Fukushu Suru wa Ware ni Ari
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 18 November 2005
Source Eureka! / Masters of Cinema DVD
Upon the theatrical release of Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine in Washington, D.C., in 1985, Washington Post critic Rita Kempley suggested that:
Japanese cinema, like sushi, is an acquired taste. But Vengeance Is Mine by Shohei Imamura is not easy to appreciate, even if you have an appetite for films like The Makioka Sisters or Kurosawa’s samurai classics. Imamura eschews the samurai and the graceful geisha girls to document Japan’s low life, like an anthropologist digging in ash cans.
Setting aside the peculiar culinary analogy with which Kempley begins her review, it is interesting to note that, nearly a decade after the U.S. release of Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, Kempley’s palette for Japanese cinema had not sampled much more than costume epics and samurai films. (Today, it is particularly remarkable that the contemporary Japanese films distributed in the U.S. are almost exclusively in the same category as Vengeance Is Mine: that is to say, violent, “extreme” psychological thrillers.) And while her American colleagues voiced a similar range of bemusement (if not dyspepsia), Kempley in particular iterates the film’s disjuncture with previously exported depictions of Japanese society.
Kempley expresses her distaste for what she here calls the “Japanese avant-garde” (by which presumably means the cluster of films that have often tenuously been termed the “Japanese New Wave”), but here she defines its qualities in specific relation to Imamura’s work, that is, as a kind of muckraking anthropology. Imamura’s films are defined by their particular interest in the Japanese working class and sub-working class, and by their putative status as works of social science. (The Japanese title of Imamura’s 1966 film translates to The Pornographers: Introduction to Anthropology.) Vengeance Is Mine, in particular, is the first fiction film that Imamura made after nearly a decade of making a series of documentaries about the lives of people in marginal positions in Japanese society and history: Japanese women who had been sent to South East Asia as prostitutes for soldiers during World War II; Japanese men who disappear, willfully and without a trace, while on business trips; and so on.
But Vengeance is itself ostensibly documentary in nature. An adaptation of a novel based on true events, the film follows the story of a sociopathic killer (named Iwao Enokizu in the novel and the film) who, in 1963, spent seventy-eight days traversing Japan, conning people out of their money, murdering them, and sating his voracious sexual appetite for women. The film begins as a somewhat conventional police procedural (with a nonlinear chronology of the killer’s path that seems to follow the course of the police investigation rather than the murders themselves), and then gradually becomes a more expressionistic psychological drama, focusing largely on Enokizu’s relationship with his Catholic father. Characteristic of Imamura’s style, much of the film is shot in medium and wide shots, observing Enokizu’s actions from a dispassionate distance, and the murder scenes (which are usually conducted with hammers and kitchen knives) are slow, awkwardly choreographed, and uncomfortable to watch.
If such a style and subject matter proved unpalatable to certain critics in the U.S., audiences and critics were markedly more enthusiastic in Imamura’s home country, partly because such a presentation of “Japaneseness” was hardly new to them. Indeed, Vengeance Is Mine was but one of a number of similar contemporary films about real-life killers and criminals, many of which (like Imamura’s film) seem to emphasize a degradation of traditional family structures in Japanese society. Vengeance became Imamura’s most financially successful to date and won accolades for its direction and acting performances, and was named “top film of the year” by the critics of Kinema Jumpo magazine. Still, in praising the film, the magazine’s critic expressed something of the same confusion about the film’s tone and subject matter as Western critics did in their reviews.
For Japanese film, 1979 was a year in which Imamura Shohei’s Vengeance Is Mine demonstrated overwhelming strength. While it is the first film in some time for Imamura, if I could venture a personal opinion, I must say that I’m not even sure of the director’s viewpoint.
For Japanese critics, it seems, the confusion lay not in Imamura’s presentation of an “alternate” Japan, but rather his position in relation to it.
Indeed, though Imamura often emphasized his interest in “the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure” in interviews, it is worth noting that the subjects of his films are rarely simply working class, but are more often figures beyond (or below) the class system, characters so excluded from the social structure that they lack any need for social inhibitions or otherwise refuse to participate in the prevailing social order. Though Enokizu is the son of a fisherman-cum-hotel owner, he is not a representative of a “primal lower class”; rather his murderous sexual depravity takes him beyond the pail of even his parents’ sympathies. He finds his victims indiscriminately in the middle and working classes, and is eventually identified and captured with the help of one of the many prostitutes he patronizes. Importantly, Enokizu cannot easily be contained in any particular tier of the class system, and this status as a total outsider allows him to mediate between different levels of society at will. Enokizu is therefore able to masquerade as a man of higher positions of class (a university professor or a lawyer) to win his victims confidences before robbing and killing them. Even the innkeeper Haru, with whom the killer begins a sexual relationship, prefers to know nothing about his supposedly respectable life as a university professor, telling him during intercourse that they should “stay strangers … beasts.” Even when Haru finally realizes that her lover is not a university professor, she nonetheless continues to call him “sensei.” “What’s the difference?” she asks. What defines Enokizu is not his position within a social binarism, but his connection to a primal physical energy that Imamura sees as underlying all human life.
Similarly, though most Western critics stress that Vengeance is an oedipal drama (with particular emphasis on the killer’s Catholic upbringing), Enokizu’s rampage is not a rebellion against a domineering father but a weak and hypocritical one, and thus his murder-spree is more an opportunistic sneer at the weakness and hypocrisy he perceives in post-war Japan in general. In a flashback to the late 1930s, a young Enokizu is angered when he witnesses his father’s humiliation at the hands of a Japanese naval officer; in the next flashback, ten years later, we see Enokizu harassing a young Japanese peasant woman with a bunch of buddies from the U.S. Army. For all the film’s seemingly Kane-like flashbacks, the film’s structure actually explains less of the killer’s inner motivations than it may seem at first glance.
What is so disquieting, unnerving, even distasteful about Vengeance Is Mine is that, in closely following Enokizu’s murder-spree, in its refusal to offer simple explanations or moral judgments on what is depicted onscreen, and through its frequent use of black humor, the film seems largely to sympathize with the sociopathic killer. Similarly, though the film begins as a relatively straightforward, verité-style account of the murder investigation (complete with onscreen text that explains the names, times of death, and circumstances of Enokizu’s victims), this style soon gives way to a more expressionistic, more disjunctive style, presumably focalized through the killer’s consciousness. (Though this is not explicitly rendered in the film, the narrative seems at first to follow the police investigation into Enokizu and his life, and then follows Enokizu’s own confession and account of his crimes.) Unable to be located in a conventional film framework, Enokizu, as it were, takes over the narrative of the film. Finally, in the film’s puzzling last sequence, Enokizu’s father and wife ceremonially throw the now-executed killer’s cremated remains off a cliff over Beppu Bay. To the frustration of his father and wife, each bone thrown from the cliff obstinately hangs in freeze-frame in mid-air. The viewer might interpret these freeze-frames as an indication that the bones have simply stopped in mid-toss, until Enokizu’s father and wife are themselves seen in freeze-frame. This would suggest not only that Enokizu’s primal, violent energy cannot be discarded, but also that it literally commands the cinematic apparatus and the temporality of the film. In Vengeance Is Mine, Imamura seeks to demarcate a position outside of all of the conventional Japanese identity, and so his viewpoint, like Enokizu, evades capture.