Despite the Charles Bronsonian ring of its translated title, Vengeance is Mine doesn’t unfold like a typical revenge film. When we think of revenge movies, we tend to think of films in which a protagonist (or protagonist’s family) is assaulted or murdered, and then at some point, someone wreaks revenge on behalf of the aggrieved party, often doing so in a variety of innovative ways. Though in the case of, say, the Death Wish series, the point is little more than a (sometimes quite entertaining) display of the vigilante hero’s gun-totin’ badassedness, other films in the “revenge” meta-genre have a lot more to them.
For instance, Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring is an archetypical cinematic tale of revenge, but no one would argue that it’s purely a venue to show Max Von Sydow avenge his daughter’s death by hurling an adolescent Swedish goatherder into a stone wall; rather Virgin Spring is a meditation on existential helplessness and human guilt. Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy isn’t just, as some critics have argued, an “extreme” action film intended to shock for shock’s sake, but a movie that explores the world both as a panopticon and a place in which humans are powerless in the face of the unintentional consequences of their actions.
Like Bergman before him, Chan Wook after him, and numerous other auteur directors in between, Shohei Imamura imbues his tale of revenge with an air of philosophical exploration. Based on the story of a real-life criminal on the lamb, Vengeance is Mine details the 78-day long killing-spree undertaken by Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata.) Iwao doesn’t seek revenge from one particular person as you’d expect out of a genre picture. In fact, the film is driven by the nebulous ways he’s aggrieved throughout his life, and the counterintuitive ways he seeks revenge. Vengeance is Mine explores the roots of Iwao’s murderous tendencies. It leaves exact causes ambiguous, but depicts and explores a complex mass of drives that lead him down the path to repeated murder.
The film leaps from vignette to vignette in a train-of-thought telling of Iwao’s life story sometimes follows the detective’s thread of investigation and sometimes doesn’t. Iwao is first seen in the back of a police car, opining smugly on the death sentence he’s facing. His first murders are shown, and he’s seen as a calmly operating sociopath working as a driver for Saiko Transport. He hitches a ride with a couple of other truck drivers, lures them away from each other, and viciously executes them. He beats his first victim with a hammer before stabbing him repeatedly. The second, he stabs and smothers to death, but not before promising to take him to a hospital mid-way through the attack. These scenes are uniquely brutal because of their length. Iwao’s victims don’t immediately go down; they wrestle with him, plead and beg for mercy.
We see Iwao visiting prostitutes, we see him author a fake suicide note. Most importantly we see his family; his home is depicted through beautifully voyeuristic shots, obfuscated by gates and windows, giving the impression of a family where people peek in on each other instead of speaking to each other, covertly and silently observing each others’ turpitude. As the film unfolds, their pathology belies the facile lamentations with which they inundate the visiting detectives. Typical statements that he was “such a troubled child” only paint a partial picture of how Iwao ended up first a con-man, then a murderer.
Iwao is shown as a child; he watches his father, Shizuo (Rentaro Mikuni), bullied and abused by an Imperial sea captain for being a Catholic. Young Iwao eschews his father’s calm appeasement and opts to smash the man in the back of the legs with a heavy wooden object. Iwao’s violent tendencies develop alongside his disdain for his father’s cowardice. As a young man, he’s shown in-and-out of trouble, forced into marriage by his family in an effort to calm him down.
While Iwao is locked up the first time for fraud, his wife becomes involved in a crypto-incestuous relationship with his father. Shizuo gropes his daughter-in-law Kazuko (Mitsuko Baisho) in a discomfiting (and unflinching) bathing scene. In a scene that exudes Bunuelian surrealism, the two douse with boiling water a puppy buried up to its neck, as if it’s the most quotidian act imaginable. He pimps her out to a neighbor, and during the encounter she utters “father”. As the semi-consensual intercourse occurs, Shizuo is shown outside raising buckets of water up from a hand-drawn well, furiously (and metaphorically) pumping its handle.
Upon Iwao’s release, his killing spree begins. He confronts his father, and dresses him down for his hypocrisy, hilariously quipping (in one of Imamura’s famous comparisons between humankind and the animal kingdom), “You’re no man. You’re an animal. You act so pious when you worship the mole on your daughter-in-law’s ass!” Iwao’s wallflower of a mother, Kayo (Chocho Miyako) watches the arguments in silence, a broken woman and a near non-entity.
In Vengeance is Mine, the darkest impulses of human nature are never far from the darkest forms of comedy. After murdering a lawyer, Iwao shuts his victim in a cabinet. The door keeps popping open, slapstickishly, revealing the body as Iwao tries to eat; he ends up holding it closed with his foot. Later, in the same house, he re-enacts the choking of his victim on himself, wrapping his scarf around his own neck, both a maddened parody of the crime and a play at frenzied self-punishment. While hiding out posing as a University professor, he becomes involved in a relationship with Haru Asano (Mayumi Ogawa), the hostess at an inn/brothel. Haru’s mother, infamous for peeping in on the activities of the inn’s clients, is revealed to have once committed murder, and as the manhunt for Iwao closes in, discusses with him the underpinnings of their criminal lives.
Through these discussions and Iwao’s subsequent actions we finally see his own cowardice, and the beginning of his motivations. Though he violently indicts Shizuo for being a coward and a hypocrite, Iwao’s inability to kill his father and instead murdering innocent people shows his own cowardice and hypocrisy. Even this Oedipal drive turned outward, though, doesn’t entirely explain the last killings he undertakes.
Set in the gritty world of pervasive prostitution, greed, and duplicity, Vengeance is Mine features hardly a single innocent character. Even Iwao’s is culpable in her silence. However, in a truly tear-jerking scene, we see her at her most sympathetic. On her deathbed, she finally pipes up and breaks the veil of familial politesse, saying “I’m a woman too, I won’t give you up to Kazuko.” The film’s ending, set five years after Iwao’s execution, offers a darkly surrealistic commentary on where the blame for his murderous madness falls.
Ostensibly disorganized and thus slightly hard to follow, Vengeance is Mine reveals new threads of conceptual coherence with every viewing. With dark humor set sometimes next to, and sometimes on top of, brutality and sadness, the film is a multi-layered depiction of Imamura’s bleak take on human psychology. The Criterion Collection DVD features an interview with the director from the late ‘90s, looking back at the film. It also comes with a brilliant looking booklet featuring more interviews with Imamura, and essays that give further insight into the film’s multi-faceted, genre-defying depth.