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Reviews

Vengeance Is Mine

Vengeance Is Mine

Fukushû suru wa ware ni ari

Shohei Imamura

Japan, 1979

Credits

Review by Ian Johnston

Posted on 07 August 2007

Source The Criterion Collection DVD

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In a sense, a big question mark hangs over Vengeance Is Mine. It’s the question of what, in the end, Imamura means, what lessons (sociological, cultural) he is trying draw from the case of Iwao Enokizu. The film, based on a true-life case, charts the 78-day spree of killings and robberies that Enokizu undertook across Japan through some months in 1963 and into the beginning of 1964. At first, Vengeance Is Mine presents itself as some kind of low-key police procedural with its distanced opening shot of a line of police cars travelling in the dark. Inside sit the silent, sombre detectives accompanying the captured murderer Enokizu, and we’re entitled to interpret the shot Imamura gives us of the wipers clearing the falling snow off the windscreen as a sign that we’re to be offered a clear insight into the motivations behind these crimes.

This doesn’t turn out to be the case, and significantly this pre-credit sequence ends with a shot of the rear view of a police car melting into the night, the small red tail-lights swallowed up by the darkness. In the same way Enokizu escapes from us, is resistant to being pinned down and explained. Enokizu refuses to play by the rules, even the rules set for once he has been captured and interrogated. The Japanese criminal system is structured on extracting admissions of guilt (hence, the high conviction rate in the courts) but Enokizu is having none of this. During this initial interrogation he displays a complete lack of concern, he sits deliberately turned away from his interrogators, he focuses on inconsequentials—examines his fingernails, comments on the snowfall—and he refuses to provide that all-important confession.

When, with genre inevitability, the film flashbacks to Enokizu’s first murders, Imamura likewise confounds our expectations. This flashback is anything but straightforward, shifting back and forth chronologically, circling again and again around these murders. These first murders, of the two truck drivers that Enokizu hitches a ride from, are senseless, brutal affairs for which no justification is offered. If anything, Imamura drags out the messy brutality of the killing (while, in line with his dominant film style, always keeping at a distance from the action), stressing the length of time it takes and the utter difficulty Enokizu has to kill his first victim, as he repeatedly stabs the old man, on and on and on. The famous “difficult” killing in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain has nothing on this.

Imamura never returns to this degree of explicitness in portraying the murders—once the point is made, he doesn’t need to repeat it—and a lot of the details of Enokizu’s criss-crossing crime spree are conveyed through titles that type out across the screen over images of ever-turning train wheels. In fact, he even leaves Enokizu’s story for a while to focus on that of his wife Kazuko and her relationship with her father-in-law. This detour from the main plot is an important one that enriches the film’s thematic and emotional texture. Kazuko, Enokizu’s neglected wife, and his father Kayo run the family inn—the mother is an invalid—and develop an attraction to one another that is explicitly sexual. But it is an attraction that, buttressed by the family’s Catholic faith, they fight against and resist giving in to, even when they’re naked, caressing one another, in a spa pool.

Incest is a motif that runs throughout Imamura’s work (examples: The Pornographers, The Insect Woman, and above all The Profound Desire of the Gods) and it’s something that Imamura brings no moral judgment to. If anything, he’s condemning Kazuko and Kayo, in contrast to Enokizu’s pure instinctual self-liberation, for their hypocrisy and conformity, for their failure to enact their own desires. There is a disturbing amoral quality to this which rather loses sight of the victims involved, but it is a measure of the provocation at work in Imamura. (It’s a provocation that lessened with age—by the end of his career, in The Eel or Warm Water Under A Red Bridge, he had turned to a warm celebration of quirky misfits, instead.)

Imamura does scatter through the film scenes that offer a social contextualisation, something that might even be read as justifying Enokizu’s acts. Above all, there’s the pre-War flashback to Enokizu’s childhood memory of witnessing his Catholic father’s humiliation at the hands of a military officer. That humiliation enacts the suppression of a religious minority by the state, but, more importantly, the young Enokizu is enraged by his father’s willing submission to authority, his refusal to resist. This rage finds a parallel near the end of the film, when Enokizu witnesses the rape of the innkeeper Haru by her older lover and Haru’s old mother has to restrain Enokizu from taking one of the large kitchen knives, hanging temptingly before him, to deal with the lover in his inimitable way. This abuse of the kind of strong, gutsy woman that is always found in Imamura’s films is repeated throughout the film. Enokizu himself is not immune from this—and what are we to make of Enokizu’s father who essentially panders Kazuko, the daughter-in-law he loves, out to a guest, to be raped on the floor?

One further parallel is that made between Enokizu and Haru’s mother. She has herself murdered in the past, for which she has no regret and which is justified as having taken place “when she was starved and bullied”—a product of social deprivation and, we guess, sexual oppression. But all these pointers to background and explanation for Enokizu’s acts are all too disparate to provide real answers here. Nor does the intimation in the final confrontation between father and son of Enokizu’s crimes as an Oedipal working-out (“If I was going to kill anybody, I should have killed you”) offer any more of a final answer. It’s just one more broken piece in a fractured mosaic.

In the end, Enokizu is an anarchic force, disrupting the placidities of Japanese society, forcing hypocrisies and contradictions to light, but never contained, almost beyond understanding. In Ken Ogata’s tremendous performance he is overpowering and unpredictable, always keeping us on our toes as we’re never sure what direction he’s going to go off in. He’s a coarse, raucous, explosive force that never conforms to the societal expectations of those around him. So, on the day of the match-making meeting his parents has set up with him, it’s with vulgar glee that he confronts them with his girlfriend Kazuko who has now turned up, pregnant. In scene after scene he leaps, dances, shouts, gesticulates, often with a strong underlay of black humour. Sometimes Imamura plays that black humour quietly, as when Enokizu shooshes in court the soon-to-be victims of his scam, or when he takes his own wanted poster off a police officer. At other times, it’s loud and even distasteful. Take the scene when he blows sake first over the body of the murder victim he has trussed up in a wardrobe and then randomly around the dead man’s apartment; and then following this, goes on the rampage looking for a can opener, becoming more and more manic until he literally tries strangling himself in frustration.

The energy of Ogata’s performance is a perfect fit, but in the end Enokizu’s energy has no fruitful outlet, it’s as random and meaningless as that rampage around the apartment. Why does he commit his final murders? Is it a defilement of beauty or a succumbing to his pathological urges (both interpretations offered by the shot of Enokizu transfixed by the line of his victim’s neck)? Is it a twisted declaration of love (Imamura shoots the murder in an overhead shot as if it were an act of lovemaking)? Or is it some kind of revenge on his father, this deliberate killing of his child the woman carries within in her that forms an assault on his father’s religious and moral beliefs? As throughout the film, multiple explanations and motivations are offered but they never coalesce into a satisfying, consoling whole.

Enokizu is always a presence that disturbs and disrupts, and this is the significance of the film’s famous final sequence. Enokizu’s father and wife take a cable car to the top of a mountain from where they plan to scatter his bones. In a brilliant stroke of non-realism, Imamura again and again freezes on a shot of bones in mid-air with the sound of the chill wind reverberating around. In the film’s terms Enokizu’s bones never fall to the ground. For his family and for his society Enokizu is a challenging disruptive force that can never be truly explained, can never be contained, and can never be got rid of.

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