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Vengeance is Mine

(Shohei Imamura, Japan, 1979): The first murder committed by the main character in Shohei Imamura’s potently disturbing Vengeance is Mine sets the tone for the rest of the movie, but that doesn’t make the film either easier to take or even understand. After coldly bludgeoning a co-worker with a hammer and washing his hands and weapon in his own urine, Iwao Enokizu (an imposingly unlovable Ken Ogata) — inspired by the real-life mid-60s murder spree of Akira Nishiguchi — walks away to commence a life of fraudulent guises, cynical cons and more murder. These events unfold as flashbacks recollected during the interrogations taking place following his arrest, and both the horror and absurd circumstances (wherein, among other things, the killer finds himself taken in by a badly abused prostitute whose own mother turns out to be a convicted murderer) of what takes place are consistent challenges not only to conventional moral preconceptions of cinematic crime, punishment, good and evil, but simply to keeping one’s basic spectatorial footing. Simply knowing how to react to this movie — as effective at observing evil unfold without judging or explaining it as any movie I can think of, is one of the primary mysteries — is every bit as vexing and potent a mystery as the motivations of the killer himself. Ultimately, there will be no explanation but there will be suggestions of explanations — like the flashback where the boy Enokizu is disgusted by his Catholic father’s humiliation by Japanese soldiers — but none of that add up to anything like a reasonable rationale for the kind of actions Enokizu takes. Although he may display flashing symptoms of empathy, kindness, concern or decency, the fact is he’s one of the coldest, impulsive and apparently random serial thrill-killers in the entire history of movies about deadly psychopathology. Hardly the charismatically effete snob embodied by Dr. Lecter and his sleek ilk, nor a lizard-brain lowlife street predator like Portrait of a Serial Killer‘s Henry, Enokizu is a man who simply chooses to kill whenever anything gets between him and something he wants, and that something may not be anything more than wanting to see someone die. It’s incidental, a notion or convenience dictated purely by indifference and circumstance. That he is also such a polished imposter and con man, who can kill a lawyer, stick the body in a drawer, and then walk off in order to bilk an old woman of the bail money’s she’s saved up for her, are facts we are compelled to observe and process as they go by. When, rather impulsively and horrifically, the man decides he’s tired of his clinging and damaged innkeeper mistress, his actions are shot in a single from above, as captured by an entirely disembodied CCTV camera. Ultimately, Enokizu, who shows no remorse, mocks his captors, welcomes his own death, and takes a final prison visit by his father as an opportunity to remind the old guy how much he loathes and detests him, will walk away from us as cleanly and smugly as he did his own murderous history. You don’t know him, perhaps you can’t, and I doubt you’d want to anyway.

As with just about all of Imamura’s movies, Vengeance is Mine is less about its characters than their context, which in this case is a postwar Japan so bereft of community, history, direction and mercy the killer’s actions seem to spring almost organically from the ruins. Like his Japanese New Wave contemporary Nagisa Oshima (In the Realm of the Senses), Imamura has been called a taboo-breaker, but for both the taboo is only as revealing as the culture that forbids it. Therein lies not only the real drama but the true subject. The country has cracked open along seems that have separated it from all semblance of order and meaning, and it is from that chasm that Enokizu has crawled. He’s less a man that is, than a symptom, and if there’s one thing the filmmaker is unfailingly explicit about — apart from the consistently chilling killing themselves — it’s that death and violence are inevitable in a culture where no one cares or even pays attention. (Another long-standing Imamura trope, but here rendered in extreme because our protagonist is so irredeemably loathsome: everyone we meet is nearly as unpleasant as he.) Indeed, if there’s one thing that seems to account for Enokizu’s otherwise murderous and random rages, it’s a culture in which he not only can thrive, but function more or less imperviously as a transparent phantom adopting any guise he wants. In the end, one of the most unnerving things about this film is how much sense Enokizu does make. We may not know how precisely murder became his calling or what inner mechanisms make him tick, but there’s no question as to what external forces — either by their presence or absence — provided the conditions under which such horror might seem, to someone so predisposed anyway, an entirely reasonable response. (Criterion)