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Compelling Film-making Of A Very High Order
on 26 January 2018
Japanese film-maker Shohei Imamura returned, in 1979, from an 11-year hiatus in fiction film-making to make this highly compelling piece of cinema based on the real-life exploits of 1960s serial killer Akira Nishiguchi, and starring Ken Ogata in the lead role as Iwao Enokizu. Vengeance Is Mine is a highly ambitious undertaking, near-epic in scale (running to nearly 2½ hours), with as complex a flashback structure as I can recall in cinema (which, once 'mastered’, merely adds to the film’s intriguing qualities) and running multiple, often time-shifted, narratives in parallel. At its simplest level, Imamura’s tale can be 'enjoyed’ (if you can ever really 'enjoy’ the tale of a seemingly cold-blooded killer) on principally two thematic levels – first, as a fast-moving, intricate, often highly sexualised and violent, account of the cocky, manipulative, con-man, Enokizu’s attempted evasion of being brought to justice and, second, and for me most intriguingly, as a perceptive study of 'nature vs. nurture’ as a potential source of explanation for the actions of the seemingly remorse-free killer, with particular reference to Enokizu’s upbringing in a marginalised (and persecuted) Catholic family in 20th century Japan. It is Imamura and writer, Masaru Baba’s, often complex and subtle depictions of the questions around the conflicted morality of Enokizu and his family, which are often highly moving, that raise Imamura’s film well above being categorised as a 'simple’, more conventional, serial killer film.
The complexity of Imamura’s flashback structure is quite remarkable, in which the events depicted (as noted in critic Tony Rayn’s superb commentary on the Masters of Cinema DVD) are seemingly linked, or prompted, by the 'trains of thought’ of Imamura’s protagonists. This approach, involving some time-shifting, can be a little confusing on first viewing, but on repeated viewings (and with Rayns’ commentary for assistance) becomes increasingly impressive (as a cinematic device) and adds to the film’s compelling nature. In terms of chronology, Imamura’s tale begins with a scene of Enokizu’s arrest in 1964 (following a 78-day killing spree) and tracks back as far as 1938 to show the young Enokizu’s formative experiences as a boy witnessing, due to the family’s Catholicism, his father’s persecution by (and ‘cowardice’ in the face of) the authorities. The film then cuts between scenes of Enokizu’s interrogation, the earlier ongoing police investigation and, importantly, the developing, increasingly antagonistic and morally compromised relationship between the essentially atheistic Enokizu, his wife, Mitsuko Baisho’s Kazuko and his devout father, Rentaro Mikuni’s Shizuo. The development of the increasingly (mutually) affectionate, potentially sexualised, relationship between father, Shizuo, and daughter-in-law, Kazuko, is engagingly done – first, tenderly, as the pair bathe and bond in a hot spring ‘bath’ and then, violently, as Enokizu taunts his father’s religious hypocrisy in a key scene involving the three protagonists.
As the film moves into its second half and Enokizu, now on the run from police, journeys across Japan under the guise of a lawyer, then university professor, conning unsuspecting victims out of money before murdering them, we lose much of the flashback structure to be replaced by a more conventionally linear narrative. During this section, Imamura shows us Enokizu in a slightly more sympathetic light as his protagonist (seemingly) begins to feel a more genuine, human connection with (as well as an animalistic passion for) Mayumi Ogawa’s inn 'manageress’, Haru, in whose disreputable establishment Enokizu takes refuge. Similarly, Haru’s ailing mother, Nijiko Kiyokawa’s Hisano, also makes a connection with Enokizu, partly as a result of their shared nefarious practices. In parallel, however, the pervading feeling of Enokizu’s inevitable fate closing in is never far from the surface.
Imamura always expressed a liking for 'messy’ films, rather than the 'aesthetic perfection’ delivered by his once-mentor Yasujiro Ozu and Vengeance Is Mine is consistent with this preference, with its mix of visual styles (including the use of hand-held camera), narrative complexity and often eccentric characterisation. Equally, the film-maker, based on his early life experiences, had a preference for depicting the 'lower rungs’ of society, equating this to human vitality and sexuality – themes and characteristics which feature prominently in Vengeance Is Mine, although never to exploitative effect. The film’s palpable sense of realism essentially emerges from these preferences and is delivered on screen by a uniformly impressive cast, largely comprising relatively unknown actors from Japanese cinema (or theatre), amongst whom Ogata, Mikuni, Baisho and Ogawa are worthy of particular note. Ogata, in particular, displays remarkable versatility – alternating at will between cocky coercion, manic volatility, equivocal reflection and portentous resignation – culminating in his character’s mesmerising denouement scene with his estranged father. Imamura’s film is, though, packed with all manner of curiosities, defying categorisation and leaving many elements open to interpretation. In all these respects, Vengeance Is Mine comes highly recommended.