Vengeance is Mine (1979)

*. There’s always a difference between the movie you see and the movie you remember seeing. I first saw Vengeance is Mine at a rep cinema (remember them?) in the early 1980s. I found some of it pretty shocking, though the friend I went with, who was Japanese, said it was nothing out of the ordinary for a Japanese film.
*. I didn’t know (and still don’t know) how true an assessment that was (I’m not expert on Japanese cinema), but there were a couple of images that stuck with me over the years. On returning to the movie more than thirty years later I was surprised to find that I had apparently imagined one of these. Call if false movie memory syndrome. It happens a lot.
*. David Thomson begins his Biographical Dictionary entry on Shôhei Imamura by telling us that “Imamura has never been easy to pin down.” Again, I don’t know how true this is, but Vengeance is Mine certainly strikes me as a movie that’s hard to categorize. It’s not a thriller. There are some bloody murders but they aren’t presented in a suspenseful way. It’s not a psychological study, or at least not a successful one. We get glimpses of various forces that may have shaped Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) and made him into a monster, but nothing that adds up to a convincing portrait (Roger Ebert: “A few scenes from the killer’s boyhood feel almost like satirical demonstrations of how any ‘explanation’ would be impossible.”) There’s some Dragnet music that plays occasionally but it’s not a police procedural.
*. Is it a morality tale? I don’t see it. The title is a Biblical reference, but whose vengeance is it drawing attention to? Personally, I don’t see this as a movie involving a lot of “vengeance” on anyone’s part. And what is the significance of Iwao being raised in a Catholic household? It doesn’t seem to have rubbed off. In one striking scene he attempts to strangle himself and adopts a pose suggestive of crucifixion, and we notice he’s wearing a crucifix too (the only time I remember seeing it in the film). But he’s hardly a Christ figure, and I don’t see anything in his story that suggests he could be seen this way.

*. I just want to dilate on this point about religion for a moment. Iwao is a poor vessel for carrying any religious meaning, but he is hardly unique in this. It is a problem for a lot of serious filmmakers who have taken up the theme of crime and punishment. One thinks, for example, of Bresson’s L’Argent (1983) and Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988), two films that also suggest deeper spiritual or Christian interpretations that might take us beyond their sordid and bloody crimes. But do they work on that level? In Crime and Punishment (I’m speaking of Dostoevsky’s novel here) Raskolnikov has a conversion in prison, he sees the light. That doesn’t happen in any of these films I’ve mentioned, and certainly not in Vengeance is Mine. The modern killer isn’t a tortured soul or even a psychopath but only a blank slate or automaton. He has no spiritual dimension.

*. Moving along, is this a “state of Japan” film, a social documentary? It has a very realistic feel to it, and while the narrative is complexly structured there’s nothing flashy about it visually. I also thought it interesting how there are a lot of awful people in the movie aside from Iwao.
*. It’s interesting we never see Iwao in prison. He seems to think of Japan itself as a kind of prison, and is surprised while on the run to get a sense of how big it is.
*. Is it a love story? I remember finding the bath scene between Iwao’s father and his wife kind of creepy the first time I saw the film. This time I found it erotic. Perhaps that’s just me being older. As for Iwao, he seems to have some kind of genuine feelings for Haru. Like his father, however, he has problems with exercising his libido in conventional ways.
*. I don’t mean to suggest that Vengeance is Mine is a failure at being any of these things. I think it’s a movie that’s meant to suggest all of them.

*. That said, I’m still not sure what the ultimate purpose is. That may be deliberate though. It’s a peripatetic film, and does a great job of capturing the fragmented and random nature of Iwao’s wanderings and the sense of a passionless predator who is just going from one victim to another, taking money or killing and then moving on to the next hit. I doubt even Iwao could find a purpose or meaning in what he’s doing.
*. How sad to have such a good movie end with such a crumby effect. Are we to imagine Iwao’s bones are still floating around somewhere above the city? What sort of supernatural curse would have to be removed in order for gravity to take over?
*. I really like Vengeance is Mine but I do feel like something is missing from it. Not the black hole that is Iwao, that’s a given, but something more about the people around him. His father and wife, and Haru and her mother, all seem so much more interesting. They each seem to understand Iwao, or at least a part of him, but in different ways. In the end, however, they’re all fooling themselves. Self-delusion is, as so often, the real path to destruction.

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