Enokizu “tick.” But the flatness of his inquiry is a compelling reminder that “solving” a problem can often be anathema to understanding it. On the contrary, Vengeance Is Mine is so unkempt that—like its director—it resists easy classification right through to its smirkingly funny finale, which taunts the expectation that human action can be fully understood or resolved. This might be Imamura’s most “difficult” film, which makes it the perfect place to start.
Save for its lustrously textured and filmic HD image (which is enough to make this a must for Imamura fans), Criterion’s new Blu-ray is almost identical to the Vengeance Is Mine DVD released in 2007. The most significant addition is a commentary track by critic Tony Rayns, a noted expert of East Asian cinema. Recorded in 2005, Rayns’ insights are dry, but also numerous and illuminating. A film like this begs for an informed tour guide, and most first-time viewers will scramble for this commentary track as soon as they finish spinning the feature. Returning from the DVD version is a brief excerpt from a 1999 video interview with Imamura, in which the late director confirms his curiosity without compromising his vision.
Vengeance Is Mine is available on Blu-ray and DVD through Criterion.