The Plot: Vengeance is Mine tells the story of Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), a psychotic killer who commits several murders while on the run from the law. Raised by Christian parents in Japan during the great war, Iwao rebelled from his parents early on. Deciding that to turn the other cheek was the wrong way of handling nearly any situation. As he grew into a man he found himself getting in trouble with the law more and more.

When finally released from his first prison sentence he found himself with no real direction and soon takes to murdering and bamboozling women for their money. Traveling from town to town pretending to be other people, we watch the final 78 days of Iwao Enokizu as a free man and we try to figure out this unrepentant and dreadfully evil man.

The Review
Shohei Imamura is a filmmaker that I unfortunately have very little personal experience with. His work has been well documented within various Japanese cinema circles, but he has also been acknowledged amongst various other accredited arthouse masters. I can’t even pretend at this point to fully understand his style or even what to expect from further works, having only seen this one feature, but I will say that something like Vengeance is Mine would speak volumes within any directors oeuvre. Although not a perfect feature in my opinion, it is a brutal and discomforting look at a serial killer (based upon real life murderer Akira Nishiguchi) who essentially has no real reason for the things that he does. He is man’s greed multiplied by his own selfishness, with no ultimate goal or sense of reality.

Clocking in at two hours in length, it is an epic look at the latter part of this man’s life from the point of his first killings on through the 78 day manhunt that would lead to his capture. Although it is not an exploitative film by its nature, it is a gripping and powerful look at a world that is unforgiving in its societal depravity. With that focus on social perversity, it does step into waters that will challenge viewers. Although the violence is brutal, especially one particularly sordid murder sequence that turns into a bloodbath, much of the killing takes place off camera. When giving showcase to what little violence there is in the movie, and showing its tremendous impact, that feeling of extreme violence carries on throughout the feature.

Imamura takes a step back from the story and reserves judgment. We are never sure just what his intentions are nor what he thinks about this utterly despicable man. In the same way that we never get inside the mind of Iwao Enokizu, we can never fully gather where the filmmaker looks to take us. Keeping the film in a very documentary-like format, not surprising as the filmmaker was working in the documentary field for several years previous to this feature, Imamura keeps us grounded in reality. Shaky cameras are the tool of the day as well as subtitles that read across the screen, often callously reading off the police report on various victims.

The film offers no melodrama in dealing with this situation but instead offers us intrigue as we take a brooding look at an unrepentant man. This is essentially the crux of the story, as the character of Enokizu is what holds the entire film together and provides us the most insight into society at large. He is a man who offers no monologue as to why he did what he did, he gives us no detailed portrait inside of the world that lies within his mind, he simply is who he is.

The character of Iwao Enokizu is what holds the entire film together, both on a obviously structural level (he is the lead character after all…) and also on a entertainment level. Perhaps entertainment isn’t precisely the word I am looking for here, but it will have to suffice. He is an enigmatic character that we watch and try to figure out along the way. We try to see at what point he will crumble, show his fear of death or divulge his secrets. Aside from being raised in a Catholic household within a country that is predominately Buddhist, we are never given the idea that he had a childhood any different from the ordinary. When we do see glances of his childhood, we see the violence had already built up inside of him even as a young boy. So, in that regard this character comes off as quite contrarian to what we know of the common serial killer, which gives the film an air of unpredictability.

Aside from his base motivations (his extreme selfishness does fit the general profile) the character does fall in line with other serial killers in the fact that his killing does not come from a sexual need. Although most killers are often sociopaths, which is what Enokizu is a text-book version of, there is usually that added edge of childhood drama or sexual repression. This proves not to be the situation with Enokizu, making the character all the more allusive. Dealing with one of Japan’s earlier documented serial killers, the story may not have been familiar to Japanese audiences at the time but the story is certainly familiar for US audiences. Iwao Enokizu himself has all of the blatant familiarities physically that we have come to know from various serial killers. He’s not a physically impressive specimen, is very mundane and has no visual qualities that differentiate him from your average businessman. With his glasses on, he gives the appearance of your average nerdy father. When people expect to find a monster, they do not turn to the average salaryman. This was how he was able to allude the law for as long as he did, but he just couldn’t hide the psychosis so prevalent in his personality.

The performance of Ken Ogata in the lead is quite simply spectacular. It is an out of control personality that really only requires him to either play things up with anger or in silence, but he makes this horrible man seem real. Through his booming laughter and his fast-talking charisma, which allows him to scam the women that ultimately give him money, he gives this heartless character traces of humanity. Through his portrayal of the physical violence and his remorseless confessions in jail however, which we cut to throughout the film, we see the real serpent that lies beneath the skin and Ogata nails the role down perfectly. A physical and mental role for the actor, he delivered a performance that ultimately holds the entire film on its shoulders but never tilts for nary a moment. Without question, one of the most intriguing portrayals of a serial killer ever committed to film.

The Trivia
  • During the scene where RentarĂ´ Mikuni spits in the face of Ken Ogata, the sequence was improvised and not scripted at all.

  • Although following the novel, which was told in a documentary style as well, director Shohei Imamura flew to Kyushu in order to get his own feel for the story and do his own investigation during pre-production.

  • The Conclusion
    I did say however that it wasn’t a perfect film, and I stick by that statement. I think that at a few ticks past the two hour mark it perhaps goes on a bit long for the point that it intends to drive home. The subplots dealing with Enokizu’s family and the love triangle that blossoms there could be much of the reason for the length. I suppose I understand the reasoning, as without it we would be watching this man kill and abuse humans for the entire length of the movie. However, the movie does start to lose a bit of steam at points because of the length. The documentary style of filming also becomes a bit tiresome over the long haul, but once again that could just be because of the length of time we wade around in the format. Still, with those things said, Vengeance is Mine is a masterful look at some incredibly dark material. It is something that all film fans should search out and appreciate at some point. Released through the Criterion Collection, it’s available and beautiful to look at. Hopefully you’ll find some time to give it a spin if you haven’t at this point. I give it a four out of five.